Travel update

I’m halfway through my 10-week-long trip and I haven’t updated in a month. The only excuse I can offer is that I wanted to include pictures, but my relationship with Flickr has turned out to be strangely complicated lately, and the whole process of uploading them (often via dodgy hotel wifi) has just seemed too hard.

Actually, I’m noticing something new in my picture-taking this trip. Just as, a few years ago, I purged any book from my shelves that was effectively obsoleted by Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg, now I am avoiding taking pictures that would be available by a Creative Commons image search. What’s the point of taking a photo of Notre Dame when so many other people have done so already, and undoubtedly better than I could? Sure, a photo of me standing in front of Notre Dame would actually have some individuality, but I’m not that big a fan of photos of myself in random locations, so I haven’t been doing that. Instead I’ve been carrying around a somewhat clunky, heavy camera (not a DSLR or anything, but an Olympus PEN camera) and using it to take pictures of odd, quirky things here and there, which I might as well just use my iPhone for. Ah well.

So, places I have been since my last update, and what I thought of them.

The week in A Coruña for the conference was a mixture of hanging out at the conference venue, sleeping in the university residence where we were staying because I had come down with a fairly nasty cold, and a bit of wandering around the city. I saw the ancient Roman lighthouse, but didn’t go inside; I spent more time wandering around the old part of town looking for food than I really wanted to; and I found a pretty good craft/artisan market near the bus stop where I had a awkward (due to language incompatibility) but pleasant conversation with a handweaver and bought a linen and alpaca shawl she’d woven.

On the second-last day, I daytripped to Santiago de Compostela, just 40 minutes away by train. Touristy, but I felt okay about it, somehow, knowing that it was a thousand-year-old pilgrim site and that many of the tourists had walked a long way to be there.

After the conference I took a night train to Madrid (cramped, overheated) and whatever the Spanish equivalent of a TGV is to Cordoba, in the southern part of Spain that had been Islamic during the middle ages. I loved Cordoba, its narrow streets and white-and-ochre houses with their courtyards and fountains. The cathedral-inside-a-mosque (or “mosquedral”, as I like to call it) was mindblowing. The city was hot and quiet and empty, as all the locals had gone on holiday, but I spent a few pleasant days wandering around and sitting in parks and eating tapas and drinking cheap wine. I’d love to go back to Andalusia and spend more time exploring its other cities and its architecture and its food.

On to Barcelona, which I hated. Crowded and unpleasant and I spent the whole time worried about people trying to steal my bag. To be fair, the Gothic quarter is pretty cool, and the Barcelona History Museum is amazing, especially the parts of the Roman town that they’ve dug up and you can walk around in the basement. The bits that fascinated me most were the dyeworks with the stone troughs still stained blue, and the place where they made garum (fermented fish sauce) in enormous round pots. I’m not much into Gaudi, so though I went past some of his works (the Sagrada Familia, etc) I didn’t get off the tourist bus to actually go in. I did try to go to Parc Guell, on the recommendation of many friends, but I’d somehow got the impression that it was a park, with, you know, green space. Actually it was a pile more building-sized Gaudi blobs, crammed full of tourists, and it made me angry. I got straight back on the tourist bus, and two stops later found myself at a 13th century convent (Pedralbes) which was operating as a museum, free on Sundays, and had a beautiful courtyard with fountains and grass and trees and no more than a handful of tourists, none drunk. I spent half a day there.

I’d heard that the food in Barcelona was amazing, and it was the best I’d had so far on the trip, but I don’t think it was enough to make it worth the unpleasantness of my visit. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I had been with friends and we’d been able to sit around and drink and eat and enjoy the nightlife. As it was, I found some delicious tapas that actually contained vegetables, which after a couple of weeks of subsisting on not much else than ham, and not seeing anything greener than an olive, was lovely. I had a wonderful dish of spinach, chickpeas, and some kind of pork that pretty much made my week. At a pinxtos place in El Gotic, I had a tartlet with some kind of sweet fruit paste, goat cheese, and fresh mint, and another where a sort of fish salad was topped with fresh dill and tiny slivers of candied lemon peel. They were delicious. And yet, I have lots of delicious food at home. Coming from Melbourne, it takes a lot to blow my mind, and Barcelona didn’t manage it. Sorry.

On to Avignon, which I was using as a stopover and to have a quick minibus tour of Provence because, well, if I’m going to pass through I may as well take the time to look around. It was, as expected, very scenic. I visited a lavender farm where I saw sweat-sheened young men exerting themselves heaving bales of lavender into a still to make lavender oil (they were well aware of their decorativeness, and posed for photos; there was also a tip jar for them by the exit), any number of medieval villages full of gift shops, where I wondered how or indeed whether anyone actually lived there full-time; and the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct, which was pretty awesome — you actually walk across it, or rather across a modern footbridge set up right next to it, close enough to touch. For the most part, though, Provence rubbed me the wrong way. I think I associate it too much with the sort of people who use it as a style of home decoration, and the result was that it all felt terribly twee to me. It didn’t help that the place was packed full of gift shops that seemed dead set on promoting that sort of thing: “Provençal” table linens made in China, and whatnot. Ugh.

