Trip to Amsterdam

Last weekend we have been visiting a friend in Amsterdam. It was my first visit to the city and in fact to the Netherlands, and it was a pleasant and interesting stay.

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I’ve been surprised by how many buildings in the city centre lost their alignment, due to the instability of the soil underneath. I find amazing how the houses stay habitable and still look pretty and well-kept.

The weather was hot and dry, as in many places in Europe and around the world, and the vegetation was suffering a lot. The contrast with the greenhouses and gardens of the Hortus Botanicus was striking.

I even found time to sketch a bit, and chose three different windows from the houses around the square where we were stopping for a drink.

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I’d like to come back to visit more landmarks and get a better picture of everyday life. If any of you have been to Amsterdam and surroundings and wish to share impressions and tips, I’d be very grateful!

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The migration route

This weekend I have been at FOSDEM in Brussels, to meet the usual immense crowd of open source software enthusiasts:

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… and to help with the management of the Geospatial devroom together with Johan Van de Vauw. I’ll write more about this in another post, because this one is dedicated to the way to and back from Brussels. The way back, especially, that took me and my friends back to Italy.

As I lived in Italy, my geeky friends and I used to rent a van and drive all the way up to FOSDEM. I taught them the route that my family travelled since I can remember, as I moved from Belgium to Italy at two years old. It felt like teaching them my migration route, and passing on our knowledge of the good rest spots, cheapest petrol stations and so on. I have moved to Germany four years ago and didn’t have the chance to travel that route anymore, therefore it was a special joy to drive back with my friends once again. I took pictures like mad, like a tourist, and I was moved to tears when I heard my friends talking about the places along the way with more confidence than myself.

We left FOSDEM on Sunday evening, headed south. We had dinner in Belgium and continued towards Luxembourg, surrounded by snow. Belgium’s highways are lit, an exception in Europe. We stopped at a hotel in Luxembourg for the night.

The next morning we were greeted by sun and cold.

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We quickly drove through tiny Luxembourg and entered France, following first the directions to Metz and Thionville, passing alongside the “highway cathedral”, the Église Saint-Joseph et Saint-Louis, then following the signs for Strasbourg:

Approaching Strasbourg there was snow again. We passed under the wildlife bridge (apparently used only by hikers, instead of deer and other large mammals), and through forests, white with frozen snow.

We didn’t drive through Strasbourg, and took the road for Karlsruhe instead; we exited the highway and crossed the border with Germany at Gambsheim, over the Rhine. We had booked a table at the Rhinkaechle, but arrived a bit too early, so we walked around the mighty hydroelectrical dam and its fish pass, one of the two largest passes in Europe:

After the meal and the required barge-spotting at the locks, we entered Germany and drove to Basel, where we would enter Switzerland:

The leitmotiv of Switzerland are the tunnels (the longest being Gotthard and Seelisberg) and the mountains:

We came out of the Gotthard tunnel to meet the blue twilight at Airolo, and drove uneventfully south until the border crossing at Stabio-Gaggiolo and finally Varese. The pictures came out increasingly blurred, and moreover it is a very familiar part of the road for me, so I didn’t take many.

Thanks to a comfortable car and change of drivers, we didn’t arrive too tired at our destination. It was great for the driver to have cruise-control, and for everyone a smooth ride at high speed.

I cherish this route and I’m happy to drive along it every now and then. For my friends it has become part of the FOSDEM experience, and the occasion for endless discoveries along the way (especially restaurants and industrial masterpieces). I thought about my affection for this route, that I felt stronger than the love of the places where I lived. And happier, too.

Trip to Trentino – feeling home

Trento, rosso ammonitico

I found a few pictures from our last trip to Trentino and I thought about my strong feeling of belonging to that region. I lived there four years, and left with sorrow, as I quickly grew attached to its landscapes and peculiar history – human and natural, back to the dinosaurs and the ammonites in Trento’s pavements.

Every time I come back there, I feel an increasingly impatient joy when recognising mountain peaks, buildings, landmarks, and finally breathe again the many scents that were so familiar, and the overall freshness of the air. I definitely feel coming back home, then I feel puzzled because my home is currently somewhere else. Are they comparable? Will my current home ever become similarly familiar and yet remote, at the favour of some other corner of the Earth?

Val Campelle, Lagorai

Trento, ponte san Lorenzo

It’s hard to say. When I lived in South Africa I had the same feeling of home. I wonder how I would feel if I travelled back there.

Buffalos  @ Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve

Trip to Rome

Last week I traveled to Rome with a small group of friends. It was my first time in Rome and I was very curious. I was a bit afraid of finding too many tourists and too many cars, but it was actually not so crowded (except for a few monuments). We had a pleasant week walking around, admiring Rome’s historical heritage, and not last, eating delicious food 🙂

As we arrived to our apartment, we were greeted by the calls and low flybys of many parakeets, which settled since years in the nearby park, as well as in several green areas of Rome. My friends didn’t care much about the birds, but I did, as my way of getting familiar with a new place by inspecting its plants and animals.

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Reflection of San Pietro’s dome

I didn’t make pictures at the famous locations, because I preferred to give my attention to the place than to my camera. There are plenty of good pictures of Rome’s landmarks already 🙂

I noticed the forest of old-style TV antennas on roofs and took several pictures of them. I later realised they reminded me of the cover of Calvino’s “Le città invisibili” – a book that I love and keep re-reading.

I was unhappy with the visit to the Cappella Sistina, because there was a thick crowd and it was noisy. I am glad to have had access to it, and I guess that it would be hard to limit the number of people inside without creating endless queues outside. I wonder if there is any time when the Cappella Sistina is not as crowded as that.

