Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Let us never forget the Holocaust
UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day kicked off the 2019 events for the New Zealand World Peace Bell in Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We (NZ World Peace Bell Association) willingly provide the Christchurch venue for the New Zealand Holocaust Centre. It happened about three years ago when Holocaust Centre people approached our member David Bolom-Smith saying they would be keen to hold a remembrance event in Christchurch if a venue was available. David considered the event fitted with our WPB ideals. As founder of the NZ WPBA, I agreed. UN Holocaust Day has since been included in our Calendar of bell-ringing events. The third Holocaust event in Christchurch happened on Sunday January 27.

 January 27 is the Remembrance Day unless the day falls on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
The NZ Holocaust Centre provides the programme. Of the 50 plus people attending this year, about 12 were WPB members. Amongst special guests were; Andrew Turner, Deputy Mayor of Christchurch, Duncan Webb, MP for Central Christchurch and the Very Reverend Lawrence Kimberly, Dean of the (transitional) Anglican Cathedral. Special quests had to light one of six candles, each one representing 1 million of the innocent, mostly Jewish, people murdered owing to their race.
 Deputy Mayor, Andrew Turner, gave a brilliant address which was largely echoed by other speakers.  . As individuals we do not make government policy. But we do need to stand up to racism, bigotry, anti-antisemitism and anything else that divides people. Racism is frequently a by-product of a government's immigration policy.

We need only see what is happening in many countries in an effort to divide people. US President, Donald Trump, likely leads the pack with his blatant support of white supremacy and his proposed border wall to keep Mexicans out. In the UK, Brexit is largely about stopping the free movement of people between Continental Europe and Britain. Neo Nazism is infiltrating politics in many countries. Neo-Nazi demonstrations have caused havoc in Melbourne, Australia. One member of the Federal Government shamefully attended, even claiming his $3000 travel expenses from taxpayers.
In many countries, groups are targeted owing to their race and, or, religious identities.  
 This is at a time when the British newspaper Guardian reports one in 20 people in Britain do not believe the Holocaust even happened. Another eight percent say the scale of the Holocaust is exaggerated.  Figures are from a poll commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a government-funded organisation established to educate about the Holocaust. Figures echo findings from similar surveys carried out in seven European countries in   November 2018.In the US nine per cent said they were unaware of the Holocaust. This is not to conclude those surveyed were Holocaust deniers. But people with little awareness of what happened can swallow myths and distortions. Most people agree there is a need for more education and consequently awareness of the Holocaust. It is no secret that those most ignorant of history are most likely to repeat it. On a positive note, Holocaust centres, established in many countries, initiate events to mark UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

At earlier Christchurch events a police presence was noticed. They kept their distance from the WPB venue and, I noticed, were enjoying chatting to children in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Maybe a worthy PR opportunity for Christchurch police officers.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Bruges is in Belgium

Did you see the brilliant movie In Bruges? Two bit men, having completed a big job, are ordered to cool their heels in Bruges. It is a crime-comedy confirming hit men do not make the best tourists. Hence their slogan, ``Shoot first. Sightsee later.’’ The movie makes excellent use of Bruges settings including the 15th Century 83 m-high Belfry, an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the medieval Market Square, Groenungermuseum, established in the former Fekhurt Abby, fine cathedrals and canals.

The Belfry

 It was the magnificent settings that prompted our detour to Bruges (Flemish spelling is Brugge). I noticed the rail terminal used the Flemish spelling. Our accommodation in the West Flanders capital was the agreeable Ibis Budget Hotel close to the railway station. From there, it was an easy, and pleasant, walk to the city centre. It is called a city despite a population of barely 118,000. Bruges is virtually a museum in real time. It also offers the world's most sumptuous waffles –if shop displays are not deceiving, and chocolates. Chocolate is modelled in amazing creations including comprehensive sets of tools –spanners, pliers, nuts and bolts. Even the most intimate of human body parts are fashioned in chocolate. (I will not share those photos.)

Waffles on show

 Belgium beer, of course, needs no introduction. We made several visits for a pint or two at De Halve Mann, a brewery since 1856. These days it remains a brewery with added cafe/restaurant. Our visits were such, we were recognised by the pleasant staff.  Popular brews include Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry) and Bruges Fool.

                                                           Enjoying Belgium beer

We visited magnificent Cathedrals including Church of our Lady. Amongst its many treasures is a sculpture Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. I may not necessarily share the faith the church represents but standing in awe of the splendid building and its exquisite decorations, I had to admire the faith that prompted those who constructed Church of our Lady over the 13th and 14th centuries. Its 122 m. brick steeple is one of many Bruges landmarks.

Church of our Lady
 A Bruges visit is not complete without a boat excursion of the seven-kilometres of canals. The canals are formed from the original Bruges defence ramparts. Excursions include seeing popular landmarks and being informed by an excellent live commentary. A feature is a five-tonne blue whale sculpture made from waste plastic sourced from the ocean.

