Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

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View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

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The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

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The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

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Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

Driverless vehicles

The general consensus seems to be that self-driving cars are inevitable, that the barriers are technical rather than epistemologicical. I suspect that the widespread use of self-driving cars may mark the end of an era of post-war culture and society.

A self-driving car that requires no human operators will undoubtedly be safer, more reliable, and therefore much less sexy. When cars become, even more than they are now, just a device to move you from A to B, the mid-century romance associated with them disappears. Can you imagine Chuck Berry writing about a Tesla CommuterMax 9000? Where is heaven, if not the back seat of my Cadillac? This may be the last moment in history that having a driver’s licence in Australia or the USA is near-mandatory. I believe that the rate of licence take-up is declining in American teenagers already.

The logical next step is the airline industry. Planes are half automatic already, it can’t take too much extra technology to make them fully machine-driven. Besides, we already have drones. It’s been a long time since air travel was glamorous, but automated aircraft will make an Airbus something literal, and equally boring.

I remember visiting London in 2010 and being quite amazed that the Dockands Light Rail didn’t have a human driver. I hadn’t realised that it was driverless until I boarded at the very front carriage and found that instead of a driver’s cabin there was a window onto the track in front. Less than ten years later, this is unremarkable in many cities of the world.

That is only the beginning. The obvious safety and effiency advantages of driverless vehicles mean that no amount of legislation, employee unions, or technical hitches will stop them becoming near-universal. Probably sooner than we think. Right now is probably the last time that choosing to become a transport worker or pilot or is a reasonable career move.

And maybe, if you buy a brand new car now and look after it carefully, it might be the last one you ever drive.

8 things not to do in Melbourne – a guide for visitors

Melbourne is a tricky place for a tourist, as there are few flashy tourist attractions and a visitor usually has to spend weeks or months to really get under the place’s skin.

If you happen to be visiting Melbourne and Google what to do, you’ll be met with a dizzying array of highly repetitive suggestions. The spirit of plagiarism is alive and well on the internet, which helps to explain why so many of these listicles seem identical.

What’s worse, they’re often wrong. Oh, all of the things that are listed do exist, but they’re actually not the best that Melbourne has to offer. They’re tacky, pointless, boring, over-exposed or simply not what living in this city is all about.

Therefore, here is a list of Melbourne attractions to avoid and some more useful alternatives. No doubt there will be people who disagree with my list (it’s the internet, after all!) but I hope I can add a few options to the usual checklists with which visitors arrive. My suggestions all have a local, non tourist-orientated bias. That means that if you’re the kind of visitor who goes to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and then go shopping, this probably isn’t for you. But if you take an apartment in Montmartre, stay for a month and walk everywhere, you are certain to find something to love below.

 

  • Avoid: Degraves Street and Hosier Lane
  • Seek out: Literally any other street or back alley in the CBD.

Degraves street is a small pedestrianised alley in the south end of the Central Business District. It’s full of cafes and is constantly bustling. Hosier Lane is about ten minutes walk away and is a permanent open air graffiti gallery which is constantly changing. So far, so good.

However as anyone who has spent time in the City will tell you, these attractions are not unique to these streets. But they tend to crop up on “best-of” lists, meaning that there are more tourists than locals and it’s hard work not being caught in someone else’s selfie.

Melbourne is chock-full of little back alleys that have delightful hipster eateries and odd street art. Truly, they’re everywhere. You just have to hunt.

Try this: whatever road you’re on, walk in a straight line, then take the two next left turns you come across. Look up. BAM – street art. Look to the side. BAM – a boutique coffee shop. Drink a coffee, take a photo and repeat. Don’t be afraid to explore.

 

  • Avoid: Flinders St Station
  • Seek Out: Royal Exhibition Buildings

Flinders Street Station is the main transport hub for the city, and is dominated by a giant yellow-and-burgundy building which seems to be constantly under repairs. It’s not bad for a photo, but like all train stations it’s dirty and is mainly used by people who are trying to get somewhere. Most of the interesting parts of the building are inaccessible, so unless you’re taking a train, make your visit brief.

Instead, catch a tram up to the Carlton Gardens where the Royal Exhibition Building is situated. This is a gigantic domed structure which was constructed in the 1880s when Melbourne was just making its name. Dramatic from the outside, if you time it right you might also be able to join one of the free tours run by the nearby Melbourne Museum. The inside is just as ornate and is a fascinating insight into the world 140 years ago. The whole site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is something of an overlooked gem in my opinion.

