A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: DenOS.08

Timor-Leste

Born from resistance

Timor-Leste is relatively a baby of a country. Except it was not born fresh and new but battle-scarred and abused.

1999 welcomed in the country’s independence after twenty-four years of violent opposition against Indonesian invasion. It is now, ever so slowly, rebuilding and revealing its beauty of place and people.

Situated in the Malay Archipelago at the eastern end of the Lesser Sunda group of islands with the Banda Sea to its north and Timor Sea to its south. The island is divided in two. The eastern half is the new sovereign state of Timor-Leste. The western half is Indonesian, which ironically, contains the East Timor enclave Oecusse.

Timor-Leste lies 687 km (426 miles) north of Darwin, Australia and 1139 km (708 miles) east of Denpasar, Bali via air travel. The only other city with a direct flight is Singapore 2652 km (1648 miles) north-west.

Only three airlines fly to Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport. They are:
- AirNorth from Darwin daily (1 hr+)
- Air Timor from Singapore Tuesday and Saturday (3 hr 45 min)
- Sriwijayaair from Bali daily (2 hr 45 min)

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Darwin International Airport

My travel to Dili began at Darwin International Airport on AirNorth flight TL514. The only airline that flies between Australia and Dili. As Darwin is situated at the top end of Australia, the flight took only a little over an hour. The plane, an Embraer 170 Jet carries a maximum of 76 passengers with a two-by-two seat configuration.

There was just enough time to lick my fingers after savouring the scone and strawberry jam to prepare for landing. With Visa and custom form filled in, the first glimpse of the island showed a rugged southern coastline with a mountainous backdrop crowned by storm clouds.

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Flying over the interior to get to Dili on the North coast showed the island’s volcanic origin. The dense forests and sparsely scatter tiny villages finally opens up as the plane follows the northern coastline towards Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport. Through my rain drop window I see the distinctive totem style roof-line of the terminal with the Timor-Leste flag proudly raised above.

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Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport

The terminal is small, functional and situated only five or six kilometres from the city centre. Plenty of taxis and mini buses are waiting for you thanks to the scarcity of incoming flights.

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My accommodation is the Hotel Esplanada on Avenida da Portugal. A rather unimposing street front but a pleasant internal courtyard pool and spacious, relaxing first floor restaurant overlooking the Banda Sea and Atauro Island.

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Hotel Esplanada

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Hotel Esplanada pool and view of Atauro Island from restaurant

I’m not here for a holiday, though it’s Easter time…which is something I’ll touch on later. I’m here to research an idea I have for a story I want to write. There’s nothing like getting the feel of a place. To walk the streets and understand the layout of a place. To meet the people and delve into their character and to lock the sights, sounds and smells into one’s memory.

My interest is in the bloody struggle for independence and the resulting devastation and rebuilding. As my time here is limited, I did not venture out of Dili except for a day on Atauro Island. So, for your benefit, here is what I discovered.

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Cristo Rei of Dili (Christ the king of Dili) looks over the town and harbour. For the energetic a 600-step climb to the top.

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Smiling faces of those too young to remember

The Portuguese colonised all of Timor Island until ceding the Western half to the Dutch in 1859. During WWII Imperial Japanese forces occupied the island after Dutch, Portuguese and Australian resistance failed. The Japanese surrender in 1945 saw Portugal regain authority. In 1949, Indonesia proclaimed independence from the Dutch and took over West Timor.

On 28 September 1975 the Portuguese decided to rid themselves of control of East Timor and give the people their independence. In just nine days Indonesia invaded. Over the following twenty-five years more than 200,000 East Timorese died from the ravages of war, famine and disease.

A 1999 referendum allowed all East Timorese to vote for independence. Almost 80% of the people voted in the affirmative. This was despite a violent intimidation campaign by pro-Indonesian militia.

In the transitional three years before declaring itself the then world’s newest nation on 20 May 2002, East Timor was governed by the United Nations.

They is still much rebuilding of lives, homes and infrastructure to be done.

