Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Unicycle Diaries 7: The Bison That Time Forgot

After my first Lonely Planet assignment in Poland in winter 2006, I pitched this bison-related story idea to a number of publications. Nothing came of it, but I thought it'd make a good backbone for a picture story here...

I’ve never felt much like Little Red Riding Hood... until this very moment.

Having left the minibus at the turn-off from the road to Białowieża, a small village near Poland’s border with Belarus, I’m trudging along a road caked with thick snow. My footsteps are the only thing audible, though even they are muffled by the crunchy white layer beneath my feet.

It’s the middle of the day, but the sky is a strange muted grey and the bare spindly trees look like extras from The Blair Witch Project. And I know there are wolves in these woods. And I know the European Bison Reserve must be just a kilometre or so ahead. But my hindbrain isn’t so sure this is a good idea...

On my first Lonely Planet assignment in Poland in the midst of winter in 2006, I journeyed through the snowy forest to see the last wild European bison in a reserve near a tiny eastern town. What I discovered was snow, bison, wolves, tarpans and the village that time forgot.

The Unicycle Diaries is an occasional series wherein I use excerpts from diary entries or story pitches to create a snapshot of a past journey. For previous instalments, click on the Unicycle Diaries topic tag below, then scroll down.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Alphabet Dinners: H is for Hotel Lincoln

In The Alphabet Dinners series, I review the cheap restaurants of Melbourne... In alphabetical order.

I was supposed to be meeting some people I didn't know for dinner tonight (long story), but the arrangement fell through.

Finding myself at a loose end, I thought I'd resume my series of reasonably priced restaurant reviews, with subjects taken from The Age Cheap Eats guide.

So this week, H is for Hotel Lincoln, the handiest 'H' listing in the guide on my route back to the city.

Judging from the Web, the Lincoln has been around since the 1850s, which must make it one of Melbourne's oldest pubs still operating in the same location.

Though it's obviously had some remodelling over the years, with an art deco vibe currently about the place. You can get a glimpse of it here:

And here's a shot of the interior - a little dark, but there's a suggestion of deco lines:

There's a fancy gastropub dining room in the back (where the windows bear an image of Abraham Lincoln), but I decided to eat at a table by the window in the atmospheric front bar.

Always alert for interesting beer possibilities, I ordered a pint of something new: Full Steam Pale Lager. The barman said it resembled Corona, and by crikey he was right.

A good refreshing beer, and I later found out it's quite new, brewed by Melbourne's own Thunder Road Brewing Company.

And so to my meal, which was none other than a beef burger served in an upmarket style.

The chips had that fancy venue flaw of being able to be quickly counted on sight (for the record there were 11, though they were chunky and rather good).

There was no skimping with the burger however - tasty, filling, with quality ingredients. There was even a slice of beetroot in there. How Aussie was that?

The Bill: $30.00
The Restaurant: Hotel Lincoln, 91 Cardigan St, Carlton; Ph: 03 9347 4666

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Unpublished 10: Flashpacker Central

I wrote this review of the new and impressive Sydney Harbour YHA hostel in March 2010, but as the publication later decided it wanted equal coverage of hostels across several states, it was shelved. 

Here it is now (with updated price details at the end) for your enjoyment...

It’s 5pm on a humid summer day in Sydney, the sort of day that has me dripping with sweat after even a gentle walk.

So I’m content to sit in the lounge of the new Sydney Harbour YHA hostel in The Rocks, high up above the harbour and not far from a certain famous bridge.

At this time of day there’s a relaxed vibe in the lounge, which receives lots of natural light from the large windows arrayed along each side. People are lazing about, either reading or dozing.

At a bank of computers at the far end, people are checking email, Facebooking or doing whatever one does online when on holiday far from home. Behind me, in a sizeable open plan kitchen, there are people preparing either a very late lunch or an early dinner.

It’s partly to do with the time of day - that curious pause between afternoon and evening - but this big open space is filled with the sort of relaxed sociability that you only find in a good hostel.

The place has been slowly filling for an hour or so now, and as people drift in I sense they’re feeling tired but satisfied after a big day of sightseeing, taking the opportunity to chill a little before tackling the night.

As I’ve often noticed in places like this, the clientele isn’t limited to youths. There are travellers of all ages here, from twentysomethings to people in their sixties. There is one thing they all have in common, however, despite their diverse ages and nationalities: they’re all flashpackers.

Flashpacking explained

Let me explain. “Flashpacking” popped into the travel lexicon a few years ago, neatly bridging a previous gap in the accommodation market that was then rapidly filled by a savvy new generation of hostel owners.

Basically, the flashpacker is someone who enjoys the sociability, informality and budget rates of a backpackers’ hostel, but is affluent enough to afford the comforts of a hotel room.

The result is a hostel that offers private rooms with neatly made beds and ensuite bathrooms, but retains the backpacker staples of communal lounges and kitchens. Such hostels still offer the traditional dorm accommodation, but it’s in smaller rooms of six or so beds, with a bathroom for each room.

