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Jul 30, 2007

Dublin and Roma in 1 week (or, how to lose weight in a week…) Part II

Rome's splendor in the night. The monumento at night.

Right. The weekend was onto us. And it was off to Rome. The centre of the world during the ages of the great Roman empire. And it had lotz to show for its magnificence.

We managed to hit the streets of Roma (Rome) by the afternoon on Saturday. At first, Roma looked like any other city. Nothing much to speak about. The travel from the airport and to and from the hotel in Roma West didn’t have much to show except for grasslands and a few houses along the road.

But things changed dramatically after entering the city centre. The bus entered the city through what looked liked a massive wall that could have been a fortress. And the city… bellissimo! The bus took us around the gigantic (a bad word, this was so much more bigger..!) Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II.

The monument. This pic doesn't do justice to the size. Those statues guarding the steps could be about 5 meters high.

While I was still taking in the splendour, the bus stopped next to the Theatrum Marcelli. Mama mia – I thought nothing could get bigger than this. Especially not from them days. Wrong…

The Marcello Theatre. Its size is astounding. And its not even famous.

As we walked closer to the magnificent monumento, the entrance to the Roman Forum came into view. This is perhaps one of the most enlightening experience of my life. To be able to walk the steps walked by ancient Romans through the imposing pillars and structures that blows the mind (probably did turing them times too). Every turn of the head showed more different archaeological sites that characterised ancient Forums. Had to speed through the long walkway trying to imprint as much as I could on mind and film.

The ancient Roman Forum. Ceasars used to walk these paths centuries ago admiring the magnificent architecture around them.

We walked a bit more, now probably more in shock and awe as the massive pillars belittled us. As we exited the forum, reflecting on what we just witnessed, the daunting backdrop of the Colloseum came into view. What a magnificent work of architecture!

The Colloseum. I'm not worthy...

We explored the inside of the Colloseum stealing pics and listening intently to tour guides explain the various settings in the mammoth amphitheatre. The underground passages were still in view, and so was the Ceasar’s spot, the various seating levels, entrances etc etc etc.

Inside the Colloseum. The archways hosted Gladiators and animals prior to their moments of glory.

Other highlights of the day (and there were many… just a few below):

  • The Pantheon: Magnificent temple (later church) lined in the front with around 30m pillars that hold up the broad (and probably very heavy) dome. How it does what it does is beyond me.
The Pantheon. Cross a street corner, and boom, right in front of you.

  • The Fontana de Trevi: one of many glorious fountains in Roma. The heat and the water fountain provide a much sought after place for refuge. This is one of them.
The Trevi fountain. Lotz of people surrounded the fountain seeking comfort from the heat.

  • The Spanish steps: marbled steps from a fountain up to the entrance of a church. The view from the top are the 2 domes from the Vatican.

The view from atop of the Spanish steps. Notice the domes of the Vatican in the distance. Straight out of a Dan Brown novel, this pic.

The next day we explored Vatican City. St. Peter’s Basilica is a true wonder. I recommend anyone to visit this place – the sheer size of the church and the pillars and statues surrounding it are daunting enough. The inside is even better. I’m running out adjectives to describe the enormous size of the various pillars, paintings, dome, altar etc.

St. Peter's Basilica. Note the people at the entrance. Now imagine pillars around the left and right of this pic. The lens just couldn't capture the whole beauty.

The view from top of the dome of St Peters. Yes, those dots are people. The pic above was taken from some spot down there.

From inside St. Peters. The walls were covered with paintings. The inside was cross

The view from top of the Capella. Yes, those are people.

The view from the top was truly magnificent.

Then it was the Vatican museum. Just too much to describe. Too little space. I’ll skip the intricate museum description (not cause there’s nothing… cause there’s too much), and move to the highlight. The Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo’s work of art. I won’t bother try and describe it… You just have to see it for yourself. It will probably take about half an hour and a serious neck strain to really absorb all the detail gone into making the ceiling look like the heavens. My neck is sore.

Inside the Vatican Museum. This ceiling spanned around 30m, the ceiling was covered with paintings - each different from the other.

The Sistine chapel. Michaelangelo's masterpiece. A true reflection of his genius. Zoom in to see the famous 'touch of the fingers'.

So… Rome is a must for any serious traveller. A must for those seeking to be enlightened. A must if you want to come back changed.

A few tips just to keep you on a strong foot:

  • Avoid the summer months – its searing hot. The long queues and visitors don’t help the cause either. Claustrophobic people will not be able to do anything.
  • The queues are massive. Expect to wait long periods. But its worth it.
  • The steps of the Capello at St Peter’s is not easy… Take the lifts. J
  • The walk through the residential side of Rome is not really worth it. Especially if you’re running out of time.
  • Do not wear black or wear Caterpillar shoes. It’s a double-edged sword.
  • Drink lots of water.

Dublin and Roma in 1 week (or, how to lose weight in a week…) Part I

The typical Irish hillside.

It finally happened. Finally got a chance to visit the little country, Ireland. It was the attraction to Celtic music (which is actually the wrong term – more details later) that drew me towards the country. The pacy rhythm of the fiddle set against a rhythmic triplet or 4/4 beat… The violin is probably one of the most difficult instruments to play. And playing at this pace without missing a beat or a note certainly sets new standards to music. Oh yes, their accents and beautiful countryside were draw cards too…

The multitude of stones lining the beach front at Bray.

Anyway… twas with great bubble that I landed at Dublin’s rather small airport. Ireland has been experiencing rapid growth in its economy (dubbed the Celtic Tiger) especially in its financial industry. This growth was apparent throughout the city by its big cranes, efficient public transport system, different multinational companies etc. The airport authorities though didn’t predict how great the necessity for a bigger airport would be.

