Travel to the Australian Outback and fascinating Lava Tubes at Undara

I’m rapidly discovering that very few things are considered unusual at Undara.

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Slam, bang, bif, pow! I awake to unfamiliar sounds and cautiously pull up the blind. Oh, it’s just two kangaroos having a ‘friendly’ stand-up fight just outside my window. There’s nothing unusual about that at Undara.

Undara

The wildlife, the vegetation, the lava tubes and the railway carriage accommodation would all be considered very different elsewhere but here they are part of the amazing Undara Experience.

I am in North Queensland, Australia revisiting one of the most fascinating Outback destinations easily accessible from the coastal cities. I first visited Undara with cattleman Gerry Collins back in the late 1980s when he had a dream to develop this unique area into a tourist attraction. At the time he was battling the Queensland Government for approvals and was trying to save his land from compulsory acquisition.

In the end he succeeded with his dream and Queensland has a unique top quality experience for both local and international visitors. It is a wonderful destination from either Townsville or Cairns.

 It takes awhile to sort out the Undara Experience. The whole package consists of accommodation, meals and facilities, tours and activities. You can cherry-pick bits and pieces but you will find that more is always better because this experience is very special.

For accommodation, we choose the beautifully restored one-hundred-year-old railway carriages. These are set along the original Cobb & Co. coach road and are shaded by tall trees and a canopy roof. The rooms contain a very comfortable double bed, old railway seats, ceiling fans, and a bathroom.

The carriages are unique, comfortable and romantic. We love them. Other options are the permanent swag tents, some of which have their own kitchen, the caravan park and camp ground, and self-contained air-conditioned Pioneers Huts.

After settling in we go exploring. We find the free tea and coffee that is always available and then relax in the deck chairs by the lagoon pool. This is perfect after the drive from Townsville. After recharging, we go on a self-guided bush walk. There are nine tracks ranging from 1.5km to 12km return. We climb a nearby knoll and gaze over the plateau towards some of the 164 old volcanoes in the province. There is no sign of human occupation as far as we can see.

We enquire about tours and are told about the Wildlife at Sunset trip that departs each day at around 5.30pm. Naturally we go on it. We watch the sunset while enjoying sparkling wine and cheese and then are taken to the entrance of a lava tube at dusk to see pythons and tree snakes capturing a meal of micro bats as they emerge from the darkness in their thousands.

Dinner at night is at the Iron Pot Bistro. The a-la-carte menu has beef, Georgetown sausages, chicken, fish, and vegetarian noodle stir fry dishes. Meals are large, delicious and filling. We linger over several glasses of wine and then share a ‘chocolate volcano’ dessert. After dinner, we relax around the campfire, enjoy the brilliant starry sky then wander back through the Australian bush to our railway carriage ‘home’ for a good night’s sleep.

It’s morning. The kangaroos have woken me so I watch nature’s world through the window. There are wallabies, wallaroos, parrots, kookaburras, currawongs and magpies all happily going about the business of eating. I guess it is time for our breakfast.

We wander off into the bush along a well-defined track and soon come upon the Ringers Camp. The fire is burning, the billy tea is boiling and the freshly brewed coffee spreads its aroma throughout the camp.

Cereal, fruit, sausages, baked beans, eggs, sautéed vegetables, bacon and a variety of juices make for a great breakfast. We toast bread over the coals of the fire and spread it with honey and jam. Why do I eat so much more when in a setting like this?

It’s 8am and we gather for the Archway Explorer tour. There are ten of us in the minibus as we drive to a lava tube. Lava tubes are the result of volcanic lava flowing down depressions. Eventually the surface cooled and formed a crust but underneath the lava continued to flow.

The eruption eventually stopped and lava flowed out of the far end of the tubes, leaving tunnels beneath the land. Eventually holes appeared when the roof collapsed on the tubes and rainforest sprang up in these dark, moist hollows.

We enter one of these depressions and are surrounded by life. The dry savannah has given way to lush vegetation. Dozens of butterflies flit around our heads. We are in a different world. The huge entrance to a lava tube is straight ahead.

Entering the tube is a wonderful experience. We come face to face with 190,000 years of history. Timber walkways lead deep into the darkness. Our Savannah Guide gives us environmental, geological and historical information on the region.

We visit two other tubes. A long wet season has raised the water table and some tubes are part-filled with water. At one, we strip to our swimwear and bathe in the clear water. We’re told that this is a very rare experience, happening on average, once every twenty years!

While it is possible to experience the highlights of Undara by staying one night, a two-night stay is clearly better. This gives you time to take a second tour to a different section of the tubes, explore more of the walking trails and visit some of the other attractions in the area.

