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Friday, 1 February 2013

Sydney, Australia

Hello again and welcome to the start of a new chapter of my cruising adventures - Australia and Asia! I've been on the Volendam since the end of September (sailing from Vancouver to Sydney, around Australia and now up to Asia) so it's about time I began showing you some of the sights and relaying some stories! I thought I'd start off with my favourite Australian port - Sydney.

Above: The perfect docking spot for the Volendam.

Some of you will have seen the above picture on Facebook but I thought it an appropriate way to kick off this post, because it perfectly sums up what an amazing berth we had, docked in Circular Quay with the Sydney Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other. We were docked in Sydney twice (once at the start and once at the end of our circumnavigation of Australia) and the second time, our berth was a little further away at Darling Harbour - that's why you'll see a Royal Caribbean ship in some of my photos, stealing our prime position from the first visit!

Above: The Sydney Opera House with the CBD (Central Business District) behind, taken from a ferry.

*BORING PHOTOGRAPHY BIT - These are the first photos you on my blog taken with my new Nikon D7000 (same 18-200mm lens). In order to upload them to Flickr, I lowered the resolution so for those of you clicking through to my Flickr page, that is why the photos aren't very big/detailed (although they look fine on the blog of course).*

Above: The famous shells of the Opera House (more about those later) with the Harbour Bridge behind.

Sydney is the state capital of New South Wales and the most populous city in Australia. It is located on Australia's south-east coast and has an approximate population of 4.6 million people (as of 2010). The site of the first British colony in Australia, Sydney was established in 1788 at Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip, commodore of the First Fleet, as a penal colony. The original name was intended to be Albion, but Phillip named the settlement after the British Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney.

Above: Parliament House, built in 1816 and located in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

I had criminally little time to explore Sydney but I certainly made the most of it. On our first visit, with only two hours off the ship, I walked around Circular Quay (where the Volendam docked), into the Opera House and around the Royal Botanic Gardens. On our second visit, I had longer and took a ferry to Manly Beach, walked up the tourist pylon of the Harbour Bridge, walked through the Central Business District and finally dashed around Darling Harbour! I was pretty shattered after all that but I hope you'll enjoy the photos from my trips.

Above: Circular Quay with the Central Business District, as seen from the Volendam.

Sydney is built on hills surrounding Sydney Harbour, where the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge feature prominently. The hinterland of the metropolitan area is surrounded by national parks, and the coastal regions feature many bays, rivers, inlets and beaches including the famous Bondi Beach and Manly Beach (which I visited). Within the city are many notable parks, including Hyde Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens:

Above: Sydney's Central Business District viewed through the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Sydney's Central Business District (CBD) extends southwards for about 2 miles from Sydney Cove to the area around Central station. The Sydney CBD is bounded on the east side by a chain of parkland, and the west by Darling Harbour, a tourist and nightlife precinct which is where the Volendam was docked on our second visit.

Above: Modern skyscrapers being constructed in the CBD.

One of the most famous buildings in the world is undoubtedly the Sydney Opera House. An icon for Sydney and possibly even the whole of Australia, the Opera House is a multi-venue performing arts centre, conceived and largely built by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, opening in 1973 after a long gestation that had begun with his competition-winning design in 1957.

Above: The Opera House approached from Circular Quay.

It is difficult to describe the feeling I had walking towards and around this building. It has always loomed large in my sub-consciousness as I have cousins living near Sydney, and my upbringing included a smattering of Australian culture from TV shows such as 'Ferry Boat Fred' to trinkets from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I was always fascinated by the city's location on the other side of the world and the Opera House as the icon of that place but I never expected to visit anytime soon. So it was with a mixture of incredulity and wonder that I approached the Opera House!

Above: Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge behind, as viewed from the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The Sydney Opera House is a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete 'shells' each composed of sections of a sphere of 75.2 metres radius, forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium. The building covers 4.4 acres of land and is 183m long and 120 m wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25m below sea level. In short, this is an imposing structure! The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million, but with an original cost estimate in 1957 of $7 million and a completion date set by the government of 1963, the project was completed ten years late and fourteen times over-budget!

