A side trip to Dresden

Dresden’s main square

It’s not very far from Berlin to Prague, so when we left Berlin on Sunday morning, we made a brief visit to Dresden, which was famously incendiary-bombed by the Allies in World War II. The city suffered under GDR rule, but has been rebuilt since the reunification.

This was a walking tour, and I’ll confess the details are a bit hazy since it was a while ago – and, you know, sick. However, I remember the bit about Augustus the Strong, who built much of the resplendent architecture in the city. Dresden is a spectacularly over-the-top Baroque confection, with lots of grandiloquent flourishes, in keeping with Augustus himself, who liked to host grand balls and such. He was a bit of a lad, fathering kids by a succession of mistresses. His great ambition, though, was to be a king – in which aim he succeeded, becoming King of Poland twice. He was quite happy to convert to Catholicism to reach that pinnacle, so there are two main churches in town – the Frauenkirche, in the central square, and the nearby Catholic cathedral.

By Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7937907

The Frauenkirche, in particular, was effectively demolished in the bombing. For years the residents prevented the authorities from removing the rubble and making it a carpark, while secretly collecting and numbering pieces for an eventual restoration. Which, of course, has happened. I think this achievement is a tribute to the tenacity of the people of Dresden.

You can see the restored building in the top photo of the post, the tallest one with the dome.

Here’s the story.

Part of Augustus’s palace

Beautifully decorated columns in arcadian style

And something a little more Celtic

As you can see from the photos, it was a damp and miserable day in Dresden, but we managed to avoid most of the showers by hiding indoors. As usual, the old town has cobblestones, and you can buy a sausage-in-a-bun from several stalls.

It’s a pretty town, that would have been much nicer in less inclement weather. But that’s Europe in October, I guess.

The porcelain parade of kings

A closer view

Most of the damage in the famous bombing of the city was caused by fire. Because of that, one notable survivor was the magnificent frieze of rulers, which was made of – porcelain, for which, of course, Dresden is famous.

The bombing itself has remained controversial. I’ll let you read about that yourself. In my opinion the Allies usually took care not to destroy places with little strategic value and lots of history, such as Heidelberg and the Rhine castles. War is nasty, whatever happens. Still, February, 1945 was very close to the final days of the war.

After lunch we drove on to Prague, passing along the banks of the Vltava River in the late afternoon. Tomorrow we would visit the castle.

The train to Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate taken through a wet window

We caught a train to take us from Warsaw to Berlin. We were in the first class carriages, but as Pete said, “If that’s first class I’d hate to be in economy”.  I can’t say it was a train journey to remember, just a track through Eastern Europe on an overcast and drizzly day, stopping now and then at a station. Once again, Tomas had suggested bringing along some food, since there might be a restaurant car – and then again, maybe there might not. As it happened, there was a a restaurant car, and the service did provide coffee and a cake. You could buy beer and wine, and food, but we were happy with our roll. It’s a long trip – most of a day, which I spent reading, or playing solitaire. But, since this trip was a series of unfortunate events, I wasn’t really surprised when something went wrong.

Tomas was at pains to tell us we shouldn’t get off the train at the first Berlin station (Berlin East). We would be going on to the central station. However, it seemed we’d arrived just after tropical storm Xavier (the remains of a hurricane that had hit the Caribbean a week or two ago) had cut a swathe through Berlin. We’d noticed the tops of trees whipping around in the wind, but it had been much worse. Trees were down, power lines were cut, and the normally reliable rail service in the city was in chaos. We couldn’t get to central. So we all hopped off the train and mooched around the railway station while Tomas organised a bus to take us to the hotel.

Storm damage from Xavier

If you’ve travelled much in Europe, you’ll know most hotel rooms are tiny compared with Australia. That wasn’t true in Eastern Europe, where I think the hotels are more recent. That’s especially true in Berlin, which was flattened in the war, and the Eastern parts stayed in a pretty parlous state until after reunification in the nineties. Our room was almost a suite, with enough room to host a party, and a splendiferous bathroom. The down side was that the cost of a shot of Scotch was in keeping with the surroundings – we bought a bottle at a supermarket for about the same money.

By this time we were both tired and ill from constant coughing and lack of sleep. The bark was so bad we could have hired out our services to a security firm. I was sneezing a lot, too. This was not flu – no aches and pains and fever, but even so, we had an eye on the long haul flight back to Oz in a few days’ time, so we asked to see a doctor. He arrived in due course, and prescribed a decongestant during the day and pills to reduce the coughing at night. So off we went to find an apothecary. In fact, we had to do that twice. The first time the assistant gave us smaller packages with not enough pills to cover the doses, and (of course) we didn’t notice until we sat down for coffee (which was at least good coffee). Back to the pharmacy. The pharmacist apologised, and said they didn’t have the items we needed, but she could have them in by 3pm.

Since it’s warm and dry in shopping malls, we stayed there for some time, and pinpointed a couple of places to buy lunch, and dinner. We noticed a big food item in Berlin was ‘sausage with curry sauce’. I’m partial to sausage, but not with curry sauce, so I asked if it came without the sauce. I was told it wasn’t a good idea, because the sausages weren’t very nice. Like the coffee in Slovakia, this was a cold war leftover. You hide the horrible sausage with curry sauce, and now it has become a Berlin staple. The waiter did tell us where we could get good sausage, though, at a nearby restaurant. So we had dinner there.

