Dresden - Florence on the Elbe

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You always think you have left enough time, I think, as I run up the platform to the front-most carriage of an impossibly long platform to catch the last train to Berlin, a double espresso to go in one hand - and starting to appear on my hand - a bottle of ice green tea in the other, and daypack bouncing. Later, safely in the compartment that I have to myself, I watch as the sun sets into the Elbe and the brief exhaust trails of jets marks the pink sky over the Germany countryside.

After having glimpsed its surprising freshness and likely stamina, I leave Dresden wanting for more. For one hour only I was the epitome of the tour-bus-tourist - book-mark filled Lonely Planet protruding from pocket and dragging down my already baggy pants, compact camera noosed around one wrist, and eyes darting everywhere as I perform the solitary waltz of the trigger-happy photographer.

The Colosseum: like a football match, but with animals and a body count

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I am sitting upon a toppled column in the shade of the Colosseum. It’s like gazing through the rib cages of a leviathan’s skeleton, with half of its bones having crumbled away. I’ve been trying to connect with those whose butts wore down the same stone seats that I sat on earlier, or whose feet trod on the same stairs. Two thousand years ago, this was a place of carnage and festivity, a football match with animals and a body count. Part of the Greco-Roman achievement seems to have been the institutionalization of game playing - the gladiator arena simulating duels and hunting, the chariot-racing track in Circus Maximus for wheeled combat, the Olympic Games as war without bloodshed. They ceremonially re-enacted those things that - as an imperial capital, sheltered from invasion for 800 years - they had left behind, rendering into entertainment the fight against nature, against the elements, and against each other.

The Sistine Chapel: like Christmas, when you just want to open the presents

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I am standing in the hallway that features Michelangelo’s Creation, beneath Adam reaching out to God. Earlier, a couple reflected on their feelings about the Chapel so far. The girl said that it was like Christmas - she just wants to open the presents. In other words, as cool as it is, the anticipation of the chapel’s piece de resistance overshadows her enjoyment of the prelude. Later, the guy says that all the paintings are starting to look the same.

Basillica di san pietro

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"I can’t believe your camera has no batteries. This is the most depressing thing." So says a young guy to his father. The place has even managed to ‘wow’ me: golden ceiling, every square meter of the walls somehow decorated, blue interiors of the peripheral domes, shafts of sunlights angling down. It is certainly big, but the cathedrals in Mainz were close to this size. Instead, what might explain the Basilica’s awesomeness is its openness - only a few major columns along the side corridors - and its colour, which makes those Gothic creations feel like paupers or primitives built them. This is the standard to which to compare all other Christian sites - the touchstone.

You can call it another lonely day

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Reader Sam made some very valuable comments recently in response to my article on guided tours, ‘You can go your own way’, whose title I did select with more than a little some self-depreciating irony. It is indeed the beginning of the Fleetwood Mac song - the next line being, as Sam pertinently points out, ‘And you can call it another lonely day...’

Some working criteria for an ideal travel destination

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1. Institutional Hedonism

Since it is through those physical mediums that we are best able, in general, to connect with others, perhaps the best places to visit are those countries or regions that are the most in connection to their bodies. That is, those whose people enjoy the simple yet rich pleasures: good food, drinks, sex, and so on. Conversely, those places that are the most logical and high culture might not be the best, at least in short expeditions.

Bebelplatz

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Were it not for a tour guide passing as I stand in Berlin’s Mitte, I might have easily missed some irony: that the country that invented the printing press is also the one that popularized book burning. For this is Bebelplatz, the public square upon which, five-hundred kilometres northeast of where Gutenberg jump-started the Printing Revolution, residents of pre-war Berlin incinerated a large pyre of books. (As seen on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)


Image: Bebelplatz, on an appropriately miserable day. Unfortunately it wasn't as wet in 1933.

The Holocaust Memorial

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The Holocaust Memorial, officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is a no-fuss labyrinth. It carries no inscriptions; there is no grand entrance to pass through - a place that convinces me that architecture succeeds when a physical site induces a psychological state. There are numerous ways of accessing this construction and you can go as deep or shallow as you like. Between each monolith, tiling the path, are rows of their miniature counterparts. Sinking deeper into the memorial and into the earth is like walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, and you disappear from the outside while it is always visible to you.

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

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Though I’ve been absent for but a month, it’s good to see Melbourne once more. There has been an armed robbery in the city near Richmond, interrupting all trains running towards Flinders Street. The tram from Caulfield consequently overflows. Hindi pop springs from the phone of an Indian undergraduate - and a bloke behind them turns out to have the Vic bitter theme on his mobile.