Above: The Harbour Bridge viewed through the Opera House. You can see the chevron pattern on the shells mentioned below.

Although the roof structures of the Sydney Opera House are commonly referred to as shells, they are in fact not shells in a strictly structural sense, but are instead precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs. The shells are covered in a subtle chevron pattern with 1,056,006 glossy white and matte-cream coloured Swedish-made tiles, though, from a distance, the shells appear a uniform white. The idea was to avoid blinding anyone who looked at the building on a sunny day!

Above: The foyer of the Concert Hall, one of two main venues inside.

Contrary to its name, the building houses multiple performance venues, the two main ones being the Concert Hall located within the western group of shells and the Joan Sutherland Theatre within the eastern group. The smaller venues (the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse, and The Studio) are located within the podium, beneath the Concert Hall. The scale of the shells was chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, with low entrance spaces, rising over the seating areas and up to the high stage towers.

Above: You can clearly see the two separate group of shells which house the two main venues.

On our first visit to Sydney I only got a brief glimpse inside the building but on my second visit, I took a tour of the Opera House. It is among the busiest performing arts centres in the world, hosting over 1,500 performances each year attended by some 1.2 million people and is also one of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia, with more than seven million people visiting the site each year, 300,000 of whom take a guided tour like me!

Above: The tour took us inside both venues and we were allowed a sneaky picture in the Concert Hall thanks to our very nice tour guide.

Above: Inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre which hosts opera, ballet and theatre. We weren't allowed to take photos in here, hence the sneaky angle and slightly blurred shot.

Jørn Utzon was one of 233 architects to enter the design competition for the Opera House, launched by Joseph Cahill's New South Wales Government in 1955 and according to legend, Utzon's design was rescued from a final cut of 30 rejects by the noted Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. The government's bold decision to select Utzon's design is often overshadowed by the scandal that followed, which saw Utzon leave the project in 1966, citing unpaid fees and a lack of collaboration as the reason and famously describing the situation as 'Malice in Blunderland'. He was subsequently offered a subordinate role as 'design architect' under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House's construction, but Utzon rejected this. He left the country never to return and in the formal opening by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973, his name was not even mentioned.

Above: A panorama from the Royal Botanic Gardens. From left to right: CBD, Volendam (look closely), Opera House, Harbour Bridge.

In the late 1990s, the Sydney Opera House Trust began to communicate with Utzon in an attempt to effect a reconciliation and to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. In 1999, he was appointed by the Trust as a design consultant for future work and in 2004, the first interior space rebuilt to an Utzon design was opened, and renamed 'The Utzon Room'. At this stage, the architect was too ill to leave his native Denmark and so he died on 29 November 2008 having never seen the completed Opera House - his life's work - in person.

Above: The Volendam docked at Circular Quay on our first visit.

On my second visit to Sydney, I took an early morning ferry from Circular Quay to the suburb of Manly, and the famous Manly Beach. A 30 minute boat trip takes you a world away from the city and into a charming suburban town and resort.

Above: Pulling into Manly, with the return ferry just departing.

Manly Beach, along with Bondi Beach is famous for its surfing but the locals also like to play volleyball or just relax on the white sand.

Above: Manly Beach.

Above: Catching waves at Manly Beach.

After my brief visit to Manly I toured the Opera House and then went straight to the Harbour Bridge to see how high I could get without actually climbing it ('BridgeClimb' has made it possible for tourists to legally climb the southern half of the bridge arch). It turned out that one of the four pylons contains a museum and tourist centre with a 360° lookout at the top providing views across the harbour and city like this one:

Above: My best panorama ever! Can you spot the Volendam on the far right, docked at Darling Harbour? I'll help you out with a close-up:

Above: The Volendam docked at Darling Harbour.

A little background for you: the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a steel through arch bridge across Sydney Harbour that carries rail, vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic between the Sydney central business district (CBD) and the North Shore. Nicknamed 'The Coathanger', the bridge was designed and built by British firm Dorman Long and Co Ltd of Middlesbrough and opened in 1932.