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The United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) is was closed on 31 December 2012 having completed their mandate to provide law enforcement and public security. The Timor-Leste national police now perform these roles.

Though progress is slow, there are signs of improvement. China is now the major economic supporter of Timor-Leste since relations with Australia dampened over disputed maritime boundaries. They have built most of the Government office buildings including the Presidential Palace.

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Government House and Dili Stadium
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Directorate of Vocational Training and Dili University
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Technology and communication is catching up and the Military Police Headquarters

Despite the above, the most tardiest of rebuilding are the roads. While some major roads are sealed most are making peering through stone-cracked windscreens and punctured tyres the norm.

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But life does go on…

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…around the streets

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…under the trees

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…on the beach

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…no matter how slow — which brings me to Easter.

One thing I didn’t reckon on—and I offer this warning—Easter can mean days of worship, ceremonies and parades, but it also means many places close for up to a week.

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…no matter how slow — which brings me to Easter.

One thing I didn’t reckon on—and I offer this warning—Easter can mean days of worship, ceremonies and parades, but also days and days of closed places of interest.

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The Xanana Gusmao Reading Room was another museum important to my research. Disappointingly it remained closed while I was in Dili. I was not the only one expecting the room to be open as I was joined by a number of students sent to research their assignment.

It wasn’t till my last day in Dili that another important museum opened. The Chega Exhibition at the CAVR (Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) building is not easy to find nor familiar to all taxi drivers . Ask to go to CAVR building and not Chega.

The Portuguese word Chega means ‘stop’ or ’no more’. Appropriate, as it is in the cells of this prison, that some of the worst atrocities inflicted on the resistance fighters were carried out.

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CAVR was a commission set up to compile witness statements of brutality and human rights abuses during the almost three decades of Indonesian occupation. Their “Chega Report’ of almost 3000 pages was finalised in 2005. Unfortunately little has been done since to bring those responsible to trial.

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The English version of the 3000-page report, a cramped cell and the flower garden referenced in the words surrounding the CAVR symbol “CAVR has shown that flowers can grow in a prison”.

In one room is a chronological display for each year of the bloody and political road to independence. But don’t be put off by the splattering of red. It’s not blood but the stains of betel nut spitting. Since frowned upon but maybe just as off-putting as blood.

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Understandably there are monuments dedicated to the struggle for independence and those who lost their lives. The Monument to the 13 Regions of Independent (below) is on the waterfront. Generally it’s not draped in white cloth and no-one could explain to me why it was during the period I was there.

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Monument to the 13 Regions of Independent

But there can be a no more stark reminder of Timor-Leste’s deadly past than the small child’s grave isolated under the foreshore trees.

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Other graves are not so isolated. Crowded and stretched to capacity by those who died fighting or through famine is the Santa Cruz Cemetery. Site of the 12 November 1991 massacre of 250 peaceful demonstrators by Indonesian police and soldiers. Australian cameraman Max Stahl was there and captured the massacre as it happened. A most engrossing and horrific video.

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The black cross stands as a central point of offering. Flowers are constantly left and candles lit resulting in an ever thickening layer of melted wax. A testament to the depth of pride to those fallen and the foundation they left to build on.

Atauro Island

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A woman from Atauro Island

Lying about thirty kilometres north of Dili, Atauro Island is on the rim of the volcanic arch that cradles the Banda Sea. Rich in sea life and a popular dive destination. With a population of 8000 spread over the 140 square kilometre island allows for a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere…now.

The only way to get to the island is by sea. Charter taxis can be hired or for US$5 each way you can go by the Saturday weekly ferry. I chose the ferry. Tickets need to be pre-purchased at a small booth at Dili Harbour.

The morning ferry not only carries passengers, but also a vast variety of produce including livestock. I advise boarding early to get a window seat if you decide to sit inside. This can get hot during the two-to-three-hour trip so you will most likely end up on the upper deck to get some air.

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Once on the island there is plenty of transport on offer. Mostly motorbike carts to navigate the various conditions of the roads.

