Wednesday, May 5, 2010


For the first bank holiday weekend in May, we went to Cardiff. Our main purpose in going there was to visit the Doctor Who museum and see some of the sites from it and Torchwood, but it turned out there was a bit more to the city than just being a TV-set.

We visited the Castle, which dates from Roman times and is quite interesting to look around. There's a nice walk on top of the castle walls which gives you a good view of both the city and the castle, and if it's raining you can walk inside the walls instead. There's also a Norman keep which is on top of a motte (man-made hill) and is good fun to climb up. You can see the rooms where some of the castle's owners used to live, and even see a toilet that opens out onto the motte.

The castle also includes a Victorian mansion complete with furnishings which was pretty impressive. There's an Arab room in there which is incredibly colourful and has gold leaf everywhere. The stained glass windows have crystal balls in front of them to disperse the light up to the ceiling. In the small dining room there's a monkey carved into the wooden panelling which has a nut in its mouth. The nut is the button for a bell, and it's the first example of electricity usage in the house.

We also went to the Museum of Welsh Life, which is far more interesting than it sounds. It's outside Cardiff near a town called St Fagans, and covers a large area. There are all different types of houses, cottages and shops that have been moved there from different parts of Wales. Some of them have furniture and decorations in them too, so you can see exactly how the Welsh lived at that time. They also have some farm animals, including some extremely pungent pigs, and on the day that we visited they had a demonstration of sheep dogs working ducks which was great.

We had been urged to visit the bakery there so we tried some cheesy buns fresh from the oven which were delicious. Then we went to visit the castle and manor house that are also on the site. While we were walking through the gardens we saw two girls playing hide and seek while their parents were walking behind them. Then when the girls were away hiding somewhere the parents hid, and the girls couldn't find them and got really upset. It was quite funny.

Inside the house, in the butler's room you could see the newspaper laid out ready to be ironed so the man of the house didn't get ink on his hands.

When we got back to Cardiff we headed off to the Doctor Who museum. It was really cool seeing all the monsters and costumes close up. The clock work man still looked pretty scary. The cyberman moved when you pressed a button and told you he would delete you. The daleks said "elevate" and that they would exterminate you, and then shone green lasers out at you. The Waters of Mars man dribbled some water out of his mouth. And Kylie Minogue's maid outfit looks tiny.

There was all sorts of merchandise in the gift shop, including inflatable daleks, cardboard cut-outs of various characters including a weeping angel, a John Barrowman calendar and lots of signed stamp covers. Leah squashed a penny into a Tardis.

We dined at an Indian restaurant we had tried to go to the night before (it turns out there's a good reason why the Google Maps walking directions are in beta). It was a buffet, so we stuffed ourselves and then went to work on the dessert bar. It was just like being a small kid again.

On our last day we went down to the bay. It was a sunny day so we walked, going past one of the Doctor Who filming locations on the way (where the cybermans first appeared in the new series). The bay itself was full of life, with a funfair and some kind of samba competition going on. We saw the striking water tower and the Millenium Centre, which is where Torchwood is supposedly based. Down on the boardwalk, there was a shrine to Ianto (one of the characters).

Apart from Torchwood related activities, we went to the Norwegian Church, where Roald Dahl was christened. Inside we had some brunch, and outside it some samba dancers who were wearing very little must have been absolutely freezing. The little old ladies that came into the cafe didn't think much of the noise and lots of them came in and left very quickly.

Then it was time for a quick look at the Millennium Centre, which looked like it was going to fall over on you, before we headed back to the hotel and then the coach to London.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

White Christmas: Zurich

The weather turned chilly and damp as we arrived in Zurich. Undeterred, we checked into our hotel and headed out on a walking tour of the city centre. This took us past all of the main sights of the city, including a shop which sold "recycled" items. Leah bought a new handbag made out of a Vietnamese rice bag.


The two main sights of Zurich are its two churches, the Fraumünster and the Grossmünster (which Leah insists on translating as the "Fat Church"). Both churches are quite understated; the Fraumünster contains some nice looking stained glass windows that were installed fairly recently. The Grossmünster has smaller windows with what look like slices of translucent rock (agate). Both churches looked more functional than ornate.

