A Travellerspoint blog

Winter training

Heading home for Christmas on the Trans-Siberian railway

snow -5 °C

I am not a hot weather person. These past ten months of traipsing around Southeast Asia have wrung litres of sweat out of me. My T-shirts are now faded through overwashing, my hiking boots in need of regular blasts of deodorant. My delicate Anglo-Saxon skin has been punished by the strength of the sun. I can't complain about the quality of my non-climate-related experiences in the region, but as the trip comes to an end I'm eagerly awaiting some temperatures below 0 °C rather than above 30 °C.

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Beijing in early November is certainly a step in the right direction, and my every breath is a plume of condensation in the chill. I love that almost painful feeling as cold air finds every corner of my lungs - it seems so clean and pure, even here in this murky, polluted city. I walk everywhere, my activity generating just enough warmth to stay comfortable. There's none of the wallowing in your own perspiration that accompanies even a short stroll in a Cambodian summer. My tan might already be starting to fade, but otherwise I'm revelling in these freezing conditions.

I'm due back in England for Christmas and have opted to return to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Any journey of this distance screams to be broken up along the way, to experience the landscape at first hand rather than merely through a grimy window, so I'll be stopping frequently, first at Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

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It's a chilly afternoon when I depart Beijing but you wouldn't know it inside the train. I could happily wear a T-shirt and shorts, if I hadn't stuffed such clothing inconveniently at the bottom of my rucksack in expectation of not needing it. There's an unheated section at the end of the carriage, in which I find hanging a bag of sausages. The blanket that comes with my bunk remains unused as we rumble northward through the evening and night.

The following morning brings a first sighting of Mongolia - flat terrain stretching to the horizon. The presence of humans is suggested by the odd yurt here and there. An eagle watches our passing from the vantage point of an old telegraph pole. The countryside barely changes right up until Ulan Bator.

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It doesn't take long outside for me to accept the claim that this is the coldest capital city in the world. A refreshing -10 °C during the day becomes a bitter -26 °C at night, and this with the real winter still over a month away. I've been through New York winters where blocks of ice were bobbing in the Hudson river but this is much colder though with not a flake of snow in sight. I stock up on knock-off North Face gear, but even two sets of gloves and two pairs of socks can't keep my hands and feet from slowly going numb.

My nose reacts to the cold by running almost constantly, a situation that leaves it red, cracked, and bleeding from all the blowing. Whenever I eat out, I generate heaps of used tissues that don't make me any friends.

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Just before I leave the capital, I see the first snowfall of the season, though it feels long overdue in these low temperatures. At Gandan monastery, monks dressed in orange and purple trudge through the snow to morning prayers. They are watched by thousands of pigeons huddled together in the trees, feathers puffed.

There's only one other passenger in my compartment as the train departs Ulan Bator - a Russian professor. She thrusts cheese slices on me but declines my offer of chocolate biscuits, saying that only children eat such things. I don't get to hear her thoughts on my stash of instant noodles. My last image of Mongolia is of a group of soldiers standing in the snow, smartly saluting the train as we leave the border.

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The following morning we skirt Lake Baikal, its dark surface extending to the horizon. Fierce breakers are rolling in to hit the lake shore. With a snow covering up to the water's edge and trees standing leafless and spindly under a glum sky, the occasional pockets of wooden houses look uninviting from the warmth of the train.

Once the Russian professor has disembarked, I'm adopted by a Kazakh couple from the next compartment. They give me some chunks of what is described appetisingly on the packet as "horse flesh". We share no language, but a combination of gesturing and leaps of logic leads me to conclude that they are offering me $10,000 to drive a Land Rover from the UK to Kazakhstan (where apparently they're prohibitively expensive). The husband also indicates that his country is well worth a visit, being full of jaw-dropping scenery and curvaceous women constantly on the lookout for sexual favours - his gestures to convey the latter are unambiguous.

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My arrival in Irkutsk immediately tells me that I've crossed a significant ethnic boundary. Though there are still Asian faces, the blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp features of a large proportion of the population speak of Europe. Fur clothing is everywhere.

Irkutsk itself is a promising introduction to Russian cities. The combination of Western European stone architecture and Siberian wooden buildings, offset by some drab Soviet-era blocks, is a pleasing one. With snow falling silently through the glow of the streetlights and gently dusting fur-clad heads and shoulders, the scene is exactly how I'd imagined a Siberian city in winter.

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The next morning, I leave the hostel with my hair still damp from the shower and it soon freezes up. This confirms what my steaming breath has already indicated - that Irkutsk may well be warmer than Ulan Bator but it's still sub-zero. Like on the train, indoor temperatures here are kept bizarrely high. There's a difference of about five layers of clothing between being inside or outside.

Gritting/salting/sanding seem to be unpopular, meaning negotiating the pavements and roads requires caution. I shuffle about as though I am infirm, jealous at how experience has enabled the locals to strut around with poise.

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I'm also surprised by just how little the birdlife seems to care about humans. Blue tits and great tits, which are among the most skittish of the visitors to an English garden, won't budge until you're about to tread on them. I'm not sure if the need to find food in this freezing climate overrides any fear of predators, or if people here feed the birds so much that they've become tame, but their confidence is Hitchcockian.

The local cats are as wary as any I've met in Asia but here they have evolved perfectly for the conditions, with shaggy coats and enough bulk to make a peckish Siberian tiger think twice.

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Heading west to Krasnoyarsk, it is clear we are entering a region that has experienced a fresh snowfall. The wooden houses are thatched in pristine white and the trees' branches, outlined and thickened by the snow, glisten pink in the dawn light. Even the spoiling effect of a dirty window can not conceal the beauty of the countryside.

Krasnoyarsk is nobody's idea of a tourist destination, with major local industries producing aluminium, refrigerators, and tyres, but the snow has blanketed some of its ugliness. The city council is even less of a fan of gritting than their counterparts in Irkutsk so I again slide my way around. Ironically, my hotel room's shower produces only scalding hot water, so I have to wash in the sink.

The city is not entirely charmless, with its churches being bursts of colour rising from the white ground. I visit a museum whose souvenir shop can only be catering to the export market, as their thermometers don't go below 0 °C - Krasnoyarsk often hits -40 °C in winter.

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My compartment-mates to Yekaterinburg are a young couple bound for Azerbaijan. They speak no English, though the husband is able to sing along to "Happy Birthday to you" when it comes on over the carriage radio. We pass the halfway point to Moscow and, somewhat later, leave Siberia entirely.

Magical in the grip of winter, the landscape holds my attention. As we trundle across a bridge straddling the Irtysh river at Omsk, I can see that the water is frozen. The railway runs past coniferous forests that bring Christmas back into my mind. I haven't been home for nearly a year, but it's impossible to share that mounting excitement with people who don't understand a word that comes out of my mouth.

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I generally try to avoid arriving in unfamiliar cities late at night, but the train schedule has forced this on me and the streets of Yekaterinburg are devoid of life as I trudge along them. With the temperature at -7 °C, a park bench is not a viable sleeping option so I'm dismayed when the cheapest room I can find is well over a hundred dollars.

Apart from my hotel bill, the most affecting thing I see in Yekaterinburg is the Afghanistan War Memorial, a sculpture showing a downward-looking soldier with a weary posture. The effect is one of resignation rather than pride, the snow covering adding an extra hint of the discomforts of war.

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The final leg of my Trans-Siberian journey is spent in the company of a dour older couple, whose frosty demeanour lasts for the best part of 1,700 kilometres. Approaching Moscow, we pass through suburbs of dachas, the country retreats that Muscovites use for summer escapes from the city. Though many are painted in bright blues and greens, those vivid colours are muted by the brilliance of the snow.