Above: Harbour Bridge viewed from the south-east pylon. Note the climbers on top of the arch.

The arch has a span of 503m and its summit is 134m above sea level; although expansion of the steel structure on hot days can increase the height of the arch by as much as 18cm. The pylons were designed by the Scottish architect Thomas Tait, and whilst abutments at the base of the pylons are essential to support the loads from the arch and hold its span firmly in place, the pylons themselves have no structural purpose. They were included to provide a frame for the arch panels and to give better visual balance to the bridge and in 1942 were modified to include parapets and anti-aircraft guns designed to assist in Australia’s defence and general war effort.

Above: The older buildings in the foreground are part of 'The Rocks' - a heritage area of downtown Sydney.

Close by to the Harbour Bridge is 'The Rocks', an older part of town with many museums and a bustling marketplace. Just beyond the bridge, the Rocks peters out into a distinctly suburban area which is quieter and more run down, despite being a few minute's walk from the skyscrapers of the CBD. This is the route I took to get to the Volendam docked at Darling Harbour on our second visit:

Above: The quiet suburban area in between Circular Quay and the tip of Darling Harbour.

I had very little time to explore Darling Harbour which is a huge entertainment destination but I did my best to (power)walk around most of it. I walked past Madame Tussaud's, Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Zoo, the world's largest i-max, as well as the Chinese Garden of Friendship. I'll leave you with a final picture from Darling Harbour. Thanks for reading - I know it was a long post - but I hope you enjoyed following me around Sydney. I will return one day to properly experience the city but I was pleased with how much I managed to cram in before we sailed off to new destinations!

Above: Darling Harbour.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Pompeii (Naples) - Italy

Welcome back to my blog and my final post from my European contract on the Ryndam. I've saved the best until last and today would like to show you a little of ancient Pompeii. The Ryndam was docked at Naples (Italian - Napoli), which is the capital of Campania and the third-largest municipality in Italy, after Rome and Milan.

Above: The view of Naples from the cruise terminal.

Unfortunately I did not have time to explore Naples, only dashing through to reach the train station (further away than I thought!) which would take me to Pompeii. I apologise in advance for the slightly vague nature of some of my captions - I decided to take in the atmosphere rather than have my nose stuck in a guide book:

Above: The Temple of Jupiter in the Forum at Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance.

The city of Pompeii is a partially buried Roman town which was partly destroyed under 4 to 6 metres of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24th August AD 79. Pompeii was lost for nearly 1700 years before its rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Italy, with approximately 2,500,000 visitors every year.

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Above: An overview of buildings and streets in Pompeii. The modern roofs are erected to protect paintings from direct sunlight.

For once, I travelled to Pompeii independently (i.e. not on a free shore excursion!) I took the train out of Naples for about 30 minutes to the Circumvesuviana stop, a minute's walk from the entrance to Pompeii. The trains themselves were an experience - fairly run-down and with lots of small boys walking through the carriages playing accordions, looking for tips.

Above: Naples Central train station.

Once I got to Pompeii, the initial experience was quite overwhelming especially when one considers what an extraordinary snapshot of Roman life in the 1st century Pompeii provides. At the time of the eruption, the town may have had some 20,000 inhabitants, and had reached its high point in society, as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on holiday. The forum, the baths, an amphitheatre and many houses remain well preserved. At the time of eruption, Pompeii also boasted a palaestra with a central natatorium or swimming pool, and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses and businesses.

Above: A typical Pompeii street.

Pompeii's streets are straight and laid out in a grid in the Roman tradition; they are laid with polygonal stones, and have houses and shops on both sides of the street. Today, many of the streets are closed to the public with less than a third of all buildings open in the 1960s being available for public viewing today. Nevertheless, the sections of the ancient city open to the public are extensive, and you could easily spend several days exploring the whole site.

Above: Amphitheatre of Pompeii.

The amphitheatre has been cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design, particularly in the area of crowd control. It is quite a large structure and one can imagine the activities hosted here being similar to those of the Coliseum in Rome.

Above: One of the entrances to the amphitheatre.

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Above: Inside the amphitheatre.