In the afternoon we went up another funicular, the Polybahn. It doesn't go very far -- just up to the University -- so we went up, had a brief look, and then went back down.

Chinese LanternThat night was New Year's Eve. Zurich had a decent night planned for us -- there was a big party down by the waterfront, with lots of stalls of food and some live music. There were people lighting Chinese lanterns, and as the night was dark and fairly still, you could see a long chain of them stretching into the distance up in the sky. We sampled some of the food, including wurst, crepes and waffles.

The main event was the fireworks, which went on for approximately forever. There were so many that eventually the smoke obscured them, and all you could see was coloured smoke every so often as they exploded. Every time we thought we'd seen the finale, another lot would start up. Eventually they finished with a very large bang, and we joined the crowds heading back home on the trams before the night services kicked in.

Late on the first day of the year, we took a bus to another funicular. This one went up Dolder Hill. Once there, we had a walk around the hill, where we discovered an ice skating rink in the middle of nowhere. The views were fairly non-existent, and we managed to find our way to the nearest bus stop (it was at the zoo) and get back home again. We had to have an early night, as unfortunately we had to be up at 4am.

Ice skating

Overall, our Swiss holiday was a lot of fun. We saw mountains and lakes, and went on lots of trains and other varied forms of transport. We tried the cheese and the chocolate, and managed not to freeze to death. Even if we didn't get a White Christmas.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

White Christmas: Lucerne

One of the best parts about Lucerne is getting there from Interlaken. We took a panoramic coach there, which takes about two hours to go through valleys and climb over a mountain to get there. The scenery, while not quite as impressive as our Jungfrau trip, was still very good and provided plenty of photo opportunities along the way.


We hadn't planned much for Lucerne. We'd heard it was quite pretty, and all that we had really decided to do was see the bridge and visit a transportation museum. Lucerne's bridge, the Kapellbrücke, is its most famous landmark. It was originally built in 1333, and lasted some 600 years before somebody's boat caught fire and burnt most of it. Inside, the arches all used to have paintings illustrating its history. With the fire, many of them were destroyed.

Chapel Bridge

After contemplating the advantages of sprinklers, we ambled through the Old Town and decided to go up to walk on the city walls. Unfortunately, as was common with this trip, the walls were closed and we had to comfort ourselves with a walk around them. The walls feature towers, and one of them has a clock. This clock is allowed to chime a full minute before all the other clocks in the town, and is the oldest city clock (ca 1535).

The next day was Transport Museum day. I'm not too sure what I was expecting to find there -- maybe all about the trains they run -- but this museum had absolutely Road signseverything. Trains, planes and automobiles. And for good measure, gondolas, spacecraft and a Planetarium. Yes, we did see the history of the train system, including some massive steam engines, a model of the Jungfrau train that we took a couple of days earlier, and a scary looking engine that they used to get rid of the snow off the tracks (basically: a big fan on the front with cutting blades). We saw an odd looking game where you got to vote for the car you thought was best, which would then be picked up by a forklift and brought down for everyone to inspect. We also rode a tandem bike for the first time.

After a busy day of museuming, it was high time to try some fondue. We had asked at the visitor's centre where the best places for fondue were, and one of the places was the Wilhelm Tell restaurant, a boat on the lake. We tried the Moité-Motié fondue, and it was delicious. After this we waddled back to the hotel and Stuart tried to take some fancy pictures of Leah with traffic in the background (but Leah wasn't very good at keeping still).

Passing the other cable car

Our last day in Lucerne was only a half day, but we still had time to go to Mount Pilatus. This has a cog railway going up to the top, but it only operates in the summer. Instead, we had to take the Gondola up to the last section, where there was an aerial cableway to take us up the last 5 minutes. This was a small cage hanging from a cable one thousand kilometres in the air (says Leah, although it wasn't actually one thousand km). There were some lovely views on the way up, including admiring the pinecones at the top of trees, but when we got to the cableway the clouds obscured lots. The cableway ride was quite fun if you didn't mind it swaying, too.