 

  • Avoid: Fitzroy
  • Seek out: Northcote and Thornbury

Fitzroy became famous thirty years ago as a haven for artists and other creative types, and a thriving cafe and arts scene grew up around Brunswick Street. However nowadays the area is profoundly gentrified and is increasingly becoming a party destination. It still has its charms, but if you’re looking for the weird and alternative, jump on the tram towards Northcote and Thornbury.

To be fair, Northcote and Thornbury are also pretty gentrified. But they don’t have the human-zoo feeling that Fitzroy has. The further north up High St you go, the more ratty and fringe the shops get. You’ll find weird little cafes and drinking holes, restaurants of all shapes and sizes, and an arty/ethnic/hipster feel all around. Stick your nose over someone’s fence and check out their organic vegetable garden. Listen in to people arguing alternative politics in a cafe. Then go and have a beer and see a band at the Northcote Social Club.

 

  • Avoid – St Kilda
  • Seek out – Elwood

St Kilda. Ugh.

Well known as a bohemian beachside suburb, St Kilda was my home for several years. I rubbed  shoulders with junkies and Jersey Shore types alike. However on my recent visits I’ve noticed an increased culture of violence and alcoholism, combined with the fact that St Kilda appears to contain every single British and Irish backpacker who has ever got on a plane.

Seriously. The place is heaving. Innit.

If getting smashed and having a fight on the beach aren’t your idea of fun, move one suburb down the coast and enjoy the tranquility of Elwood. The beaches are just as good, but they’re not full of preening backpackers and there’s a friendly commmunity vibe. Wander inland and you’ll be surrounded by cute 1930s Art Deco apartments in tree-lined streets and comfortable local cafes and drinking establishments.

 

  • Avoid – The Queen Victoria Market
  • Seek out – South Melbourne or Prahran Markets

The Queen Vic Market seems to be on many tourists’ agendas, and I honestly have no idea why. It’s smack in the middle of the CBD, so there aren’t really local customers. There’s plenty of food available, but it’s crowded and unfriendly (the Turkish borek stall is an exception). Outside of the food hall, it’s just row upon row of bored vendors selling cheap and nasty tourist trinkets to the Chinese package tourists. Don’t waste your time.

Instead, try visiting the South Melbourne or Prahran markets. Both of these are close to the city and easily accessible, and both are frequented mainly by locals. It’s at these kind of places that you’re likely to get into a conversation about cheese with a stallholder, or find some weird amulet that you can’t live without. Eating (South Melbourne Dim Sims) and coffee options (Market Lane Coffee in Prahran) are everywhere. Afterwards you can explore the local neighbourhoods on foot to get a taste of inner-Melbourne suburban life.

 

  • Avoid – The Yarra Valley
  • Seek out – Mornington Peninsula

The Yarra Valley is about an hour’s drive from central Melbourne, and is known chiefly for its wineries (of which there are many). The wine is fine, I suppose. It’s not tremendously picturesque, but it’s not awful either. If you arrange a tour or convince someone else to do the driving, you could spend an excellent day travelling from cellar door to cellar door, becoming gradually less discerning as you go.

However, I’d suggest you head south, to the Mornington Peninsula. It’s roughly the same distance, but it has better wineries (in my view – especially the Pinot Noir), more other activities, and you can easily sleep off your drunken stupour on one of a number of nearby beaches. The small towns in the area are quite charming and all are a convenient place to stop off for a feed.

Just don’t go during the school holidays! The entire peninsula is a holiday getaway for harried families over summer.

 

The Great Ocean Road is fantastic if you want views of the Southern Ocean smashing against rocks and fertile hillsides. But you’ll also be spending a lot of time looking out of one side of your car (not much fun for the driver), and the frequent twists and turns are not kind to those who suffer from motion sickness.

Instead, consider going the other direction and staying on Phillip Island for a couple of days. The south coast is rugged and scenic (and surfable), but the North coast is sheltered and safe, and totally suitable for families. There are numerous accommodation options, and if seaside views get boring you could always go and see the penguins come ashore at night or the koala sanctuary inland. No motion sickness is anticipated.

 

  • Avoid – Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo
  • Seek out – Healesville Sanctuary

If wildlife is your thing, Melbourne Zoo in Parkville and the Open Range Zoo in Werribee are both great. But let’s get real for a moment – you’re in Australia. Why are you going to see African animals?

