VIVID Sydney!

For the last 2 days of Becky’s stay, we went to Sydney, primarily to check out VIVID! We stayed close by the quay – this was the view from our hotel room:

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VIVID Sydney is in it’s 10th year this year and is a 23 day festival of light (and music, and ideas), but mostly it’s about the great lighting displays.

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Our first night in Sydney, we took a Sydney harbour boat cruise to see the lights from the water.

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Our second night (in the rain), we walked around the Quay and The Rocks area.

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Doesn’t the Sydney Opera House look amazing (even in the rain)!

There were some great displays, but I particularly enjoyed the “Beautiful and Dangerous” display which projected magnified images of various infectious bacteria and viruses.

It was right up my alley (as a bacterial scientist) and connected with my artistic self as well.

Besides seeing VIVID, we shopped – of course (Becky was still looking for family gifts to take back to the US), we walked through the botanical gardens (and found a giant fly!)

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and we visited the Art Gallery of NSW. I particularly liked this oversized Captain Cook:

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I was keen to see The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries on display at the gallery. I didn’t know this was a series of 6 tapestries. They were fabulous and were made around the year 1500, by an unknown maker and rediscovered some 300 years later in the Château de Boussac in France.

It was a lovely weekend (even if Becky was a bit under the weather) and it was great to have her visiting me for the past 2 weeks.

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A visit to Blackbutt Reserve

Today I took Becky for a visit to Blackbutt Reserve to view a few of our native animals.

We were lucky to fit the visit between rain showers.

We saw some kangaroos:

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Some very sleepy koalas:

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Some native birds:

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Sulphur crested cockatoo

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Kingfishers

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Gouldian finch

But really, for me, this was just an excuse to visit the wombats again.

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Sally (3 year old common wombat)

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Clyde (15 year old common wombat)

Wombats make me very happy, and it was nice to share them with a friend who had never seen one before!

Sightseeing around Newcastle

With Becky visiting from Texas, I have had an excuse to do some activities that I have wanted to do, but not got around to.

Yesterday we did a river boat cruise along the Hunter River.

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We left from Newcastle Harbour (where the Hunter River meets the sea) on board one of Nova Cruises boats and cruised up to Morpeth.

 

The trip along the river is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It was a lovely day for it – pleasant and relaxing. From the harbour, we travelled up to Hexham where it is necessary to lift the bridge for the boat to pass underneath. I have never experienced the bridge going up, so that was good to see.

There were lots of interesting things to look at along the way as well.

I love an old, ruined building.

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Morpeth was established in 1821 and was a bustling river port in colonial days. It is a lovely historic town right on the Hunter River, with National-Trust listed buildings, craft and antique stores and some lovely, scenic places to eat or sit, relax and grab a coffee. We shopped a little and had lunch.

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Historic Morpeth bridge from the Hunter River

Newcastle harbour is home to the largest coal exporting port in the southern hemisphere, and as we were coming back we saw a fully laden ship on it’s way out of the port. These ships are huge.

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A visitor from Texas, USA to Newcastle, NSW!

 

My friend Becky is currently visiting us from Texas. We meet through the pilates class at the local gym in Sherman whilst I was living there, and now I would consider her one of my best friends. Becky has been in Newcastle now 5 days. We have been exploring a little and I have been showing of the parts of my town (with plenty more planned). But today is a bit of a rest day as Becky picked up a cold on the way over (we’ll blame the aeroplane germs). So I’d thought I write a little about what’s happened so far.

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A lazy Sunday afternoon drink listening to some live music at Queens Wharf

We have done a bit of walking, well, quite a bit really. We have been along the harbourside, past the beaches, visited the Christ Church Cathedral, have done a spot of shopping (how can you not?) and have taken a few photos. It’s been fun!

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Christ Church Cathedral

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Newcastle Town Hall and the pool in front of Civic Fountain

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Becky and the pump house for the Newcastle Ocean Baths

Becky has written a couple of blog posts about her adventures so far. Check them out here.