On my first night in Moscow, the temperature rises ten degrees, causing the snow to melt on the ground (good for walking) but also loosening whatever has been on the rooftops (bad for walking, as chunks of snow and ice plummet down without warning).

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Red Square acquired its name from the Russian word for "beautiful", that morphed over time into "red" due to the colour being an approximation of beauty in the long cold winter, however it's hard to find beauty in the grey and unfriendly sky. In these conditions, even St Basil's Cathedral appears leached of its garishness.

With Christmas so close, there are lights and decorations on the streets and within all the shops, stoking my own anticipation of the celebration to come. I was in Australia last year at about the same time, and was thoroughly disorientated by the southern hemisphere weather in December. For me, one important aspect of Christmas is that it comes at a bleak period, when being inside with vast amounts of food, a heap of presents, and friends and family provides a contrast with the wind and chill of the outdoors. Barbecues on the beach just don't have the same atmosphere.

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I visit St Petersburg and find the river Neva frozen over bar a central clear channel. Great slabs of ice are crushed up against the banks and there's a gusting wind eager to make its presence felt. A masochistic bride and groom struggle to keep their hair and clothing under control as they pose, goose-pimpled, against the backdrop of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

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It's something of a disappointment to then be back in England, where winter is defined by it simply being colder, duller, and rainier than the rest of the year. I can't imagine stumbling across Santa Claus' house here. But whatever the English winter's deficiencies, it's great to be home for Christmas. And I have memories of a proper winter elsewhere - the one I have seen from the Trans-Siberian's path across two continents.

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Posted by mohn 09:57 Archived in Russia Tagged winter railway europe russia trans-siberian mongolia Comments (0)

Adventure is just bad planning

Or, how not to see the Northern Lights

snow -2 °C

Norway might only have a population of about 5 million people, but it is a long and thin country. My flight from Oslo to Tromso covers a distance of well over 1,000km and the landscape becomes increasingly bleak and snowy as we drone on north. As I disembark from the plane, this marks the first time that I have ever set foot within the Arctic Circle. Unlike many other parts of the world at these latitudes, such as Alaska, it's relatively warm courtesy of the effects of the Gulf Stream but we're at the tail end of winter and there is still snow and ice everywhere.

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Even the main streets and pavements of Tromso are still partially frozen over, and away from the well-trodden routes the place is a skating rink. I have a flaky sense of balance at the best of times and I'm soon creeping around like an old man in order to minimise my chances of taking a tumble. Of course the locals are striding around in all kinds of footwear with no issues at all. When I do raise my head from staring at the ground, I can see that the town is in a beautiful setting, clustered beside the serene fjord and with snow-covered mountains along the horizon.

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It takes me a couple of days before I overcome my pride and dig out the overgrips that I bought in the UK precisely for these conditions, and I almost weep with the joy of finally being surefooted.

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Tromso is a tourist destination predominantly because of the Northern Lights. Its location within the aurora zone, its mild climate (by Arctic Circle standards), and its easy access by plane have combined to produce an aurora industry unmatched by anywhere else in the world. And that's why I'm here. With 2012 supposedly marking one of the 11-year peaks in the solar activity that creates the Northern Lights, and with March being one of the supposedly best months for viewing the aurora, I've come at a time that appears to maximise my chances of seeing something magical in the sky.

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The town is next most famous for its nightlife, which is surprising in that the enjoyment of its bars isn't really compatible with seeing the Northern Lights, as they both tend to be best at the same times of the day. I'm getting too old to be hitting bars on my own now but I'm on holiday, and the couple of occasions I do decide I fancy blowing £8 on a small beer, I find some good music and a clientele roughly half my age.

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It's not just the alcohol that's expensive in Norway. Eating out at even a modest establishment, such as a pizza chain, will set you back twice what you'd pay in the UK, more so when you factor in the drinks. My lunch generally consists of a heated-up panini from a corner store, which is still well over a fiver. Looking at vegetable prices in a supermarket, I see carrots at about £5.60 per kg (i.e. about 8 times the cost in the UK). However the hotels that I stay in both here and in Oslo are competitively priced compared with London, and the standard is higher.

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Tromso is by far the largest Norwegian town within the Arctic Circle, despite a population of only 70,000. It somehow became known as "The Paris of the North" during the 19th century, though the only vaguely credible explanation I can find for that is that travellers from further south bestowed the nickname when they found to their surprise that its inhabitants weren't all savages. A more representative comparison can perhaps be seen in the fact that Tromso is twinned with Grimsby.

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Its daytime charms are fairly discreet and it doesn't take me long to experience its main tourist attractions. Of most interest to me are the Amundsen connections. Though he is most renowned for his South Pole exploits, he led the first successful expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage (in the Gjoa), ditto for the Northeast Passage (in the Maud), and he was on the first overflight of the North Pole (in the airship Norge), so he was actually more active in the Arctic Circle than at the other end of the world. Tromso also marks the place where he was last seen alive - he left in a seaplane as part of an attempted rescue mission for an Italian explorer but is assumed to have crashed en route. Most of the wreckage, and all of the bodies, have never been found.

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The Polar Museum contains some informative displays about Amundsen and his compatriot and mentor Nansen, as well as a history of attempts to reach the North Pole by air. However most of the exhibits relate to trapping in northern Norway and Greenland. Whales, seals, reindeer, foxes, walruses, and musk ox have all had the misfortune to be hunted at one time or another, for reasons ranging from economic gain to simple sport. In these anti-fur days, it's strange to see how polar bear trappers such as Henry Rudi - who killed more than 700 of the beasts in the first half of the 20th century - were treated like celebrities. Animal rights aside, it's not like he was wrestling them - he was shooting them with a gun, so hardly a fair fight.

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The Polaria building has a unique design, representing ice floes pressed up against land. Polaria itself is devoted to exhibits related to the Arctic environment including the region's flora and fauna. I watch an excellent short film about Svalbard, a group of islands about half-way between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, which shows some amazing but bleak scenery. The Polaria aquarium contains some underwater tunnels, through which you can wander as bearded seals swim effortlessly around you.

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Possessing a similarly singular architecture is the Arctic Ocean Cathedral, built to resemble the mountains surrounding Tromso. Its enormous stained-glass window apparently lets in the midnight sun during the summer period when there is no night. Reaching the cathedral requires crossing a bridge that is exposed to a bitterly cold gale blowing along the fjord.

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With Tromso being such a magnet for aurora hunters, I'm actually surprised at how untouristy the place is. I see only a few souvenir stores, though I do wonder who on earth would want a troll figure as a memento of their visit. On Saturday night I eat at a cafe that I've seen praised on several travel forums but it's almost empty. And on Sunday evening it's virtually impossible to find an open restaurant. The fire evacuation instructions on the back of my hotel room's door are in enough languages to imply that guests come from all over Europe, though the flag used to represent the English version is some strange hybrid of those of Australia and New Zealand.

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But however untouristy Tromso might seem, there are still at least half a dozen companies going out every single night in search of the aurora. Because of coastal cloud and light pollution, you're best off getting out of Tromso in order to have a chance of good sightings. It's possible to hire a vehicle but, for a solo traveller unused to driving on such wintry roads, the cost isn't much different to going on a tour and the convenience factor of a tour is much higher. Though the most famous guides (e.g. Kjetil "Joanna Lumley" Skogli) are booked up weeks in advance, there are enough available seats overall that you should be able to get on a tour by booking on the morning of the day you want to go out.

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I'm not a fan of organised tours, and I've seen enough good photos of the aurora taken from inside Tromso that I decide to allocate 2 of my 5 nights to tours, with the remaining 3 nights left to my own devices. The day I arrive has the best aurora forecast for 5 years and I've even been texted by friends from the UK asking if I'm aware of this fact, so it's not a tough decision to sign up for a tour in such auspicious circumstances. Having lugged my DSLR and tripod from the UK, I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon acquainting myself with the delights of mirror lock-up and long exposure noise reduction.

