Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Pillars of the Earth

... as Ken Follet would describe cathedrals. In the interests of brevity I'm going to lose the standard chronological narrative and describe Prague somewhat more haphazardly.

The Charles Bridge, which my guide book insists should be the first thing to visit, is completely pointless in the middle of the day. You'd be better off staying at home and Google searching "pictures of statues".  Fortunately, you don't have to go astonishingly early to beat the crowds - before 10 is sufficient. If you go before 9, it seems from the webcam, you'll have the place to yourself. And while under the right weather conditions I imagine it is probably a very impressive bridge indeed, there really isn't any good reason why the mass of the crowd at midday is enough to generate its own gravitational field.

About 9:30am.
Around 11am. Where did the bridge go ?
Petrin Tower was a much more rewarding visit. The funicular was out of service so I took a pleasant walk straight up the hill through some extensive, well-kept and almost empty gardens. The tower itself is described as a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, which it isn't, but it does give a very good view of the city indeed.

A more unexpected find in Petrin gardens was an observatory. Arecibo may win the title of most iconic telescope, while the Sphinx may claim the most exotic location, but ┼átef├ínik is probably in the running for having the best-kept grounds. It's in a freakin' rose garden, for goodness sake.

Petrin hill also offers a very good view of St Vitus cathedral, the heart of Prague Castle. The Castle is also the thing I should visit first, according to my ever reliable and self-consistent guide book (well, it was free). Although there are a few elements of fortification, it's really a disparate collection of historic buildings. And it's none the worse for that.

The castle area has been in continuous use in one form or another since around 870 AD. The exhibition hall gives an excellent and thorough description of the full history of the site, from pottery dated to around 5,000 B.C. (the fact that something as simple as a pot can survive for seven thousand years should be more than a little overawing) right up until the modern era.

The centerpiece, St Vitus, is truly resplendent. Begun in 1344, no-one seems to have gotten around to consecrating the place until 1929. At that point - one assumes - its use as a brothel and a opium den finally had to stop. Construction work is an ongoing project, so in that sense it's been in the making for over 650 years. It's survived fires, wars, and countless regime changes. Yet it turned out alright in the end. Here's to another 650 years, St Vitus.

So far I've climbed Petrin hill with its observation tower, the Astronomical Clock tower, and of course the hill to Prague Castle itself. I couldn't very well not also climb the south tower of St Vitus. This was definitely the most taxing of the viewing towers, partly because it's taller than the others (96m compared to 60m for Petrin tower and the Astronomical Clock) but also because the stairwell is a classic medieval spiral staircase. There are a few small windows into the tower interior, but generally you're stuck in a very narrow stone enclosure until you reach the top.

There are no passing places, but fortunately - and very surprisingly indeed - there were hardly any other tourists. Maybe half a dozen, not more. In contrast, the Astronomical Clock was heaving (the queue took half an hour before I could even go up; at the top itself things are verging on shoulder-to-shoulder), though Petrin tower was somewhat more pleasant. In terms of the best all-round experience solely for viewing the city, Petrin tower is probably the best, in my opinion. But for God's sake don't let that stop you from visiting the other towers too.

Prague Castle does have a few places I would more normally expect from a castle. One is the Powder Tower. This offers somewhat uninteresting exhibits about the Prague Castle Guard, though the history panels are more engaging. More fun is Golden Lane, which has a huge collection of medieval armour and a torture chamber. I also got to shoot a crossbow (for the rather obnoxious price of £1.50), though I only managed to hit the board once. Oops.

Finally there's the Prison Tower, which has all the mod-cons you'd expect from a medieval dungeon. Prisoner cage and rack as standard, with a special offer on solitary confinement... lower your prisoners through a tiny hole to a pitch-dark cellar by means of a metal harness. History is not for the squeamish.

Saturday, 26 October 2013


After a week spent battling against a cold and addressing such vital necessities as, "where is my next meal coming from ?", "do I need any more toilet paper ?" and, "how can I ride dragons in Skyrim ?" I finally ventured out into the big wide world to see my latest adopted home.