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One important thing to keep in mind is that the ferry returns to Dili at 3pm that day and will not be back till the next Saturday. So don’t miss the boat unless you intend to stay on the island.

There are places to stay but usually require a booking. Barry’s Place (below) is popular with divers.

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I took a ride south to Maumeta, the second largest village on the island. The backdrop of towering mountains echo the past when the island was a Portuguese prison, and during the Indonesian invasion, many fled Dili to take sanctuary on the island. The ruins of the past and comfort given can still be seen .

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As you travel around you are always greeted by smiling faces that are reflected on the faces of the locally made Boneca Dolls. Each doll is hand-made with its own personality and owning one supports the local community.

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Returning to Beloi Pier in time to catch the ferry back to Dili allows a stroll through the beach-side market. An endless array of produce and products are displayed under the welcoming shade of trees.

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Then it’s back to wait for the ferry to be loaded with local cargo before boarding.

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Farewell Atauro Island.

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And farewell to Dili and Timor-Leste.

Oh, the story? I’m still working on it as of this moment!

Posted by DenOS.08 16:51 Comments (0)

Bali Kite Festival soars to great heights

It’s huge. It’s been going for ages and it’s held near one of the main tourist centres in Bali. Yet, hardly any tourists get to witness this amazingly colourful spectacle.

sunny 34 °C

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I timed my last visit to Bali specifically for this event. But, just like kites and wind, everything is unpredictable in this island paradise.

My research showed the Kite Festival is held every July in a sprawling Padang Galak field at the very top end of Sanur Beach. On arrival at my hotel I sort conformation of the dates as they seemed somewhat flexible. What I got was a lot of heads turning to each other, friendly arguments in Balinese, and finally, unconvincing and confusing answers, such as: “It was last month”…“Next month”…“Not sure, I’ll ask someone else”. Adding to the confusion, there are two kite festivals…the Bali and the Sanur Kite Festivals and whatever information I could uncover was shrouded in a haze of duplication. It will always span a Friday to Sunday, but kites need wind and this tends to blow any set date out of the water. July is generally considered the best month because the winds blow fairly reliably from east to west. But flexibility is the Balinese way of life, so, my suggestion is to set aside at least three weeks and you may be lucky.

I kept seeing kites in the air and my excitement rose. But these kites were small and the general run-of-the-mill-everyday-kites that every boy and man pass their spare time flying at any time of the year. Then, as luck would have it, I spied a large kite hanging from the wall of the Warung Coconut Tree Restaurant. I asked those inside if it was part of the festival and finally got the answer I was after. “This coming weekend up the beach.” This happened to be July 18-20, 2014, but remember…the winds of change!

I set off on foot on the Sunday, the final day of the festival and soon found out how long Sanur beach is. I’d walked the beach often but this ended up to be a trek. Padang Galak is at the very northern end of Sanur beach and far from the nearest tourist resort or hotel. As the many bars, beach restaurants, deck chairs and massage tables petered out, I feared I’d been given another wrong date. But in the sparsity of tourist free reaches, scooters and motorbikes started to crowd the foreshore. Balinese began to form crowds heading in one direction…ahead. Lifting my eyes, I saw dots in the distant sky and fluttering flags lining the coast that curved to the right. This had to be it!

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The closer I got the more intense the festival atmosphere. Every spare space was a jam-packed two-wheeler parking lot and I soon became sucked into the funnel of merging crowd along the only path between water on one side and a sprawling field on the other. Music and loudspeaker announcements invaded the air as much as the growing number of flags…and there, swooping gracefully above…the kites.

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A huge red fish with gaping mouth was a fitting introduction to the spectacle of the Bali Kite Festival. Looking like a sea monster that had jumped the path from the sea and found itself beached on the grassy plain and tethered by ropes against the onshore wind. Other more traditional kites began to crowd the field. Their handlers, or crew, fussing over them while in the background, rice is being back-breakingly plucked from the watery paddy.