We also took a drive up to the Hunter Valley vineyards and tasted some excellent wine. Andrew was the designated driver so we could enjoy what was on offer. Besides the good wines, there are also some lovely, picturesque views. The following pictures were taken at Audrey Wilkinson vineyard (excellent wines). We also visited Tulloch wines (also very good wines),  before having some lunch. There is something for everyone in Hunter Valley wine country, from boutique vineyards through to the large well known wine makers, and many excellent places to stay and to eat – so come and visit and spend the weekend (or week) relaxing in the Hunter Valley.

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Red roses means red grapes

 

This is the first time I have had a non-family member house guest in a long time. It certainly makes you pay more attention to what is around you (and clean up after yourself more). Seeing your surroundings through the eyes of a visitor from overseas will give you a new perspective on things. There are subtle differences between the USA and Australia, from light switches and power point switches to not so subtle differences, like driving on the other side of the road, and it’s fun to be able to discover and comment on these with a friend.

Tomorrow we are going on a Hunter River cruise to the lovely town of Morpeth. We are both looking forward to that.

 

 

A little more of Madrid

With the ECCMID conference over I was left with a day and a bit to finish exploring Madrid.

There are many museums in Madrid, and I thought I should visit at least one. My choice was not the extremely popular and well renowned Museo National del Prado; instead I went to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (also very well regarded) and solely because I wanted to see Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII.

I wasn’t disappointed; it’s actually quite a small painting.

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I also got to view many more famous paintings and works by famous artists.

For example – Rembrandt’s self portrait.

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You will also find paintings by the greats – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Moreau- all in the one room (room 32)! It was fantastic, what a treat!

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Renoir

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van Gogh

I walked a little more of the city; there are some very nice green spaces.

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On my last morning in Madrid, I finally made it to the royal palace. But before I got inside, I was able to witness the changing of the guard.

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What a wonderful place. It is very opulent and not hard to see where the Spanish spent some of that gold brought back from the Americas. There were no photos allowed in the main apartments of the palace (Google images for Madrid Royal Palace, and you will be amazed), but the main central staircase is ok.

The gardens around the Palace are lovely too!

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I found a few more Meninas too:

Holy Toledo – a visit to the historic town in España!

Part 2 of my day trip from Madrid.

After a couple of hours in Segovia, it was back on the bus to Toledo (south of Madrid). What a view from above the city.

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A very interesting old city, located at the top of a hill (we took 6 escalators up to the main city) high above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha. Toledo is a walled city and known as the “City of three cultures” as Christians, Muslims and Jews lived here together for centuries. Toledo was also the capital of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania following the fall of the Roman Empire. Toledo is well known for its quality steel and sword making (today there is not such a great call for quality swords, but the city has made swords for movies and TV shows such as Lord of the Rings, 300 and Game of Thrones. The city was listed as a UNESCO site in 1986.

After some lunch and a little free time, we headed up to the cathedral.

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The present cathedral dates from the 1220’s as it was rebuilt after the church preceding it burnt down. Prior to that it was a mosque, and before that the Visigothic Cathedral. Yes, it is another awesome church in Europe, and it is of course unique with many wonderful features (including paintings by El Greco who lived in Toledo for 37 years before he died in 1614),

but one thing in particular made this cathedral stand out.

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The Tesoro (or Custody of Enrique de Arfe) – is made up of 18kg of pure gold (the first gold that Christopher Columbus brought back from the Americas) and 183kg of silver, with myriad precious gemstones and some 260 statuettes. Made in the 16th-century, this processional colossus gets out once a year for the Feast of Corpus Christi, when it is paraded around the streets of Toledo.

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Toledo was an interesting town, and deserves more than 1/2 a day –

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The city’s coat of arms – the two headed eagle

Both the cities of Segovia and Toledo deserve more time, but I am so thankful I did this tour; it was great! If ever you are in Spain, don’t miss Segovia or Toledo!

 

 

Segovia – a little town with a lot of history in España

After 2 days wandering around Madrid, I thought I needed something more interesting to do. I decided a day tour full of history and culture would be just the thing. This is the tour I took (recommended). I took a day trip to the UNESCO listed towns of Segovia and Toledo (blog post to follow on Toledo).

Before the tour started, I was already enjoying myself. I had caught the metro to Las Vestas and when I exited the station, right there is the Plaza de Toros; the bullfighting arena. The arena can hold 24,000 spectators and even has its own chapel and hospital (for when things don’t go the way of the bullfighters I guess).

