Tag Archives: Eastern Europe

My favourite places

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I have now travelled to 25 countries, which is really just like dipping my toes into the water as far as exploring the world goes. Still, after my last trip to Eastern Europe, I started making a list of my favourite places so far. It felt like a nice time to look back and figure out an answer to the question asked by those who diagnose you with the ‘travel bug’: “Where did you like best?” I might also have been bored on a long train ride.

So, in no particular order, here’s my list.

Paraty, Brazil

Stunning small coastal village with colonial buildings and cobbled streets. A day out on a yacht never hurts either.

Stunning small coastal village with colonial buildings and cobbled streets. A day out on a yacht never hurts either.

Rome, Italy

There is nowhere like Rome. You wander through narrow little streets and then stumble upon a massive ancient monument. I was awestruck.

There is nowhere like Rome. You wander through narrow little streets and then stumble upon a massive ancient monument. I was awestruck.

Geneva, Switzerland

My friend who lives in Geneva took me for a tour and warned it wouldn't take long. She was right. We happily wandered around the beautiful lake and Old Town and I got carried away photographing the gorgeous spring flowers in the peaceful park.

My friend who lives in Geneva took me for a tour and warned it wouldn’t take long. She was right. We happily wandered around the beautiful lake and Old Town and I got carried away photographing the gorgeous spring flowers in the peaceful park.

Bled, Slovenia

A tiny town by a still lake where motor boats are not allowed and a man paddles you out to a small island where you can ring a church bell and make a wish. If that's not enough, visit the medieval castle on the hill and bottle your own wine with a monk.

A tiny town by a still lake where motor boats are not allowed and a man paddles you out to a small island where you can ring a church bell and make a wish. If that’s not enough, visit the medieval castle on the hill and bottle your own wine with a monk.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I arrived in this town exhausted but walking around completely reinvigorated me. An old Bohemian town, highlights include artwork around every corner in the form of paintings on the walls of buildings, sculptures, and even writing on the stones of the cobbled streets. Plus bears living in the moat of an old castle, super friendly people, arts and crafts stores in abundance, medieval feasts, and a lively gypsy bar.

I arrived in this town exhausted but walking around completely reinvigorated me. An old Bohemian town, highlights include artwork around every corner in the form of paintings on the walls of buildings, sculptures, and even writing on the stones of the cobbled streets. Plus bears living in the moat of an old castle, super friendly people, arts and crafts stores in abundance, medieval feasts, and a lively gypsy bar.

San Francisco, USA

Being from a bayside area in Australia, San Francisco instantly felt familiar. It's easy going and you would almost feel like you were in Europe with the Victorian architecture if it weren't for the blue sky and sea breeze.

Being from a bayside area in Australia, San Francisco instantly felt familiar. It’s easy going and you would almost feel like you were in Europe with the Victorian architecture if it weren’t for the blue sky and sea breeze.

Paris, France

Paris is one of the few cities that completely lived up to the hype for me. Staying in Montmartre, we wandered around gathering delicious macarons, pastries, bread, poulet et pommes, and bottles of Bordeaux. I almost wept one night thanking the chef after the best meal of my life. Beyond the food, Paris is one of the best cities to explore on foot and via the Metro, from the old haunts of artists like Dali, Monet, and Picasso, to stunning churches like Notre Dame, to quirky bookshops where you can walk upstairs and sit on the couch while your friend plays the piano. Oh, and there's this little place called the Louvre where I nearly passed out because I forgot about hunger as I walked around in a trance.

Paris is one of the few cities that completely lived up to the hype for me. Staying in Montmartre, we wandered around gathering delicious macarons, pastries, bread, poulet et pommes, and bottles of Bordeaux. I almost wept one night thanking the chef after the best meal of my life. Beyond the food, Paris is one of the best cities to explore on foot and via the Metro, from the old haunts of artists like Dali, Monet, and Picasso, to stunning churches like Notre Dame, to quirky bookshops where you can walk upstairs and sit on the couch while your friend plays the piano. Oh, and there’s this little place called the Louvre where I nearly passed out because I forgot about hunger as I walked around in a trance.

Edinburgh, Scotland

With dark, gothic architecture and a rich artistic history, this city is fun to explore at night. A journey that began at a castle, wound through streets lined with warm pubs, up some stairs into a cemetery to visit the grave of 18th century philosopher David Hume, then up Calton Hill to the half-built, full-size replica of the Parthenon, lit up and overlooking the city below.