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Tightly surrounded by Balinese of all ages, I soon become aware I’d not seen another westerner. Mis-information or unawareness of this event will be their loss. On many occasions, I’ve found myself in this situation…a lone westerner merging with and in the flow of locals. I forever find it enlightening, friendly and colourful. My presence is welcome and children show their fascination with broad smiles.

Then the whole spectacle opened up before me. A vast village of kites sitting on stilts acting as shade with its crew either making repairs or resting beneath. Food is being prepared to the sound of their own gamelan band. Over the three days of the festival, this temporary city has evolved over acres and acres.

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Meandering the paths of this kited city was an experience of sigh, sound and smiles all around as I recorded the crews activities. Then I reached the edge of the ‘playing field’. This is where the kites are launched and hopefully land. Another lesson is quickly learnt. When a kite is being grounded, it’s a frantic rush by the crew to run the rope attached to their kite rather than reel it in. If you happen to be in the way you are trampled. The kite landing takes precedence for a bad landing will not only lose the team points, but badly damage the kite that has taken months to build.

Okay, let’s try and describe how this event works.

The kites fall into four categories, three based on traditional kite styles and predominantly coloured black, red, white and gold. The most popular, the Bebean kite is in the shape of a fish. The Pecukan is more an oval or leaf shape and the hardest to launch, let alone fly.

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(Top) Bebean kite. (Above) Pecukan kite.

The Jaggan is the mother of all kites with a tail that can measure up to 200 metres and possibly the largest kite in the world. Then the final category is what one can call an ‘open’ category. The kites are called layangan kris with the only design restriction being it must have some cultural meaning. Some have been political and controversial.

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(Top) The mother of all kites, Jaggan and (above) the ever broadcasting judges box.

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This is a competition between Balinese communities and therefore the teams are judged. The broadcast banter from the raised judges box is constant and loud putting any football broadcast to shame. Each category has different judging criterion. For example, the Bebean is rated on how graceful is the movement in the sky. The Jaggan is judged on its grooved tail length and how it flows like water in the breeze. The Pecukan, I can only assume, is judged if it at all gets off the ground. Not all is about grace and movement though. The sound each kite makes in the wind can be varied and haunting. Finally, how each community team is presented – their dress, their musical talents, and of course, teamwork and how well they pilot their kites.

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With flags almost dominating the sky, the kites on high, the whistle in the wind, the almost rodeo-like broadcast, the mix of gamelan music and the ever-present Balinese broad smile, this is a most amazing cultural and colourful experience that should not be missed.

Posted by DenOS.08 20:23 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali flags sanur kite_festival Comments (0)

What a difference a Bay makes

Two peninsulas cradle Port Phillip Bay – two very different stories

sunny 27 °C

The first recorded shot of World War I, the 'Gibraltar of the South', dozens of shipwrecks and entrance to the richest port in the world. All part of European history? Far from it! The other side of the world in fact. Down under, down south and down at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.

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The entrance is a mere three kilometres of deceptive, treacherous water with a navigable channel of only one kilometre…better known locally as “The Rip”. Peninsulas each side of the Rip lay sentinels to Melbourne’s ocean gateway and offer two of Victoria’s most popular and interesting coastal destinations – Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula and Sorrento on the Mornington Peninisula.

With thundering surf on the ocean side and safe, calm water on the Bay side, they could be mirrored reflections of each other. But, the differences are deep and reach far back. As far back in fact, to the origin of the state of Victoria.

In 1803, Sullivan Bay, one kilometre east of Sorrento, was Victoria’s first, and unfortunately very short, European settlement. Under control of Lieutenant Colonel David Collins, the penal settlement was abandoned in less than a year due to the scarcity of fresh water, unsuitable soil, fear of Aborigines, lack of discipline and the escape of many convicts. The settlement was moved to Risdon Cove in Van Diemen’s Land, later to be known as Tasmania. One escaped convict was William Buckley who lived with aborigines for more than thirty years on the opposite peninsula.