Sans Souci palace. Yes, just a single story

Once again we missed the city tour which had taken in Checkpoint Charlie, the remnants of the wall, and the Brandenburg gate, but the next day we passed all those places on the way to the leafy suburb of Potsdam, so at least we got to see them from the bus. We also got to see the extensive damage from storm Xavier, with trees down in many places. Well-heeled Berliners live in Potsdam and around the Wannsee. So did the aristocracy in the past, and there are a number of palaces. One of the best known is Frederik II’s  (the Great) bijou palace, Sans Souci. It’s quite small, but elaborately decorated. Frederik loved the place, and wanted to be buried there. That request was not honoured – until 1991, when his remains were interred in the crypt Frederik had prepared. (You can find the story here – it’s short) He was a fascinating man, a King of Prussia who came close to uniting Germany before Bismarck finished the job in 1870, a scholar and a soldier, and very likely gay. It’s well worth reading a little about him. Oh, by the way, no photos allowed inside the palace. But you probably worked that out. The tour was conducted with precision, with groups waiting until the previous group had left a room before being ushered through.

Some of the lovely gardens at Sans Souci

After our visit to the palace we went to  Potsdam, a nice little village with cobble stoned streets and old houses, where you could buy a sausage-in-a-bun with mustard. Then it was back to Berlin.

Potsdam High street

As the Holocaust featured so much for me on this tour, I have to say something about Berlin’s holocaust memorial. We drove past it in the bus, and Pete took the picture with his tablet. There’s no immediate recognition of what this thing is – it looks like a collection of packing cases, or shipping containers, arranged in lines over several acres – 4.7 of them, as it happens. “What’s that?” I asked.

The Holocaust memorial

“The Holocaust memorial,” the guide said. “Kids use it to jump around and take selfies.”

I was seriously unimpressed. To me, the place is unrecognisable as a memorial, certainly not from this angle. It seems I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed, as evidenced in this article in the New Yorker. The author says what I think, only better, and I urge you to read it. As I mentioned in my post on Auschwitz, people of my generation know about the Holocaust. The challenge is to make the next generations understand. This monument isn’t helping at all. Yes, kids take selfies there. The particularly disturbing aspect of those selfies is that the kids tag them as ‘jumping on dead Jews’ or similar. That means they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what those blocks represent.Not enough is being done to ensure they understand the reality.

Literally tons of overwhelming evidence – documents, designs for the gas chambers, eye witness accounts from such people as Eisenhower and Patton as well as survivors, photographs taken in secret, and photographs taken proudly by the SS – attests to the fact that the Nazi regime deliberately set about exterminating the Jews. Despite that, there are Holocaust deniers, people who suggest that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Allies to demonize the German people. Let me direct you to Snopes, where denial of the Holocaust is examined,

I’ll finish this post with one small observation. The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews, but they deliberately targeted many other groups, as listed in this article from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site.  If you require context to absorb those figures, in 1938 the population of Australia was about 6.8 million people. The Nazi regime deliberately murdered many more than the whole population of Australia.

And here, dear reader, I will leave behind talk of the Holocaust. From Berlin we travelled to Prague, and from there home. But before we left Europe there was one last unfortunate event. That’s for next time.

On to Warsaw

Warsaw Old Town (not my picture – bought from Deposit Photo

I don’t know if it was some sort of sign, but we had trouble finding somewhere to eat near Auschwitz. Tomas approached one place – a kind of food court affair with plenty of seating, and where he’d taken groups before – and was told they were closed. I don’t think she’d told the patrons sitting there. Whatever. We’d been warned beforehand that food was fairly hard to come by near Auschwitz, so we’d all taken Tomas’s advice and brought our own – in our case, cheese and meat rolls created (with the hotel’s permission) at breakfast. So we all piled back on the bus and ate as we headed for Warsaw.

Motorways are much the same everywhere. Tomas commented on the differences between villages in Poland with those in Slovakia, then put on the movie The Pianist.  I had not seen it – like Schindler’s List, it’s not something I would automatically watch.  I prefer light and frothy, like Star Wars. But this was about one man’s struggle to survive the Nazis in Warsaw, so, having just left Auschwitz, it was singularly appropriate. Roman Polanski drew on his own family’s experience in the war to create the movie, as he explains in this interview. It was compelling viewing, adding details about the ordinary folk the Nazis murdered.

We arrived at our hotel towards evening. There was a slight delay because the police had blocked off the road for security reasons, the Presidential Palace being located next door. The driver got out and had a word with the cops, who let us through.

That evening we had dinner at a Polish restaurant. The meal was forgettable, if generous, but the group of Polish entertainers made up for it. They performed a number of traditional regional dances, changing costumes several times. We were encouraged to join in with a few small contests, and some dancing. Pete and I passed on the dancing, but I won the shake-the-most-eggs-out-of-the-plastic-duck’s-bottom competition, and Pete won the loudest whip crack. I thought he’d do well at that since he’s expert at the tea towel flick. I have the bruises to prove it.

Next day we passed on the city tour, but we went for a walk to find an apothecary. It was in the old town, which had been rebuilt after the war. It wasn’t (in my opinion) as well done as the German towns. The painted-in cracks and ageing didn’t add anything.

taken from the hotel

It’s a clear indication of how unwell both of us felt that we didn’t take any pictures in Warsaw. Or if we did, we’ve lost them. Neither of us took a camera on our visit to the old city, although I’ve got one of the park outside the hotel. Although the sore throat had faded, we both had the cough that seems to be a prerequisite for the end of rivertrips.  On a cold and damp day we didn’t do the city tour, so I didn’t get to see the Warsaw ghetto memorial. However, Tomas, knowing my interest in the Holocaust, used his phone to record the guide’s explanation to the group (with her permission) so that I could listen. That was well beyond his duty and I was very grateful. The Jewish uprising in 1943 is a part of the movie The Pianist.

Next day we would be catching a train to Berlin while our driver would set off early to meet us there.