With dark, gothic architecture and a rich artistic history, this city is fun to explore at night. A journey that began at a castle, wound through streets lined with warm pubs, up some stairs into a cemetery to visit the grave of 18th century philosopher David Hume, then up Calton Hill to the half-built, full-size replica of the Parthenon, lit up and overlooking the city below.

Bath, England

Bath is exactly what you would expect the one time home of Jane Austen to be: completely charming and romantic. It feels like a town willing its  residents to enjoy themselves with lots of public parks, theatres, and of course the Roman Baths.

Bath is exactly what you would expect the one time home of Jane Austen to be: completely charming and romantic. It feels like a town willing its residents to enjoy themselves with lots of public parks, theatres, and of course the Roman Baths.

Dunedin, New Zealand

A city built around a big lake is always a thing of beauty. Dunedin has that beauty plus an albatross nesting area and a history involving the Maori peoples, Scottish settlers, a gold rush, and a thriving indie rock scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A city built around a big lake is always a thing of beauty. Dunedin has that beauty plus an albatross nesting area and a history involving the Maori peoples, Scottish settlers, a gold rush, and a thriving indie rock scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isle of Pines, New Caledonia

Imagine snorkelling here. With tropical fish. With no one else on the tiny little beach but the people you came with. Enough said. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine snorkelling here. With tropical fish. With no one else on the tiny little beach but the people you came with. Enough said. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the silly part though. I am guilty of the same thing that many travellers admit to with shame in their eyes; I have not really explored much of my own country, Australia.

I have not included any Australian destinations on my list of favourites because, even though I think our country is incredibly beautiful and unique, I haven’t really seen the best bits yet. I’m yet to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, visit the big red rock at Uluru, or go down to that little extra piece at the bottom that sometimes gets forgotten, Tasmania, which is so beautiful it inspired one of my friends to pack up and move down there.

I have seen the Twelve Apostles and driven along the Great Ocean Road, which is stunning, and I do enjoy a visit to what is the trendiest of our cities these days, Melbourne.

I am committing to seeing more of Australia before I journey to any more of the rest of the world. That way, when I next cross paths with a Canadian backpacker who tells me about their trip to Australia, I will understand what the hell they’re talking about.

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This week… in my living room

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Oh wait, no, I didn't murder anyone in my living room. I just watched some movies.

Oh wait, no, I didn’t murder anyone in my living room. I just watched some movies.

Over the past week, in my mission to watch all the movies on the Top 250 IMDb list, I have watched Black Swan, Inglourious Basterds, Dial M for Murder, Gandhi, and The Godfather Part II.

Here are my thoughts…

Black Swan

Obviously, I didn’t exactly rush out to see this one. It has taken me until now to worship at the altar of Natalie Portman. Oh, I thought she was a pretty good actress, for sure, but no performance she had delivered had ever blown me away. No, not even in Star Wars, can you believe it.

That has all changed with Black Swan. I was actually angry with myself for not seeing this earlier. For once, I wished I had listened to the hype. Natalie’s performance, and the movie itself, mimics its subject matter. It is exactly like a ballet, perfectly executed.

As Natalie’s character Nina loses herself more and more in the dance and her quest to find the Black Swan, the dark side within herself, I found myself sitting on my couch, finding my anger over so many things that had happened in the past year of my own life. Seriously, I need to pay Natalie and director Darren Aronofsky for therapy.

Natalie perfectly portrays Nina’s childlike vulnerability, ambition, social awkwardness, fear, and anger. The film forces the viewer out of their comfortable, distant role of the knowing aunt, tsk-tsking at Nina’s low self esteem and fragility, into her world of confusion, fear, and darkness.

I think this film will stand the test of time and will still be regarded a classic in decades to come. I will be watching Aronofsky’s The Wrestler this week and can’t wait to see how he has told this story.

Inglourious Basterds

As a welcome change to all the old mafia and western movies I’ve been watching from the list, I saw a second film from within the past few years this week.

I have a complicated relationship with Quentin Tarantino. I so admire and relate to his nerdiness, his ability to reference such a diverse range of pop culture in his films (and his chatty-chat-chat interviews).

What I find difficult to deal with are the graphic killings in his movies. And boy, wouldn’t he love to hear that.