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Frederick William Woodhouse, The first settlers discover Buckley, 1861, State Library of Victoria

From Van Diemen’s Land, a young settler by the name of John Batman led an expedition back to the Port Phillip Bay area, and laid the founding stone of Melbourne in 1835. This meant Sorrento was again settled by Europeans. The grab for land claims and family holdings, of which many still remain, are the reason Sorrento is like it is today.

On the other side of the Bay, in 1853, Lieut. Governor La Trobe named the fishing village, Queenscliff . As the town prospered it was proclaimed as the Borough of Queenscliffe – the added’ e’ is now only used in reference to the Borough.

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It soon became clear by the growing number of ships being wrecked, the Rip – named after the combination of tidal turbulence and dramatic variations of depth – was, and still is, one of the most hazardous channels in the world.

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Marine disaster bell, Queenscliff and the wrecked SS Cheviot breaking up at Point Nepean in1887.
Thirty-five lives were lost making it the worst shipwreck in Victoria's history.

To protect the vital shipping for this growing colony, each ship needed directing through these dangerous waters. In 1838, four men risked their lives by venturing out in an open whaleboat to steer ships through the Rip. This was the start of the pilot service that continues to this day. No longer in open whaleboats, but in fast, sleek, bright orange boats equipped with the latest technology. Despite the heroic efforts of the earlier pilots, more than 100 shipwrecks lay beneath the waves in this area of coastline.

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An artists impression of the Sea Pilot's worst disaster when the pilot schooner Rip capsized in 1873 killing the pilot and three crewmen.

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A modern pilot boat heading out to the Heads and their berth at Queenscliff Harbour.

While the marine importance of Queenscliff was to set its character, a more important role would establish its style.

"Gold!" The word cried out around the burgeoning state. Gold seemed to be everywhere creating vast riches. At the height of the Gold Rush, Melbourne was the richest port in the world which meant a greater need for defence. A list was established of potential external enemies with plunder on their minds and an easy escape through the lightly defended Heads of Port Phillip.

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An Australian Gold Diggings, Edwin Stockqueler, 1855, National Gallery of Australia

It was recommended in 1877, that fortification on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip was of utmost importance. Queenscliff had, at that stage, a small contingent of army personnel to protect the growing pilot and customs activities as well as the vital lighthouse. The main fort was built on Shortland Bluff overlooking Queenscliff, which, to this day, is Australia’s largest preserved fort. Another fortification was established at Swan Island, situated just inside the bay, and others at Portsea and Point Nepean on the other side of the Rip.

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Fort Queenscliff.
The Black Lighthouse in the background is built of black stone and one of only three black lighthouses in the world.

By 1886 the initial defence of Port Phillip was complete and regarded as the most heavily fortified port of the British Empire in the Southern Hemisphere – The Gibraltar of the South.

The establishment of Fort Queenscliff brought new growth and wealth to this seaside village. The military personnel had to be catered for and the added protection enticed new businesses that led to Queenscliff becoming a holiday resort.

At Portsea and Sorrento, the story was similar. The added protection of the Landed Gentry, made Sorrento the favoured, fashionable escape for the ‘rich and famous’.

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Affluence lines the foreshore from Portsea to Sorrento.

The wealth from gold and business successes allowed more time for excursions and relaxation. This created new enterprises. Paddle steamers joined the trading schooners that linked Melbourne to Queenscliff and Sorrento, the forerunners of the little steamers of Port Phillip Bay.

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Ozone passing Pile Light, Port Phillip (Unknown c.1910).

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Passengers on steamer ferry, circa 1920, Museum Victoria

Grand hotels were erected to cater for the visiting ‘well-heeled’ pleasure seekers. Music and gaiety, mixed with the invigorating sea air, established the southern-most part of Port Phillip Bay as the Queen of Watering Places. The hotels are still there, and most certainly, the reputation has survived.

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Continental Hotel, Sorrento

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Vue Grand Hotel, Queenscliff

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Queenscliff Hotel, Queenscliff

A trip ‘down the Bay’ from Melbourne was a great delight. The wealthy purchased land and encouraged their professional friends to follow suit. Sorrento, in particular, made the most of this wealthy occupation, and continues to do so. Queenscliff also attracted the wealthy, but remained a fishing village offering safe anchorage for visiting yachts.