Auschwitz. The very word is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It equates to unspeakable horror, monstrous crimes. Nazi Germany was the focus of my studies at university, so I can claim to know a little more than many people about the Holocaust. But the history degree was many years ago. Before we set out on this trip, I read Thomas Keneally’s award winning book, Schindler’s Ark, and I watched Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie interpretation, Schindler’s List, when we got home. Schindler’s enamel works was in Cracow, one reason I’d wanted to see the place. The factory is still there, something of a tourist attraction, but our tour director, Tomas, told me the Poles don’t think much of Schindler, since he exploited Jewish labour to make a profit. Yet in Israel, he’s a hero. Certainly, the twelve hundred or so Jews whose lives he saved appreciated his efforts. By some weird coincidence, when we came home I found myself stumbling over articles and documentaries about the Holocaust, as if the Universe was reminding me that this was real, this happened to real people of my parents’ generation. Yes, not long ago at all.

On a grey, drizzly morning the bus took us the short distance from Cracow to Auschwitz. I could so easily turn this post into an essay on the Holocaust, but other people, far more qualified than I, have done that. I shall try to confine myself to a tourist’s impressions. Even so, it’s worth giving a little bit of context.

Auschwitz was huge. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. Auschwitz I was a Polish military base which the Germans initially used for Polish political prisoners, and that is the camp with the famous sign “arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the one I’m told you’re more likely to recognise – the picture at the head of the post.

When Himmler and the SS embarked on the ‘final solution’, the area within 20km of the old military base was cleared of all Poles, and their villages destroyed. There was a level of secrecy in the whole operation. The Germans didn’t want the Jews to know what was happening, or the local civilian population, or, indeed, the Allies. Auschwitz was run like a factory, with a production line. The start of that production line was the first place we visited; Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau.

If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you’ve seen this portal, an entrance for the trains of cattle cars carrying the Jews to their fate.  Black and white photographs, taken by the Germans at the time, have been placed on boards with explanations. When those still living exited the cattle cars, they were sorted; women and children on the left, men on the right. From there, everyone was inspected, and the old, sick, and infirm (anybody who couldn’t work) were added to the left-hand column, and the fit and childless women sent to the right. Our guide stressed that these people had no idea what was happening, and in fact believed after the ordeals of the ghettos and the cattle trucks, they’d come to a better place. Before they were sent away they’d been told to pack their bags and label them carefully so they could collect them when they arrived. Some Hungarian Jews actually bought one-way tickets to Auschwitz, believing they were going to set up new businesses.

The people in the right-hand column were marched off to the barracks.

The people in the left-hand column were marched off to the gas chambers.

After the sorting

The left-hand column

Let’s follow the left-hand column – which would consist of around ninety percent of the group just processed. The guards continued with the subterfuge, telling the people they would need to shower. They gave them soap, told them to leave their clothes in neat piles. There were even shower heads in the gas chambers – but no plumbing. The people were killed with a cyanide based poison, Zyklon B. When the gas had done its work, Jewish special prisoners (called Sonderkommando) came in to shave hair from the bodies, remove any gold in their mouths, dispose of the remains, then clean out the chamber ready for the next lot.

Birkenau was a death camp. The gas chambers and crematoriums, and the wooden barracks, were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, but they ran out of time to destroy everything before the Russians arrived. A few of the horrible barracks have been rebuilt to show visitors how the prisoners lived. Our guide showed us inside one, explaining that six to eight people slept in each bunk, across from side to side. Although they were expected to do hard physical labour, they were given starvation rations. When they could no longer work, they were sent to the gas chambers. A lucky few had skills the Germans prized, like the women who made fashion garments for the officers’ wives. This story is particularly confronting because our guide told us that when Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was transferred, his wife didn’t want to go. She lived a life of luxury next to that hell-hole camp.

Bunk beds in a Birkenau barracks

So how did Birkenau affect me? The photographs were the thing. Look at the people, the women and their kids. They look tired, perhaps a little apprehensive, but not frightened. They’d swallowed the con, and in a couple of hours, they would be dead. Their hair would be cut off, any gold in their teeth broken out. Everything of value had been stolen from them, including any last vestige of dignity, then they were burned. In the Spring of 1944 the SS killed as many as 6,000 people at Birkenau every day. The air was thick with ash, drifting down like snow.

When I watched the scene in Schindler’s List where the 300 women who were supposed to have been sent to Czechoslovakia are driven through that dreadful archway into Birkenau I felt a shiver of recognition. Our guide told us that no one – not one person – escaped from Auschwitz. Some escaped from work parties, but no one from the camps. Yet Schindler got those women out of there. He negotiated their release, paid for them. He was offered a different 300, better able to work, but he refused. The SS put his Schindlerfrauen into cattle cars and sent them back out that archway to Schindler at his new factory in Czechoslovakia.

We all climbed back onto our bus in the now-crowded car park and were driven the short distance to Auschwitz I, where we saw the famous sign erected at every concentration camp; arbeit macht frei – work makes you free. It’s not the original. The sign has been stolen, more than once. At first the camp is like any other military establishment – neat rows of brick buildings surrounded by grass and trees, quite pleasant, really – but then you notice the electrified fences with regularly-spaced sentry boxes. We were taken inside several of the buildings to see how the prisoners lived, and hear the stories about the morning roll-calls. If someone died while on a work detail or overnight, his colleagues had to bring the corpse out to the roll-call, otherwise that person was listed as an escapee, and ten people from the barracks were killed. Our guide took us to block 11, where any prisoner raising the ire of a guard was incarcerated, never to return. It was here in the cellars that Zyklon B was tested on people for the first time.

glasses, brushes, shoes

Our visit to Auschwitz I is something of a blur. Our group of sixteen was dwarfed by much larger groups, all pushing to see the same exhibits in a given time. We shuffled along through cramped, crowded corridors, never given time to look at things, to pause and reflect. One corridor had glassed-in exhibits of piles of reading glasses, boots and shoes, and human hair. Another had documents, in German and Polish, some with the orders to carry out killings or move prisoners, others more poignant – like the one-way tickets to Auschwitz. But never time to look and consider. People pressed behind, or tried to push past if there was room.