It’s the best of both worlds, especially for travellers who are out all day and don’t care much about their rooms as long as they’re clean and comfortable. And there’s the option of a ready-made social life via interaction with other guests and the regular social events hosted by the hostel.  

Hostel above the harbour

A fine example of the flashpacker hostel is this new YHA facility in The Rocks, opened in November 2009. The location itself is remarkable, with the purpose-built hostel buildings suspended on pillars above an extensive archaeological dig.

The so-called “Big Dig” cleared away a century of change to reveal The Rocks as it was in the early 1900s - a crowded slum with tiny houses crammed into narrow laneways. Beneath the hostel are the clearly visible foundation stones of the tenement houses which once stood on the site.

To its credit, the hostel makes a major feature of the exposed dig, opening its fascinating patterns to view wherever possible. Even within the accommodation area, the central void drops away to ground level, revealing the remnants of the past.

I’ve been booked into a family room, a light, airy space with high ceilings, housing a double bed adorned with a striped duvet, a grey-brown carpet, two bunk beds, a table and two chairs.

The ensuite bathroom is neat, clean and contemporary. It could be a room in a modern budget hotel anywhere, though there’s a hint of hostel about the steel-framed beds and the lockers which can be secured with padlocks.

Environmental positives

What’s particularly impressive are the hostel’s environmentally-friendly innovations.

This is the first room I’ve ever stayed in (in hotel or hostel) that has a separate recycling bin, and attached to the window frame is a kind of fixed louvre that deflects the heat from direct sunshine while still allowing indirect natural light. On the table is a note explaining that the building’s air-conditioning only kicks in above a certain temperature, thus reducing carbon emissions.

There’s plenty to like about this place, including its outdoor areas. Off the lounge is a pleasant balcony with red chairs and great views of old buildings and the glass towers of Sydney's central business district beyond. To the east I can make out the outline of a giant passenger ship at berth near Circular Quay, and from the hostel’s rooftop you can see the Opera House.

That’s yet another attraction of the flashpacking life... it’s social, it’s affordable, and it often takes place in scenic locations that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg to stay in. What’s not to like?

The Sydney Harbour YHA is located at 110 Cumberland St, The Rocks. Dorm beds from $39 per person per night, double rooms from $133 per night, four-person family rooms from $165 per night. More details and bookings via +61 2 8272 0900 or

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of the YHA and Northern Rivers Tourism. 

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Streamlined Espresso, Modern Art

My brother John Richards has a theory: he thinks the reason Americans have such poor coffee is that their big influx of Italian migrants took place before the invention of the modern espresso machine; while Australia, receiving most of its Italians after World War II, benefited from their technological espresso expertise.

It's a beguiling theory, and one that's currently embodied in physical form at the Museo Italiano in Melbourne, Australia.

Rescued from obscurity and restored by Daniel di Paolo, a selection of fine postwar espresso machines have been impressing visitors for the past few weeks - and you have just a few days to catch the free exhibition before it closes.

It's a remarkable selection with a strongly modernist look - all that streamlined, high-octane, thrusting postwar energy packaged within a device that perfected the way to make good coffee.

Here are a few of the exhibits.

1. A Eureka machine from 1955, seemingly built to resemble a high-powered automobile of the time:

 2. A beautiful Gaggia machine from 1955. I'm fascinated by the streamlined snub-nosed form:

3. The splash guard of this 1952 Faema machine makes it look like a prop from one of the decade's science fiction movies:

4. Whoa... just beautiful. This 1950 La San Marco device was known as the Lollobrigida after the curvy actress Gina Lollobrigida:

5. Another car-like machine, a smooth Gaggia from 1957:

6. This streamlined and rare Rancilio dates from 1955:

7. The 1956 La Pavoni looks like it could double as a prop in an early Doctor Who episode:

8. And finally, one of the first Gaggia models ever made, from 1950. And I think you'll agree, it's a work of espresso-making art:

The espresso machine exhibition runs to Saturday 20 August 2011 at Museo Italiano, 199 Faraday St, Carlton. Open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Friday, 12-5pm Saturday. Admission is free.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Barcelona by Mouth

Earlier this week, I ate at Movida Acqui for the first time.

This Spanish restaurant in Melbourne, Australia is the latest outpost of chef Frank Camorra's popular series of Movida restaurants, the first of which is in an alleyway next to the wildly decorated Forum Theatre.

Movida Acqui has a more formal setting, being in the city's legal quarter; in fact, there's a fine view of the Supreme Court dome from its first floor premises.

I was soon enjoying some great tapas in the company of a bunch of travel-related people. A highlight was Movida's signature anchovy on a crouton, topped with smoked tomato sorbet. Other memorable items included the calamari sandwich, and artichoke heart filled with pigeon.

As good as the food was, we were there for a purpose - the launch of Camorra's new book (co-authored with Richard Cornish), Movida's Guide to Barcelona.