Whenever possible I prefer to explore on foot and without any kind of set plan. I grabbed my free map from the airport taxi, hopped on to the Metro and for no particular reason, got off 20 minutes later at Wenceslas Square. The guide book doesn't have much good to say about it :

"Wenceslas Square should be the central and main attraction of the capital. Instead it is quite dilapidated and noisy, and after dusk it is better not to venture there at all."

What the frak ?? This is categorically NOT TRUE. If you want a dilapidated town square, see Arecibo, where the buildings are full of trees.

Whereas in Wenceslas Square, you'll find this :

The particularly grand building is the National Museum, sadly closed for renovation until 2016. But dilapidated ? Utter nonsense. Nor is it noisy or or a bad idea to visit it "after dusk". I was there after 8pm on a Saturday and it seemed little different to how it was in the morning, except that it was dark, and if anything less busy.

I decided to head up to the Astronomical Clock since this entailed a walk through the really rather nice square and looked easy to find on the map. And it was - just follow the crowds. The narrow, labyrinthine streets are crowded, no getting away from that (the wide open squares, however, are not - Wenceslas Square "can and has comfortably held 400,000 people", says my guide book).  But the crowds don't really matter, because the atmosphere is very pleasant. I mean this literally as well as figuratively. I don't know what it is about Czech food, but the smell of cooking from the vendors at the end of the square is particularly intoxicating. In the end I opted for a sausage in a baggette*, which, unlike most other street food, tasted as good as it smelled.

* This is the basic unit of street food. You can probably find it on distant planets where the atmosphere is mostly methane and the inhabitants have seventeen different words for "marmalade".

The Astronomical Clock was more impressive than I was expecting. For a start, it's almost at eye level, so it's easy to see. Parts of the mechanism are original and date back to 1410 (perhaps even earlier - no-one's really sure), but over the centuries it's suffered many disasters and reconstructions. Nonetheless, it's an ornate and beautiful feature.

What really won me over was the fact you can can go up to the top of the tower for a proper look at Prague. Here's where not reading the guide book pays off, because that way everything's a surprise bonus. £3 is well worth it for the view alone, though I maxed it out by walking up (instead of taking the lift) and reading the information panels.

Just as the clock itself isn't too far above ground level, so it is with the tower also. It's low enough that you not only get a good view of the nearby buildings, but you also hear everything happening at street level, like the street musicians. Prague, in short, seems to have a convivial atmosphere not found in other cities except at Christmas.

From the tower I decided to make for the Charles Bridge, which in this case is something I did actually plan to visit. Built in 1357, it's lined with gothic statues and is a major tourist attraction, so it seemed like a safe bet. Unfortunately it's a victim of its own success, because by 11am there's really no point going. It's simply rammed, verging on impassable. Why this should be I'm not sure. It certainly is a very nice old bridge, but it doesn't let you see into the future or turn base metals into gold.

There's a bridge behind the crowds.
The bridge is also lined with street vendors, mostly artists selling pictures, and also entertainers. In this case a string quartet playing.... Britney Spear's Toxic. I did a double-take when I walked past. Though I'm not sure how I recognize the song at all, because all I remember is that the video is one definitely best enjoyed with the mute button on (Britney may have the musical abilities of a dead duck that's just been sat on by an irate hippo, but she did have other... talents).

From Charles Bridge I walked up to Prague Castle, sipping a hot mulled wine from a polystyrene cup as I went. There needs to be a word meaning complete and total contentment, because that's what walking through Prague on a crisp October afternoon sipping hot wine is like.

I only wanted to have a look at the castle, because the guide book says that visiting every part of it can take at least 4 hours. It's not really a castle in the traditional sense (maybe it was once, I don't know), more a collection of historic buildings. Like this one - St Vitus cathedral, which has been an unsightly blot on the landscape since 1344. Honestly, I don't know why the locals put up with it.