People streaming across to Birkenau

Pushing their way into the infamous block 11


Thousands of people must have been at Auschwitz when we were there, busloads of them. Many were young, students in their mid-teens no doubt taken on a school excursion. I was told selfie-sticks have been banned after smiling pictures of teenagers appeared on the net – ‘me at Auschwitz’. One gas chamber did remain intact. You might have seen images on the net, complete with scratches at about fingernail height. But they’re not fingernail scratches. That gas chamber was a temporary one, not blown up because it was used for storage and later as an air raid shelter, so the marks have a much more prosaic origin.

I was frankly disappointed in how the visitors were handled. Perhaps more buildings could be opened to the public, giving guides choices in where to go, instead of squeezing everyone into the same space with hardly enough time to shuffle past. Maybe visits could be timed for a certain number of people. One can’t help but feel it’s a money-making concern these days.

I wonder how much those kids, whose great grandparents were of World War II vintage, would have made out of the visit. Like those black and white photographs, the reality of the Holocaust is fading into the past. I suppose that’s inevitable. Time marches on. But I, for one, hope it’s never forgotten. I know that genocide still goes on. The killing fields in Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and right now the Rohyngya in Burma. Terrible as they all are, what the Nazis did is worse because the SS set up a factory process to murder people after first exploiting them for everything they had. It was systematic and absolutely ruthless, designed to wipe Jews from the face of the earth.

Lately I’ve seen growing signs of anti-semitism. A post appeared on Facebook of a car in the US with a sticker on the bumper proclaiming ‘proud anti-semite’.  Here’s the story. I read another story of a sixth-grade Jewish child (in the US) finding a sticky note on her locker with the words ‘Jews will burn’. Here’s the story. I know anti-semitism is old – two thousand years old. It was why Hitler found it so easy to blame the Jews in Germany, why the civilian populations in Eastern Europe were not averse to the ghettos and such. It needs to stop. Visits by young people to places like Auschwitz will help – if it is supported by proper education about what it is they’re looking at. In the US and Australia, young people need to know what the swastika stands for.

Young people MUST learn history. If they don’t, somewhere, sometime, the Holocaust is going to happen again.

Further reading and sources:

And one more factoid I didn’t know – the famous tattooed number was only ever used at Auschwitz, only on people who were in that right-hand column, and only towards the end of the war (1944), when so many people were being pushed through the camps.

If you’re interested in why the Germans wanted human hair, look here

And a few more photos … because

A map of Aushwitz II (Birkenau). The gas chambers and crematoriums are marked ‘E’. The rows to the right of the railway lines are barracks. The clear area on the right was marked for expansion. To make the picture larger right click on it, select ‘view image’, then us ctrl+ to expand.

Describing roll call

The wire was electrified. Some people used it as a means of suicide

Inside the wire are rows of chimneys. Each chimney marks the site of a barracks


Off to Eastern Europe

Leaving Budapest

The last night of our Amsterdam to Budapest cruise was awful. My throat felt like I’d swallowed a bucketful of rusty razor blades. Breathing hurt, swallowing was excruciating and sleeping was impossible. We had our bags packed and standing outside the door, ready to be on our way for the Eastern European leg of our tour, but frankly, I would just as soon have gone home. But that’s easier said than done – flights, hotels etc. Apart from that, I didn’t fancy the prospect of a long-haul flight feeling the way I did. I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was going to be a big bus with only sixteen passengers so we could spread out, and all but two of our fellow travellers had already been subjected to the lurgy doing the rounds on the ship. A few of them still had vestiges. Besides, what I had was a throat infection, not a virus. If nobody tried kissing me they should be fine.

Our new tour director, Tomas, was informed of my situation and arranged for a doctor to call on me when we reached out hotel in Cracow. With something to look forward to, I did my best to enjoy the drive.

The town square where we stopped for lunch

On the way through the Hungarian countryside, Tomas explained a few things about being on this side of what used to be the Iron Curtain. One of the most important issues for us was that everybody became so accustomed to drinking crappy coffee that they persuaded themselves they liked it, and that was how it came. When we stopped for lunch in a small town, he was proved right. Being a Sunday, not much was open, but we snared a couple of take-away sandwiches in the equivalent of a 711, and then bought coffee at an ice cream shop (as you do). We opted for a latte, and Tomas was absolutely right. It was horrible.

Hang-gliders like confetti in the sky

The roads were packed on what we were told everyone assumed was probably going to be the last sunny weekend before Autumn took hold. The skies were packed, too. This is just a small number of the hang gliders floating around up there in this area. It’s a national forest, and bears and wolves live in there. We also passed by Orava castle, perched on a rock above the river of the same name. It looks a bit like Bran castle (Dracula’s castle) but that’s in Romania.

Orava castle

Eventually we made it through the thick traffic to our hotel in Cracow, across the road from the Vistula River, next to the castle and not very far at all from the Old City (as we would soon discover).