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Boat shed and Queenscliff Pier

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Queenscliff Harbour

In 1914, these peaceful, romantic destinations were to enter the annals of war.

At midnight GMT on the night of August 4, declaration of war was made in Europe. As news of war reached Australia twelve hours later, a German steamer, the Pfalz, was rushing to reach the Heads and open sea. Not being fully coaled up, the Pfalz was approaching Sorrento when the order was given to halt the German steamer. The captain of the Pfalz ignored signals from Fort Nepean to stop until a shot was fired across the vessel’s bow – the first recorded shot of WWI.

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SS Pfalz

History has a habit of repeating itself, and so it was to happen again, though less dramatic, at the beginning of the World War II.

On September 4, 1939, a small Bass Strait freighter, the Woniora, attempted to enter Port Phillip Bay without responding with a code word of a friendly ship. A warning shot was fired – the first official Australian shot of WWII. The Woniora quickly identified itself and was allowed to proceed through the Heads.

Peace returned and Queenscliff went into a state of dormancy as the popularity of the motor car opened up new holiday destinations further and further from Melbourne. This resulted in preserving the 19th century atmosphere of the unique fishing and maritime hamlet – its greatest asset.
Rather than slumbering, Sorrento took a short nap during this car invasion. Being populated mostly by wealthy land owners, the car took on a new role. The relatively short drive from Melbourne meant Sorrento was to become the ‘weekender’ haven.

The pleasure still remains in capturing the unique relationship between these two guardians of Melbourne’s ocean gateway. Both an easy ninety-minute drive from Melbourne, or alternatively, train to Frankston then bus to Sorrento or Train to Geelong and bus to Queenscliff. A car ferry operates every hour during daylight hours between Queenscliff and Sorrento. The forty-five minute drip is comfortable, scenic and quite often accompanied by playful dolphins.

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The Searoad car ferry on the water and at Sorrento

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Queenscliff Station was once on a branch line from Geelong.
It is now run by volunteers operating a tourist train to Drysdale and the popular Blues Train.

Both Queenscliff and Sorrento have a range of accommodation to suit any budget. Some of the old hotels are restored to their original grandeur and offer excellent weekend deals.

Dining is one activity that blends the locals with visitors. This is more evident in Sorrento. Here, meeting your neighbour for coffee or having an alfresco lunch on the sunny sidewalk with weekend guests is the norm.

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Queenscliff dining is more indoors. The wide streets are more for traffic than eating. A reflection of the fact that this is still a working village. But dining here is no less an experience. In fact, the elegant grand hotel dining rooms offer an ambience that absorbs you into the regions historical significance.

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Hesse Street, Queenscliff and The Queenscliff Inn

People on both sides of the Bay are at peace with their minds and their stomachs.

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IMAGES OF SORRENTO

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IMAGES OF QUEENSCLIFF

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Queenscliff Maritime Museum

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According to the 2011 Census, the Mornington Peninsula had grown to 144,608 residents made up of 39,201 families and 83,526 private dwellings. The Bellarine Peninsula (including the Surf Coast) falls well short with 60,584 residents, 16,524 families and 38,065 private dwellings.

Posted by DenOS.08 21:12 Archived in Australia Tagged churches boats trains melbourne victoria restaurant cruises museum dining transportation seaside sorrento peninsula car_ferry queenscliff alfresco port_phillip_bay pilot_boats Comments (2)

Ho Chi Minh in passing

My enriching journey to view the embalmed Vietnamese leader

overcast

I feel I need to preface this article with an explanation why I went to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.
- I’m not Vietnamese - I’m Australian - I’m of an age I could have fought against his army, but didn’t - I know of others that did
- I know of others that did and died - Back then, depending on your view, he was the enemy.
I visited him not as a tourist. I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi to specifically view his embalmed body for story research and to close a chapter.