One of the biggest draws in Pompeii are the poignant plaster casts of the dead Romans - killed not by the lava, but by the intense heat and fumes that rushed through the streets before the lava engulfed them. The archaeologist Giovanni Fiorelli arrived in 1860 and he perfected the art of pouring plaster into the lava cavities formed by the corpses to create the human casts. There is even a cast of a pet dog on display.

Above: One of many casts that tell the tragic human story of the eruption.

In a nutshell, the human element is what makes the Pompeii story so eternally compelling and the many murals and frescoes on display are another part of that. These images provide information on everyday life and have been a major advance in art history of the ancient world.

Above: One of the many frescoes found throughout Pompeii. The surface with holes in the foreground was a counter for a bar/restaurant.

Some aspects of the culture were distinctly erotic, including phallic worship; a large collection of erotic votive objects and frescoes were found at Pompeii. Many were removed and kept until recently in a secret collection at the University of Naples. Others were re-buried upon discovery, due to the strict modesty of the 19th century (some people even invoked the destruction of Pompeii as divine retribution for its liberal lifestyle).

Above: Large collections of pottery fill the buildings by the side of the forum.

It is interesting to note that on 5 February 62 AD, there was a severe earthquake which did considerable damage to Pompeii. Chaos followed the earthquake and it is believed that almost all buildings in the city of Pompeii were affected, with fires - caused by oil lamps that had fallen - adding to the damage. In the days after the earthquake, anarchy ruled the city, where theft and starvation plagued the survivors. In the time between 62 and the eruption in 79, some rebuilding was done, but some of the damage had still not been repaired at the time of the eruption.

Above: The forum at Pompeii, the centre of public and the site of processions and elections, venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches.

Besides the forum, many other services were found upon excavation: the Macellum (great food market), the Pistrinum (mill), the Thermopolium (sort of bar that served cold and hot beverages), and cauponae (small restaurants). As well as the amphitheatre mentioned above, two theatres have also been found, along with a palaestra or gymnasium.

Above: One of the smaller theatres at Pompeii.

The aqueduct system was very sophisticated and an example of brilliant Roman engineering. It branched out through three main pipes from the Castellum Aquae, where the waters were collected before being distributed to the city; in case of extreme drought, the water supply would first fail to reach the public baths (the least vital service), then private houses and businesses, and when there would be no water flow at all, the system would fail to supply the public fountains (the most vital service) in the streets of Pompeii.

Above: Temple of Apollo.

Pompeii was an important town for two reasons. First, it was a leading manufacturer of garum, a disgusting-sounding but extremely popular mash of salted fish intestines left to ferment in the sun for months. Second, just across the Bay of Naples, lay the crucial naval base of Misnum. The fame of the eruption was boosted by the man in charge of the base on that fatal August day: the philosopher Pliny the Elder.

Above: Remarkably well preserved statues.

In one of the many tragedies that enshrine Pompeii's immortality, curious Pliny the Elder sped towards Vesuvius on a boat as soon as he saw it erupt, while his cautious 18-year-old nephew, Pliny the Younger, stayed behind to read. In a letter to a friend, Pliny the Younger noticed the chilling shape of the cloud over Vesuvius: 'Like an umbrella pine, it rose to a great height on a kind of trunk and then split into branches.'

Above: The entrance to a grand courtyard.

Pliny the Younger's account of his uncle's death sends a shiver down the spine. As ash, pumice and blackened cracked stones darkened the sky, Pliny the Elder fled to the seashore, where he was overcome by the sulphurous fumes: 'He stood, leaning on two slaves, and then collapsed suddenly. When dawn returned, his body was discovered intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death'.

Above: More columns near one of the small theatres.

The results of a study, published in 2010, show that in Vesuvius and surrounding towns heat was in fact the main cause of death of people, previously believed to have died by ash suffocation. The study showed that exposure to at least 250 °C hot surges at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings.

Above: The courtyard of a minor temple.

Pliny's fate may wait modern Neapolitans as Vesuvius often goes for decades without erupting. It last erupted in 1944 and scientists - who estimate that there is a 400-square-kilometre reservoir of magma five miles below the ground under Vesuvius - say that it is due another eruption soon.