To get there

There are non-stop air services from Johannesburg to Sydney and then on-flights to Townsville or Cairns.

www.LenRutledge.com

Bucharest, Romania

May 14, 2019 Traveloscopy Travelblog

Bucharest: Ready for a post-Soviet future

Len Rutledge finds that Bucharest now welcomes all visitors

There is no such thing as vampires,” I’m told on my first afternoon in Bucharest, Romania. “Dracula is our country’s biggest brand, but he is fake.” My wife and I had not come to Bucharest to find vampires. In fact, we were uncertain why we had come but a few days later it was clear. We had come to see a place once known as the “Paris of the East” which had suffered badly under five decades of communism but was now re-emerging as a welcoming place for all visitors.

Bucharest is unlikely to win any awards for beauty or style, but it surprised us with its cosmopolitan vibe and energy. Although much of Romania’s capital was bulldozed by the communists, the old town survived and is abuzz with bars, cafes and restaurants.

Nicolae Ceausescu, the megalomaniacal ruler for many years, ripped out a huge area of the historical centre — 30,000 houses, schools, and churches — to create his dream city with wide boulevards, stone-faced apartment blocks, and gurgling fountains modelled, it is said, on Pyongyang, North Korea. That is still there but thankfully so too are some wonderful art nouveau buildings, ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and elegant boulevards.

Romania joined the EU in 2007, but it is not in the Euro zone. Instead we changed our money to Romanian lei, and received a pleasant surprise with the result. That is another reason to stay longer than planned.

We started our sightseeing by visited the indisputably jaw-dropping Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan concrete folly and an embodiment of communist-era might. Ceausescu bled the nation dry to erect the second-largest building in the world (after the Pentagon) and the huge annual maintenance bill is still a drain on resources. It finally opened in 1994 — five years after Ceausescu was executed in a bloody revolt.

We toured in a small group through a fraction of the 1100 rooms. Most are empty to this day but the ones we saw were lavishly decorated. Finally, we moved on to the balcony in Union Hall to take in the view down Unirii Boulevard. To visit, you need to have your passport with you and there is high security.

Palace Square was where in 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu realised that the 80,000 people that had gathered had not come to hear his speech but to start a revolution. He began to deliver his speech but he was quickly airlifted by helicopter from the roof top. He and his wife were executed three days later and the square was renamed Revolution Square.

Around the square are the tall white Memorial of Rebirth Obelisque, the former Royal Palace which is now the National Museum of Art of Romania, and the mid-19th century Roman Athenaeum opera house where the Romanian Philharmonic Orchestra plays.

The National Museum of Art is separated into a European Gallery, with an impressive quota of old masters, and a National Gallery of Romanian art. Just north, the Roman Athenaeum is arguably the most beautiful building in town, and it’s worth visiting to sample its acoustics and to gawk at its opulence. This building is a Romanian symbol and appears on a 5 Lei note.

Art of a different kind is seen on the streets. There seems to be graffiti everywhere but as one local put it,” They’re just buildings being ‘spruced up’ with graffiti.”

One of the surprising delights was roaming around without a plan. Fresco-filled churches hide in corners where they escaped communist building projects. The majority of the population are Eastern Orthodox, and you will find Orthodox churches dotted throughout the city. Tiny but beautiful Stavropoleos Church is in the Old Town while St Apostles’ Church and Antim Church, are both near Unirii Boulevard.

For something different we strolled in the gorgeously landscaped Cismigiu Park and watched the boats on the lake. There is a chess and backgammon retreat for seniors, the most seats I have ever seen in a park, and buskers for entertainment. This is just one of several nice parks and gardens.

In another park, mills, parts of churches, old homesteads and agricultural structures are all on display in the National Village Museum, an open-air delight on the banks of Herăstrău Lake. It is comprised of some 300 buildings. It is a very long walk from the Old Town but several buses run past the museum.

Romanian food is not well known outside the country so we went to Caru’ cu Bere, the Old Town’s most famous beer hall with gorgeous painted vaults to try the Romanian national dish; cabbage rolls stuffed with mincemeat, with a side of polenta. It was excellent. We later tried this dish in other places and always found it enjoyable.

Bucharest was a surprise. After several days we were still finding new things to see, new places to eat and drink (the Old Town has hundreds of restaurants and bars), and new experiences to enjoy. We could happily go back there.

www.LenRutledge.com

IF YOU GO

There are no direct flights from Australia to Bucharest but there are connections from many European capitals.

Australian passport holders do not need a visa for a tourist visit of up to 90 days.

Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge

Images

1. Palace of the Parliament
2. Revolution Square
3. Orthodox Church of Sfantul Anton-Curtea Veche
4. Old Town Restaurants

Luxor, Egypt

The glory of the Egyptian civilization in Luxor

If you want to see some of the world’s greatest temples, and what could be the world’s richest archaeological site, go to Luxor in Egypt.

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Luxor is an hour’s flight up the Nile from Cairo. Luxor grew out of the ruins of Thebes the capital of Egypt from about 1500 to 1000 B.C. Now it is one of the Middle East’s major attractions.

Luxor has suffered badly in recent times because tourism almost collapsed, but now there are signs of a pick-up. Direct flights from many European cities ceased and the once-thriving river services to and from Aswan virtually stopped. Some of the 300 or so riverboats that took tourists in relative luxury along the Nile are back in business but most are still tied to the banks and many are rotting away.

This means it is a great time to visit. Hotels have cut prices, tour guides are readily available, crowds are nowhere to be seen and everyone is going out of their way to be friendly, helpful and courteous. Safety is on everyone’s minds and I must say my wife and I felt completely at ease everywhere we went.

The city has a nice riverside promenade, a flotilla of ferries crossing the river, huge hotels facing the Nile, and restaurants and markets competing for the relatively few tourists. The streets jingle with the sounds of bells on horse carriages, which we initially took to be for tourists, but actually they are part of the local transport scene.

The Temple of Amun (Karnak Temple)

This complex of three temples built over a 2000-year period is probably the biggest temple on earth. Our expectations were high and as we wandered the site we became more and more impressed. The stillness of the whole place with its stone columns soaring against the brilliant blue sky was breathtaking.

The surfaces of the grand courtyards are all covered by fine carvings. The scale and detail is staggering. I thought of the vision, the work and the investment that went into this huge structure and then was told that all this could not even be seen at the time by the public. It was only for priests, royals, and the gods.

A millennium later the public entered. We saw marks on the columns where Roman soldiers sharpened their swords, and early Christian images of Mary and Jesus are carved on the ancient pillars like graffiti. Many of the statues have had their noses cut off by the Romans to destroy the Pharaohs rebirth system, because Egyptians then believed that the soul needed to re-enter the body via the nose.

The Luxor Temple

The Luxor Temple is all about the great warrior pharaoh, Ramses II even though it was started 100 years or more (around 1380BC) before his reign. Two 25m pink granite obelisk built by Ramses once stood before the entrance gateway but today only one remains; the other stands in the Place De La Concorde in Paris.

The temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship. During the Christian era, the temple’s hypostyle hall was used as a Christian church. Then for many centuries the temple was buried and a mosque was eventually built over it. This mosque was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today.

Originally an avenue lined with sphinxes ran the entire 3 kilometres between the Luxor and Karnak Temples. This avenue is currently under excavation and reconstruction and you see a short completed section near Luxor Temple.

The Valley of the Kings

In about 1600 B.C. there was a big change in the style of royal tombs. Until then, kings were buried in pyramids, but these were consistently being robbed, which meant kings were waking up in the afterlife without their precious earthly possessions. So, rather than mark their tombs with big pyramids, the kings started hiding their tombs underground in the valleys on the west side of the Nile.

Each buried king was provided with all the necessary things that would provide a comfortable existence in the afterlife, however, most of this has been looted over the centuries so most tombs were empty when they were rediscovered in modern times. The condition of the 63 tombs that have been discovered and the details on their walls, however, is incredible after all these centuries. Most are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology.

Most of the tombs are not open to the public. The entry ticket to the valley allows you to visit three tombs out of several that are open but some require additional payment. The cost is reasonable and the visitor arrangements are good, however, be aware that in summer the temperature can be stifling. Photography is not allowed in the tombs.

The Hatshepsut Temple

This is perhaps the most spectacular structure on the west bank. The mortuary temple was only discovered about 150 years ago and there is still some on-going restoration work underway. The temple rises out of the desert in a series of terraces that from a distance merge with the sheer limestone cliffs behind.

This temple was built by Queen Hatshepsut, the first known female monarch, who ruled for about two decades. Her reign was one of the most prosperous and peaceful in Egypt’s history. When Thutmose III followed her as pharaoh, he had all evidence of her reign destroyed by erasing her name and having her image cut from all public monuments, even within this temple.

Although unknown for most of history, in the past 100 years her accomplishments have achieved global recognition and her stunning mortuary temple has become one of the most visited structures on the West Bank.

Need to Know

There are few facilities for visitors on the West Bank. Most stay in Luxor and travel to the West Bank by bus or on a tour. Hotels and restaurants in Luxor are good and prices are very reasonable at present. You need a minimum of two days to see the major attractions.