Paddling to Architecture in Venice

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The comfort of European architecture - that is, in those cities who were not bombed to hell in the War - is that its physics is often much more believable than the modern constructions of, say, Australia and North America. To take a perfect example - we can look at the pyramids and wonder how they built it, but not how it remains. Conversely, when we see, for instance, a suspension bridge, we take credit in knowing that, as a species, we can build much more with much less. Yet simultaneously our lizard brain is wondering - How does that work?

Better travelling through video games

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While looking along the rooftop of Florence’s Cathedral from the apex of the Duomo, I realize with a sharp flash of recall that I have lived in this city before. More striking, however, is the realization that I have also died in this city.

You can go your own way

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I am generally reluctant to go on tours. Maybe it is because the name sounds so much like ‘tourist’ - that creature we must put all our energies into avoiding. However, having gone on the Lonely Planet-recommended sightseeing of cathedrals and castles has made me sufficiently done with self-guided walks that by the time I arrive in Berlin, I’m ripe pickings for group tours on offer there - a Concentration Camp, the local stencil art, and East-Germany-on-a-bike. Still, however, I resist.

Renaissance World

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Florence overwhelms me. I’m surrounded by pedestrians - non-Florentines mostly - scooters making their little lawnmower growls, the occasional priority car - such as taxi or police or ambulance - claiming the road, the bell ringing from a swerving cyclist negotiating cobble roads and foot traffic. I’m sneezing profusely, and may have an asthmatic throat, thanks probably to V’s three cats. I’m allergic to this city already. The laneways are tight, most in darkness at early afternoon. Even along the river, the old city retains its encased fortress architecture, denying the sort of open view that I had anticipated such an aesthetically concerned city would have gone for.

An important reminder for Facebook users

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Just because animals don’t have Facebook, doesn’t mean you can’t friend them.

Dancing to architecture at the Reichstag

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The entrances of the Concentration Camps, and the culture of East Germany under the Stasi, were designed to create the sense of being constantly watched I.e. the Panopticon: the perfect prison where people can be looked at any time, and so they live as if always watched - the ultimate surveillance state. Now, however, the architecture and the very procedures of the Reichstag is to emphasize that now it is the politicians that can be watched and scrutinized any time (after a lengthy security check, that is, on the way to the glass dome). Moreover, that it is citizens, even visiting foreigners, who can do the watching.

Living on a Lonely Planet

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Wandering slowly around Bacharach, on the Rhine River in Germany, and a local tour guide in good English asks me if I’m toting a specific guidebook. I show him that I was referencing a Lonely Planet but he waves me away. I was just an opener or prop in his performance to his flock. He mentions to his flock how the American tourists reveal their nationality by shopping at a store opposite from us. His audience laughs and I move on.

The legacies of World Wars I and II

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I have felt that East and West Germany offered a parallel universe after World War II, a divergent time line where one Germany, the west, came to terms with the holocaust and it’s responsibility for World War II, for Hitler as ‘merely’ this kind of collective expression. West Germany was the breaking of the cycle of violence that previously had looped around with World War I and the massive and costly project to reign in Germany’s most violent impulses. The victors of World War I attempted that reigning in through the war reparations agreement and the extra concession that they demanded, that Germany accept full moral responsibility for the war.

Bierbike

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Introducing Bierbike - a crazy yellow bar on wheels, with four people on each side sitting, facing each other on stools, hands on pints and feet on peddles. A driver dictates direction but they provide the locomotion, powered by, presumably, beer.

The Berlin Wall

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I am standing on the corner near a remnant stretch of the wall, in a reserve managed by Topographies of Terror, eating my first brandewerst. The fall of the Wall is encouraging because - as well as vilifying our political and economic ideologies - it suggests that things can go dramatically and surprisingly well for us personally. The Cold War and the German Democratic Republic were once the status quo. People, both inside and out of East Germany, accepted that the Soviets, and the Stasi, were going to be around for a long, long time. Yet jump forward twenty years and in the place of Checkpoint Charlie there is a ‘Precise Replica’ Checkpoint Charlie house.

Juicing the Google: online marketing and Search Engine Optimisation

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You have just launched your very own website. Maybe you have filled it with photos of your cat and added ironic captions in geek speak, or perhaps it is an e-commerce store through which to sell your old Star Wars figurines. You have built it, and now they shall come - right? Well, not exactly. Short of having a spontaneous word-of-mouth campaign more viral than a Meningococcal outbreak at a rave, you are probably going to have to get yourself a little GoogleJuice.