Light at end of the tunnel? Day 2 – Otago Rail Trail New Zealand

I am up early for day two. Two reasons – to avoid eye contact over breakfast with the honeymooners who had roomed above me the night before, and second, Ophir is a ridiculously photogenic historic town.

I photograph many shist stone and vine draped cottages, then old civic buildings. Most have been artfully restored since the cycleway has breathed life back into what was a ghost town. You could take enough photos here to make a scenic calendar.

Its a bigger day trip today.  Omakau is soon behind me, I pause on the trail at Lauder, wondering over the German name for this remote outpost, when a couple of fellow cyclists pull up and ask me to get away from the sign as they want to take a photo.

In my haste to get back on the trail,  I forgo replenishing my water bottle, as there are no water stops or cafes for the next 22 Ks.

Its a bit overcast so I don’t worry too much. However new surfacing of a thick layer of rocks on the track makes for thirsty work. I am inhaling my water supply.

The trip turns into another ascent soon punctuated by two tunnels that require you to dismount and walk into the darkness bumbling along the creepy hillside corridor with just a thin beam from the bike headlight.

The rewards are great as you emerge out of tunnel above the Poolburn gorge and more sensational views.

Also on this leg are the legendary high suspension bridges which creak and clank as you ride over them. Fortunately I am focussing too hard on staying on my bike as it bounces over the historic rickety planks, to look down.

Finally the 22 Ks cafe drought is over at the small town of Oturehua.  I dismount gratefully outside the 1902 Gilchrist Store. As I gargle some water down on the seat outside locals walk past offer encouragement.

Then its back on the track for the slog to the 618 metre summit, the highest point on the entire cycle trail.

The climb is manageable but the fresh layer of stones laid on the track for the new summer season, makes for heavy progress and my thighs are screaming in no time.

As I cycle past the 45 degree south latitude sign, I swear to myself, I will return with thighs the size of an All Black rugby player after this journey. Fortunately shortly around the bend is the summit.

Some familiar faces from the track are taking photos by the summit landmark and we go ‘old school’ taking photos for each other to share the moment, rather than selfies.

Then its a race downhill to Wedderburn, tonight’s destination. The others roar off. I am more sedate at a modest 25 Ks an hour, which I increase to 29 Ks as the Wedderburn hotel and the promise of a local beer come into view.



Happy Trails Downunder – Otago Rail Trail New Zealand

Back home from my beloved Berlin, I quickly fixed on a local adventure in my New Zealand homeland to take the sting out of coming back. I booked an Otago Rail Trail odyssey for the first New Zealand long weekend spring holiday season.

The trip is 150 kilometres of mountain biking over what remains of a derelict train track from Clyde to Middlemarch in the alpine region of the South Island.

Only problem is I gambled on some spring weather. In the days that approached I reviewed my packing list. It was expected to be anything but spring like, with lows of -4 to highs of 12 C forecast.

Not a natural bad weather biker I had to fossick deep in the wardrobe for merino layers and cadge a man size winter cycling jacket and rainwear to take with me.

The packing preparation was more thorough than my exercise regime. I managed a couple of sessions on a static bike in the gym in the days before hand of 10 kilometres duration, pushing it up to 15 Ks on the week of departure. Only problem was the daily trail requisite Ks was at least 40 Kilometres over steep passes and on stoney roads to make it to your overnight accommodation.

Here is how it played out. Day 1 was sunny. Who knew? I had gear for near arctic conditions which had to be shed layer by layer, shoved into my bulging bike panniers over the first day’s 44 kilometres from Clyde to Ophir.

Gorgeous vistas unfold before me, first along flat lands through to Chatto Creek, where we cyclists chowed down on carbs at the cafe, before the assualt on Tiger Hill – a calves straining slow ascent to the top of the pass.

On the other side is Omakau, and just over the bridge, Ophir a charming village with several B and Bs set in cute cottages and a couple of nice gastro pubs. I checked into one in an 1870s building.

After a gargantuan dinner and a chat with the owner who tells me there are two weddings on in this tiny town, I retired early.

But after midnight I am awoken, by what I quickly guess is the honeymoon couple, directly above me, through thin floor boards.

And I can report the marriage was consummated several times over that night, as I was a reluctant third party witness throughout.