St Vitus is practically youthful compared to St George's basilica next door, which was founded in AD 920. I mean that's just silly. Later, after I went back to the institute for a short while, I went there for a concert featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Suffice to say that I now only wish to hear music if it's played in an 8th-century stone resonance chamber.

After that I went back, buying some trdelnik from one of the many street vendors in Wenceslas Square. This is something I thoroughly recommend, and I hope it becomes popular worldwide (but gets a better name). Charles Bridge remained crowded, but nowhere near to the extent it was earlier in the day. Possibly this was because there were now two huge eyes keeping watch on everyone at either end of the bridge.

The waterfront also featured a bizarre yet undeniably interesting art sculpture :

This is a mass of illuminated plastic spheres arranged - I suppose - to look like a cloud. The tendrils hanging down are pull-cords so that passers-by can turn the lights on and off. Wonderful - even if it does look like something that's about to attack the Enterprise.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Off I Go Again

Immediately following the ridiculous Alpine jaunt I visited Prague - ostensibly for a short workshop but mainly for a chance to meet everyone ahead of time. I don't actually remember much of this at all, on account of being clinically brain dead at this point. I saw virtually nothing of the city, retreating to my hotel every night with all the grim determination of a tortoise that's being chased by a larger, slightly faster tortoise with big nasty teeth. Or something.

It was quite a nice hotel. No tortoises though.
I recycled the last talk I gave at Arecibo, even though it didn't really relate to the workshop topic. These days I've gone for maxing out the theatrics rather than the science. I start with a movie of 11,710 galaxies, go on to unveil a large glass brick* and end with the hydrogen detections of galaxies more than a billion light years away. Next time I give this talk I plan to get the audience to wear old-style red-green 3D glasses.

* At least I would have if it didn't cost £40 for checked baggage with easyJet. No way is any airline going to let me bring a two kilo solid hunk of glass in my hand luggage.

The one thing I do remember about Prague is that the head of the Astronomical Institute lives above his own bar (at least he co-owns it) in a 12th century water mill, which is reached via a small bridge that's illuminated by two flaming torches. I don't think I need to say anything more at this point.

Then I went back to Cardiff, collapsed for a week, then spent the next week failing miserably to install FRELLED on a Linux network. Apparently this is a Herculean task which is even less fun than having to use Linux in the first place.

I left for Prague again (this time actually leaving) immediately after my 30th birthday. That would have been a scarier event had I not been ID'd in a pub that evening (bearing in mind that the drinking age in the UK is 18) when no-one else was. Two of the latest PhD thralls (aka minions, aka students) decided to get me a Playboy mug (I've known them for 5 days ! must be doing something right...) and then insisted I drink a wide variety of drinks from it. Which at some point involved the dregs of everyone else's drinks...

Stay. Classy.

I just about managed to fly business class from London to Prague - "just" because I reached the gate with 10 minutes before it closed, there having been extreme traffic early in the morning. I now reap the rewards of air miles from my gruelling transatlantic flights, so can fly around Europe from £25 with BA. Truth be told there wasn't much difference flying business class on a 2 hour flight except for the food, which was objectively good. That is, it was good even by the standards of restaurant food, and not just compared to airline food in general.

There's not much to tell about Prague yet apart from some passing observations. Obviously, it's nice to be sweating profusely the whole time. It's also nice not to have everyone instantly realise I'm not a local (blonde, bearded and bespectacled not being a very Puerto Rican look). Someone even handed me a leaflet advertising... English lessons.

Err, yeah, thanks ! Let me just run this through Google Trans... oh.
The language barrier is definitely rather thinner than in Puerto Rico, though of course some people don't speak a word of English. I'm about 3 miles from the city center here, very much on the outskirts of the city (this is Europe, so everywhere is tiny and ancient). Fortunately it's pretty obvious which foods are which (there's even Marks & Spencers, which sells proper British bacon and tea, thank heavens) and the public transport tickets machines have information in English.

Familiar as brands like Marks may be, they are in very unfamiliar settings. Marks was only the second thing I saw on entering a shopping center. The first thing I saw was a pair of iguanas mating. Either that or they were very good friends. They were in a large tank in the side of a wall but not actually in a shop window, making the whole thing a bit mysterious.

