Diary of an Australian in Bristol

April 16th, 2007

We have been in Bristol for more than a year now and have celebrated our first Christmas here. It's a odd thing to say at our age, but for the first time in our lives we REALLY understand Christmas. When the days are cold and dark (and it's usually raining), the idea of celebrating passing the solstice, when the days will FINALLY start to get longer again, is just so obvious! I was counting down the days to the solstice from the start of December, thinking that we ought to have a celebration... then kept remembering that someone else had already thought of that! And it's amazing how much a string of coloured lights in the street or lights on a Christmas tree in someone's window can cheer you up and make the world feel a little lighter and brighter (although it's a dreadful waste of energy, of course! :-) ).

Spring is well underway now - a fantastic time of year - we had daffodils are out everywhere a few weeks ago, and it's fascinating to watch the trees slowly coming back to life. And the days are already so much longer than they were at Christmas...

After Christmas, we had the bright idea to go to the coldest, darkest place we could find - we went to stay on a farm on the north coast of Norway, at a latitude of 70 degrees (that's a higher latitude than some of the Antarctic bases). We had a fascinating week there and a nice chance to relax in our little cottage on an ex-dairy farm. It was a beautiful place, right on the coast with views of fjords and mountains all around. The days were much brighter than we had expected - for about four hours each day, the sky was filled with a soft blue light, even though the sun never rose. The bright white snow everywhere, reflecting the little light that there is, also helps to make the place feel lighter. We were lucky enough to be there at full moon and could easily walk around in the afternoons and evenings by moonlight and the moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped mountains was very beautiful. The point of going was to try to see Aurora - and we got lucky! We had only two nights of clear skies while we were there, but we saw aurora both nights! They weren't huge aurora (probably dulled by the full moon) but were still quite spectacular, especially in such a beautiful setting (photos on the website).

Judy's parents came to visit just after Christmas and it was wonderful to see them. They had a couple of weekends with us in Bristol, and we explored some more parts of Bristol with them and took a day trip to Wales to see a castle (there's a very large supply of castles in Wales!). We then had a fantastic trip all together to Italy - the Amalfi coast and Sicily. We enjoyed fine, sunny weather and we particularly enjoyed re-living the memory of feeling warmth from the sun! The Amalfi coast has some stunning coastal scenery, with villages built on the sides of cliffs. The town of Amalfi itself has a beautiful cathedral, with interesting Arab influences. We had a fascinating visit to Pompeii - I had no idea there were still so many remains of mosaics and frescoes there, which were great to see. We also enjoyed a day of walking on the island of Capri (a major tourist resort in summer but nearly deserted in winter!!).

Sicily was a fantastic experience - very little English is spoken there, but the locals were so friendly and accommodating in their amused but genuine attempts to understand what we were trying to say (and we did get our own back with frequent giggles at their attempts at English!). Highlights were:

  • Monreale Cathedral (just outside Palermo) with it's covering of gold mosaics and the attached cloisters in their very Arab style, with incredibly detailed carvings on the capitals and more beautiful mosaic designs on the columns
  • The Greek temples at Agrigento
  • The amazingly well-preserved floor mosaics at a Roman villa
  • Climbing Mt Etna (by cable car!), walking around in the snow at the top and seeing steam and sulphur fumes coming from a hot spot from the 2003 eruption
  • Lots of great food and wine - particularly the delightfully fresh tomatoes and oranges, as well as learning what to do with fennel (serve fresh and raw in a green salad!)
  • Before Christmas, we were mostly busy at work, but we did manage a couple of weekends away. We had a weekend in Weymouth (south coast, almost directly south of Bristol), spent walking around the Isle of Portland, with its strangely dilapidated feel (but we did figure out where Portland cement comes from!), and walking along some spectacular cliffs on the coast. We then had a rather chilly weekend in Wiltshire (our local countryside) in December, looking at big stones stuck in the ground a long time ago at Avebury, as well as ancient burial sites, and wandering around Castle Combe ("the prettiest village in England"!).

    After all the travels in January, we have been enjoying some quiet time at home recently. We had a lovely trip to Wales for Easter (including four more castles - I told you there was a good supply!), but more about that next time...