Instead, drive out to scenic Healesville, 80-90 minutes from Melbourne, and visit the Healesville Sanctuary. Apart from being a profoundly relaxing and soothing place, you’ll be able to see nearly every single type of native animal from Southern Australia, as well as some from the tropics as well. When you’ve had enough, go to the Four Pillars Distillery in the town and partake of some liquid libations.

 

Visitors, I hope you’ve found a couple of sights here that pique your interest. Melbourne isn’t a very tourist-orientated town, so it’s easy and rewarding to step away from the “must see” sights.

Melburnians, tell me: What have I missed or gravely misrepresented?

The Gold Coast

I came to the Gold Coast like everyone does – because I had some business to attend to and it seemed like a pleasant escape from the gloom of the southern states. “Australia’s Gold Coast” is the claim, a somewhat redundant effort to differentiate between Queensland and Ghana. Actually it’s Queensland’s Gold Coast, judging from the self-promoting hoarding slapped up everywhere. If you can’t advertise to the tourists, advertise to the locals I suppose.

Not that there are too many locals. The GC was always where pallid Victorians escaped to in the 80s and 90s. The goal was economic development and melanin under the rule of a square-jawed fascist. My childhood memories of the place are full of leather-brown men in budgie smugglers and implausibly blonde women who spent their time paying for people’s parking. Everyone is a recent migrant, whether drawn by the climate or repelled by the crush and grind of the big cities.

The 80s were a long time ago though. The relicts from that period are still there, but they’re painted over. A veneer of self-serving “pampering” is overlaid on the beer ads and gold chains. Chinese characters replace Japanese on the street signs. The newer developments are self-contained holiday apartments rather than beige-and-salmon hotel rooms.

Surfer’s Paradise is the epicentre of the “old” Gold Coast. A long, highly surfable beach, high-rise hotel towers, drinking venues with doors and balconies open to the street. The towers create a microclimate where the sweat and beer fumes fester. Young people march around in packs in the evening. The boys wear “casual” beach attire, the girls dressed as if they’re going to a particularly tacky wedding. They are intense and driven, like drunken and confused wolves searching for something to mate with. Partying looks like hard work.

“Hollywood on the Gold Coast!” was the rallying cry for families twenty years ago, and doesn’t seem to have changed. There are four major theme parks in the area, including the aquatically-focused Sea World within the city itself. Well-trained dolphins will entertain visitors at 11:30 and 3:15 daily, along with their psychotically grinning handlers. Well-meaning platitudes about caring for marine life are mouthed from a loudspeaker by a local worthy, but everyone is waiting for the dolphins to do tricks.

 At a different theme park, the catastrophic failure of a ride resulted in several deaths. Business has been, unsurprisingly, slow. The main car park, visible from the highway, is mostly empty.  I have no insight into the other parks, but I wonder about their long-term viability. Maintenance has been neglected, even allowing for the climate. The usual price-gouging is blatant. Nonetheless, the kids love it, right up until their energy gives out after lunch.

Five minutes’ drive out of town and you’re in a different world, a subtropical suburbia. Palm trees and buffalo grass. Electricians’ utes parked on the street. Queenslander houses with boarded-in lower levels. Community centres only accessible by car. Backyard pools and barbeques. Everything is low-rise, casual and narcotic. To the West, some low green hills. To the East, the high-rise towers.

The nest of towers are surrounded by low rise houses on all sides except the beach. There is nothing between two and thirty storeys tall. It feels like a science fiction film where the elite live in the sky and the commoners inhabit the fringes. Maybe the big flood is coming which will sweep away the humidity and decayed concrete. All that will be left is the towers, with their air-conditioned residents and artfully designed succulent beds on their roof gardens.

 

Arabian Knight

Wilfred Thesiger was an Englishman who spent the late 1940s travelling through Arabia. He wrote a book about it, named Arabian Sands, which I have just finished reading, and which is something of a classic in the world of masochistic adventure literature. It’s a fine work, full of little spatterings of detail and interest about the environment he moved through, which help to keep the book moving through several hundred pages of relatively monotonous desert travel.

Thesiger’s travels were really quite remarkable. He traveled across the Empty Quarter desert in Arabia several times with only camels for transport, being one of the first (and only) Europeans to do so. These were journeys of no small hardship – he was hungry and thirsty most of the time, roasted by the sun in the day and frozen overnight, and under constant threat of being shot by Bedouin raiding parties for months on end. He was lonely, frequently frustrated by his improvident Bedouin companions and the need to provide hospitality to passers-by, and probably constantly malnourished.

The interesting thing is that he didn’t have to do any of it. He was under no compulsion whatsoever. He chose that life.