At the top is a hotel and restaurant, where we spent an extended period of time as the weather closed in and they couldn't send us back down. On the plus side we got free food, but we couldn't go outside. We did manage to get one photo before they closed the doors.

Eventually the weather cleared up and we had a relaxing ride back down (it was better on the way down because the cage was more stable since it was full, and there was an engineer onboard explaining the safety features to a worried looking family). Happily no cables snapped and we got back to the city centre safely, where we caught an efficient train to Zurich.

Friday, February 12, 2010

White Christmas: Interlaken

Leaving Bern, we got an early train to Interlaken. The route was very popular with skiers, and about half the train got off at the various ski stops along the way. When we arrived at our accommodation we were greeted by a very enthusiastic host, Ursula. After selecting our pick of the free rooms and enjoying a warming welcome drink, she sold us train tickets for the Jungfraujoch and soon we were on our way.

The trip up to the Jungfrau is the highlight of visiting Interlaken. It's in three stages -- the first takes you up to Grindelwald, the second is a cog railway to Kleine Scheidegg, and the last is the steepest cog railway in the world up to the top of the mountain saddle. The scenery was beautiful on the way up, and it didn't take long before we were amongst the snowy mountains and climbing steadily.

The first change was at Grindelwald which looked to be a nice ski resort type place at the foot of a ski field. We hopped on a cog railway trian and were hauled up the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg, a tourist town in a mountain pass. The mountain views from here were great -- they were covered in snow, and the light made them look really imposing. As we went up, we could see plenty of skiers enjoying themselves, and the chairlifts seemed to go very high up.

When we got to Kleine Scheidegg, we found seats on the train only to remember that we'd left the tripod on the other train, so a frantic few minutes ensued while we tried to find our old carriage and the tripod, then raced back to the other train before it departed for the Jungfrau.

It's pretty coldThe trip up the mountain was not that exciting as it was largely in a tunnel, except for when we stopped at the two viewing points within the mountain. These allowed you to see just how far up you were climbing, and provided great views of the mountains and valleys, as well as the glacier which covers the saddle. Once we made it to the top we headed for the Sphinx which has a viewing platform where you can look back down along a glacier, or out towards Interlaken.

It was a wee bit nippy so after taking a few pictures we headed back inside to warm up and make our way to the real outdoorsy part where you can walk on the snow. Unfortunately they didn't have the button sleds so we contented ourselves with throwing snowballs and jumping in the piles of snow. We were very lucky to have such a nice clear day, and we could see for ages; some people get caught out by clouds at the top and can't see a thing!

On the Jungfrau

On the way down we went the other way back via Lauterbrunnen, stopping at Wengen to see what an alpine town is really like. Turns out, pretty cute. There were Christmas lights up, people playing ice hockey, and golf carts driving people around the little streets. It looked like a really nice place to be based for your holidays, especially if you were into skiing. On the train ride back to town we saw people sledding alongside the train tracks, and they were going nearly as fast as the train in some parts!

We had a quiet night and a quiet day the next day, walking around Interlaken. It's quite a touristy town and there wasn't too much interesting stuff there, so we took a bus to Lake Brienz and ambled through a (very quiet) camping ground to admire the lake. It was a very melancholy day, and it wasn't too appealing. It must have been nice on a sunny day though!


The next day we had a relatively early start, as we were off to Lucerne.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

White Christmas: Bern

Bern was to be our main stop in our Switzerland holiday, and it was on a chilly afternoon that we caught the train from Geneva. Along the way there was plenty of snow and some lovely views as we went over the hills. The hills seemed to be covered in vineyards which must make for some pleasant summer evenings with views over Lake Geneva. Instead, they looked rather cold and out-of-place, covered in snow.

Our train arrived on time in Bern, and we were met at the station by Geoffrey who had arrived a few hours earlier. Bern is a city of trams, and we became quite familiar with the one that went to and from our hotel. After dropping off our things, we got ourselves acquainted with the town and saw some of the main landmarks, like the Zytglogge and the Bundeshaus.