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It's cloudy and cold as the 16 tourists in my group huddle and stamp their feet at the pick-up point. The minibus arrives, we all pile in, and the guide heads out of town. She says that the cloud is expected to break up in a couple of hours but she takes us to several places on the off-chance that we may get some clear skies earlier. There's a strong, gusting, keen wind that makes standing around outside quite unpleasant. And, unlike in most of the tour reviews I'd read, the engine is switched off whenever we stop so there is nowhere warm to retreat to if staring at unbroken cloud loses its appeal.

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Time passes but the cloud does not. It's exciting to think that this grey sky could somehow clear and erupt into the wavy green motions that I've seen in videos of the Northern Lights, but at the same time it also seems rather incredible that such a transformation could take place. Eventually the clouds start to tatter and we have sightings of stars and a resplendent nearly-full moon. But there's not even a sniff of the aurora.

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Several hours later, it's time to head back to Tromso. We've seen absolutely nothing and I haven't even taken my camera out of its bag, let alone set it up and used it. I'm also very cold and regretting not wearing my thermal leggings. Obviously, with nature there are no guarantees, but there's still a palpable sense of disappointment in the group, generated by a combination of the promising aurora forecast and the entitlement accrued from spending £80 per person. I get back to my hotel just after 2AM, irrationally disheartened. But the next day I speak to several people who had been on different tours the previous night, and I'm selfishly happy to hear that they too didn't see anything.

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I go my own way the second night, and decide to walk up to the cemetery behind Tromso in the hope of catching a display above the buildings and the fjord - a view I've seen in some of the best Northern Lights photos from the town. It's a steepish uphill walk, enlivened by the icy surface that constantly threatens to send me sliding back down. I'm wearing the maximal number of layers that I have brought from England - 6 on top, 2 on my legs - and the effort soon has me sweating. I would be less worried about falling if I wasn't also carrying some fairly expensive camera equipment.

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I reach a fork in the road and am confused by which direction I need to go in. But then I look skyward and, scattered among the few ragged clouds, I see faint movements. It's not blinding, it's not a deep translucent colour, and it isn't forming any of the otherworldly shapes I've seen in other people's photos, but it is most definitely green and it is most definitely the aurora. I enjoy it for a couple of minutes, breathing heavily through an open-mouthed smile, then hasten in search of the cemetery to set up my camera.

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Unfortunately the cloud is already moving in as I wend my way between the gravestones and by the time I've found a suitable spot and set up my tripod, the aurora has gone, barely 10 minutes after I first saw it. I know that patience is a virtue when it comes to the Northern Lights, so I remain in the cemetery until after midnight. There are a few further breaks in the cloud but nothing behind them, and the evening shows me little else but an overcast sky and the occasional snow flurry. I'm glad of my multiple layers of clothing, though the wind through the cemetery is blessedly minimal. On the way back to the hotel, I drop £9 on a cheeseburger from a kebab stall run by a Moroccan guy.

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The next night I decide to go back to the same place but a little earlier, however a steady snowfall sets in from mid-afternoon and it's soon clear that there'll be no chance of seeing the aurora from within Tromso. I take this opportunity to try a selection of beers from the local Mack brewery.

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The following day is even worse, with the snow starting around lunchtime. I ask the hotel reception guy about the forecast for the evening and he looks at some weather app on his phone with pursed lips. After a few minutes, he shakes his head then looks up and suggests that tomorrow would probably be better. This means that I will be pinning all my hopes of a mind-blowing display on my last night in Tromso.

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My last night will be my second tour, and the forecast for both the Northern Lights and the weather isn't good. However it had been even worse the previous night yet people had seen good displays, so I'm still hopeful, as is the guide. Though the same price, this is a much better-run tour than the first one. We get chocolate cake rather than carrot cake, the guide shows an informative slideshow about the aurora, and the minibus engine is left running constantly when we are parked, meaning that there is always somewhere to go to warm up.

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I speak to several of the other customers and am somewhat dismayed to find that they all saw the Northern Lights on one or more of the nights when I didn't go out on a tour. It's at this moment that I start to get a nasty suspicion that I've really screwed up my aurora-hunting. I should have gone on a tour every single night until such time as I saw the aurora. It was stupid to come all this way to Tromso and then not maximise my chances of seeing good displays. Sure, it is possible to see the aurora within Tromso but it's seen more often away from the town. And even though in my research I came across hardly any instances of people going on more than 2 tours in order to have success, it's careless for me to be on my last night in Norway still nervously crossing my fingers for some Northern Lights luck.

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This point is rammed home when we see little on this tour either, though I do capture the only aurora shots that I am to get on this trip. With the naked eye, I would never have even thought of pointing my camera in the direction that the guide is indicating as it looks simply like faint cloud. But I dutifully do as he says and, with a 30 second exposure, I finally see bright green. That's it, though, as this particular tour has a deadline of midnight to be back in Tromso, and of course we get this sighting sufficiently late on that we only get 10 minutes to observe it before we have to pack up and head for home.

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The one big positive about this experience is that my anticipation of seeing a good showing of the aurora has now been heightened significantly, and I'm already thinking about where and when to make another attempt. But I didn't really accomplish what I came here to do, and it's more than just the usual post-holiday blues that I'm feeling when I step onto the plane for the journey back to London.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:23 Archived in Norway Tagged europe norway tromso Comments (0)

The cold has a voice - it talks to me

In search of Amundsen, aurora borealis, and a-ha

snow 4 °C

Since returning to England from the last leg of my RTW trip in 2009, it would be fair to say that my income has been on the low side, certainly compared to the halcyon days when I earned a crust as an incompetent IT project manager. So my travels since then have remained at the budget end of the spectrum - a few days with a friend in Andorra, a visit to my sister in Sardinia, a 40th birthday treat to Venice in the low season via a £22 return flight on Ryanair. But the coincidence of two events leads me to Norway for this year's jaunt, the same Norway that is a regular contender for the title of the most expensive country in Europe. Sometimes you have to look beyond the money and consider the experience.

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The main attraction for me in Norway in 2012 is the Northern Lights. The solar activity that generates the Northern Lights runs on a roughly 11 year cycle, and this year is a peak in that cycle. I could wait another 11 years until I have (perhaps) more money, but I could also be dead by 2023, so it's easy to convince myself that there's no time like the present. With Tromso being one of the most popular bases in the world from which to see the Northern Lights, when I find some reasonably priced flights and hotel rooms I immediately book them.

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The second attraction revolves around my fascination with Antarctica, a subject that occupies more of my bookshelves than any other except general travel. 2012 marks the centenary of Scott reaching the South Pole, an achievement most famous because he and his party failed to make it back alive. Of course he wasn't the first man there - Amundsen and his team had already been and gone, and in fact were barely a week away from the safety of their main base at Framheim. The centenary of Amundsen's achievement was celebrated in December 2011, but by visiting Norway in 2012 I would be able to see exhibitions devoted to the "race to the pole" in both Norway and England.

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Further rationales include the rumoured high percentage of blondes, the hope of bumping into one or more of the members of a-ha, and a fair amount of curiosity at being a first-time traveller to Scandinavia.

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The flights work out in such a way that it's going to be most convenient to see Oslo first for a few days before flying north to Tromso. I peer out of the window as the plane descends to Rygge airport, noting only isolated patches of snow even though many of the smaller bodies of water seem to be frozen solid. It's brisk in Oslo but by no means unpleasantly cold. The guy next to me on the bus into the city centre is Ethiopian, as is the receptionist in my hotel. In fact, Oslo turns out to be considerably more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.