Above: Posing at the main forum.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of Pompeii. It is certainly worth a visit and if I return, I would also like to ride the 4x4s up to the rim of Vesuvius to glimpse the fiery innards of the infamous volcano. At last, I have come to the end of my 40 or so posts from Europe, and I'm excited to move onto Australia and Asia - coming very soon! Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Vatican City

Welcome back! I decided to split my Rome blog into two - one for Rome (see my last post) and one for what is in fact a separate country, located in the heart of Rome: Vatican City. Vatican City State was established in 1929 and is distinct from the Holy See, which dates back to early Christianity and is the main Episcopal see of 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe.

Above: Posing in Saint Peter's Square in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. The fetching headsets are worn by everyone on the tour so the guide can talk to us via microphone in the crowds.

Vatican City is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome, Italy. It has an area of approximately 110 acres, and a population of just over 800. This makes Vatican City the smallest independent state in the world by both area and population (the second smallest being Monaco - see one of my previous posts).

Above: A panorama of Vatican City taken from the border with Rome. The boundary is designated only with a white line and a knee-high chain fence.

The country is an ecclesiastical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See and the location of the Pope's residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace which is on the right of the two pictures above.

I was lucky enough to visit Vatican City on both of my visits to Rome and take a tour of Saint Peter's Basilica. The other famous location in Vatican City is the Sistine Chapel but only a limited number of public are allowed in each day and our tour didn't include this!

Above: Looking down the nave of Saint Peter's Basilica towards the Altar.

Saint Peter's Basilica, is a Late Renaissance church designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and remains one of the largest churches in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Roman Catholic Church nor the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, Saint Peter's is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites.

Above: One of the decorated bronze doors at the entrance to the Basilica is the Holy Door, only opened in Holy Years.

In Roman Catholic tradition, the basilica is the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, according to tradition, the first Bishop of Rome and therefore first in the line of the papal succession. Tradition and some historical evidence hold that Saint Peter's tomb is directly below the altar of the basilica. For this reason, many Popes have been interred at St Peter's since the Early Christian period. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century and construction of the present basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on 18 April 1506 and was completed on 18 November 1626.

Above: An example of the interior's lavish design near the entrance to the basilica.

The basilica is cruciform in shape, with an elongated nave in the Latin cross form. The nave which leads to the central dome is in three bays, with piers supporting a barrel-vault, the highest of any church. The nave is framed by wide aisles which have a number of chapels off them. The central space is dominated both externally and internally by one of the largest domes in the world.

Above: Light rays through the central dome. The interior is of vast dimensions by comparison with other churches.

The entire interior of St Peter's is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. The basilica contains a large number of tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. There are also a number of sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo's Pieta.

Above: Michelangelo's famous Pieta work.

The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sanctuary culminates in a sculptural ensemble, also by Bernini, and containing the symbolic Chair of St Peter.

Above: Bernini's canopy which lies above the Papal Altar.

St Peter's is famous as a place of pilgrimage, for its liturgical functions. Because of its location in the Vatican, the Pope presides at a number of services throughout the year, drawing audiences of 15,000 to over 80,000 people, either within the Vatican Basilica, or in St Peter's Square. On the second day that we visited, there had been a service in St Peter's Square held by the Pope that morning!

Above: The front facade of the basilica with Christ and his disciples adorning the rooftop.

The basilica is very large but it was also very crowded on both times we visited so it was sometimes difficult to reflect and take in the majesty of the place without being jostled by tourists!

Above: The statue of Saint Paul at the entrance to the basilica.

I'll finish this blog post with an interesting aside about the Pope's own bodyguards (see picture below). The Pontifical Swiss Guard was founded by Pope Julius II on 22 January 1506 and to this day, all recruits must be Catholic, unmarried males with Swiss citizenship who have completed their basic training with the Swiss Army.

Above: Members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, guarding the basilica.

Thanks for reading and I will return with my FINAL blog post from Europe soon - Pompeii!