The next day we did the full Bern experience, including a tour of the Bundeshaus. There we were greeted by a slightly cranky woman who seemed to want to cancel the tour we had booked because we had said there would be 3 of us but there were only 2. After looking extremely vexed she waved over another group of 6 people who she had waved away before us and said there would be a tour after all. After starting the tour proper we realised it was just her English that made her sound like this and she was actually quite a pleasant tour guide.

The Swiss parliament system seems to be quite efficient and democratic, and on our tour we got to sit in the executive chamber and feel important. The Bundeshaus has lots of stained glass windows inside the main dome, and some interesting paintings on the walls and roof of a small circular lobby which the politicians apparently use for doing a lot of work (rather than use meeting rooms). The tour ended in the room where the National Council meets, and we got to appreciate the political system some more.

We also went to the Bern Munster, and climbed all the steps to the top. The weather wasn't the best so the view wasn't fantastic, but we could still appreciate the higgledey-piggledy nature of Bern's rooftops, and also the size of the bells in the bell tower. After carefully not falling down the steep stairways in the bell tower, we headed off to find the Einstein Museum. Albert Einstein lived in Bern for several years and loved the covered footpaths (as did we). It was an interesting, if small, place to visit.

The next day we headed off to Fribourg where we went for a walk around the lower town and stopped for a photoshoot on the picturesque bridge. Following that we had to get back up the steep hill to the cathedral, and luckily there was a Poo Train just for that purpose. This is a funicular that runs on sewage, using it as a counterweight, and it does make the ride a bit stinky. The cathedral was impressive as most are, but the tower was closed so we couldn't climb it.

We headed back to Bern in time to change for our Christmas dinner, which we were having on Christmas Eve in order to fully experience a European Christmas. Then we hurried back to our hotel to wish our families Happy Christmas.

We woke up to no snow, so we didn't get a white Christmas after all :( To cheer ourselves up we went back to the cathedral to experience a German Christmas service. We could pick out a few words, and enjoyed the hymns, but it was a bit cold in there so we were glad when it finished. To warm ourselves up afterwards we went to visit the bear pit where they actually have two live bears in the middle of town. Thankfully now they have a nice enclosure next to the river with lots of glass and some privacy. Until recently they were stuck in a concrete pit where everyone could stare at them all the time. Our next stop was the Botanic Gardens which weren't terribly exciting in the middle of winter. However they did have orchid and palm houses which were both open and lovely and warm.

Our final activity in Bern was a night time photography expedition, but we couldn't stay out too late because the next morning we were heading to Interlaken...

Friday, January 22, 2010

White Christmas: Geneva

When we were deciding where to go for our Christmas holiday this year, Leah had only one criterion: it must be snowy. We chose Switzerland as it was convenient to Germany, and was reliable for the white stuff at that time of year.

It would seem that even Swiss Efficiency is no match for Heathrow in the pre-Christmas period, and we ended up leaving late. However, the amusing pilot made up for it by barking out updates ("Landing in 10 minutes, 10 minutes!"). We landed in Geneva, got a free ride to our hotel, reunited some Swiss person with their phone, and arrived at our hotel to yodelling and the smell of fondue.

Geneva is not the most beautiful of cities. It is definitely a business town, and it seemed bleak and empty when nobody was there. We spent our first day exploring our nearby surroundings and did a rather boring walking tour (supposedly of Genevan architecture). It was on this day we realised that Switzerland is indeed quite cold; apparently the average temperature was -6 that day. After we reheated at the hotel it was time for dinner, and the snow that was starting to fall when we went inside had turned into a thick layer on the streets. We stomped through it to a Thai restaurant that was highly rated on TripAdvisor (our verdict: decent), then took some photos of the city's art installation. They put all sorts of lights in the trees, which looked rather pretty in the dark.
Festival Arbres et Lumières

