Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A walk on Witches' Hill

Witches are pretty thin on the ground in Australia.

I don't know if the climate puts them off (it must be hot in all that black) or whether the Federal Government has extended its "Stop the Boats" policy to also include "Stop the Brooms", but even at Halloween the most magical thing you're likely to experience is your bus or train arriving on time.

He's waiting for you at Witches' Hill
Not so in Lithuania, tucked up by the Baltic Sea.

On the Curonian Spit, near the small seaside resort town of Juodkrante, is Witches' Hill, a home for witches, goblins, dragons, the devil and host of other characters.

And their numbers are growing.

Someone or something is always watching you on Witches' Hill
The hill (really a forested sand dune as the whole spit itself is one big sandpit) has always been known as a site for unusual goings-on.

This reputation was cemented during the nineteenth century when it became a favourite spot for Lithuanians to celebrate the summer solstice; a time when it was thought witches were on their way to meet with other supernatural beings.

The Sorceress
But now witches and other creatures inhabit the hill every day and night of the year.  

For the past three decades, sculptors have congregated here and assembled more than 80 oak sculptures bringing to life old legends and stories.

And so the number of mythical creatures continue to grow.
The Dragon

The hill naturally has a light and dark side, and this has created obvious homes for those sculptures representing the good and those representing the bad.

The Card Players: beware the tricks as the devil and a witch play cards
So while there are creatures of the underworld here, there are also everyday folk from traditional stories and legends remembered for their good deeds and admirable attributes.

One of the "good" characters living on the hill 
The Forester
Atop the dark side of the hill is Lucifer and the Gates of Hell.   Here the gates are laced with the heads of grimacing witches, while Lucifer advances to take possession of your soul.

Lucifer isn't the only one tempting you through the Gates of Hell

Lucifer and the Gates of Hell

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Nine silly sightings in Germany

The contents of the backpack are strewn around my apartment.

I'm being woken by the blinding Australian sunshine and a cacophony of birds at 4.45am.

It's 20 degrees at 7am.

Three tell-tale signs that I'm back home from holidays in Europe.

The journey home, along with the jetlag that wakes me in the midnight hours, has given me ample time to reflect on a fantastic week cycling along Germany's Rhine.

And also nine silly sightings that I remember from Germany.

1.  If it's worth saying, it's worth saying in "ye olde" font
Just because it's hard to read, doesn't mean you shouldn't use it 
At some point a memo must have gone around the country saying that if you have a half-timbered, centuries-old house, you need to use the "ye olde" calligraphy font on its facade.

Sure, it's hard to tell if that is an "S", "T" or an "A", but it does look good.

2.  There seems to be no medium-sized dogs in the country
This dog could have eaten us or drowned us in his slobber
Tiny, yappy dogs?  Check.
Massive, pure-bred dog/horses?  Check.

Judging by the morning and evening parades of dogs and their owners, living in a German apartment doesn't mean you can't have a dog that's the same size as a Shetland pony.  It makes sense.  if you get tired of walking the dog, you can ride it home.

3.  It's ice cream time all the time
Spaghetti ice cream: any time, any day
I learnt that just because the temperature has hit single digits, that doesn't mean there won't be a queue for ice cream.

Or, even better, the "spaghetti ice cream" craze that seems to have swept the nation. 

4.  People hiding in fields with rifles aren't birdwatching
There are foxes and hunters in those fields
As we were casually cycling through a field one evening, we encountered a camouflaged man sitting in the tree.   I asked him if he was birdwatching.  He showed me his rifle and said he was shooting foxes.   There's nothing quite as relaxing as cycling through the countryside to the sound of gunfire.

5.  The "Stop Smoking" campaign is not working
What's German for "every cigarette is doing you damage"?
Europe's always loved a cigarette or two.  While smoking inside trains and buildings seems to have stopped, it feels like the vast majority still like to light up when they can.

6.  Food and alcohol are cheap

Travelling on the "Pacific Peso" (Australia Dollar) I'm pretty much expecting everything, everywhere to be more expensive than home.   But when you can have a hearty schnitzel and a beer for under 10 Euro (under AU$15) at a nice restaurant, you can't help but be pleasantly surprised at how food and alcohol are cheaper than in Australia.  

As for the 90 Euro cent, single-scoop ice cream cone, that's just dangerous!

7.  A lot of doors have strange chalk markings on them
The initials of the three wise men (C, M and B) in between the year's digits (2013)
Initially I thought the chalk scrawl might have been left by sloppy tradesmen from when the door was installed.  But this strange code, which was the same on every door, appeared on new and old doors.

Apparently it is a superstitious thing that happens at the beginning of each year.   By putting the initials of the Three Wise Men (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar) in the middle of the year's digits, the occupants are hoping for a blessed house during the next 12 months.

8.  Alcohol-free beer features heavily on the menu
So I'm not a massive beer drinker, but I still can't quite wrap my head around the concept of alcohol-free beer.  I can understand low-alcohol beer should you be the designated driver, but not alcohol-free beer that features on every menu I found in Germany.  

I don't recall anyone saying: "Wow, this beer tastes great.  Shame about that alcohol".  I thought you put up with the taste of beer because of the alcohol!

9.  FYI, "kunst" is German for "art"

Warning: potential for confusion when you hear someone say this.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Who's the fairest of them all?

In the fairytale-like region around Germany's Rhine River, it's a fair question to ask: which of the villages are the prettiest?

Like any good competition, there's a large field of contenders and it's a close race.

It's a land where historic half-timbered homes straight out of storybooks, castle ruins perched precariously on ridges, and medieval churches are scattered among lush vineyards and orchards.  

My recent cycling trip from Heidelberg to Koblenz traced part of the Rhine and led me through many "ridiculously" pretty villages.

Here's a photo essay of my top ten Rhine villages.

10.  Bodenheim

9.  Boppard

8.  St Goar 

7.  Zwingenberg

6.  Oppenheim

5.  Rudesheim

4.  Assmannshausen

3.  Ladenburg

2.  Bacharach

1.  Heppenheim 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Comical walls

It pays to look up, behind, and all around you when wandering the streets of Brussels.

Sure, the city has a host of Art Deco and other architectural gems, along with possibly Europe's prettiest main square, but it is its comic strip murals that provide a unique and colourful addition to the city.

Celebrating the distinctive drawing style of Belgian comic books, the murals cover walls across the city.  As a friend who lives in Belgium informed me, comic books aren't just for kids in this country.  Perhaps that's why they have pride of place in Brussels.

Without a map of their locations it's easy to walk straight past them as they are often tucked around building corners.

But for those who make the effort, Tintin, Asterix and a host of other vibrant characters are waiting to be discovered.

It says something about a city that comic book art can complement the side of both modern and historic buildings.

And for those who have always wanted to live in a cartoon world, I suspect this is the closest you're going to get.

Here's a collection of the ones I spotted.

And there's also a fair share of other art adorning the city walls.  While not necessarily comic strip art, they too add fun surprises to Europe's capital.