Air access from South Africa or from the United Kingdom is via Cairo.

www.LenRutledge.com

Enjoy the city then take some day trips from Krakow

Stunning underground caverns, heart-rending tragedy, ski resorts, and river rafting are some of the experiences that await day-trippers from Krakow, Poland.At Krakow’s heart is Europe’s largest medieval market square. It’s postcard perfect: lined with pastel-colored townhouses and clusters of cafes and restaurants that spread onto the cobblestoned streets. To fully appreciate it, however, you need to get out of the city and take some day trips from Krakow.Horse and carriage rides for tourists in Krakow main square

Never again: Auschwitz and Birkenau

The infamous train entrance where prisoners entered the camp

During World War II, the Nazis built KL Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers. More than 1.1 million men, women, and children lost their lives here. Prisoners were transported here for forced labor, cruel medical experiments, and death through gassing.

Today, a museum protects the post-camp relics. Admission to the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial is free of charge but it is wise to pre-book on visit.auschwitz.org. I strongly suggest engaging an educator or joining a guided tour as you will learn so much more than walking around alone.

The camp buildings, fences and guard houses remain

We pay to join a tour and enter through the Auschwitz I camp’s gate, with its infamous proclamation “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Will Set You Free.” Three kilometers down the road stands the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau complex, which you also visit with your guide.

Once inside the camp, which remains surrounded by barbed wire, we walk through a maze of barracks. Inside we see documentary photographs, models, prisoners’ garments and hair, bunks and other furnishings from prisoners’ rooms, and items seized from inmates. We also see the gallows, where prisoners caught trying to escape or suspected of planning to, were hanged during daily roll calls.

Inside a barracks at Auschwitz where prisoners slept

We spend a quiet minute standing outside the former gas chamber, which still has the ovens that were used as a crematorium. Going inside and knowing how many were killed on this spot was absolutely traumatic. Nearby, stands a scaffold with a rusty metal hook where Rudolf Hoess, the Nazi camp commander, was hanged in 1947. Few on our tour felt sorry for him.

Debate continues over the ethics of allowing the public to visit here, as it is effectively a massive cemetery and an extremely sacred place. This was highlighted to me when I saw people checking their phones while they walked, and others in shorts and t-shirts consuming snacks and drinks as they ignored the guide while he talked about the horror that occurred here.

Despite this, the death camp left a profound impression on me that I doubt I will ever forget. It is an educational and harrowing day, and no one returns unaffected by the experience. I would like to see visiting it made compulsory for every politician and military person on the planet.

Day trip to a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Wieliczka Salt Mine began in the 1300s and was one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites named in 1978. Its displays depict how the mine has operated throughout the past seven centuries. We join a tour, enter the mine, and descend 376 steps, with many more to follow during the two-hour tour. Although we walk about 3 kilometers (two miles) while underground, we only see one percent of the mine, which extends via horizontal passages for over an astonishing 287 kilometers (178 miles). This includes underground lakes, huge halls, and an enormous cathedral carved into the salt/rock.

We’re guided through massive, timber-lined tunnels, some of which have 500-year-old, salt-preserved logs and planks. Within huge caverns, we see fantastic sculptures carved by the workers, and even working chandeliers, all made of salt. We visit a lake and are awed by the sound of Chopin’s music in this most unlikely location. We get insights into the mine operations, see stables that sheltered workhorses, and are amazed about this complex so deep underground. Naturally, there are shops, cafes, and a restaurant down here, and there is even free Wi-Fi. At the end of the tour, an elevator takes us back to the surface.

Half-day tours are available from Krakow or you can combine this with an Auschwitz visit for a very long day.

Mountain escape

Driving south towards Zakopane

Zakopane is a resort town in southern Poland at the base of the Tatra Mountains. It’s visited by more than 2.5 million visitors a year and is a popular departure point for winter sports and summertime mountain climbing and hiking, and a wonderful change from urban Krakow. Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka, reachable by public cable car and funicular from Zakopane, are nearby ski destinations offering great mountain views which can be enjoyed by everyone.

Wild flowers alongside the road to Pieniny National Park

The ski season in Zakopane usually begins around Christmas and lasts until the end of March, but some ski slopes can be closed earlier. At other times, many visitors come to experience the Góral culture of the local people, which has unique styles of speech, architecture, music, food, and costume.

Krupówki street, the main pedestrian zone of Zakopane, is where the post office, banks, shops, and restaurants are found. Zakopane has some large and beautiful wooden villas dating from the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the local Góral-style. Some now house museums, while others have been converted into hotels.