We passed on the city orientation tour, more interested in the arrival of the doctor. She was escorted up to our room, a pleasant young woman who spoke good English. We still had to resort to a bit of body language every now and then, but there was no doubt she understood. My lungs were clear (good) my throat was inflamed. She wrote out a note for me, explaining how I was to take the medication she would prescribe. Then on a second sheet she wrote a prescription for the pharmacist, and then she wrote out the bill for us to give to the travel insurance people. We paid her in cash. The visit cost around $60AU, which we thought was pretty reasonable for a house call on a Sunday evening. She said yes, we could fill the prescription tonight, provided we made it to the pharmacy before 8pm, ask at the desk for the closest shop.

It was around 7:30, so after she’d gone, we grabbed our coats and headed for the lift. Pete asked if I had the script. “Of course,” I said, patting myself down. Shit. I didn’t have the script.

We went back to the room. I’d had in my hand, I was sure. We found the sheet of instructions and the bill. No script. We looked everywhere, but it had vanished, evaporated into thin air. You’ll have to imagine how we felt. We were both sure (weren’t we?) that the script had been here when the doctor left. But maybe not. We didn’t have too many options. We went down to the desk and asked the clerk to ring the doctor, who insisted she’d left the script on the table. The clerk suggested one of the staff come up with us to take another look. That was fine by us – a fresh set of eyes. As it happened, Pete sat on the bed and bent to look under it – when a piece of paper caught his eye, shyly trying to hide behind the leg of the frame where you put your luggage.

Everybody sighed with relief, the staff member gave us a map with directions to the nearest pharmacy (look for a green cross) and we were off. It was in the old town, so think crooked streets and cobblestones, but we made it before closing, and joined our fellow travellers for dinner.

I’d love to say I got some sleep, but while an antibiotic will do the job, it isn’t a silver bullet, so I endured another uncomfortable night. We were up late and missed the walking tour of the castle and the old city in the morning. Pete went on the tour of the salt mine, though. The salt deposit reaches down to 327 meters and has been mined since the thirteenth century. Here’s the website. But the Wikipedia entry might actually tell you more. Pete said it was great, and I was sorry to have missed it.

You can dine down there – even stay

This gives you an idea of the scale of the place

It’s all carved out of the rock salt

But that’s life. My throat was starting to feel better and tomorrow we were off to Warsaw. Via Auschwitz.

Rottnest – Perth’s holiday isle

Perth city from Rottnest

You can see Rottnest Island from Fremantle – in fact, from most of the beaches from Freo to Hillarys. It’s a low ridge just on the horizon. The photo above shows the view looking the other way. When I was a kid those towers in the CBD weren’t quite so prominent, but I expect you could have seen them if you looked.

Just one of the beautiful beaches

Here’s another one, just around from the main pier where the ferries berth

Rottnest is Perth’s holiday island, popular for families, weekends, ‘schoolies’ celebrations and no excuse, really. Private boats stream over there on a fine weekend to enjoy the delights of the local pub (the Quokka Arms), maybe pitch a tent in the camping grounds, or hire one of the cottages dotted around a few of the bays. Or hundreds come for a day trip, zipping over on a twenty-five-minute ride on one of the several ferries.

Bathurst lighthouse. The island has two.

Going down from the lighthouse

The Lodge. We stayed in the apartment closest to the left

Beth and I headed over there for a couple of nights to savour the calm. We stayed in what had been (I’d guess) an officer’s apartment– kitchen, lounge, two bedrooms and a bathroom – at the Lodge holiday resort. It’s heritage accommodation, so a long way from 5-star, but it was more than adequate for our needs. The imperfections (like creaking floorboards) added to the charm.

The only cars on the island are maintenance vehicles, so everybody else uses shank’s pony, or they hire a bike. It’s actually quite amusing watching the pudgy middle-aged folks throwing a leg over a bike for the first time in twenty years and more. It’s not a very big island, a chunk of limestone jutting out of a reef that follows the WA coastline, so it’s not what you’d call mountainous. But the wind can blow hard, and riding up those ancient dunes isn’t as easy as it looks. Believe me, I know (past experience). Walkers have to be careful, too. It’s wise to step off the road when confronted by a gaggle of inexperienced cyclists hurtling down a slope toward you. The island is only 11km long, so it’s not a huge walk/bike ride for the fit folks. But there are hop on/hop off buses for the rest of us, and the ferry companies offer a few boat cruises for snorkeling and wildlife viewing.

A quokka

Rottnest is known for its crystal-clear water, great snorkelling, laid-back lifestyle and quokkas. Quokkas are what gave the island its name. In 1696 William Vlamingh, during his search for the missing VOC vessel, Ridderschap van Holland, landed here and came across these cute little critters. To his eyes they looked more like large rats than anything else, so he named the island Rott Nest. Rat’s nest. In fact, quokkas are little marsupials, so not at all related to rodents. I was interested to discover, on a visit to the island’s museum, that when Vlamingh visited there would have been far fewer quokkas than there are now. The island was uninhabited – the aboriginal people haven’t lived there for thousands of years – and the vegetation consisted of thick-trunked low scrub with a heavy canopy. This provided good cover, but because of the heavy shade, the amount of plants the animals grazed on was limited. When Europeans arrived that all changed. The trees were cut down for fuel and to clear land for agriculture, and the quokka population thrived. Although conservation bodies list the species as ‘vulnerable’ that’s because there are only two populations – one in the southwest of WA, and the other here on Rottnest. They’re doing just fine here, thank you very much. But if something like the terrible disease that decimated Tasmanian Devil populations in Tasmania happened here on Rottnest, it could have a devastating effect. Needless to say, Quokkas are protected by law. However, they’re not welcome everywhere. They are nocturnal, and there are lots around the tiny township in the early hours of the morning and late afternoon, but measures have been taken to stop them entering the shops. Quokkas don’t read very well, but the signs are clear enough. It seems to work.