Then the TGV to Lyon, and then a local train from there to meet Anatsuno who lives in an adorable little village, in a house that’s about 500 years old and is right on the village square, next to the bakery. We spent a lot of time sitting around, knitting, and eating cheese. By this point I really needed a few days of downtime, and especially of not walking on cobblestones in barefoot shoes, as bits of me were pretty achey. One day, though, we went to visit the Romanesque church at Anzy-le-Duc, which was gorgeous, and filled with amazing medieval frescos. My last night there, we went into Lyon and stayed over at another friend’s house, where there was a cluster of fangirls and pizza and watching Vividcon vids and then, in the morning, a visit to La Droguerie (the famous French button mecca) before the train.

My next stop was Strasbourg, or rather Mutzig, a little town just outside Strasbourg. I stayed with some people from AirBNB, who turned out to be an ex-sysadmin-perl-guy-turned-professional-origamist, and his wife who’s a guild-trained painter who does things like restore Medieval churches. They were completely delightful, as was their village. On my first full day I went back into Strasbourg, which was an interesting architectural and cultural change from the more southern areas I’d previously been in: definitely more German, with lots of steep-roofted half-timbered houses and sausages and the like. On the second day, my hosts offered to take me for a drive up into the hills to sample some of the local food and wine, which was utterly delicious. I had some kind of pork thing in a creamy sauce with mushrooms, and spaetzle, and the local pinot noir, Rouge d’Ottrott, which is unusual because Alsace mostly goes for white wines. Anyway. Strasbourg and environs: surprisingly awesome!

After that I went to Paris, but I’ll save that for a subsequent blog post. I’m glad to have caught up this far, at least.

From Madrid to A Coruña

Yesterday I took the train from Madrid to A Coruña, a six hour trip that caused a fair bit of consternation among the GNOME people who brought me here. I’ve been telling anyone who asks that I’m not in a hurry, I like to see the countryside, that I’d rather not have the environmental guilt of an unnecessary flight, and that I just like trains. All this is true, but people seem incredulous til I tell them that after this conference I’ll be spending another two months taking trains all around Europe. At that point I guess they put me into the “mildly eccentric tourist” box rather than the “bizarrely idiosyncratic business traveller” one.

When you take long-haul trains, it’s always a toss-up whether the scenery’s going to be interesting or whether you’ll end up going through boring farmland and the semi-industrial back-lots of small towns. This trip had a bit of both, but there were enough cute villages, medieval churches and old buildings in various states of ruin to keep me watching out the window.

The land west of Madrid is mostly flat with dry, yellowing grass and plantations of trees (mostly some kind of conifer? I couldn’t place it) and, delightfully, sunflowers. I was on the sunward side of the train for most of the trip, so the sunflowers on my side were facing away from me, otherwise I would have attempted a photo out the window. It was actually a bit strange to pass through a Mediterranean landscape without seeing Australian flora. I found myself looking out the window for eucalyptus trees or familiar scrub along the railway tracks, but there was nothing I recognised.

Heading into Galicia, the land got greener and hillier, and when I arrived in A Coruña the weather was mild and damp, compared to the blasting furnace of Madrid. At A Coruña, I ran into some other GUADEC people and got a ride to the conference accommodation, which is a university residence up in the hills. Driving up there along winding roads through the university campus, with the car windows open, I got a sudden whiff of something. I looked around but couldn’t find the source. Then we rounded a corner, and I found a whole bank of eucalypts planted along the road, letting off their scent as if after rain. I don’t like to think of myself as one of those people who is always looking for the familiar when travelling in foreign places, but I guess I am one. I suppose being pleased at the presence of Australian native plants is a fairly mild version; I’ll reassure myself that I’m not one of those tourists who eats at McDonalds all round the world.

Anyway, after meeting some people at the pre-reg and reception, a restless night’s sleep, and a pretty decent breakfast (so glad there were decent protein options! I’d been worried), I’m now at the conference itself, about to watch Jacob Appelbaum’s Tor keynote. Onward!