As the title suggests, it's a guide to the cuisine of the Spanish city which Camorra was born in. Leafing through its pages, what struck me at first was the attractiveness of the book itself. Though a paperback, it's bound in a sturdy bright orange cover with gatefolds at each end, one of which unfolds to reveal a multicoloured map of the city and its districts.

Given that it's filled with beautiful photos and longer articles, along with restaurant reviews, hotel reviews and practical information, Movida's Guide to Barcelona would function equally well as a coffee table book or a guide on the road. In fact, given the thicker-than-a-paperback heft and quality presentation, it's likely been produced with just that dual purpose in mind.

The longer pieces cover interesting topics which are a good read in themselves: 'A Brief History of Catalonia Through Food', for example, or a piece on the architectural highlights of Barcelona. 'The Essential Dishes of Barcelona' or 'Wine in Barcelona' would be handy reading in any city where Catalan cuisine is available.

The shorter reviews are sorted by district: El Raval, Poble-Sec, Poblenou, etc. Within these sections are short and snappy reviews of both restaurants (titled in blue text) and food shops (in red), with practical info such as opening hours and price ranges. There are some gems in here which are fun just to read about.

To give you an example, in the first few pages under El Raval I read about organic bakery Barcelona Reykjavik, the fading modernist Bar Muy Buenas, the century-old Ca L'Estevet, and the traditional eatery El Quim De La Boqueria in the lively La Boqueria Market ("Nobody raises an eyelid when a market porter sits down to a plate of tripe with a beer at 9am - he has been up for hours").

Movida's Guide to Barcelona is an entertaining read regardless of whether you're intending to travel to Barcelona. Mind you, if you are - and lucky you - this guide would be a great companion on a journey through its foodie possibilities. Camorra's final line in the book's introduction - "You have our permission to be swept away" - seems the perfect cue to plan a trip to Catalonia. 

Movida's Guide to Barcelona is published by Melbourne University Press, $32.99.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dublin: A Site With Bite

On my last full day in Dublin in May (hosted by Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland), I had some time to kill so I jumped aboard one of those "hop on, hop off" double decker tour buses you find in cities around the world.

I don't usually think much of these tours, compared with the close-up advantages of seeing a place on foot. However, but they can give a good orientation to a city and allow you to (briefly) see some areas you otherwise wouldn't get to.

The bonus that day was the driver of my particular bus, who had a witty turn of phrase that livened up the standard tour commentary.

He particularly delighted in telling us the nicknames that Dubliners have given the various statues and monuments dotted around the Irish capital. What makes them particularly funny is that they're not at all fond and whimsical. Instead, they're rapier-sharp phrases with an acid bite, usually couched in the pattern "The X with/in the Y".

For example, an underwater clock that once sat beneath the River Liffey was known as "The Chime in the Slime",  while a set of statuary featuring two shoppers near the Halfpenny Bridge is called "The Hags with the Bags". Not gentle, certainly, but funny all the same.

Here are a few other Dublin statues and their nicknames.

1. This statue of famous author James Joyce holding a cane in O'Connell Street seems universally known as "The Prick with the Stick":

(Image courtesy of Tourism Ireland, photographer Dublin Tourism)

2. Not far from Joyce is this soaring monument erected in 2003, the needle-like Spire of Dublin. This has attracted an enormous number of nicknames, including:
  • The Stiletto in the Ghetto
  • The Stiffy by the Liffey
  • The Skewer in the Sewer
  • The Spire in the Mire
  • The Erection in the Intersection
  • The Rod to God
(Image courtesy of Tourism Ireland, photographer Holger Leue 2005) 

3. This statue features Molly Malone, from the famous song which had her selling "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!" in Dublin's streets. As Molly is depicted wearing a particularly low-cut dress, it's attracted more than its fair share of ribald nicknames:
  • The Tart with the Cart
  • The Dish with the Fish
  • The Dolly with the Trolley
  • The Flirt in the Skirt
  • The Trollop with the Scallops
(Image courtesy of Tourism Ireland, photographer Holger Leue 2003)

4. This statue of Phil Lynott, frontman of Irish band Thin Lizzy in the 1970s and '80s, was erected in 2005. It hasn't attracted a lasting Dublin nickname yet, demonstrating that it's not that easy to form one that follows the formula and is also funny.

A commenter in an online forum on the topic suggested "The Ace with the Bass", though that's too positive to really fit the acid style.

(Image courtesy of Tourism Ireland, photographer Tony Pleavin)

5. Finally, this monument features Anna Livia, personification of the River Liffey. It was erected in O'Connell Street in 1988, but was removed in 2001 to make space for the Spire of Dublin. In early 2011 it was re-erected in a park next to the Liffey.

Given her watery setting, Anna Livia has attracted lots of irreverent nicknames. The best, however, must be the unforgettable "The Floozy in the Jacuzzi".

(Photographer Piolinfax, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

And that's all from me - The Jotter with the Totter. 

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