Back to Berlin – again

The holiday is almost at an end. I have 48 hours left in Europe so I bolt north on the ICE train for a quick visit to the Berliner Bear.

I am staying in the leafy suburb of Dahlem in an old, opulent apartment complete with parquet floors, french doors and high ceilings. Berlin’s Botanical Gardens and the Free University are just a short walk away.

Dinner is in Charlottenberg and most of the conversation is about art and politics. Later my host  takes me into the city for a drink at the famous Adlon Hotel on Pariser Platz facing the Brandenburg Gate.

I have a full commentary on his experiences growing up in a divided city whilst I down Bellinis. We talk so late we leave the hotel to find the Brandenburg Gate almost devoid of tourists.

Next morning I eat breakfast in a local cafe pouring over the Berliner MorgenPost reading of the recent election. There have been gains made by the far right party which is a little unsettling in what is normally a liberal city.

Its a glorious day so I eventually rouse myself to walk the length of the Unten den Linden towards the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). I note many of the familiar old buildings are now draped in scaffolding for repairs.

I have just the afternoon free so choose one gallery to visit today, the Bauhaus Archiv.

It’s a good call. On display are some of the top items in the archive. I am back amongst work by Klee, Itten and Kandinsky and for the first time, I home in on Oskar Schlemmer. He has an incredible aluminium statue that looks like something out Fritz Lang’s Metropolis film. There are also examples of the Bauhaus ‘design for living’ furniture.  These 1930s prototypes are still part of many design houses even today.

The evening finds me supporting my host’s team in what we would call back home a ‘fun run’ in the Olympic Stadium which, if you know your history, was where Hitler staged his showcase 1936 Olympic Games.  Still standing are large statues that look haughtily down on us as the teams celebrate in hospitality tents on grounds where huge rallies were held in the 1930s.

And then its pumpkin hour. I am driven to Tegel Airport for the last Air Berlin flight to Frankfurt and my arduous 26 hour journey back to the end of the world in the morning.

Thanks for taking this journey with me. Vielen danke für alles to my friends, old and new, across Europe. I look forward to seeing you again soon.


Chotesov Cloister close up – Czech Republic

I admit it. I am exhausted and all three of my devices, Go Pro, iPad and iPhone are drained out too. What an incredible day of discovery and connections.

I am met again today by the historian for Chotesov and two amazing volunteers from nearby Stod. They take me to Cross Hill by what can only be described as a farm track, to show me the now defunct church that has a special dedication to those who left for New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s. Dagmar speaks a bit of English so fills some knowledge gaps for me.

Later they drive me by some houses that were most likely in my family in the old days of Mantov.

Afterwards, the historian and I are dropped at Chotesov for me to have a private tour of the Cloister in the daylight with him. So we are back to conversing in German, a second language for both of us.

Like many major sites in central Europe, there have been many owners in the 800-plus-years history of the building. It was built in the 12th century by Magnifico Hroznata and run by his sister the first Abbess.

It was sacked by the Hussites in the 14th century  and then again in the 30 Years War in 1618. It was later rebuilt in the Baroque style and operated by the Catholic Church. In 1784 Emporer Joseph the second ordered its closure to curtail the increasing power of the Catholic Churches.

It was leased then to a group of German Salesian Sisters as a nunnery. The sisters opened the place up as a girls school. It operated up until almost to the end of WW2 when anyone with German connections, no matter how long distant, were banished by the Benes decrees.

For a few months American  troupes were based here, whilst Europe was carved up by the Allies. In 1950 the Soviet soldiers based themselves here using it as a barracks and munitions store. The building and its ancient frescoes were almost completely destroyed.

It is estimated millions and millions in Czech kroner damage was done in that time until they left in 1975.

The building is considered to be in the top 100 most important but seriously damaged buildings in the country.

I have a top to toe tour. We traverse echoey cracked corridors, observe restoration work on the damaged frescoes, and finally I see the cellar. Its a bit creepy as the last of my Go Pro battery drains out down there. I switch to my IPhone and that spontaneously dies too.

I suggest to my host, perhaps we head out of the slimey darkness to the sunshine. Thinking to myself clearly some captive spirit doesnt want us down here.

We move on to a cafe for more excellent Czech pastries I have enjoyed here, before my historian takes me to catch my Plzen train. Its hard to say goodbye and embarrasingly I burst into tears.  His eyes moisten too, but we still bid each other stiffly goodbye in the polite German Sie.