                                                      Evening canal boat trip
The whale appears to be leaping from the canal. Evening is an ideal time for a canal boat excursion. 
The medieval market square is a key attraction. It is ideally surrounded by cafes and bars. The bar we chose for a pint curiously had plastic glasses. I asked the barman if the customers get boisterous. ``Only if they are Irish,’’ he replied. I assumed he was Irish.

                                                                   Bruges Market Square
Groenungermuseum was entered after beating a trail through the pleasant Fekhurt Abby grounds. We rushed to get there soon after arriving in Bruges owing to it being closed the following day, Monday. We were keen to see paintings utilised in ``In Bruges’’ movie. We found Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement and Judgement of Cambyses – the judgement and flaying of the corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes by artist, Gerard David. The sordid event belongs to the fourth century BC. Belgiums considered it still relevant in the fifteenth century. The two-panel work was completed in 1498. It was hung in the Bruges judgement hall as a warning to magistrates to administer fair judgement without corruption.    

                                                           The Last Judgement
Bicycles also identify Bruges. Belgium people love to ride their bicycles. Citizens commute by bicycle. They meet by bicycle. Age is no deterrent. We also encountered a group on veteran bicycles. Cyclists have traffic laws running in their favour. Hence, unlike in New Zealand, they are respected by motorists. One way streets in Bruges are two-way for cyclists. And citizens make the most of their cycling-friendly environment. Cyclists do, however, face hefty fines for misdemeanours such as riding without hands, or feet, and using a mobile phone while cycling. Carrying an adult on a pannier rack is another serious offence. Wearing helmets is not compulsory but is recommended. Most don’t bother. I thought I would not want to come a cropper on those cobble stones if I was not wearing a helmet.

                                                               Cycling for all ages

Everything about Bruges, including the September weather, was so agreeable. Little wonder we decided to stay an extra day.
                                                          Stopping for a pint in Market Square

                                                Colourful window box

Monday, 7 January 2019

If God made a railway
It is said in the bible (first chapter of Genesis) God made the world in so many days. Two human beings were added. From the account it would appear God was satisfied with his effort. It has me thinking, what if God was to make a railway?
I suspect it would need to run a twisting course through wonderful landscapes. Landscapes would include mountains. Mountains typically have descending ice glaciers. Add-ons would include rushing rivers, larch forests and broad lakes. A bright red train would run through the wonderful landscape.  People might need to reside along the railway. They would live in neatly manicured villages with tall-spired places of worship. Undoubtedly, God would be satisfied with the effort.
God did not make a railway. He trusted that assignment to descendants of those first two human beings. God exercised remarkable patience. It took those descendants until the early twentieth century to create a railway of note. It happened with the opening of Switzerland’s Rhatische (RhB) Bahn. The railway’s remarkable engineering features combined with spectacular landscapes was eventually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. God would have, indeed, been satisfied. And it has its bright red train running through it. Known as Bernina Express, it is arguably the world’s Number One scenic train ride.

My partner, Haruko, and I made a return trip on Bernina Express from Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, to Tirano in Italy in September last year. It was the prefect autumn day. Each way is 156 km taking about 4.25 hours. Not exactly Express train timing but it’s still an Express train. Overhead electric power is 1000 V DC on the old Bernina line and 11 kV AC elsewhere. The leading three units on our train are an ABe 8/12 class railcar built in 2010. The railcar frequently operates independently but having a power of 2400 kW, also serves as a locomotive. The power unit operates seamlessly on both DC and AC supplies.  Swiss mountain railways are metre-gauge. The Bernina Express route is all adhesion with grades up to seven percent. Carriages are modern Panorama units. They ride exceptionally well. In the vestibule I discover a small window I can slide down. It is perfect for my photography. An early spectacle is Landwasser Viaduct built in 1902. Sixty-five metres high, it is along a 130 metre curve leading to a tunnel portal in the sheer rock face. The viaduct is supported on six graceful arches. They were built, precariously, without the use of scaffolding.  Each arch had an iron tower at its centre around which brickwork was made. Each pillar had a crane at its apex to haul up building materials.

The railway follows the natural landscape rather than the landscape being modified for the railway. Hence much of the railway comprises spirals within mountains. Inside mountains, the Bernina railway cris-crosses valleys several times. We are informed of details via a multi-lingual commentary. Of the many tunnels, Albula, under a pass of the same name, is the longest at 5865 metres. It was built between 1898 and 1903 utilising mostly manual labour. As with many engineering features on New Zealand’s railways, it was built with `pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.’

Bernina Express stops for 15 minutes at Alp Grum station. The station is also a restaurant and hotel owned by the RhB. We are able to alight to view the Palu Glacier.
It is also an opportunity for our train manager and entertainer, Renato to deftly demonstrate his pouring of Graff Piezo Schnapps. The glass is placed close to the open bottle top. As the pour starts, Renanto extends his arm full-length leaving the schnapps forming a long arch. I do not know if this is a Swiss tradition. It was introduced as entertainment in the dining car of another famed Swiss rail journey, the Glacier Express. Seems the idea simply extended to Bernina Express.  I pay six CHF for a glass to enable a photograph. I ask Haruko to hold the glass but when she returns it, it was empty.   Another six CHF is paid for more photographs. The Graff Piezo is so, so, good.