Various day trips are available from Krakow but staying overnight in Zakopane allows you to experience the mountains and culture at a more leisurely pace.


What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • Many of us were taught about Auschwitz in school, so a visit brings memories flooding back. Don’t underestimate the effect it will have on you.
  • A visit offers the opportunity to see one of the original World Heritage Sites.

Take note

  • The regular tour at Auschwitz and Birkenau involves walking along some uneven gravel pathways and the total distance is around four kilometers (two and a half miles).
  • The salt mine tour requires descending more than 400 steps. Fortunately, you return to the surface by elevator.
  • Neither of the tours above is recommended for those with mobility issues.

All photo credits: Phensri Rutledge


IF YOU GO


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Day trips from Krakow Poland

Lovely Lucerne is a Swiss icon

Article that appeared in Travelfore on 6 April 2019

Words: Len Rutledge   Images: Phensri Rutledge

White swans, a low-flying vintage aircraft, colourful boats, and a seven hundred-year-old bridge battle for my attention as I gaze out across the still waters of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. In the end, the bridge wins. The Kapellbrücke is a covered wooden footbridge with more than 100 17th-century pictures hanging from the roof rafters. It is my lasting image of Lucerne.

Lovely Lucerne is a Swiss icon

For a city of only 75,000 Lucerne punches way above its weight in terms of visitor appeal. It’s almost too picture-perfect, sitting on the lake with the hills all round. A highlight is the Old Town, which we explore on foot, with its churches, bridges, narrow cobbled streets, and colourfully painted Renaissance squares.

Old Town

Many of the defensive walls and towers that once surrounded the city were demolished in the 1860s, but we find we can still walk the surviving stretch around the northern perimeter of Old Lucerne – for excellent views across the town and lake.

To the north of here we find the famous Lion Monument, a huge figure of a dying lion hewn from the face of the rock ledge. Two hundred years old, the monument commemorates the death of 26 officers and more than 700 troops of the Swiss Guards, who were killed while protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792.

Lovely Lucerne is a Swiss icon

Apart from the old town, there are several other buildings worth seeing. A visit to Tribschen, the lakeside villa of Richard Wagner, gives a glimpse into the domestic and social life of the 19th-century composer. You can walk to it along the southern shore of the lake or take a bus from the train station.

The extraordinary Sammlung Rosengart Museum is housed in a former bank. It comprises one of the greatest private collections of 20th-century art, including more than 100 paintings by Picasso, as well as dozens more by Klee and Matisse.

The Jean Nouvel-designed concert hall next to the railway station has a sweeping cantilevered roof which reflects the sparkling lake. This is the main home of the outstanding Lucerne Festival, established eighty years ago by Arturo Toscanini, which presents great classical music each year.

Lovely Lucerne is a Swiss icon

Concert Hall

Then there is the Swiss Museum of Transport which offers an entertaining history of planes, trains and automobiles. There’s also an Imax Theatre and a planetarium.

Swiss food is all about schnitzel, cheese, potatoes, and chocolate and Lucerne is a great place to indulge. Schnitzel is normally meat coated with flour, beaten eggs and bread crumbs, and then fried, but some variants are not breaded. Fondue, which is melted cheese served in a communal pot in which small pieces of bread or potatoes are dipped, is a very popular cheese dish. Thinly grated potatoes, pan-fried until crisp and golden, called rosti is one of Switzerland’s iconic national dishes.

The smooth, delicious chocolate we know and love today was invented in Switzerland and the country still produces some of the world’s finest. Until the Swiss entered the chocolate scene, chocolate was only a hot beverage.

Into the mountains

The nicest relaxing way to see Lucerne and its surroundings is aboard the handsome ferries which criss-cross the lake. Boats depart from beside the central station and dock at about a dozen scenic spots around the lake.

Lucerne’s top attraction is probably Mount Pilatus, the 2,132m-high peak that towers over the city. You reach the top by cable car from Kriens or on the world’s steepest mountain railway from Alpnachstad. The mountaintop itself is a tourist trap, but the views are spectacular.

We instead decide to go to Mt Rigi. This offers a gentler scene, with its green slopes and lush meadows scattered with wild orchids.

We take a leisurely boat ride along Lake Lucerne to the town of Vitznau. Here the bright red Vitznau-Rigi Railway train is waiting, with cogwheels and toothed racks especially designed for steep climbs. The Rigi was the first mountain railway in Europe, launched in 1871.