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First stop on the tour was Segovia (northwest of Madrid in the Castile and Leon region) – a walled city dating back to before Christ.

Apparently Segovia was originally a Celtic possession, but control later passed to the Romans. Segovia was UNESCO classified in 1985.

All the buildings in Segovia have a unique finish; it’s very ornamental and you won’t see it anywhere else except for this region. To hide the flaws of the mortared finish they decorated the finishes. They are beautiful:

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There are 3 notable monuments in Segovia. The first is the Roman aqueduct.

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This is over 2000 years old, has never been restored, so stands as it has always been and was in use up until the 20th century. At its highest point it is 29 metres tall and 818 metres in length, with 170 arches. The aqueduct is constructed using about 25,000 granite blocks and has no mortar holding them in place. Awesome!

The 2nd great thing in Segovia is the Alcazar (the castle), which sits between the rivers Eresma and Clamores and was inhabited by the kings (and queens) of Castile.

This is a real fairytale castle, as it was the castle for the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White castle.

Isabella I (also known as Isabella the Catholic – Isabella of Castile) was crowned here.

It is also the place where she met with Christopher Columbus before sending him on his way to India when he ended up discovering the Americas (Isabella also financed Columbus’s journey by selling her jewels). There’s not much to this building really, and it’s smaller than you might expect, but definitely worth a visit.

There are some great views to be had too.

The 3rd thing of note in Segovia is the Cathedral, a gothic style Roman Catholic Cathedral built between 1525 and 1577. We didn’t get to go inside, but it’s an awesome building.

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Segovia was amazing and definitely worth a visit.

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What a view!

España – 2 days exploring Madrid, Spain (part 1)

I’m back in Europe!

The European Congress for Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) has presented me with a wonderful opportunity to do a little bit more exploring of the world. [For those who don’t know, my real job is working in medical microbiology]. This year ECCMID is being held in Madrid, Spain and I have been very fortunate (but have worked hard) to be able to be here. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore for a few days before the conference started.

Day 1:

I am staying about a half hour out of the city (out near the airport), so I caught a metro train into the city centre. I hopped off at the Opera station and wandered a little

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before I did my usual thing of doing a city sightseeing hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

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There were 2 loops you could do, but I only did the one for historical Madrid. This took quite a long time the traffic is crazy busy and we were at a standstill for quite a long time (hence why I didn’t do the second loop).

The botanical gardens looked good, so that was my first hop off stop. It cost €4 to get in, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, so very worthwhile.

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Spring has sprung in Spain, so there was an excellent display of flowering tulips.

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I also saw some great bonsai

My 2nd stop was the royal palace (Palacio Real); I’d read about this and it looked really interesting. Unfortunately, when I went to buy my ticket I was told the palace was closed for the week (Bummer!), but I could get into the armoury for €5 if I wanted. I was most interested in looking through the grounds rather than the armoury, but I went in anyway. So glad I did.

Madrid-11Madrid-12The palace is impressive from the outside and the pictures I saw on inside looked amazing.

The armoury was fantastic- I was so impressed. The body amour of the soldiers and the armour plating for the horses were amazing – these were works of art, so much detail and excellent craftsmanship. The same can be said for the swords and pistols. Most of the armour dated from the16 century. Unfortunately no photos allowed, but Google images for Madrid royal palace armoury and you will see what I mean.

When I came out of the armoury, I encountered this peacock.

Madrid-14He was beautiful, I’d had never been so close to one, and was able to get a close look at his feathers.

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There was plenty of walking thereafter, so many sights to see, and I took plenty of photos.

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Italia – A visit to Pompeii

We finally had a lovely, sunny day to do some sightseeing on our trip to Italy the day we went to Pompeii. I have always wanted to go to Pompeii since I learnt about it in history when I was at school. The tale of what happened is legendary; what an intriguing place and history.

 

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Mt Vesuvius – standing quietly at the moment overlooking the ruins of Pompeii

Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and surrounding areas were buried under about 6 metres of volcanic ash and pumice when Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. It is such a fascinating story; what did the people of those towns think and feel on that fateful day, on 24th August 79? How did the 8,000 – 10,000 inhabitants of Pompeii live? What were their everyday lives like?