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My hotel is in the centre but, with Oslo only having a population of about 600,000, I don't get the sense of being at the heart of a bustling metropolis. The architecture is neat and tidy and there seems to be a liking for sculptures. Trams add a throwback feel but there's an overall lack of exoticism that almost seems familiar, to the point where I consistently forget that the traffic is on the "wrong" side of the road. But I know I'm not in England because the subway runs essentially on an honour system, and I can walk right up to the Royal Palace in a way that would get me shot at Buck House. It also appears that jaywalking is illegal.

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As a tourist, it's nice to be able to blend in (though I wouldn't have expected any hassle here anyway), and until I open my mouth people tend to assume that I'm Norwegian and hence can speak Norwegian (which I can't). English is so widely spoken that the only communication issues I have are with the occasional person who has immigrated from outside of Europe. No doubt part of the reason why Norwegians speak such good English is that English-language films are subtitled rather than dubbed, though I see some scope for confusion when the "Helen Zass" joke from "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" is rendered as "Helen Zarsk", which Google Translate tells me doesn't mean anything in Norwegian. Given the price of beer here, I'm interested when I see a sign outside a shop advertising "lager sale" but it turns out that that's the Norwegian for "stock sale" and the shop actually sells clothes.

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Oslo has dozens of museums, and I spend most of my time in the capital inside one or another. My choices are driven predominantly by connections to Antarctica. The Fram Museum is the obvious place to start, as it contains the ship Fram (meaning "forward") used by Amundsen on his South Pole expedition. You can go onto the Fram, and the lowness of the ceilings is further evidence - along with the people I've seen and the scalp-scraping frame of my bathroom's shower cubicle - that Norwegians aren't quite the tall race I'd imagined. The Fram was originally designed for Nansen's (unsuccessful) attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, an endeavour that Amundsen was later to accomplish although in the Gjoa (also at the Fram Museum). There are exhibits relating to all of Nansen's and Amundsen's exploring, which emphasise the skills that they learned from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic such as the Inuit. The combination of those skills (such as dog-sledding) with cross-country skiing (which the Inuit did not know) resulted in an optimal method of polar travel that is reflected in the number of Norwegian "firsts" in that field.

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Situated close to the Fram Museum is a memorial to the 5 men who comprised Amundsen's polar party. The memorial was unveiled on the centenary date by King Harald.

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I also see the excellent "Arctic Experts" exhibit at the Historical Museum, which further details the lives of the region's indigenous peoples and again emphasises just how much Amundsen learned from them.

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I look for my final piece of Antarcticana at the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, which supposedly contains Scott's skis from his ill-fated expedition, however I can't find them. I then activate my fear of heights by visiting the top of the famous Holmenkollen ski jump, which unnerves me not so much because I can see the ground, more because I know the jump has been built using a cantilever design so there's nothing but air beneath the floor.

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Having now seen exhibitions in both England and Norway regarding Scott's and Amundsen's expeditions, and framing them in the context of what I already know about each of the journeys, there are some stark contrasts to be drawn. Amundsen's team was better prepared, in that his men were all expert skiers and navigators and - in particular - they employed the techniques of Arctic peoples (e.g. with regard to dog-sledding and clothing) to great effect. Scott on the other hand did not prioritise dogs above Siberian ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, and it was this failing that largely contributed to his party's demise.

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Scott's planning was also somewhat quirky. He was still raising funds for the expedition even when he had already set sail, so it was quite a surprise to see that some of the money had been spent on items of dubious criticality. There were different sets of crockery and cutlery for the different ranks in his crew (whereas the crockery and cutlery on board the Fram were basic by comparison). The stores included 10 cases of Courvoisier and 450kg of golden syrup, which seems excessive (though I was pleased to see that 300 tins of sprouts had been taken, not to mention 45kg of the dried variety). And how any expedition carrying 300 tins of beetroot could be expected to succeed, I don't know.

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However it should be noted that Amundsen made up his route to the pole as he went along, since he was travelling through terra incognita, and hence he needed a slice of luck that a viable route existed. His expedition also produced little in the way of scientific knowledge, whereas Scott's significantly advanced the state of knowledge of geology, glaciology, meteorology, biology, and various other -ologies, data that is still being used today. It's a sign of just how engrained science was in Scott's mentality that about 15kg of rocks were found with his dead party, 15kg that could have easily been jettisoned to lighten the loads of men who were fighting for their lives. You could alternatively look at this as being simply foolish, but it can't be denied that Scott's focus in Antarctica was much more wide-ranging than Amundsen's. As such, the "race to the pole" is perhaps something of a misnomer, as the "race" aspect seems to have been predominantly on Amundsen's side.

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It's fashionable nowadays to view Amundsen as the meticulous planner, assimilating everything he could possibly need to know in order to reach the pole first, and Scott as the bumbling fool, a personification of the British Empire's hubristic assumption that it always knew best. But to draw that distinction is to iron out a number of subtleties that are in fact essential to the understanding of both men and their motivations. It's unfortunate that their differing experiences at the South Pole have cast such a shadow over their other achievements - Scott's death shrouding the broader scientific advances of his expeditions, Amundsen's triumph making his other "firsts" (e.g. navigating the Northwest Passage and overflying the North Pole) mere footnotes.

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Norway has of course produced famous explorers not exclusively associated with the polar regions, and the Kon-Tiki Museum gives me some insights into one of them - Thor Heyerdahl. I remember reading Heyerdahl's account of the Kon-Tiki expedition when I was a child, but at that stage in my life it merely seemed like a great adventure - I had no idea where Easter Island was, nor the significance of reaching it by sailing vessel from South America. Having now visited Easter Island and gained significantly more knowledge about how humans spread around the globe, it's fascinating to reacquaint myself with the particulars of Heyerdahl's expedition. It's by no means a disappointment that the prevailing scientific wisdom is against Heyerdahl's theory, even if he was able to demonstrate its practicability. The museum is home to both the Kon-Tiki and the Ra 2, the latter being the reed-built craft that Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados.

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Continuing the sailing theme, I also visit the Viking Ship Museum, containing two of the best-preserved Viking longboats that have been found. I'm surprised by the intricacy of their woodwork, as well as the complexity of the carvings on some of the artefacts that they were found with. In the UK, the Vikings are associated with raping and pillaging and I had never stopped to think that their warlike tendencies masked much of a culture. I make a mental note to visit the Jorvik Centre in York, an exhibit devoted to the Vikings that is mere metres from my apartment but which I have somehow neglected to pop in to.

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Norway has also contributed heavily to my taste in music but I find little in Oslo to indicate that the locals have taken my favourite Norwegian composers to heart in the way that I have. I was an enormous fan of a-ha in the '80s, and that liking has extended to the present day, though their later albums were a series of diminishing returns. 3 of their songs were in the select few that accompanied me on my 4 years travelling around the world. The only Norwegian that I had met prior to coming to Norway had dismissed them as "cheesy", and the only song of theirs I hear on my entire visit to their home country is "Lifelines" - by no means one of their most famous tracks - in a corner store. I also visit Stolper + Friends, an art gallery near Akke Brygge that is part-owned by Mags from the group, but my faint hope that he might put in an appearance is destined to go unmet.

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Grieg is the other Norwegian composer I have a liking for, though I rarely listen to classical music. In his case, the Peer Gynt suite provided the theme for a drama production I was involved in at school when I was about 8. I remember prancing about the school hall to the martial pomp of "In the Hall of the Mountain King", and moving slowly to the swelling beauty of "Morning Mood". It's a perfect example of music that now evokes a particular time and place. It's hard to know whether I like the music because the drama was so much fun, or vice versa. Grieg also cropped up in my teens, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" being one of the themes in the computer game "Manic Miner", and of course his "Piano concerto in A minor" features in perhaps Morecambe and Wise's best ever sketch. However I don't see or hear much of Grieg in Oslo. My other musical wandering in the capital takes me around and on top of the Opera House, a triumph of modernist architecture.