From the toy train, we watch the lake recede and the views grow more dramatic. We see mountain flowers, forests, and ski resorts, and ride past peaceful farms with cows wearing cowbells. Then we are swamped with cloud. At the top it is just a short walk uphill to an outdoor terrace but we see nothing but fog.

Lovely Lucerne is a Swiss icon

Coming down from Mt. Rigi by cableway

On the way down we get off at Rigi Kaltbad, a mountain station along the route, and catch the steep Rigi Kaltbad Aerial Cableway car. In less than 10 minutes, we reach the lakeside town of Weggis. Soon we are cruising back to Lucerne. Despite the cloud, we have enjoyed the experience very much and would recommend it to anyone.

IF YOU GO

There are many international flights to Zurich, Switzerland then there are regular trains from Zurich airport to Lucerne, bus connections twice a day, or you can travel by taxi.

www.LenRutledge.com

See Experience Guides travel videos

Experience Guides has started to produce short travel videos. These will cover  destinations that are covered by Experience Guides paperbacks and ebooks but also other destinations around the world.

Check out the first few videos that are now available at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX5HUmGP1lR2aoscn3O8P2Q

 

 

Myanmar from eglobal travel media

Magical Myanmar – the new Burma

November 2, 2018

Len Rutledge discovers that in Myanmar, holy men are more revered than rock stars, right-hand drive cars (like ours) drive on the right side of the road, and friendly betel-chewing oldies show blood red teeth when they smile at you. English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote about Burma more than 100 years ago. “It is quite unlike any place you know about”. He may be surprised to know that it is still accurate today.

For the past thirty years Myanmar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The United Nations and many other organisations have condemned the county’s rulers for their imprisonment of political prisoners, use of forced labour and violent crackdowns on demonstrations. Many countries, including Australia, have applied economic sanctions.

More recently, the Rohingya Crisis has brought the world’s attention back onto the country. At the same time, the government has implemented many changes that are opening up the country to visitors; most of the sanctions have been lifted; and tourism is taking off in a big way.

You experience a time warp when you visit here. Many men and most women still wear an ankle-length skirt, most rural women paint their faces with a white traditional makeup and there is not yet a multitude of McDonalds, 7-Eleven or Starbucks to be seen.

What you find is refreshing, humbling and slightly daunting to many visitors. If not on a packaged tour, it’s easy to get out of your comfort zone, but this helps to make Myanmar unique. While many other countries are losing their culture, here you find the gentle population is still embracing their traditions and religion like they always have.

A Myanmar experience should start in Yangon (Rangoon), the largest city but no longer the capital. Australians mainly fly in from Bangkok or Singapore. The city is sprawling and low-rise. Many magnificent British colonial-era buildings still decorate downtown but unfortunately most are unused and are rotting away.

Yangon is home to one of Asia’s most awe-inspiring religious monuments. The Shwedagon Pagoda is visible from almost anywhere in the city and is a ‘must-see’ site for all visitors. So too is Kandawgyi Lake, with its boardwalk, concrete reproduction of a royal barge, and quiet corners.

The vibrant, colourful downtown streets, the open-air markets, and bustling Chinatown can provide plenty of action and excitement. That substitutes for a nightlife that is only now starting to fully develop. There are some nice hotels in the city where the price skyrockets in the tourist season. Credit cards are becoming more accepted for payment but in many places cash is still king.

Bagan is probably the country’s star tourist attraction. This was the capital from the 11th to the late 13th century and the remains of thousands of pagodas and temples, dotted across the plain of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River, is a wondrous sight. It is the largest collection of religious monuments I have ever seen and most visitors find it stunning.

Bagan is nearly 700km north of Yangon so most people fly there. It is easy to spend three days exploring the temples by bicycle and horse-cart, taking a sunset boat trip and perhaps ballooning over the spectacular site at sunrise.

Accommodation options include cosy guest houses and lovely riverside resorts. Try one of the small but clean Burmese restaurants which are dotted around the area to sample the local food.

Mandalay is a 25-minute flight away or a seven-hour boat ride. This was the last capital before the British takeover of the country but equally intriguing are the other adjacent older capitals of Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura.

Many people think of Mandalay as traditional Burma and are then disappointed when they find a traffic-choked city full of low-rise concrete buildings on straight, dusty roads. It takes a while to discover that Mandalay is still the cultural heart of the country.

This is a convenient place to see intimate traditional dance performances and marionette shows. You can visit silk weaving factories, gold leaf manufacturers, stone-carving workshops and foundries where giant Buddha statues are made using centuries-old methods.

Climb Mandalay Hill, take a boat to Mingun to see what would have been the world’s biggest stupa had it been finished, wonder at the remains of Inwa as you travel in the back of a horse-cart, and visit one of the many active monasteries that still exist.