Alp Grum is in one of Switzerland’s rare Romansh speaking regions. Romansh closely resembles Latin. Principal Swiss languages and dialects are; Swiss German, French and Italian. Swiss are also competent English speakers. Bernina Express continues in climbing mode until we are skirting Lake Brianco (a water storage facility formed by damming two natural lakes) and Bernina Pass at a dizzy 2253 metres.

A key feature along the descent to Tirano is the 107 metre-long circular Brusio Viaduct. One of the railway’s most photographed features (albeit best viewed from above), it scribes a complete circle.

We have a one-and- a -half hour break at Tirano. Just time for a very Italian basil pasta lunch and gelato ice-cream. Then it is back on board to experience the magnificent train ride in reverse.
Note For best value be equipped with a Swiss Pass or Euro-Rail Flexi pass. Seats need to be pre-booked. A booking fee applies.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Scaling heights –the easy way
Switzerland is a compact country. About 7.5 million inhabitants squeeze into a land mass similar in area to Canterbury and Westland in New Zealand’s South Island. Fitting their country, Swiss people might be compared to an oversized Kiwi (New Zealander) struggling into an all-too-small pair of jeans.
No-one would call Switzerland’s landscape of Alps compact. Despite their impressive heights, some can be easily summited with a combination of mountain railways and cable cars.
It is no secret I have enjoyed scaling mountains sometimes with crampons strapped to my boots. And always having a long-handle ice axe to lean on and arrest an accidental glissade. Heights have also been scaled by bicycle –the pinnacle being Cole de la Bonnet (2802 m) in French Alps. The most recent summit achievement was Stanserhorn (1898 m) in Switzerland’s Nidwalden Canton. Stanserhorn is part of the Uri Alps. Interest in Stanserhorn was sparked several years ago Fabienne Huber, a Stanserhorn marketing guru visited the Christchurch Tramway and met motorman, Ken Henderson. Her visit was just prior to the devastating Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Contacts were exchanged at a time when I was planning a solo trip to Switzerland to tackle some outstanding bicycle journeys.
Fabienne treated me wonderfully when I visited Stanserhorn in September 2010.
I took a day trip from Luzern. A 20 minute train ride landed me in Stans, a short walk from the Stanserhorn Bahn terminal dating to the 1890s when a three-section funicular railway was opened. 

Upper sections of the railway, wiped out following a lightning strike and fire in October 1970, were replaced by a cable car in 1975. The funicular equipment operating on the lower section was likely the same as were there when the funicular opened in 1893. It was then one of the world’s longest funicular railways and first mountain railway to be powered by electricity. The conductor, Robert, treated me well with the best seat for views and a running commentary.

From the top cable car station I summited Stanserhorn. It’s a 15 minute walk up and down passing some skittish entertainment that included a Heidi house. Poor Alpine views were amply compensated by Fabienne’s lunch hospitality in the Stanserhorn revolving restaurant.

I was informed about upcoming changes in the form of CabriO a double-deck cable car. An impressive poster was displayed at the Stanserhorn Bahn base station. CabriO opened in June 2012. It is designed to carry 60 people on the 1100m vertical climb over the 2320m long cable. Climbing at eight metres/second, the CabriO ride is just over six minutes.
Returning to Switzerland in September 2018, with my partner, Haruko, Stanserhorn and its new CabriO were high on the agenda. I had since met Fabienne again in Christchurch. She wanted to experience the post-quake city. She filled us in re CabriO, particularly its safety features to eliminate woes associated with other European cable cars. CabriO is the innovation of Swiss cable car manufacturer, Garaventa AG. CabriO is Swiss from the original concept to the last screw.  It was the world’s first cable car with an open upper deck.
Our trip up Stanserhorn is postponed one day. We meet Fabienne for coffee and chat. Next day’s weather is promising. Against the odds I am somehow at Stanserhorn Bahn in time for the first funicular railway departure at 8.15 am.

 It is chilly and cloud is low on the mountains. The funicular trip is much as it was eight years previously. We transfer to Cabrio and head for the open deck as if we are metal objects drawn to a magnet. . During the fast climb through cloud it resembles something from Biggles. What little hair I have is ruffled in the stiff breeze. Being early we have the open deck almost to ourselves. The freezing morning contributes to our free space.

Mountain peaks increasingly play hide-and-seek with clouds. At the top station we have burst into clear blue sky. The view above the clouds presents the great peaks of Central Switzerland –Monch, Jungfrau and Eiger. We have been landed in an Alpine wonderland suspended magnificently above sunlit cloud and fog. As the morning warms CabriO intermittently arrives with its upper deck crowded. Stanserhorn is undoubtedly one of the best experiences in Switzerland.