By modern standards Thesiger was quite deranged. He actively sought out this kind of hardship time and again, and spent a lot of effort trying to convince various arms of the British government to fund yet another mission to the desert. He found the settled environment of the coast to be unsatisfactory and Britain to be actively unpleasant, spending most of his life in arid parts of the world.

Why would you do that to yourself? What went into his mental makeup that seemingly compelled him to seek out suffering? I’m sure there’s an argument waiting to be made that Thesiger, like T.E. Lawrence, sought the desert out of sublimated homosexual desire, but I honestly don’t get that feeling from his book.  He reminds me a little bit of some Australians who I met in Papua New Guinea who had found the lifestyle of a wandering jackaroo in central Australia to be too restrictive. They’d gone to PNG because they simply didn’t like living in any strongly regulated environment and could only tolerate personally negotiated restrictions on their activities.

The admirable Alastair Humphreys (@al_humphreys), a modern-day British adventurer, recently followed a similar path across Arabia in tribute to Thesiger. In the splendid film that he and his travelling companion made about the journey he breaks down at one point, berating himself for feeling constantly compelled to make arduous and ultimately pointless journeys.

But I guess that’s the key question. Why do any of us travel anywhere, whether via camel or luxury coach? Why even do anything beyond the necessities of survival?

I guess because we’re human, and we have inherited genes that encourage us to explore. I suspect that everyone has a grain of Thesinger’s unusual personality within them. For some it itches worse than others, and others are driven mad by the constant scratching.

Hangover Serendipity; or How to Drink Too Much But Still Have A Good Day While Travelling in the Balkans

I awoke in Zagreb with the kind of headache that makes the religious question their faith in God. Mild hangovers exist in the head only, in the form of a fuzziness or moderate ache. More severe hangovers progress south towards the belly, where the churning acid generated by the night’s revels threatens to strip the lining from your stomach while simultaneously making a break for the exit via your epiglottis. The most severe hangovers seem to permeate your entire body with pain and an indescribable sense of woe, deep foreboding, and profound confusion. I had one of the latter types of hangover.

I was surprised at how it had occurred. No doubt the fact that I’d only slept for about four hours hadn’t helped, but it didn’t seem like I’d had that much to drink. With surprising clarity I recalled that I’d spent the night in a bar in the old town with a few English-speaking backpackers drinking, perversely, Guinness. There was a young man about my age who was on some kind of journey of self-discovery in the Balkans, or perhaps self-repair. I recalled him telling some story of personal crisis involving the death of his sister in tragic circumstances, and parental funding of a trip around Europe meant to provide some perspective on his life. I’m not sure it worked though – as Paul Theroux observes, the act of travelling is rarely an escape from the self and is most likely to inspire deep introspection. The young man’s pain was so raw and obvious that I think the other backpackers and I were drinking in order to insulate ourselves from his suffering as much as we were trying to have a good time.

I recall making my excuses and wandering back to my accommodation with the plan that I was going to get up early in the morning and take the train to Vienna. Even then I realised that this was ambitious given my state of advanced impairment. So when I awoke the next morning with pain seeping from my eyeballs I was not surprised.

Breakfast was not an option, but coffee seemed wise, so I bought a small cup at the train station and took it on board. Trains in the Balkans have a knack of going just a little bit more slowly than seems necessary, but not slowly enough to make one reconsider the trip. The coffee improved my conscious state slightly and we wended our way through a surprising amount of forest. Given that this general area of the world had been a war zone only a few years earlier, and that the backpackers’ hostel reportedly still contained refugees until six months ago, it was idyllic.

Somewhere around Novo Mesto the gentle rocking back and forth of the train synchronised with the pulsations of my abdomen and a wave of horror swept over me.  Nausea, in my view, is far worse than an equivalent degree of outright pain. Pain can somehow be shut out of the consciousness, but nausea penetrates to every corner of one’s being and is the defining experience of sickness. Hangover nausea is somehow even worse, knowing that you did it to yourself. The train rocked. Acid coffee sloshed around in my stomach. I sweated.

The challenge with vomiting is knowing when to make your break for the toilet. Too late and the motion may trigger an uncontrollable expulsion of stomach contents. Too soon and you end up wrapped around the toilet bowl for hours waiting for the vomit that may or may not come. Due to general malaise and confusion I nearly left this one too late. I tasted metal at the back of my throat and stood up like I’d been electrocuted, then stumbled toward the end of the carriage and almost fell into the cubicle. The vomit, when it came a moment later, was like chemotherapy or ridding oneself of an incubus which had been hitching a ride on my soul. Every time I felt like I’d finished and that my belly was raw as sandpaper, another twist in the railway track would trigger a fresh bout of waterfall howling.