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Peer Gynt also appears on the Anchor Bridge (Ankerbrua), a crossing that separates downtown Oslo from the Bohemian neighbourhood of Grunerlokka. The bridge bears four bronze sculptures of characters from various fairytales, with the representation of Peer Gynt being a man on a stag - it reminds me that the story behind Peer Gynt, actually the play by another Norwegian, Ibsen, is not one that I'm familiar with.

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Norway has also been active in other spheres of culture, with Edvard Munch's "The Scream" being an iconic image of Expressionist angst (and providing the inspiration for the killer's mask in the "Scream" series of movies). I'm ashamed of my ignorance when I discover that Munch is actually pronounced more like "monk" would be in Northern England, whereas I'd always thought he sounded like "munch" as in "chew". It's interesting that several of his other famous works such as "Anxiety" and "Despair" make use of a similar background sky to "The Scream". However a unifying theme in all his paintings seems to be that of despair or expectations of future disappointment.

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After two solid days of museums, I devote my last day to simply wandering around, with the only entry on my itinerary being the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Of course Mother Nature chooses this day to lower the temperature and unleash a constant snowfall. Though York has a considerable Viking heritage, I note how differently people react to this change in conditions - in York, they would still go out in a T-shirt or miniskirt, whereas in Oslo people are covering up. With all this clothing, it's really difficult to tell just how many attractive blondes there are per square metre.

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The Vigeland Sculpture Park is truly an amazing sight, even in bitter cold with my fingers numb and my glasses attracting a layer of snow. It contains a couple of hundred sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, all depicting mankind in various (naked) emotional states. I don't manage to see all of them but what I do see is food for thought, creating a curiosity as to what passed through Vigeland's mind when he was sculpting them.

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It's still snowing lightly the next morning as I wait at a nearby hotel for the airport bus. The staff at Gardermoen airport whiz about on scooters, reminding me of their equivalents at Stockholm airport. I also find a bizarre apparatus resembling an inverted satellite dish on a pole, that chirps pleasantly if you walk near it. I don't know if it's supposed to lull you into imagining you're in the countryside rather than at an international airport, but it takes some of the sting off having to pay £5.20 for a couple of sandwiches.

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Shortly after, I'm on a flight to Tromso.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:25 Archived in Norway Tagged oslo europe norway Comments (0)

Showdown at Thomas More Square

Gathering of the most efficient contributors to the national grid? (5,9,12)

sunny 12 °C

Sartor Resartus, manciple, James Agate, madrepore, Cherubini, hippocras, Arethusa, and mor. Who would want to suggest a link between the words in this unlikely list? How many people would even claim to know the meaning or origin of each of them? Unfortunately, as a crossword enthusiast you are at the mercy of the compilers, who will thrust you into at least tangential contact with hundreds of words and names that you have never encountered before - which in my case includes all of the above. That is part of the pleasure of crosswords. That is also part of their curse.

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October has rolled around again and I find myself once more in the finals of the Times Crossword Championship. Reaching this stage is no great feat, as I suspect that anyone who submits a qualifying puzzle - no matter how incorrect - will be eligible to appear, but I am keen to improve on last year's showing, when I came 49th in my heat (one of two) after making four mistakes. My preparations this year have been similar - I bought two compilation books of Times crosswords back in July and have steadily worked my way through their 160 puzzles over the last three months. Though this is the same preparation that had such meagre returns last year, analysis of my completion times shows that my speed has definitely improved, even if my propensity for filling in wrong answers hasn't. My goal for this year's finals is to finish everything correctly.

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The venue this time is in London, versus Cheltenham last year and perhaps a sign that the budget for the competition has shrunk even further. The precise location is the offices of the Times, near Tower Hill and close to St Katherine's Dock. It's an area I haven't visited for nearly twenty years, and it's a surprise to exit the Tube and immediately be confronted with the Tower of London, flags flying under a warming sun. Just beyond is Tower Bridge, a structure that's only familiar due to its image being in countless tourist campaigns - this is maybe the third time in my life that I've set eyes on it in person. Looking back, I catch sight of 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Swiss Re building, aka the Gherkin - the last time I was in these parts, it wasn't even built. Like with many cities that I've traversed predominantly underground, I still find it hard to piece together a coherent picture of London's geography from the assorted snippets that I've seen in isolation from each other.

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I'm too early for the start of check-in, so I have a quick mooch around the area while I wait. Though Tower Bridge is already swarming with tourists, St Katherine's Dock is pleasantly quiet, its gently bobbing yachts and large outdoor cafes yet to show many signs of life. In fact everyone I see appears to be either going to a nearby gym, popping into Waitrose, or looking for the Times' offices - I recognise a few faces clearly engaged in the latter, faces familiar from either last year's event or the previous one I'd attended back in 1998.

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After checking in, I loiter in the lobby with some of the other contestants. It's a very similar crowd to before, mainly men in their 50s and older, with few young 'uns and few women. I wonder just how many teenagers even think of looking at a crossword these days, what with the competing attractions of Playstations and XBoxes, not to mention the bewildering spread of formulaic puzzles such as Sudoku. It probably doesn't help either that txtspk is taking up a greater percentage of people's "written" communication. I don't dwell on this for long, as a Times employee directs us to the bank of lifts that then whoosh us up to the 13th floor.

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There are two heats to be conducted, with the fastest twelve from each going forward to the afternoon's Grand Final. There are about 85 competitors in each heat. Many of the people know each other from previous finals, or from participating in online crossword forums, but I'm not the only one who stands around idly, enjoying the excellent views over east London.

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I'm in the first heat, starting at 11AM. I'm sitting just across from Tony Sever, who I recognise both from last year and from his avatar on the Times for the Times blog. David Levy has again been the organiser for this year's competition, and he takes us through the rules. The procedure is much the same as last year - exam conditions, three puzzles to be completed in one hour, instant disqualification if your phone rings. The standings are determined first by how many answers you get right, and then by how quickly you do them. The hour begins. [Note that unfortunately I don't have a copy of the clues ...]

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It's always nice to stick in a long answer, especially if it provides the initial letters of seven other answers, so I'm pleased to whack in CONSERVATOIRE in the first few seconds. In fact the whole of this first puzzle comes out pretty easily, apart from a screw-up on my part in first entering ILL-MOONED instead of ILL-OMENED. I'm left with two clues, one _N_O_Y which is something to do with a beagle (which concerns me as I fear it might be some obscure breed I've never heard of), and E_E_E_T, whose clue doesn't seem to fit either of the potential words I can think of (EVEREST and ELEMENT). Not to worry - best to plough on with the other puzzles then come back to these clues.

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Puzzle two comes out even easier. I'm left with just I_E_A_T, which I want to fill with ITERANT even though that doesn't fit the clue. I leave this too, heading to the final puzzle. So far I've spent barely 20 minutes.

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Puzzle three starts off horribly. I have to go all the way down to something like 28 ac before I can fill in my first answer (though there is a school of thought that says it's best to start at the bottom of the grid, as those are the clues that the compiler will have probably written last and hence may have lost interest by that point in constructing fiendish teasers). Barely a couple of answers later, I notice a hand go up somewhere off to my right - people are starting to finish. I feel a sense of urgency that is frustrated by the slowing of my progress, but then remind myself that my goal is to complete all the puzzles correctly, and I still have over half an hour to do that.