Concert in a cloister – Czech Republic

Its day two in Czech Republic and time is of the essence. I am met by a local historian at Chotesov,  the closest station to my family village of Mantov. I have a surprise waiting for me. From a family tree I have already sent ahead to the historian, he has arranged a likely relative to join him at the station too. He has a familiar face. Features from my family gene pool stare back at me.

We only have the German language in common. I have to rack my brains to remember the polite form, Sie, as my historian guide is 91 years old.

We talk back and forth until the early evening. I am asked to stay on for dinner and attend a concert in the local 12th century cloister.

By complete coincidence I am in the village at a time of the only summer chamber concert there. In the ruined beauty of the Chotesov Cloister, I am treated to Musica Florea, by artistic director Marek Stryncl.

Fittingly the chamber ensemble play a local Josef Myslivecek piece from the 1700s, followed by Mozart and finishing with Mendelessohn-Bartholdy.

I dont know much about classical music, but hearing this beautiful music played in a centuries old building under a ceiling of exquisite frescoes, gives me goose bumps.

I have missed the last train back to Plzen. A taxi is sorted for me and arrangements made for the morning when we meet again to explore the village and see some houses that could have been lived in by my forbears.



A night at the opera in Prague

I am in Prague briefly. With no expecatations, as it’s a Sunday night, I call by the ticket office at the National Theatre. I am in luck, there are still tickets left for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tonight, even if they are stories up in the balconies.

I ransack my bag back at my room, for something suitable to wear. The grandeur of the building is impressive when I return. I spend time on the roof deck taking pictures of the twin horse and chariot statues which dominate the skyline of the building.

The orchestra is already warming up when I arrive at my seat. Some of the chorus, in character, are enacting scenes from the Japanese geisha life, as the audience is still filing in.

From the giddy heights of the balcony, there is a great vantage point to appreciate the sophisticated staging. There is a real water filled bath-pool covering a quarter of the stage, which is lit from underneath. It is used several ways throughout the evening, even the principal cast wade through it.

And so the tragedy unravels. Cio Cio-San (Butterfly)  is exquisitely performed by Christina Vasileva and the cad, Pinkerton, is played suitably callously by Peter Berger.

The cast are all standout and the choreography interesting ranging from huge fan dances to the stark stillness of silent witnesses on the stage.

The Czech Republic has a proud history of opera. I would encourage anyone visiting Prague to sample an opera. Mozart premiered his work at the Estates Theatre to appreciative audiences that he lacked in his home city.

A French man next to me strikes up a conversation as I am solo. We riff on the opera and also mention our own century-old connections to this country. He, with Brno, myself with Plzen.

I could linger longer but I have been up since 5 AM today for my London flight to Prague. I cut it short to be able to take my early train to my home village where people are waiting for me, to help me find out more on my family’s past.

Sunken cities – Egypt’s lost worlds at The British Museum

If you are an archeology fan then get to this exhibition on at the British Museum.

Outside its chaos in the main part of the museum, but in this beautifully staged exhibition, its soft lights with a gurgly under water sound track and murmured voices.

A video begins the exhibition with a background on the extraordinary discovery made beneath the sea in Abukir Bay, at the edge of Egypt’s northwestern Nike Delta. The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus known in ancient writings, were only discovered recently.

They were set on a fragile aquatic landscape of lakes and marshes that slowly sank into the sea. 1000 years later these cities are being recovered piece by extraordinary piece.

The monumental statue of Hapy, was a major find and is on display in the ante-room before we dive into a treasure trove of antiquities recovered.

A large part of the exhibition is on the interplay of Greek and Egyptian ideas that merged in the port cities. In particular how the cultures merged their dieties, borrowing back and forth, to suit the population.

We track various dynasties of rulers including Alexander the great, who encouraged the Eygtian belief in kings being divine beings. His general, Ptolemy, ascended to the throne post his death and this dynasty lasted 300 years. Fast forward to Cleopatra’s ill-fated reign as the last descendant of the Greek Ptolemies, and the region is lost to Roman rule.

We also see likenesses of Hadrian who visited Eygpt in AD130 where his Greek lover, Antinous, was to drown in the Nile.

Allow yourself a couple of hours to really savour all the treasure. It will be the best exhibition you will see in London this autumn.