It’s not that I can’t take violence in movies. It’s a vital part of telling many stories. One of the earlier films I watched from the list was The Pianist, the story of a Jewish man during the Nazi occupation of his native Poland. Every murder in that movie shocked me and broke my heart, until I realised I’d spent an hour with my hand over my mouth and tears in my eyes. I visited Auschwitz and many other sites of Nazi atrocities during my trip earlier this year, and it was clear that the violence that occurred during this time was in no way exaggerated or glamourised in The Pianist.

Perhaps this Eastern Europe trip and the conversations I had with people who either lived through the Nazi occupation or whose family members did, was not going to be the best place for me to come from to think this movie was awesome. It certainly simplifies a very painful history that still exists within living memory for many people in the world.

Or maybe I’m just getting a little tired of Tarantino’s spaghetti western approach to telling any story.

The, yes, Jewish American, but American cowboys who come in to save the day just seemed so unnecessary to me. Why couldn’t the story have stayed with Shosanna? It begins with her and her family and the climax of the movie takes place in her cinema, where her plan comes to fruition; why are the cowboys necessary? It is an entirely fictional story, after all. I feel like the movie sells out Shosanna and her importance as the central character, in favour of Brad Pitt and his big knife. [Insert phallic theory here.]

I guess this angle is the only way that Tarantino could feel he had some claim as storyteller about this subject matter.

Coming up on the list is Django Unchained and I’m trying to keep an open mind, even though the approach seems to be about the same. Like most film lovers, I really really want to like Tarantino’s films. He is, after all, one of us. But I think his films need to grow up a little and stand on their own two feet.

Dial M for Murder

Hitchcock’s reputation as a flawless storyteller remains intact, in my mind, after watching this movie.

One of his lesser-raved-about films, I had the same experience watching it as I have had with his others; I feel like I can almost hear him thinking about each shot, each line of dialogue, the placement of each prop.

Like listening to a great album for the first time on vinyl, I turn a Hitchcock film up loud and hold my breath, not wanting to miss any subtle detail.

Dial M for Murder mostly takes place in a single room and I didn’t even realise this until the end. Hitchcock is such the master of suspense that I never once felt bored.

Ray Milland as Tony Wendice is incredible. He inspires hate, empathy, admiration, and fear in the audience. And that voice! He sent shivers down my spine. Tony Wendice is a refreshing change for a villain; the only weapon he ever wields is his intelligence.

I won’t say too much more about this one for those who haven’t seen it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Gandhi

Watching this movie has made me want to change my life! It makes you believe in the power of an idea and of committing to that idea at all costs.

The real-life character of Gandhi makes it difficult to think of the film alone. The man is so inspiring and continues to carry such an empowering message of peace for people, even beyond his death, that watching the movie feels like a deeply spiritual experience.

However, thinking this way, I realised that this is evidence of how good the film is. Richard Attenborough knew he had an incredibly powerful subject for his film and just had to get out of the way.

I watched an interview with the actor who portrayed Gandhi, Ben Kingsley, and he spoke of just copying Gandhi as best as he could from recordings. The scenes of Gandhi with the crowds were shot with Ben and the crowds. There was no digital combination of the two created later, they were really there together, giving Ben the sensation of what it must have felt like for the real Gandhi.

This movie beautifully shows that when you have an incredible story to tell, don’t try to tell it, don’t embellish, don’t sign to the audience that this is dramatic or important, applaud here, etc. Just tell it.

The Godfather Part II

What an appropriate film to see directly after Gandhi. Talk about a different philosophical approach…

So while I had just experienced a spiritual awakening about peace and tolerance, this film, which thematically centres on revenge, still lived up to the hype for me.

And I totally agree that it’s better than the first Godfather. This is called the ‘De Niro Factor’.

Robert De Niro is just so damn good at making you feel a connection, an empathy with his characters. In this movie, when he is standing outside the room where his baby is ill, your heart goes out to this young father, feeling helpless and desperate that he can’t properly provide and care for his family.

The superiority of his performance, spoken almost entirely in Italian, made me long for more Vito Corleone, less Michael Corleone. Don’t get me wrong, Al Pacino plays Michael well, but he has become too much the hardened mob boss by this part of The Godfather story. The opportunities to feel empathy for his character (the rifts between Michael and his brother Fredo, and between him and his wife Kay) fall flat because it’s just so hard to see his vulnerability anymore. These experiences seem to affect his ego more than play on his fear of losing his family.

The contrast between the young Vito and the older Michael though does help to tell the story and it’s obvious what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to achieve. Personally, however, I think the recipe was just ever so slightly off. A dash more Vito and a sprinkle of remaining vulnerability in Michael and it would have been perfect.