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Puzzle three gradually yields, though I don't do myself any favours by first filling in NATIONAL LOTTERY for an answer that I know must end in LOTTERY - subsequent clues mean I have to revisit this answer and finally end up with POSTCODE LOTTERY instead. Since I rarely fill in an answer unless I know it's correct, it's most unusual that I've failed on that score twice in three puzzles. I almost do a third, when my collection of Roxette albums tries to force me to enter LOOK SHARP when I have L_O S_A__ in the grid, but fortunately a crossing letter gives me a final T and the correct LOOK SMART goes in instead. I'm left with an answer which I'm almost 100% sure must be REPTILIAN but I don't understand the clue, as well as A_O_T (ABOUT? ALOFT? AFOOT?) More hands are going up.

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Returning to puzzle one, the wordplay reveals the beagle as - of course - SNOOPY. I then understand why ELEMENT is the correct answer to the other clue, as it is using it in the sense of "in his element". Puzzle two's solitary unanswered clue jumps out at me as INEXACT, so I'm left with the remaining two in puzzle three. I put in REPTILIAN as the wordplay indicates it must begin with REP, the definition fits the answer, and I can't think of any other words that are REP_I_I_N. I stare at A_O_T for what seems like an age. AFOOT seems the likeliest of the words that will fit, but I don't entirely get the clue. None of the alternatives seem any better so I figure that, with only 15 minutes left, I'm unlikely to have any brighter ideas. I fill it in, raise my hand, and my answer sheet is taken away from me. Now I can only wait.

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David Levy announces a five minute warning and then again when the hour is up. Since the fastest people were handing their papers in from barely 25 minutes into the hour, the top 12 finishers are already known and their names are read out. Even with my limited exposure to the finals, I can recognise many of the names as serial Grand Finalists. Everyone applauds.

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The top 25 finishers in each heat will also automatically qualify for next year's finals, and though the remaining 13 of these are not all yet known, Levy reads out the ones that are. The first name out of his mouth is "J. McCabe". That's me! I'm gobsmacked. There's obviously the possibility that there's another J. McCabe in the competition but it seems unlikely. I'll have to wait until the results sheet is pinned up, at which point I can then see if this J. McCabe has my desk number, but it certainly looks as though I've not only met my goal of completing all the puzzles correctly, but have also ended up right on the cusp of a spot in the Grand Final. I'm inordinately pleased by this.

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Contestants have already started to gather for the second heat, and I head out. I intend returning for the Grand Final at 3PM, so I figure I can wait until then to get the official results of my heat. I decide to take a stroll across Tower Bridge, which seems to have recently been painted - its blue girders are matched by a welcoming sky. The views up and down the Thames are clear on this sunny October day. My mood is good.

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I then wander over to the Gherkin and explore its surrounding streets - not many pedestrians but plenty of traffic. I wend my way back to Trinity House and then realise I could do with some lunch. None of the fancier cafes particularly appeals so I seek out a smaller venue and take my time savouring the life-shortening tastiness of a greasy fry-up.

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Returning to the Times' building, I find an official results sheet which does indeed confirm that I came 13th (actually joint 13th) in my heat. Unfortunately, and unlike previous years, there is no indication of how many minutes I was behind the 12th-placed person - the timing aspect has been summarised simply as "finishing order". However there are still some interesting facts revealed by the results:

i. More than a third of the contestants completed all three puzzles correctly.
ii. Timewise I actually finished joint 21st, but eight people ahead of me made one or more mistakes, i.e. there are plenty of people faster than me at doing the puzzles but, at least today, some of them are more careless than I am.
iii. One competitor finished one puzzle correctly, got nothing right (or didn't attempt anything) in the other two, and handed their paper in 7th - I have no idea how such a situation could arise.
iv. Apart from the competitor mentioned in iii, the lowest score was 31/90 - this speaks to my earlier comment that I suspect that anyone can qualify for the finals simply by entering the qualifier.

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I also find the answers (though not the clues) for the second heat, and I get the impression that the second heat was harder. Similar to the first heat, 7 of the first 12 finishers made one or more mistakes.

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Spectators are allowed for the Grand Final and are also able to do the puzzles at the same time as the competitors. This exercise demonstrates just why it was a good idea that I didn't qualify for the Grand Final - I don't finish even one of the three puzzles correctly, and in fact I only answer correctly 73 of the clues in the entire hour (16 of the 24 finalists get everything right, with the 24th competitor getting 75). To no-one's great surprise, the winner is again Mark Goodliffe, rattling off the puzzles in just 24 minutes. He is presented with the winner's cup by Peter Biddlecombe, a previous two-time winner but now ineligible due to being the crossword editor of the Sunday Times. This is Mark's fourth win in a row, a streak that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon as his speed is simply a level above anyone else's. Everyone applauds.

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Overall, I'm extremely pleased with the day's events. Having set myself the goal simply of getting all the puzzles right in my heat, I've done that as well as doing them at a speed faster than I could have hoped for. The next target is obviously to reach the Grand Final. Though I was probably only a couple of minutes away from reaching it this time, that was also due to a number of faster competitors making mistakes, which is not a state of affairs that I can rely on every year. Plus my performance on the Grand Final puzzles would have placed me last, and that was while doing them as a pressure-free spectator. As ever, this means more practice, more reading, more analytical development, in preparation for next year.

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One consolation is that I know I've been a part-timer compared to many of the top crossworders. I've bought a newspaper on average once per month this year, and that has usually been the Independent, meaning that my exposure to the Times has been simply the two books of crosswords that I bought in the summer. Thus I can easily up my game by doing the Times puzzle on a regular basis, though it is a tad annoying that the only newspaper that charges for its online crosswords is ... the Times. Of more concern is that many of the best people are also regularly doing harder crosswords such as the Listener, or even working as compilers, and I don't know if I have the time (or, frankly, the ability) to immerse myself to that extent.

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With the championship being in London, this gives me an excuse to do some sightseeing as well as catch up with friends who, for reasons unknown, have all resisted the invitation to visit me in York. Much as I love these occasional trips to the capital, they always remind me why I never want to live in London again - exhibit A is the Tube, which is just awful with its horrendous crowds and stuffy atmosphere.

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Fortunately the weather is nicely crisp, meaning I can walk instead. I pop into the Natural History Museum for the first time in many years - in fact, the interior is so unfamiliar that I question whether I've ever been inside. The building itself, inside and out, is as much an attraction as the exhibits, in particular the sculptures of living and extinct animals that sit majestically near the roofline. However it's awash with school groups first thing in the morning and I soon move on.

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The Royal Geographical Society has a temporary exhibition showing comparative photos of glaciers in the Himalayas. The "before" photos are from a hundred years ago or more, taken in black and white by the early European explorers of the region. The "after" photos were taken by David Breashears, a well-known climber and documentary-maker, in the early noughties. It's clear that there has been tremendous shrinkage of the glaciers in the interim.

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I haven't yet found a decent dim sum joint in York, so I take the opportunity to visit one of London's recommended restaurants. Leong's Legend has three branches throughout the capital and their speciality dim sum is the soup-filled xiao long bao. I can not get enough of these things, and am fairly certain I could eat them breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several months before tiring of them.

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My brief stay all too soon comes to an end and, on the coach journey north, I resume the learning process that will be necessary if I am to improve in next year's Times Crossword Championship. Bohea, Richard Dudgeon, bis, orfe, sorosis, Tom Towers, rouge dragon, ...

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[Note: it's debatable whether this entry should be on a travel blogging site, but my blog here relates to any and all trips that I take away from home for whatever reason. As such, it qualifies. My apologies if you were hoping to read something useful about London.]