We left Rome with a lot of places still to see (not surprising!) and we plan to come back maybe in spring, when the weather is already warm, but the vegetation is greener and flowers abound. I already look forward for this second trip!

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Trip to the Baltic Sea

Last weekend I visited a little village on Island Usedom, near the Polish-German border.

Source: 1usedom.de

Usedom is famous in Germany for its white beaches and historical seaside resorts, so I was expecting a mixture of Italian Riviera mass tourism and of nordic sea landscapes. I have been pleasantly surprised with many landmarks and details that reminded me of my holidays around Europe, almost at every corner. Some holiday houses looked Belgian, other from Southern France, there were well-tended gardens for every house, some local restaurants, beach-side shops (the ones with beach toys, magnets, hats, sunscreen, t-shirts and endless gadgets), old fishermens’ huts with thatched roofs, and an overwhelming aroma of smoked fish from many small smokeries.

I loved how the people didn’t mind the rain at all. They wandered around unimpressed with rain gear and bikes, some even stayed on the beach. This is a lesson I want to learn for myself! There is even a German say that goes “There is no bad weather, there is only wrong clothing” 🙂

I made a few pictures – sorry for the blur, it’s not a filter, but some dust inside the camera.

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Beach west of the pier (Seebrücke)
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Pier and wave breakers
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Beach with Strandkörbe
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View from Streckelsberg – two hikers on the beach for scale

I loved the quietness and richness in stories of that place, I hope to come back there soon!

Book recommendation – “South Pole Epic” by Daniel Burton

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am too impatient to review it!

I knew about Daniel‘s expedition from the Wikipedia page about South Pole biking expeditions, when I was looking for references for my previous post about Antarctic expeditions. We (I and my bike-addicted boyfriend) subsequently read a bit of his blog and had to buy his book:

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We started reading it and were initially puzzled by the choice of third-person narrative. I was moreover not that happy with the occasional bumpiness of sentences, and the simple choice of words. But the epic of the adventure captivated us fully,  and made these choices look minor.

The main difference that I noticed from Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen’s narratives is the un-heroism of the protagonist. Of course this is also due to the fact that the three former explorers lead huge teams of people, had any sort of communication difficulties, were on uncharted land most of the time, and missed one hundred years of progress in technology and materials. Daniel’s epic is on another dimension. It is a personal challenge on an Antarctica where he follows ski, truck and snowcat tracks, and is able to use a satellite phone and connect to the Internet every day.

What I like most about this book is the apparent draft-like flow of words. Some could find it “unfinished”, but that’s what makes it more personal, closer to what actually happened. All the moments when Daniel has issues with his bike or with the insidious terrain (crevasses, sastrugi, katabatic wind, soft snow, whiteout…) are told with the knowledge of that very moment, not with the serenity of who knows how the adventure will develop. Many times he loses hope that he will make it, and he tells it quite simply. He mentions a lot of little details that make the reader understand that he is a man like many others, but with a great goal, determination and preparation. It makes me feel like meeting him in person and listening to his recollection of the adventure, with ordinary words, with occasional irregularities in the narrative, with emotion and affection.

I also liked that the first half of the book is about the preparation of this bike trip, from the first ideas that popped up in his mind to the economic difficulties, the support of his family, the endless logistics, the technical details of the bike and clothing. It makes it useful to someone who would like to repeat his feat, there or elsewhere with similar climate.

Definitely a book that I recommend! You can read his blog for excerpts of his adventure.

Book recommendation: diaries from three Antarctic expeditions

This year’s winter is not yet a particularly cold one. For sure, never as cold as Antarctica!

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December in Antarctica (source: Wikimedia)

I wish to present you a triple review: the narratives of the expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, that all took place during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expeditions.

I started by reading The Worst Journey in the World, the narrative of the Terra Nova expedition, written by the expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard. I have been moved by the way he presents the reader all their difficulties in that most unhospitable land, with the means they had available (the expedition had issues with funding, and landed in Antarctica before an especially harsh winter). Many times I couldn’t hope that they survive – especially in their journey to collect emperor penguin’s eggs, when in the midst of a storm they lose their tent – but in so many occasions they had to resort to emergency solutions, that it is a miracle that the most of them survived. Cherry-Garrard ends his book with a poignant critique to his country and the whole world, which take benefit from the discoveries of few, poorly supported heroes and martyrs.

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McMurdo Sound from Arrival Heights in Autumn. The sun is sinking below the Western Mountains.From a water-colour drawing by Dr. Edward A. Wilson. source: Project Gutenberg.

The next read was Amundsen’s The South Pole – An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,” 1910 — 1912. A completely different atmosphere reigns all over the book. Despite the somewhat abrupt decision to sail for the South Pole instead of the North Pole, all is put in place to reach it, camps are efficiently organised and managed, expedition members endure the hardships with high spirits, with bread daily baked by the cook, and even a tiny sauna built during the winter! The trek to the Pole is comparatively uneventful, crowned by success while marked by the death of almost all sleigh-dogs.

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Amundsen’s journey (source: Wikipedia)

On the wave of curiosity I read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917. Another epic journey with dramatic episodes and heavy strain on the expedition members, and the almost unbelievable journey of their last small open boats in search for relief.

What I liked of these three books is the way they show me that these great deeds were done by people who were extraordinary for their motivation and endurance, but ordinary in the other aspects of life. Reading how they organised their meals, they fought against cold, they sometimes quarreled and were sad or afraid, makes me reconnect to them in a way that the dry summary of the significant steps of the expeditions would never achieve.

All three books are available on Project Gutenberg, some also as audio books. I hope you will enjoy these reads! Feel free to share your impressions in the comments.