Taken on our sunset walk

The full moon rises in the East as the sun sets in the West (that’s afterglow on the high clouds)

Rottnest is a beautiful place. I stayed there several times in my youth and it was fun to observe the changes that have been made since my last visit. The dreadful old bungalows with their tatty, pest-ridden thatched roofs have all been consigned to history’s scrap pile. Small, discrete settlements have appeared in a few other places around the coast to accommodate the increased tourist numbers.

The governor’s residence

The summer house (now the pub)

The parade ground at Kingstown Barracks. These days Kingstown Barracks is hostel style accommodation – although its seems the Governor’s Circle area (presumably for the base big wigs) is to be done up for the more well-heeled tourist.

The island also has a history. Its governor had a residence built near one of the salt lakes in the interior. It’s easy to pick – just look for the highly inappropriate palm trees. What is it with Europeans and palm trees? The governor also built a summer holiday house near the beach. These days, we call that the pub. The military built a base here in the thirties to man a number of artillery pieces set on Oliver Hill, one of the island’s high points. They were installed to protect the port of Fremantle from approaching enemy ships. Tourists can visit the artillery installation via Rottnest’s only train (or you can ride your bike – it’s steep). It’s well worth a visit, although for me that’s a memory from the past. You can see pictures of Oliver Hill here.

The settlement

The central point for Rottnest tourists is the Settlement – the distinctive ochre-painted buildings which comprise the shopping centre, with the Lodge a short dawdle away. Over the years the Settlement has expanded, but the essence is unchanged. Large trees overhang a mall area where bikes should not be ridden. The bakery was always famous, and the first port of call on a day trip. It’s larger now, with more offerings, and probably a different baker. The same for the general store, which used to stock bare essentials. Everything costs that little bit more because it has to be imported from Fremantle, but the range rivals anything you’ll see in a mainland supermarket, and they sell liquor. As it happens, we’d brought our own wine, but we stocked up on nibbles.

Quokkas aren’t the only animals on Rottnest. It used to be part of the mainland and a few species have survived in this harsh, dry climate. I noticed a number of pink and grey galahs, but no other parrots, and several small bird species. There is one snake, the dugite, which is right up there with the poison. But like most snakes, make some noise and they’ll run and hide.

Dugite – taken with a telephoto

Rottnest has 2 peacocks. No ladies. Here’s the story.

He showed off just for me.

Beth and I walked many kilometres, avoided quite a few bikes, met a few quokkas, drank some excellent wine and ate some good food. We also learned about Rottnest’s darker side. We visited the small (white) cemetery on Rottnest, with its markers, some still legible, others eroded by time and weather.  Many were children. Life was harsh in those days.

The (white) cemetery

One of the headstones at sundown

But while life was harsh for the Europeans, it was much harder for the aboriginal prisoners brought here in the late nineteenth century. The Lodge where we stayed was built as a prison. In the museum we watched part of a documentary about Rottnest as a prison, and recalling what was said, the prisoners were not necessarily native to the Perth area (the Noongar). Some were brought from the deserts in the North, sentenced in some cases for the crime of killing a sheep. These people didn’t understand white man’s law, and some had very likely never seen the sea. They were brought to Rottnest in neck chains. This site tells the story.

I don’t want to go into details, that’s not what this blog is about. Suffice to say hundreds of aboriginal men died on Rottnest. In time the prison was closed, the cells and warder accommodation were turned into holiday rentals, and the island became a holiday playground. When I was young we knew aboriginal people had been brought here, that it had been a boys’ reformatory, and an internment camp for Italians in WW2, but it wasn’t important, not something you thought about.

Not long before I left Perth in 1996 I remember talk of human bones being found on Rottnest. Naturally, that caused a stir, and people went looking for more. And found them. The  remains of hundreds of aboriginal men were buried in an area being used as a camping ground for holiday makers. Today, the aboriginal burial ground is at least  marked, although the individual graves are not, and people are asked to respect the area (which is no longer a camping ground). Moves are underway to develop the site into a historical feature which people can visit.

Acknowledgement of the 370+ aboriginal men buried in unmarked graves

The burial ground, not far from where the men were imprisoned in the Lodge

There was a stunning piece of artwork in the museum – I regret not taking a picture, but I guess that’s a copyright issue, anyway. It showed a curved surface. Across the top of the curve were a bunch of smiling white people – men, women, and children – waving, looking happy, against a blue sky. Under the curve against a black background was a thick scattering of simple images of people curled in a foetal position.

One last observation. Aboriginal people lived on Rottnest thousands of years ago, before the sea levels rose and cut it off from the mainland. I didn’t know that. This rather good article tells you a little more about the aboriginal connection with Rottnest and its Noongar name, Wadjemup. I found a number of different meanings for the aboriginal word, some claiming it has something to do with the buried people – but that happened comparatively recently, and I think ‘place across the water’ is more plausible. Here’s a reference. As I said in the beginning of this post, Rottnest is visible from the mainland, a ‘place across the water’.

A couple of ducks enjoying the beach

Australian Pacific black ducks splashing in the shallows

I loved the couple of days we spent on the island. It’s sad that it has become an expensive place to stay, out of the reach of ordinary folk. It wasn’t like that when I was young. If you go, make sure you visit the museum, a little white building near the Settlement. It will tell you a few things you didn’t know about the island’s flora and fauna – and its human inhabitants.


Perth – funky bars and street art

Every nineteenth (or earlier) century city has lanes. There had to be room for the night carts, delivery vehicles and so forth. They were often dirty, dingy, places where homeless people dossed down for the night, served as outdoor toilets and were generally unsavoury places to be – especially when night fell.