Christ Church cathedral. Handel's Messiah was performed for the first time in this church.

We reached our hotel by midday on Saturday by taxi (the driver spoke English throughout but I battled throughout to get past the accent… hmm’s & aha’s helped the conversation along). After a quick drop-off, we hit the streets of Dublin with a trusty tourist map.

Temple Bar in the Temple Bar area. Widely popular with the locals and tourists.

Dublin’s gardens (like St. Stephen’s Green) and churches (Christ church, St. Patricks) are truly, remarkably, savage. We did a city bus-tour that touched all the major attractions of Dublin including the malt-scented Guinness store-house, the notorious Temple Bar area, the many churches, and the houses of parliament.

St. Stephen's Green. Greens within Dublin's concrete jungle.

We met a few friends in Dublin for a stand-up comedy show that evening in one of the many, many, pubs near the river Liffy. That night was perhaps the highlight of the Dublin trip – the comedians and MC were hilarious and interacted with the audience very well. The on-the-spot one-liners proved yet again why I find comedy nights so brilliant. I became the South-African drug dealer – was picked on a lot but it was all in good fun...

The Liffy river that divides the city into north and south. Division of classes exists too...

The next day we hit the DART railway system to the northern most seaside stations in the region. Noteworthy visits included Malahide Castle & Howth coast. Each little town in Ireland has its own special little something that makes the town the way it is. The pubs were also pretty grand. All the walking and rushing around made us pretty tired so we hit the beds early on Sunday.

Malahide castle - in Malahide. Old castle owned by some rich English count.

The sea lions waiting for fish from onlookers at Howth. The dogs were going wild. Felt like tripping one over just for kicks...

We managed to spend the rest of the week doing many other different Irish activities. A few below:

  • Riverdance concert – at the Gaiety theatre near St. Stephens. Awesome, awesome, awesome! Lovely mix of Gaelic jigs, tap dancing, fiddles… it was packed even for a weekday. The Irish sure know how to support their culture.

  • The Seaside villages of Bray and Greystone – southern most part of the DART. Did a climb up the hillside in Bray. Took some lovely pics. Ate traditional fish & chips.

The sea village of Bray. We climbed the hill in the background past the wheel. Got great pics. Greystone lies behind the hill.

  • Traditional Irish musical pub crawl – hosted by 2 musicians who explained the history and traditions of Irish/Gaelic music (and not Celtic – it’s a common tourist mistake) while visiting some of the famous pubs in Dublin. The terms jig, reel, sessions etc. meant something after this one…

  • Johnny Foxes pub on the Wicklow mountains – the highest pub in Ireland, splendid views, the interior in the pub was absolutely phenomenal. Many presidents and celebrities have visited the pub before and it made sense why. Bloddy shoddin’ expensive food though. I ate my food real slow.

  • The national museum and Dublinia – fascinating look into the history of Ireland and Dublin. The role of the Vikings and the English was explained in detail in these 2 places.

  • The pubs – off course, Ireland would not be Ireland without its pubs. Overwhelming atmosphere with crowds of people, Irish musicians, good food, Smithwicks beer, pretty colleen duns… The crack was good…

The disappointing aspect of Ireland has to be its younger crowd. The influence of money and alcohol is very apparent in the kids of Ireland through their behaviour and actions. I saw kids as young as 10 smoking cigarettes with a beer can in the other hand, doused in make-up, walking in skimpy clothes through the streets and DART stations.

A field overlooking a church in Malahide.

But, in all, the scenic beauty, the quality of life, the opportunities and the prospect for growth in a competitive market makes this place an ideal spot for the young career-focused individual.

Jul 11, 2007

The visit to Central & Northern Drakensberg

Given all the publicised cons of South Africa, the one feature that stands out for all the people residing in this country is the beauty of its landscape. Perhaps, apart from the rich mineral resources, this was one of the attractions for colonialists that spent centuries trying to stake a claim to this Southern part of the 'Dark Continent'.

One of the most pristine features of the country has to be the Drakensberg mountain range that lines the eastern half of SA along the KZN province of South Africa. The range can be divided into Northern, Central & Southern regions with each providing various 'touristy' attractions to match the traveller's expectations.

A few months ago, a couple of friends and I decided that we would tackle the Drakensberg... and see where we end up.

We decided to crash the nights in a converted home in the little town of Ladysmith not too far from the mountains. The first day was spent getting there from Jhb (took around 4hrs) and checking out the Central region of the Drakensberg. We had lunch at a local waffle restaurant that sold rugs made from sheep that were bred in the region. Racing against sunset, we just managed to catch a few of the famous peaks (Champagne Castle, Monk's Cowl...) that line the range including some 'adventure' activities like zip-line riding and off-road driving (to get to the zip-line place).

We stopped at a resort on the base of a peak (Devil's peak, I think), and spent some time admiring the starry night - refreshingly unpolluted from light and noise. Supper was at a reasonable restaurant filled with rugby crazy supporters (the Blue Bulls were playing that day down under, and Bryan Habana was in sublime form - hopefully repeatable in the Rugby World Cup later this year).

After an 'exhausting' night, and solid sleep, the next day was bright and sunny enough to tackle the Northern region. Using a trusty tourist map, we followed the north heading pathways admiring the various peaks along the road. We stopped at another 'adventure' spot and did some more zip-lines, trapezes etc. to build up an appetite. Lunch was at a quaint little restaurant along the hilltops in a town called Little Switzerland. The view outside was just breath-taking (for the lack of a better adjective).

On our way back to Jhb, we managed to catch other picturesque sights such as the massive Sterkfontein dam, the Vulture habitat and another beautiful dam which I can't remember the name of.

Ignore all the man-made problems here in Africa, and you soon will begin to realise why God decided that the Cradle of Mankind should be the 'Dark Continent'.