Europe 2012: The travelog begins

So, here I am in Madrid, after about 30 hours in transit. I flew Emirates for the first time, and Emily was right — they’re pretty good. Went via Changi where I didn’t have time to do any of the fun stuff you can do there if you have a long layover, a brief pitstop at Colombo which is notable only because it afforded us a Sri Lankan curry for breakfast (yay! I would eat curry for breakfast all the time if I could), and Dubai, where I found myself thinking a lot about the dark side of Dubai and how much of their prosperity is built on slavery. Then I remembered that I lived in the US, and, hey, the former British Empire. So. I don’t have any answers to that, but I will say that coming into Dubai around 5am, with the sun rising through a haze that made it impossible to see the horizon, I saw a lot of compounds on the edges of town, ringed with security fences and lights, before we got to the bits that are trying to look like Versaille and/or something out of science fiction.

We flew over Cairo and Alexandria before crossing the Mediterranean to Spain. After a lot of very dull desert, it was amazing to see the Nile and its fertile plains and the sprawl of civilisation that’s grown up around it. Most of the fields under cultivation are all long and narrow, like English ones before enclosure, and a fairly uniform dark green. I realised I have no idea what they grow there. Most of my knowledge of Egypt stops somewhere around where year 8 ancient and classical history and “curse of the mummy” type pop culture left off. Also on the ignorance list: Tunisia and Algeria, or at least the coastal bits of them, are way greener than I expected.

Crossing Spain from the Mediterranean coast to Madrid, I saw what I think must be citrus plantations: regular specks of dark green against the yellow-brown land like the dots on a Roy Lichtenstein piece. Couldn’t help thinking a lot about Stephen Maturin and about Sharpe. I suspect they will be my regular companions over the next couple of weeks.

After landing, there was a painful and frustrating episode at the airport involving trying to buy a SIM for my phone, which I’d rather leave behind me (albeit with a credit card chargeback against the assholes in question); the Internet, especially the Prepaid With Data Wiki, was entirely right and I subsequently went and got a working, non-phone-crashing SIM just like they said.

Finally Google Maps-enabled, I headed out for a few hours wandering round to keep myself awake and see a bit of the city. I didn’t go much further than a few blocks from where I’m staying, but here’s a picture of the Royal Palace:

Three people stand looking through an iron fence at the Palacio Real.

That’s one end, not the front view, which is even bigger. Apparently Philip V, who built it (or rather, who decreed that it should be built, and then had others do it for him… at least I presume so) died before it could be finished; it was meant to be 4 times larger. I read that there is a guided tour of the “50 most important rooms” and my feet hurt just thinking about it.

Tomorrow I’m planning on a little more wandering, before I get aboard the train to A Coruña for GUADEC. Here’s hoping it goes through interesting countryside, and not just the back sides of industrial areas as all too often happens with passenger rail in Australia and the US.

The Itinerary Of Dooooooom!

Okay, I think I’ve got it together enough to post. Here’s where I’ll be in Spain, France, and the UK between July 24th and October 8th. If you’re in any of these places and would like to catch up for a beer/coffee/meal/tourist adventure, let me know. If you’ve travelled in any of these areas and have tips, let me know.

(Exceptions to request for tips: yes, I already have a Eurail pass; yes, I know about booking British tickets well in advance via thetrainline.com; yes, I know the Olympics are on at that time and know about getaheadofthegames.com.)

Summary:

July 24th-August 7th: Spain, including Madrid, A Coruña, Cordoba, Barcelona.

August 7th-21st: France, including Avignon, a friend’s place nearish to Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris.

August 21st-September 30th: England and Scotland, including the south coast from Dover to Portsmouth, London, York, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol, and Cornwall, with shorter side-trips along the way to various stuff.

October 1st-8th: Back through France and Spain to Madrid, and fly home.

More detail

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Keynoting GUADEC, travelling in Europe

This is exciting! I’ve been asked to keynote GUADEC, the Gnome Users and Developers European Conference, in A Coruña, Spain, at the end of this month. I’ll be talking about my experiences with the world of open stuff since I stopped primarily being an open source developer a few years ago, about the ways open source software has inspired other movements, and about what we can learn from those other open projects in turn.

After the conference, I’ll be sticking round for a couple of months (side note: damn, I’m glad I already dropped out of school and didn’t have to make that decision in a rush) and playing tourist and visiting friends in Spain, France, and the UK, travelling extensively in all three countries. If you live in any of those places and would like to catch up — or even better, offer crash space — please let me know! I think there will be a couple of group gatherings in London at least.

Meanwhile, has anyone had experience travelling with the ebook versions of the Lonely Planet guides? How did you find them? I’d love to avoid carrying a couple of bricks around with me, but I’m wary about their usability, especially as the sample chapters available through iBooks crashed the app. Just in case it’s relevant, I have a first gen iPad and a Nook onto which I side-load books using Calibre. (Not being in the US, I can’t use the Nook store. If anyone knows workarounds for that, I’m interested to hear them.)