The next day, the 21st, we wanted to see something a bit more interesting, and moseyed around the old town. This was much more picturesque, with small alleyways and cobbled streets. There were small stores all throughout, all specialising in one particular product. It made for some fun window shopping. We were headed for St Pierre's Cathedral, which was recommended to us by the Rough Guidebook. It described the external architecture as unusual, and it certainly was -- it was an amalgamation of addons throughout the years, all in different styles with no attempt to make them match. Inside, the decor was much more uniform -- dour -- but there was a pretty chapel just before you left which was well worth visiting.
St Peter's Cathedral

St Peter's Cathedral

After this we were going to poke our nose into the Natural History Museum, but it turned out to be closed. So instead, we found some lunch, and Leah introduced me to Churros. Delicious. Then, it was time for some culture, so we headed off to see the Red Cross museum and the United Nations. The Red Cross museum had an industrial feel to it, and tells its story mainly through pictures. The message to take away from it is that no matter what the politics behind conflict are, people will always need help. The Red Cross also helps out in disaster zones (which is easy to forget when you start going through the museum -- it has its origins in war but kept going after WWII finished).

After the Red Cross it was time for the UN. Unfortunately for us, Ban Ki-moon and co had packed up for the New Year, and you couldn't even go into the grounds. So, we consoled ourselves with the view from the security gates, and then built a snowman in the botanic gardens.
United Nations

You may have noticed I haven't mentioned Geneva's most famous landmark yet, the Jet d'Eau. This is because its most famous landmark only operates in limited hours in the winter, and even then only when the temperature is above 2 degrees. On our last day before we left, we were determined not to miss it. We took a boat out to it to get the best possible view, only to discover just how limited the hours were. So, Leah did her best impression of it, and we took a boat back to the hotel so we wouldn't miss our train. Lucky for us though, we did have time to see it from the other side of the lake, and finally got a picture of it.
This is what the fountain would look like
Jet d'Eau

The next stop in our trip was the city of Bern, in which we meet my brother, fat churches, and a lady whose German made her sound more annoyed than she actually was.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Christmas Pantomime -- Aladdin

The pantomime is a Christmas tradition in the UK, and this year the New Wimbledon Theatre has been publicising their production of Aladdin almost everywhere, including the ticket gates at Putney station. Eager as ever to get the authentic British experience here, we got tickets and went along.

This year there are four celebrities playing the role of the Genie: Ruby Wax, Pamela Anderson, Paul O'Grady and some woman off Eastenders. We were booked to see Pam, but due to "family commitments" we got Ruby instead.

In the end, it didn't matter much. The Genie was only on for a fraction of the show, and Ruby played it as a sarcastic, withering character who was either too cool or too busy to care about the surroundings. Thus, the show was mostly carried by the main cast: Wishy-Washy and Widow Twanky, Abanazar, and to a lesser extent Aladdin and Jasmine. There were plenty of jokes, lots of booing and hissing, and a rather out of place segment of Peking's Got Talent (we all got to sing about a worm at the bottom of the garden).

One highlight was Brian Blessed, who is famous for shouting lines. He had a microphone, but when he yelled "I can't hear you" for the third time, I'm sure they had the microphone off and his voice still filled the theatre. His appearances were formulaic -- turn up, encourage a few boos and hisses, spell out the plot (loudly) and then disappear to lightning. When you're the bad guy in the pantomime though, that's what you're there for.

Overall, the panto was quite good fun, and certainly a good way to spend an otherwise cold and dreary Sunday afternoon.

This contrasted rather nicely with Inherit the Wind, a play inspired by the Scopes trial of the 1920s. This was a much more serious play, although it had plenty of light moments. Kevin Spacey played the defence lawyer, and did a good job of an old-ish man who for some reason reminded me of Mark Twain. The eventual outcome was just as obvious as Aladdin, but the play kept our attention the whole way through. I spent a lot of the time feeling incredulous at how a town could be so closed-minded against science; but then again, the whole play was apparently a statement against the McCarthy communist-hating era that was around when the play was written.

Aladdin and Brian Blessed was certainly a contrast to Inherit the Wind and Kevin Spacey. Still, we had icecream in the interval at both.