I'd heard that Prague had a hedonistic underbelly, although live
iguana sex shows in a shopping center weren't what I anticipated.
That's all for now. Tune in next time when I report on the nice bits of Prague that everyone is actually interested in, without any shopping centers at all. I promise.

(and to those who only signed up because of all the CG projects I was posting a while back, fear not ! They shall return... soon.)

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Rewards of Victory (II)

Last time I left readers as I was leaving Interlaken by means of a time-travelling funicular. Something like that, anyway. From Interlaken we went to Zermatt, which I give huge brownie points to for being a town where cars are banned. The reason being that smog could obscure the view of the town's very famous and very pointy mountain. Bloody marvellous. An example to us all, if you ask me.

The very famous and very pointy mountain was not immediately visible because it was raining. Zermatt in the rain is... well, it's alright, I guess, but you'd be hard pressed to understand what all the tourists are doing there when they could be in the much larger, better-equipped Interlaken. Fortunately (we were only there for one night) the weather cleared up in the evening and I discovered how to take long exposures with my camera.

That was the view from the hotel room.

The next day the weather continued to time itself with... well, Swiss precision, but especially for us. We took a train to Gormenghast (OK, it's really called called Gornergrat, but they should change it for obvious reasons) where we discovered a second mountain observatory, again with no information for passing scientists on holiday, but this one overlooking one of Europe's most famous mountains. And some glaciers and whatnot too. Also, Rhydian continued his search for his falcon, now named Caruthers for reasons that escape me.

We also found that Swiss German is a downright strange language, featuring multiple place names with no less than 3 consecutive g's. What were they thinking ? Countdown in German must be a boring game :

"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."
"Consonant please Carol."

From Zermatt, to Chamonix. This time we had to make do without the efficiency of Swiss trains and catch a bus part of the way. That involved a transfer, in which we were unceremoniously dropped at a (closed) bus station and waited, with as much hope as expectation, for the second bus. It wasn't the prettiest - or driest - part of the expedition.

This minor bout of being stranded in the middle of nowhere was soon forgotten on reaching Chamonix, which is a very pretty town near Mt Blanc. We're still not sure if we saw it or not, because Mt Blanc may be nearly 5,000 metres tall but it doesn't have a particularly distinctive profile. In any case it was raining when we arrived.

The next day the weather once again co-operated with stoically un-British grace, so we went for a walk inside a glacier. Mer de Glace was actually a rather depressing place, because there are markers showing the level of the glacier at various years. Fortunately the view above the glacier is of Les Drus, which is surely one of the pointiest mountains in the entire world.

We then encountered our one and only spot of poor timing from the weather, as it was too windy to journey up to the summit of the really insanely high Aiguille du Midi cable car. We could only go to the halfway point, but no-one minded because everyone was completely high on mountains (terrible pun intended). The midway point turned out to be the most Skyrim-esque of all our destinations, and there is video of me tooting my souvenir Swiss horn to accompany the Skyrim theme on a mobile phone. Which I will duly post here when I have it.

Then we walked down to the Restaurant and the End of the Universe, or at least that's how I remember it, ate some cake and went home.

... except that we didn't go home at all. First, we went to Marseille - twinned with Glasgow. This is somewhat bizarre, because most of Marseille is lovely. The highlight was undoubtedly visiting the island of Frioul, a tiny, beautiful place that I'd like to buy, if I could.

In the distance the Chateaux d'If, home to Marseille's least interesting fictional prisoner.

And then this happened.

That would have been an absurdly perfect point to go home, but instead we went to Monaco the next day, although I don't know why. As far as I can tell it's a very small country full of yachts and soulless tower blocks. Can't see the appeal of it. In fact, I'm not going to spoil this post with any photos of it.

And then I went home and collapsed, and while I was still collapsed I went to Prague, but that's another story.

Oh, and if you're wondering, yes, Rhydian did find Caruthers. He was in Zermatt.