Melbourne was, I think, the first Australian city to turn its laneways into a cultural experience. Other cities followed suit, and so has Perth. People are living in the city now, so there’s a vibrancy in town which wasn’t around when I lived there. Funky little bars have sprung up in unused spaces (not just lanes). The Aviary is one such, very noisy and filled with youngish people, even at 4pm on a Thursday.

A lot of these places have polished concrete floors and use whatever’s around for seating – metal stools, benches, packing crates – all of which do nothing for this old lady’s back, or for her throat as she shouts to make herself heard over the music and the din of conversation. They offer nibbles-type food – a charcuterie plate, or tapas to eat with your drink before you go out for dinner, or a movie.

But some of the bars are quirky and interesting. One such is Wolf Lane. I’ll let the website do the talking. It’s a fun venue.

Wolf Lane bar interior

The other aspect of the lanes thing is street art. It’s everywhere, livening up blank walls and even imparting a bit of history, illustrating what that area used to be about.

This particular lane is behind a block of apartments that used to be a bank where I worked. It didn’t look like this then.

You don’t need to be the sharpest scissors in the drawer to work out what they used to make in Prince Lane. I reckon I made a few dresses using that pattern myself, in the late ’60’s.

They’re not all bars. This place is the Secret Garden Cafe in the heart of Wolf Lane.

The differences in street art design is striking – anything from a kid directing robots to native animals to Mary Poppins to funky weird stuff. And all these were in quite a small geographic area.

The area is still functional – but at least the bins have a pretty setting

It IS Wolf Lane, after all.

This piece of art was over in Northbridge, livening up an otherwise ugly, utilitarian concrete block

This one was in the inner city, using a drab brick wall as a canvas

I loved it all. It’s vibrant, welcoming and generally fun. And this is just in the Perth CBD. That’s just scratching the surface. There’s Subiaco, South Perth, Fremantle, Northbridge, Leederville and a heap of other suburban restaurant-bar hubs. Here’s a list to try.

Perth’s a great place to visit. Put it on your bucket list. If you need ideas of what to visit, just let me know.

Perth – a mix of the old and the new

It’s fascinating wandering around a city you knew very well twenty years ago. Life goes on and that snapshot in your head is a time capsule. Parts are still accurate, other aspects have changed. Beth and I strolled around the CBD in Perth, sometimes deliberately looking for items I remembered (eg the shish kebab – explained further down), sometimes it was a chance encounter.

The best way to cover some of the visit is to annotate photographs. Please join me as I revisit the past. But before I do, let me show you what the City of Perth has provided to keep women safer – a special parking area, near the lifts and the lights. I think it’s wonderful.

We’ll start off with the convict-built old town hall, set off against one of the towers. They’re starting to put up the Christmas decorations. It has been cleaned and repaired.

Likewise the old Treasury building which is now an hotel

London Court is still there, nestled between two office blocks

This is what it looks like inside – unchanged

A church in the heart of the CBD (there’s another one, too) on St George’s Tce

The Weld Club is a couple of streets closer to the river, in a leafier part of town

I wondered if Paul Ritter’s monument to the mining industry (affectionately known as the shish kebab) was still there. Yes, it is.

This sculpture of kangaroos livens up what used to be (still is) a line of bus stops on St G’s T near the corner of Barrack St and adjacent to Supreme Court Gardens. They still use the old court for criminal trials, although there’s a new building over the road in the Terrace. And the gardens are lovely, leading down to the river precincts.

Speaking of the river preceinct, the river has been made more accessible to the city with the new Elizabeth Quay development. I think it’s wonderful.

This is the old Post Office, near the railway station. I used to work there, but the building has been sold off (as have all the others in the capital cities) and is now retail space. But it has been preserved.

This is a view of the PO’s central sky light

And this is the walkway along the front of the building

The railway line used to divide Northbridge from the CBD, but now the railway has been put underground Northbridge with its museums and nightlife is much more accessible. This is the Brass Monkey pub which has been there for years. It seems the old museum is getting a serious facelift,too, but the architects have been careful to incorporate the old facades in the development.

Beth and I walked back across the land where the railway used to be. Gardens and devlopments are happening, and once again, the old buildings are being included. This used to be a grubby, rather industrial part of Wellington St that flanked the railway.

That’s just a snapshot of Perth. I loved it, loved that they haven’t destroyed the city’s laid-back character, and in fact made it more accessible to people. One bank where I used to work is now a block of apartments, and people are living in town. When I was a kid the last person out of the CBD at quarter past five turned off the lights until the next morning. That’s all changed.

I’ll go into that a bit more in my next post.

Australia from 35,000ft

The first pattern to catch my eye. So like and aboriginal painting

Yes, I know I’m not finished with Europe yet. I’ll get back to it soon. But I’m just back from a week in Perth, catching up with old, old friends and a brief visit with relos, and I want to share a few posts about that, first. For a start it was much better fun, and the weather was great.

Perth really is my “home town”. I wasn’t born there but I spent much of my life there – all my education, all my formative years. I was supposed to go back for a fiftieth high school reunion three weeks ago, but I was ill, so I couldn’t make the trip. But a few weeks to recuperate from my European sore throat and sniffle saw me back to my sparkling best. Although I missed the reunion, I got to catch up with the most important people who would have been there – friends from my primary school days – one I hadn’t seen for close on fifty years, and her sister, who was my best friend at primary school. I stayed with my BFF and her family and we went off to places I’d remembered to see the changes in the twenty years since I moved Over East. I’ll talk about that in later posts.