Posted by mohn 15:37 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged london england times championship 2011 crossword Comments (0)

Mist and musings in La Serenissima

Does life begin at forty?

overcast 6 °C

I feel as though I already know Venice, despite never having been there. Like the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids, the city has been featured in so many magazines, documentaries, films, paintings, and books that it is more familiar to me than certain places that I have actually visited. I can picture St Mark's Square and the Rialto bridge without difficulty. I can imagine gondolas moving serenely down the Grand Canal, straight out of a Canaletto canvas. I can just about convince myself that Venetians go about their daily business in carnival masks. Though I have no idea of the actual geography of the city nor how its atmosphere changes over a 24 hour period, I'm certain that I already know the pieces that comprise this puzzle. My trip to Venice, in the middle of a cold January, will allow me to put those pieces together.

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The city sits in the Venetian Lagoon, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The day I arrive, a thick mist permeates the lagoon and the causeway appears to stretch away into nothingness. Mist and cloud will be almost constant companions during my stay, making photography challenging but lending an air of mystery to Venice's canals and alleys. Buildings coalesce out of the grey, ghosts of the city's illustrious past.

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I take a crowded vaporetto from the bus station to St Mark's, thrilled at the glimpses of churches and palazzi that loom out of the murky air as we head down the Grand Canal. The notion of a city built on water is hard to visualise but that is Venice's situation, supported by millions of wooden piles reaching down through the lagoon and marshy sediment to rest on clay. Venice is best seen from the canals, with many of its most striking frontages simply inaccessible by land. It's an absolute must to spend at least one day viewing the city from the water.

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Venice is divided into six sestieri with buildings numbered uniquely within each one. This address system is not helpful to newcomers, and the city is the first place I've ever visited where I regularly see people using their iPhones to navigate. It's easy to get lost, with frequent dead-end alleyways giving the option of either jumping in a canal or retracing one's steps, but it's difficult to get really lost - you're rarely far from one of the yellow-arrowed signs to St Mark's or the Rialto bridge or the station. Failing that, there are enough churches and museums to correlate with your map, and if the worst comes to the worst you know that the lagoon provides a natural barrier to just how far you can stray. It's a great city for aimless pottering, and perhaps more of Venice's real heart can be found in the further reaches of Dorsoduro or Castello than in the tourist-clogged arteries around St Mark's.

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However it's not so amenable for anyone in a wheelchair, as most of the bridges are equipped only with stairs - a fact that the many tradesmen must curse daily as they drag their handcarts up and down the steps.

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The room I have taken is on a quiet side-street mere minutes from St Mark's Square, and I make a morning pilgrimage to the basilica on each day of my stay. There's a thrill to seeing its Byzantine weirdness with my own eyes, even though the weather ensures it's never under the just-so lighting conditions that I've seen in photos and on TV. The styling is immeasurably warmer than the austerity of my own city's great cathedral, York Minster, from the uneven floor evoking the sea to the golden mosaics gleaming in the gloomy recesses of the ceiling (though the lights are switched on for a period around midday). It's a pleasure to walk through the square in the early morning, footsteps echoing, before the tour groups descend.

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There are umpteen museums and galleries given over specifically to the preservation and enjoyment of art and architecture, but the entire city is a showcase in its own right. I prefer my culture in small doses taken frequently, a preference that I can indulge by simply picking a different sestiere in which to ramble, but I also tick the boxes by visiting some of Venice's grandest landmarks.

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The Doge's Palace leaves me cold, but only literally. Apart from the first couple of rooms, it's absolutely perishing inside and I'm not inclined to linger. The opulence, though, is staggering, the sheer size and scale epitomised by Tintoretto's "Paradise", supposedly the largest oil painting in the world. Like in many of the places I am to visit, the lighting is sufficiently subdued as to make it hard to discern any detail. It may well be that the sunny days of summer are needed to provide enough natural light.

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I'm intrigued by the palace's bocche de leone, letterboxes in the shape of a lion's mouth through which, centuries ago, it was possible to post anonymous denunciations of crimes or misdeeds. The map room contains two globes of epic dimensions, one showing the earth and one the sky. A stroll through the armoury makes me consider that being shot is perhaps preferable to any of the slicings, choppings, and bludgeonings that were part and parcel of mediaeval combat.

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The ticket to the palace also includes entry to the Correr Museum. I'm particularly taken by a woodcut from ~1500AD showing an "aerial" view of Venice, whose amazing detail is courtesy of a group of surveyors who drew perspectives of the city from designated high points. Their coordinator, Jacopo de' Barbari, then combined the best of them. I'm also amused by a pair of women's sandals with soles half a metre deep, designed to keep the wearer's feet out of the mud.

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My densest art fix takes place in the Accademia Galleries. I was expecting a vast collection requiring multiple days to take in, like the Louvre, but it's considerably more compact - a mere 29 rooms. The first room has a ceiling of cherub faces, giving me flashbacks to Debre Berhan Selassie in Gonder, Ethiopia - a similar idea but totally different execution. In amongst the paintings of Titian, Veronese, Carpaccio, and other Old Masters, I am drawn to the drama of Tintoretto's works - in particular, St Mark zooming into the frame of "The Miracle of the Slave" like some superhero. It's a bizarre anomaly that Canaletto, the painter who I think of first when I think of Venice, is represented so poorly in the city. Many of his paintings actually found their way to England, commissioned and bought by noblemen undertaking a Grand Tour.

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The Great Upper Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco deserves a mention for its art, despite being cold and dimly lit (if you buy postcards of any of the paintings, you'll see just how poor the lighting is for the naked eye). Its walls and ceiling are covered by enormous canvases depicting Biblical scenes, most from the paintbrush of Tintoretto. The effect borders on overwhelming.

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My mistiest day coincides unerringly with the Sunday when I have planned to cross the Giudecca Canal to visit the church of San Giorgio Maggiore (St George the Great), perched on its own island. I wait at the San Marco vaporetto stop, watching the moored gondolas slap and buck with each tidal surge. With the lack of visibility, and occasional toot from another vessel out there, somewhere, the journey across feels like it is in the middle of the ocean. On San Giorgio Maggiore island, duckboards are laid out between the vaporetto stop and the church entrance, a sign that the acqua alta (high water) has recently made its presence felt, but they aren't needed right now. I admire the floor in the chancel, which has been tiled in such a way as to give the illusion of climbing steps (I am to see this elsewhere in Venice). Unfortunately the Sunday-only Gregorian chant is accompanied by an organ, which takes away something of the purity of voice alone.

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Lured on by the feast of churches and stately homes listed in my guidebook, I cover a great deal of ground in my ten days. Though by the end I would not pretend to remember the precise order and location of everything I have seen, there are numerous impressions that crowd together in my memory - the OTT ornateness of Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre), St Catherine of Siena's shrivelled foot in the Basilica de Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul), the welcome sight of free toilets in Ca'Rezzonico, the trompe l'oeil ceiling in the Chiesa Sant'Alvise (Church of St Louis), the unexpected rash of shops on the Rialto bridge, the eerie tomb of Doge Pesaro in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the different chimney styles in Campo della Maddalena, the foot marks on the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) where fights between rival gangs were conducted, the Jewish area for which the word "ghetto" was first coined, the price of a new gondola (€25,000), the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Tits) where the Venetian state encouraged prostitutes to stand topless in order to combat an apparent rise in homosexuality, the discovery that Chiesa Santa Maria Formosa (Church of the Shapely St Mary) was named due to the Virgin appearing in a vision as a voluptuous woman, and many more.