After what seemed like hours of purging I felt no better. I was in bad shape. I wiped sputum off my face while wondering how my teeth hadn’t been eroded to little nubs, then stumbled back to my seat. Staying on the train was clearly not an option. There were hours left to go until I got to Vienna and I had no expectation of surviving the trip.

Opening my guidebook I ascertained that the next stop would be Ljubljana, the capital of tiny Slovenia. By all reports it was a lovely place, a little green splinter of Yugoslavia which had been relatively untouched by the war in the Balkans. This seemed like an excellent place to nurse a hangover, and anyway, few things could be less pleasant than feeling like a dehydrated corpse on the move.

I jumped ship at Ljubljana’s main station. To be fair, there weren’t any other stations in contention.  Slovenia used to be the northern province of Yugoslavia, which had been assembled after the First World War out of the smoking shrapnel of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. It was intended to be a “pan-Slavic” state composed of all the slavic peoples of Southern Europe who had been separated by rival empires, a noble aspiration which turned out to be ineffective. After the Second World War ferocious repression by Marshal Tito in the name of Communism managed to maintain internal order, but at the price of an explosion of violence following the breakdown of the communist regimes in Europe.

Slovenia may have been the least representative successor state of the character of Yugoslavia. For one thing it is resolutely northern-looking culturally, having been part of the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empires for an awfully long time. For another thing it is peaceful, prosperous and safe.

As I stumbled out of the station into the town itself I wondered for a moment whether I had accidentally alighted in Austria. As my somewhat hazy vision corrected itself I pondered the possibility that I had suffered a seizure and woken up in northern Italy.  The buildings had red terracotta roofs and jaunty Austrian yellow paint and I found small parks and squares around every corner. Ljubljana seems to belong to a world of alpine hills and frivolous Italian architecture rather than grim Soviet-style concrete blocks found further south in Serbia. I was shocked.

I ambled the two hundred metres from the main train station into the centre of the old town. Like most ancient settlements in Europe it is built on a river, in this case the Ljubljanica. The banks of the river have been fortified with steep stoneworks. I imagine that this makes the river rather exciting when flooded, but it’s also reassuring – all the work seems to have gone into taming the river rather than using the stone to build walls repelling invaders. It all seemed so peacefully cosmopolitan.

After a few minutes wandering I found myself crossing a bridge festooned with dragon sculptures of various sizes. The bridge itself didn’t seem like anything special, but a quick dip into the my guidebook revealed that it was one of the earlier works of the Viennese Seccession, and being structurally iffy, had been built in one of the outer Hapsburg provinces rather than Vienna, where a collapsed bridge would not have been a good look.

There was a small riverside market on the far side. I stopped and bought a bag of cherries, figuring that they would be the most that my traumatised stomach could handle, and sat down by the river dangling my feet over the stoneworks. The cherries were magnificent, easily the best that I have ever eaten. I don’t know whether I was lucky to buy them in season or whether Slovenian cherries are the best in the world, but I gorged on them until the juice streamed down my face and I frightened small children.

Refreshed and very nearly enlightened, I wandered my way over to a ludicrous baroque church which resembled a cake made for a five year old girl. Formally named the Fransiscan Church of the Annunciation it caught my attention because it had clearly been moved here from Rome in the night and no-one was talking about it, but also because I think I’d seen it before in one of my father’s paintings. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go in (Church fatigue is a real thing), and instead seated myself in a vast outdoor cafe in the main square. They sold coffee and I like coffee.

As I sat in this square with the golden afternoon light filtering into my brain and cherries and coffee fermenting quietly in my abdomen, I was overcome with the great sense of ease and relief that I experience when I realise that a hangover has finally resolved. I also pondered the people of Slovenia – they all appeared so young, healthy and relaxed, quite unlike the undertone of menace in Zagreb and the semi-rural poverty of Romania. I felt very strongly that despite the chaos of the Yugoslavian wars these people at least were in with a chance.  A northern-looking, Catholic bias doesn’t guarantee success of course, but it seemed a much wiser choice to emulate success than to relapse into the horrors of the 1940s.

As the sun headed towards the horizon I swilled the last of my coffee and ambled back to the train station. I would still be in Vienna that evening, although somewhat later than I had planned. Ljubljana was a beautiful city that I would never otherwise have visited.

It was almost worth the hangover.