For now I want to share the marvellous photos I took of outback Australia as the plane flew from Perth to Brisbane. They’re not bad, but they ought to be much better. Sometimes we older ladies can be a bit… um… stupid. I was playing Solitaire on my tablet, trying very hard to avoid striking up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. Yeah, I know. But I’m an introvert and chatting with strangers doesn’t come easily. This woman and her husband were not, I guessed, frequent air travellers. She’d brought up the flight info screen that show you where you are, air speed, height, outside temperature etc, and she spent a lot of time reading these details out to her husband who (of course) had a similar screen.

“Ooooh look, Darl. We’re nearly at Kalgoorlie.”

“That must be South Australia now. About a third of the way.”

“Gosh, minus fifty outside.”

You get the idea. Anyway, I glanced out the window and saw a nice pattern outside, so I activated the tablet’s camera, pressed the device up to the window and took a photo. I did that several times, often requiring a fair bit of contortion in the seat so as not to lean on the woman beside me. Bear in mind that I had my camera bag, containing my Canon 70D with 18-200mm zoom lens, set up to take photos in raw format, on the floor at my feet. It remained there for the entire flight.

You may kick me now.

So… here are the photos. I suppose they’re not too bad.

That’s space at the top, and the edge of Australia where the cliffs of the bight give way to the beach

Sand ridges

Don’t know the name of the river

The Flinders Ranges

More Flinders Ranges

Just taken off over Moreton Bay Brisbane, heading North

Over Brisbane and a canal suburb

Nearly home. Inskip Point and the edge of Fraser Island.

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 2

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 3

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 4. And there’s a road

This is just like a painting

More Flinders Ranges

That might actually be water in the salt lake

Just like the Mandelbrot set

A river, and even some human straight lines


Vienna and Budapest

Schoenbrunn Palace

You might be wondering why I’m including two major cities in one post. The fact is, I didn’t get to see much of either of them. I developed a sore throat that interrupted my sleep during the voyage to Vienna. With an eye on the bus trip through Eastern Europe, starting in three days’ time, I worked on getting better by staying on the ship. Pete went on the tour to Schoenbrunn Palace (no photos allowed), but neither of us attended the concert, which by all reports, was very good.

Pete was very interested in the Empress Maria Therese (she of Schoenbrunn Palace) and bought a book for us to look at. It’s rare to find powerful females in history and this one (unlike Elizabeth 1 of England) was a fecund mother as well as a ruler. I suppose you could compare her to Queen Victoria. The last of the Habsburgs, she managed to fend off all the boys who tried to take her dominions.

All is not lost, though. You can read the Vienna blog from the 2015 tour for more insights into the capital of Austria.

Then it was off to Budapest, last port of the river trip. I was feeling a bit better and the weather was fine, so I thought joining the bus tour of the city might be okay. Wrong. Outside the bus, walking around in the fresh air, I was pretty good. But on the air-conditioned bus it was all I could do to control the coughing fits with throat lozenges.

That said, it was nice to walk around the Imperial areas of Buda, overlooking the river and Pest.

The Danube flows through Budapest


Our guide told us a wonderful story about the Soviet statuary, which is always rather ugly. The statue of freedom, high on the hill in Buda, is a case in point (see pic above). The Hungarians have come to terms with that one, acknowledging it’s a part of their history. But many of the Soviet era monuments were taken down. They weren’t destroyed, though. They have been placed into Memento Park, and visitors can go and see them in all their grotesque glory. It’s kind of like a cemetery for statues. (HaHa).

Monument to those who died in the independence wars

On Buda Hill our guide showed us a statue to the soldiers killed in the independence wars against the Habsburgs, commemorating the bravery of soldiers who fought in battles they lost.

On the drive through the city we passed the Jewish temple – the Dohany Street synagogue. It’s a magnificent building with Moorish influences, but it has a darker history, in keeping with the Holocaust elements of our trip to Europe. Rather than try to explain myself, this is a quote from the article about the building in Wikipedia.

“In 1944, the Dohány Street Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto for the city Jews and served as shelter for many hundreds. Over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue.

It is not customary to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, and the establishment of the 3,000 m2 cemetery was only the result of historical circumstances. In 1944, as a part of the Eichmann-plan, 70,000 Jews were relocated to the Ghetto of Pest. Until January 18, 1945, when the Russians liberated the ghetto, around 8,000 to 10,000 people had died, although, one part of the deceased were transferred to the Kozma Street Cemetery, but 2,000 people were buried in the makeshift cemetery. In memory of those who had died, there is a memorial by the sculptor, Imre Varga, depicting a weeping willow with the names and tattoo numbers of the dead and disappeared just behind the Synagogue, in the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park.”

Many of the Hungarian Jews were taken to Auschwitz – but that’s a story for another day.

Chiefs of the tribes

We made a brief stop at Hero Square to admire the tribute to the founders of the nation. I must say it does amuse me how the leaders of these tribes, who were without a doubt blood-thirsty warriors, ended up becoming saints after they converted to Christianity. St Stephen (Stephen 1) is one such. But his comrades in arms weren’t really convinced. After the king died, they stuffed his bishop into a barrel and threw it down the mountain in Budapest, thereby killing him. The place is now known as Gellert Hill.

Anyway, the monuments to the chieftains seems to be popular with the local lads, who climb up there to be photographed with one or other of the horsemen.

That evening my throat was on fire, and I didn’t go on deck to see Budapest by night. Pete did, though, and took some pretty reasonable photos with his trusty tablet. This trip showed us a few features of Budapest we didn’t see last time. That’s (of course) a trade-off. We drove past the opera house, but didn’t see inside. That’s all in the previous trip blog.

The following morning we would disembark and start the next phase of our tour, into Eastern Europe.