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I have one piece of sightseeing that's prompted more by the written word than any of the visual arts. While travelling through Africa in 2009, I read "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers, simply because it looked the most interesting item in an otherwise unpromising hostel library. The book is set in Venice and concerns the spiritual awakening of a recently-retired English spinster, Miss Garnet. The narrative is interwoven with a re-telling of the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha, whose main characters are Tobias and the archangel Raphael. Miss Garnet's stay in Venice contains a number of connections to the Book of Tobit, with the most direct being her liking for the (real-life) Church of St Raphael, which sits off the tourist track in the heart of Dorsoduro. The comments book at the church contains many entries along the lines of: "So glad I read Miss Garnet's Angel and found this beautiful church." There are no references to Miss Garnet in any other language, so I can only assume the novel was either never translated or never found favour in non-English-speaking parts of the world.

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I re-read the book whilst in Venice, noting that Miss Garnet was also a graduate of Girton, as well as first visiting Venice in January. That's where the similarities end, though, as I'm rather younger than her, male, and considerably less repressed. However I find the theme of discarding the habits of a lifetime to be an appealing one, in particular the inevitable pain and disappointment that accompany lessons learned the hard way. There's an aching regret in the book that I can empathise with from my own experiences. If I was searching for a destination in which to start over again, to begin my life anew, Venice would be on the shortlist. With its history of creativity, even while transforming from a mercantile powerhouse to one of the world's most touristed sites, I'm sure it could not fail to provide an inspiring environment.

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Renewal. Birth. Birthday. Age. Getting older. Pondering what life is supposed to be about. These are subjects that have been uppermost in my mind recently, because I turned forty just days ago. In fact this whole trip is a fortieth birthday present to myself, a small extravagance for someone more used to low-key celebrations. I find myself something of an anomaly among my peer group, most of whom are married with children and in the rat race. I left the rat race several years ago and I don't really see a family in my future, so I have a question mark about what the (presumed) second half of my life will bring. But, frankly, many of those thoughts are now enveloped by the joy I feel at simply being in Venice, the excitement of seeing new things. Is there any need to worry about the future if, right now, I'm perfectly happy? I conclude that I can start worrying about my age when I no longer have that kind of joy in my life.

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Of course, Venice is not without its annoyances too. Encounters with dog excrement are all too frequent. (Another animal disappointment for me is that cats are a common theme on items in the tourist shops but I see only a handful of live ones during my stay.) There is an irrational urge experienced by too many tourists in St Mark's Square to scatter food on the ground, thus causing all pigeons and seagulls within 200 metres to converge on them in an aggressive low-flying flock. It's somewhat jarring to find the full range of global fast-food chains - all packed with customers - in a city where you can pick up bread, cheese and prosciutto, not to mention a bottle of prosecco, at any number of delis. There is little in the way of public seating, which can be a drag if you've been on your feet for a while. There is an almost total lack of any special illumination at night-time - with so many gorgeous buildings, that just seems like a missed opportunity (I'm guessing there must be some local ordinance preventing this).

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The low season has the great advantage that tourist numbers are at a minimum, though that still means thousands of visitors per day and I hear non-Italian voices throughout the city - Chinese, Japanese, American, Australian, and all kinds of European tongues. But I'm more surprised by the selection of nationalities working in the tourist industry. The restaurants I visit are staffed by Chinese, Indians, and Bangladeshis, a state of affairs that I've not seen anywhere else in Italy. In my global travels, I've been so used to English being the European language that non-Europeans know that it's weird to me to find non-Europeans whose only European language is Italian. That said, most people - of whatever nationality - still insist on responding to my laboured Italian with English.

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The flip side to the low season is the inclement weather. In addition, the maintenance cycle is at its peak, with every building in St Mark's Square at least partially obscured by scaffolding.

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Ten days is too short a period for any tourist ennui to set in, and I never tire of the novelty of the numerous shops selling carnival masks, Murano glassware, and marbled paper items. I've seen plenty of tat on my travels around the world, and it's a surprise to be spoiled for choice for mementos that I actually like. Luggage restrictions ensure that my purchases are all small and will fit into the gaps in my 25 litre rucksack, the one exception being a cute lithograph of a cat gazing at the city skyline, that I buy with birthday money from my sister.

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As the end of my stay draws near, I find that I've barely dented the full range of sights and experiences that Venice can provide. I've already started harbouring thoughts of a return visit, perhaps in the shoulder season when the trade-off between weather and tourist crush is at a sweet spot, and it's comforting to know that I'm not close to running out of "official" sightseeing activities, not to mention the infinite unplanned incidents that can arise from ditching the map and simply roaming.

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I leave Venice with a sense of satisfaction. This misty city has shown me that there is nothing to fear about the onset of my forties, that I will have no need to fret about the future as long as there are still places that can bring me happiness. And while that might not be the most that I want from life, it's certainly a pretty good minimum to fall back on.

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Dull but possibly useful info

i. The bus service from Treviso airport to Piazzale Roma costs €10 for a return, and is valid for 10 days. It takes about 40 mins. There are about 10 departures per day in each direction.

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ii. I stayed at Locanda Antica Venezia, close to St Mark's Square, paying €59 per night for an ensuite room including basic breakfast (which I only had once, as the window of 8:30-9:30AM was much too late for my schedule). There's free wifi, though you may have to be in the reception area to use it. The room was compact (a bit too warm for me, so I had the windows open all the time), and had a fridge (actually a minibar, but there was enough space to squeeze in cheese/prosciutto). Of the two reception staff I had dealings with, one was exceptionally helpful (and spoke great English), the other was friendly but completely clueless (and spoke little English and had difficulty with my poor but serviceable Italian). I would definitely stay here again - I think it's very good value for such a central location.

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iii. The Chorus pass costs €10, lasts for a year, and gives you entry to Museo di Santo Stefano and the churches of Santa Maria del Giglio, Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, San Giovanni Elemosinario, San Polo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Stae, Sant'Alvise, Madonna dell'Orto, San Pietro di Castello, Santissimo Redentore, Santa Maria del Rosario (Gesuati), San Sebastiano, San Giobbe, and San Vidal. This is good value if you're a church fiend, as individual tickets cost €3 each, i.e. visit just four of the places with the pass and you've already made your money back and more.

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iv. Entry to the Accademia Galleries is €6.50.

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v. Entry to the Musei di Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square Museums), i.e. Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace - opens at 8:30AM), Museo Correr (Correr Museum), Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum), and Sale Monumentali Bibliotheca Marciana, is €12. There is another ticket valid in high season that also includes one other museum of your choice (I can't remember the options, though one is definitely Ca'Rezzonico).

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vi. Entry to Ca'Rezzonico is €7.

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vii. Entry to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is €7.

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viii. Entry to Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre) is €8 and includes an audioguide (for which you need to leave ID as a deposit). It's open 9:30AM-6PM.

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ix. Entry to Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul) is €2.50.

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x. St Mark's Basilica opens at 9:45AM. Come around midday if you want to see the ceiling lit up.

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xi. Note that photography is banned outright in most churches, and the few that are less strict still ban flash. I resorted to buying postcards of anything that I was forbidden from photographing.

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xii. Ditto for the art galleries, though the only one I visited that allowed any photos at all was the Accademia Galleries, which did ban flash. You're not allowed to take photos in the Doge's Palace, though photography seemed to be tolerated in the interior courtyard.

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xiii. Individual vaporetto tickets are rather expensive, so it's best to try to squeeze your vaporetto usage into one or more 12 or 24 hour periods, for which there are better value tickets.

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xiv. Many (all?) of the vaporetti go in both directions, so make sure you're getting on one that's going your way!

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xv. There are Billa supermarkets on Strada Nova and the Zattere, and possibly elsewhere too. However if you're simply looking for some basics to make sandwiches then there are plenty of delis to choose from.

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xvi. There are pretty much no free public loos anywhere, though the toilets at Ca'Rezzonico are accessible without entering the site.

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xvii. You can find all my Venice photos here on Flickr.

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Posted by mohn 01:31 Archived in Italy Tagged venice italy europe venezia veneto Comments (0)

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