Inle Lake markets

Pyin Oo Lwin was once a British-era summer capital and it is being rediscovered for its stunning botanic gardens and some of Myanmar’s best cuisine in lovely cool hotels. Further east, historic Hsipaw was once home to Shan princes but today it serves as a base for hikes into fascinating Shan and Palaung villages.

Inle Lake is second only to Bagan in attractiveness. This is a region of Shan, Pa-O and Intha people and their culture and lifestyle fascinates most visitors. Accommodation is in guest houses in Nyaungshwe or in lovely lakeside resorts. From here visitors criss-cross the lake in motorised canoes visiting stilt-house villages, floating gardens, tribal markets and lovely water-bound temples.

Travelling through the mist that hangs over the lake in the morning then seeing the famous one-leg rowers heading out to fish is a magical experience.

www.LenRutledge.com

Len is the author of Experience Myanmar2018, available as an e-book or paperback from https://www.amazon.com/dp/B078GTRF3T

Words: Len Rutledge

Pictures: Phensri Rutledge

To the Top of Europe from Life begins at.

Mountains are to be climbed but I have never been drawn to ropes, picks, anchors and spikes. I’m more for sitting back and letting a train or cable car do the hard work for me. That is one reason I love going to Jungfraujoch, The Top of Europe.

The Top of Europe is 3454 meters above sea level in the Swiss Alps above Interlaken. With a majestic backdrop of ice, snow and rock, the exhilaration of being there is palpable yet all you have to do is sit back as three separate trains take you progressively higher and higher.

The first train starts at Interlaken East station. We chose to board one stop along the line at the cute village of Wilderswil where accommodation was cheaper, parking was easier and people were friendlier than in the city.

The Bernese Oberland Railway travels from Wilderswil into the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. In fact, our train split a few stations later with the front half going to Lauterbrunnen and the back half going to Grindelwald. If you are going to the Top of Europe it doesn’t matter which way you go.

We choose to travel via Grindelwald, a dreamlike mountain resort under the infamous North Face of the Eiger. The surrounding alpine pastures are achingly idyllic and cable-cars make it easy to reach scenic mountain lookouts, the Grindelwald Glacier and lakes. It is no wonder that this landscape has been a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond movies.

From Grindelwald we catch the narrow-gauge rack railway to Kleine Scheidegg. This where the trains from Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen meet and from where the train to Jungfraujoch departs. The scenery is dramatic as we enter the snow zone and everything turns to white.

Cable cars head in all directions from remote stations and even in May some skiers are out chasing the last runs for the year. Kleine Scheidegg is the starting point for scenic hikes in summer and it is a significant winter sports centre.

The train journey to the Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe) through the rock of the Eiger and Mönch is an incredible experience. The majority of this section is in a tunnel but you get to enjoy stunning views from Eismeer (Sea of Ice). The cogwheel railway track to Jungfraujoch on gradients up to 25% was completed in 1912 and has been in continuous use ever since.

Arriving at the top brings new levels of anticipation and it is not long before we have icy air streams across our faces, snow crunching under our feet, and a view which nearly takes our breath away even with the cloud and fog we are coping with today.

When we visited here some 25 years ago there were limited things to do at the top. Not anymore. Over the next few hours we were absorbed by the 360 degree cinematic Jungfrau Panorama, intrigued by the lights and music of the Alpine Sensation and fascinated by the huge Ice Palace where enormous caverns and passageways have been carved into the ice displaying crystal-like sculptures of eagles, bears, penguins and so forth.

The high-point of any visit is the Sphinx Terrace attached to the Observatory and Research Station. We ride Switzerland’s fastest lift to the terrace and are rewarded with spectacular views over the Aletech Glacier which is over 22 kilometres long and nearly a kilometre thick. Sadly, the views into France, Italy and Germany are masked by low-cloud and fog.

Now we brave the cold and venture out on to the Glacier Plateau. It is briefly majestic but then it turns bleak, freezing cold and merciless. In better weather you can skim down the slope on snow tubes, skis or snowboards, but not today. The 250 metre-long zipline is not providing an adrenalin rush to anyone either We quickly retreat inside.

Mountain air makes you hungry and thirsty so fortunately there are several restaurants and cafes. Top of the line is Restaurant Crystal but we opted for the self-service Aletsch. For those who brought their own food the Cafe Bar provided drinks.

There are a few shops here with souvenirs, clothing and other items but the Lindt Swiss Chocolate Heaven seems by far the most popular. This advertises itself as the highest Lindt Chocolate Shop in the World and there are six interactive exhibits and a few products only available here.