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The remains of one of the many bakeries

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A penis in the pavement pointing the way to the brothel

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Pictures of what’s available in the brothel.

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Now this is a rock hard bed!

Pompeii lay abandoned until it was first rediscovered in 1599 and remained relatively untouched until 1748 when explorers looking for artefacts found that the ashes of Mt Vesuvius had acted as a wonderful preservative. Pompeii is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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While excavation is limited these days – this was happening in the bathing area

The archaeological site that has developed over the past 300 or so years is simply amazing.  The site is vast (an enthusiast could spend days here), with apparently only about two thirds of the 170 acre area having been excavated. While there is still more to discover, what has been unearthed so far is unlike anything else you will see.

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The streets were wide enough for chariots, and are deeply grooved as a result. The stepping stones provided access for pedestrians

The small theatre (Odeon)

The small theatre

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How impressive are these columns?

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At the bottom of the hill, where the poorer people lived.

We did a half-day tour from Naples (and while this was great, the tour guide and information provided was excellent), for me it wasn’t enough. If you just want a taste of Pompeii, then a half-day tour is well worth it. If, however, you are more like me and hungry for more information and keen to see more and discover more on your own, then do this trip independently (it is totally do-able).

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ITALIA continued – Napoli (Day 16 & 17)

Leaving Roma behind, we travelled next to Napoli (Naples), again on a fast train; the journey took just over an hour.

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At almost 300kph (we were slowing down coming in to Napoli) – definitely a fast train

We arrived in to Naples and the weather was fine. We were keen to do some exploring. Once we arrived at our accommodation (very nice room):

NapoliRoomand settled in, we determined to set out and wander around. Of course, the heavens decided to open up and it rained; proper rain, not just a drizzle or light, bearable rain; this was “prepare to get wet” type of rain. It didn’t stop us though; we just rugged up and put up the brollies.

Trudging around in the rain probably is not the best was to see any city, but I don’t think it added to the appeal of Naples. My main reason for staying in Napoli was as a base to visit Pompeii (I’ll cover that in my next post).

 

Walking the streets of Naples is definitely an interesting experience – the things you see:

and the washing hanging out to dry:

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and some churches and some unexpected frescoes (you never know what you will find when you walk around a city):

Some of the things we did manage to see in Napoli included:

  • the medieval fortress, Castel Nuovo (13th century) with its 5 towers located in front of Piazza Municipio and right by the harbourside port.

Quite impressive:

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The castle’s entrance

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As we were leaving – I saw this!

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How’s this for a door? Isn’t it wonderful?

I really did want to visit catacombs whilst we were in Italy – so we did a guided tour here – and it was fascinating. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Napoli and was at one time buried here. There are no skeletal remains here any more as they were removed during the French occupation and removed outside the city walls. These catacombs date back almost 2 thousand years, exists over several levels. The graves sites were fascinating and the frescoes were in great condition considering their age. If you happen to ever visit Napoli, I would recommend a visit to the catacombs.

– we did this at the end of a very long day and I can say it was very much worth the 8euro admission price. The museum is open from 9:00am until 7:30pm – and we stayed until closing; there is a lot to see.

Like some very impressive marble statues:

and some impressive mosaics:

The Neapolitans appear to be obsessed with sex and the penis:

Some other highlights from the museum:

There are some interesting aspects to Napoli and plenty to see, but I found this city the least appealing of all the places we visited in Italia. The traffic is exceptionally crazy – worse than anywhere else in Italy; and if you know anything of Italian traffic, you will appreciate my meaning. The city is also dirty, with lots of rubbish about, rather “unclean” there is a lot of graffiti, it’s noisy and I felt just a little uncomfortable – perhaps the time of year and the weather didn’t help, but it was almost like the Napoletano took no pride in their city. I also found eating out a more difficult experience in Napoli and the waiters tend to just take what they think you should give them as a tip – so be aware. At one restaurant we were told they wouldn’t take a card (luckily we had some cash on us), but when the waiter returned with the change he just kept the 4euro in his hand and claimed it as “service”. Of course, not everywhere was like this (we got caught out twice though) and we had an exceptionally nice dinner at Pulcinella Casoria.

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great atmosphere and great food

Putting this slight inconvenience aside though, we still enjoyed our limited time in Naples.

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