The time has come to leave so we retrace our journey back to Kleine Scheidegg then take the next train this time to Lauterbrunnen before making one more change before we reach Wilderswil. It has been a great day despite less than ideal weather and we would do it again in a heartbeat.

www.LenRutledge.com

IF YOU GO: The standard return fare from Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch-Top of Europe station is around a staggering A$320 (summer), and A$285 for the rest of the year. I strongly advise taking an early train to avoid the worst of the crowd. Prices quoted may vary, please check for latest:https://www.swissrailways.com/en/products/regionalberneseoberlandpass

Photo credits: Phensri Rutledge

Opera Houses from The South African

Some of the world’s most spectacular opera houses

No matter where we travel there is a good chance that we will see some impressive buildings.

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Look at these few examples taken at random from around the world. When you add the Royal Opera House, London, the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, and the Teatro Fenice Venice it makes an impressive list. Each is worth a visit.

Palais Garnier in Paris

This is one of the most famous opera houses in the world, partly because it was the setting of the novel The Phantom of the Opera and the subsequent films and popular musical. It was built in the 1860s and it was the primary home of the Paris Opera and its associated Paris Opera Ballet until 1989 when the modern Opera Bastille opened. The Palais Garnier is now used mainly for ballet.


Phensri Rutledge

The building was the most expensive in Paris during its era and some regard it as a masterpiece although this opinion is not universally shared. It is close to some of Paris’s most famous department stores so it makes a nice contrast to the shopping ‘palaces’.

Teatro alla Scala in Milan

This challenges Paris as the most famous opera house in the world. It was built in the 1780s and most of Italy’s greatest operatic artists, and many of the finest singers from around the world, have appeared here.

Building expenses were covered by the sale of boxes, which were lavishly decorated by their owners, and like most of the theatres at that time, La Scala was also a casino. In 1943, La Scala was severely damaged by bombing. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1946. The theatre underwent a major renovation from 2002 to 2004. The stage was entirely rebuilt, and an enlarged backstage allowed more sets to be stored.


Phensri Rutledge

La Scala has hosted the first productions of many famous operas and had a special relationship with Verdi. He conducted his Requiem there in 1874 and the theatre hosted his penultimate opera, Otello and the premiere of his last opera, Falstaff.

Sydney Opera House

This is a multi-venue performing arts centre in Sydney, Australia. It is one of the 20th century’s most famous and distinctive buildings. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, the building was formally opened in 1973 after a 14 year construction period and much controversy due to the cost escalating from A$7million to A$102 million.

Many changes were made to Utzon’s design during and after construction including making the major hall, which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, solely a concert hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, then had to include opera and ballet functions but this is inadequate to stage large-scale opera and ballet.

In 2007, the Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors are welcome to attend performances or do a tour of the building

Oslo Opera House

The spectacular Oslo Opera House is the home of The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Construction started in 2003 and was completed in 2007, ahead of schedule and under budget. The Opera House won the 2009 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture.


Phensri Rutledge

A 50 minute guided tour in English lets you walk out onto the Main Stage, or visit the costume workshop or scene painting room, while you learn about the architecture, stagecraft, opera and ballet from the guides.

Bolshoi Theatre Moscow

This is an historic theatre in Russia, which holds ballet and opera performances. The main building of the theatre, rebuilt and renovated several times during its history since 1821, is depicted on the Russian 100-ruble banknote.

A new stage was built in 2002, and this together with a restored 17th-century building, two rehearsal halls, and artists’ recreation rooms form a single theatre complex. From 2005 to 2011 the theatre was closed for restoration which included an improvement in acoustics, and the restoration of the original Imperial decor.


Phensri Rutledge

The Bolshoi Ballet is probably the most renowned ballet company in the world and it is by far the largest with more than 200 dancers. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake premiered at the theatre in 1877 while other regulars on the Bolshoi repertoire include Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beautyand The Nutcracker, Adam’s Giselle, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

The Royal Opera House Stockholm

Kungliga Operan has been the Swedish national venue for opera and ballet since 1773. You can visit here as a member of the audience at one of the performances or take a guided tour. The building is located in the centre of Sweden’s capital and is connected to the Royal Palace by a bridge.


Phensri Rutledge

The original opera house was demolished to make way for the present building which opened in 1899. It is a majestic neo-classical building with a magnificent gold foyer and elegant marble grand staircase leading to a three-tiered auditorium which seats 1,200. Interestingly, 45 minutes before most opera and ballet performances, a 15-minute introduction to the evening’s performance is held in the Gold Foyer.

www.LenRutledge.com