Setting the scene

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the Ba Dinh District of Hanoi looms large and out of place in this land of French and lotus-inspired architecture. Based on Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, one could be forgiven for thinking they were standing in front of any Soviet authoritarian style building in a number of countries. The hardly noticeable curved roofline adds very little Vietnamese style or character and seems at odds with its purpose. Built over two years (1973-1975) to house the embalmed body of the revered leader Ho Chi Minh, the mausoleum is an anomaly. It was Ho Chi Minh's wish not to be embalmed, but for a simple cremation and his ashes spread over a rice field.

The mausoleum faces Ba Dinh Square where, on 2 September 1945, Ho declared independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Behind the granite mausoleum and the neighbouring and much contrasting French designed Presidential Palace, is the sprawling and leafy Botanic Gardens. Considered the green lungs of Hanoi, the gardens were established over thirty-three hectares by the French in 1890. They have since been reduced to ten hectares.

It is here were my tale begins.

It wasn’t my initial intention to explore the Botanic Gardens of Hanoi. But for anyone considering viewing the body of Ho Chi Minh lying deep within the mausoleum, the gardens will come first…well, almost. Let me explain.

I left my hotel in the Old Quarter at 8.00 am with the knowledge public entry into the mausoleum started at 8.30. The cyclo trip cost 20,000 dong ($1), and took less than half an hour.

As I approached the distant grey bunker-like mausoleum, the heat and humidity was rapidly increasing, as were the number of people joining an even greater number of people with the same intent.

After some confusion as to the entry procedure, I was directed to a small kiosk where I was ordered to leave my camera and camera case. All bags, cameras and mobile phones are prohibited inside the viewing chamber. I was given a numbered key ring in exchange for my camera and told, with a unclarifying wave of the hand, I could claim my camera on the other side of the mausoleum after the viewing.

Getting to and from the kiosk meant breaking through a long queue that faded well off into the distance. Having already discovered how extremely generous and friendly the Vietnamese are if you show politeness, I was graciously allowed through on both occasions.

Feeling naked without my camera and slightly worried if I'll ever see it again, I had a problem…where was the end of the queue? This is where the Botanic Gardens became unintentional itinerary number one. I backtracked along the line of people deep into the gardens, twisting around every tree, garden plot, pond and patch. In my haste, the heat and humidity was transforming my shirt into sweat induced irregular patterns and I was becoming an item of interest. Here was a tall sweat-stained foreigner walking rapidly in the wrong direction and quite possibly the only foreigner at this early hour.

With still no end of queue in sight, things suddenly became even more baffling. The queue forked off in two directions. Which fork do I take? Ask one of the brown-shirted policemen keeping the crowd in order, I thought. I got a silent, uninterested nod and an arm pointing in one direction. Hoping he wasn’t showing me the way out, I faithfully followed his direction till coming to a park gate and a main road beyond. Had my fear of being ejected come true? No, the queue continued down the street and still no end in sight. I approached another policeman who seemed as confused as I was, or was it the language barrier? I contemplated blending into the line there and then, but with suspicious brown-uniformed eyes on me, I set off further down the road.

It was now over half and hour since starting my journey to find the end of the line and I was beginning to doubt if, indeed, I ever would. Then I came across another gate that led back into the gardens. The queue I was following suddenly stopped to allow a shorter line to enter a gate back into the gardens. I tagged onto the end only to have the marshals hold us up to allow my previous line to enter before me. Had I missed something? Had I made the wrong choice? After an anxious wait, my newly adopted queue started off. I was now implanted into a line, that I hoped, was heading towards my intended destination. Aware of the distance I had travelled to get to this point, I had to accept a long, slow journey ahead.

Settling into the rhythm of slow shuffling feet, I did a rough calculation. It was now after nine o’clock and the mausoleum closes at eleven.* I had just walked at a brisk pace for well over thirty minutes to get where I was and the snail pace we were now progressing made me wonder…would I finally get to Ho Chi Minh's solid and foreboding Pearly Gates only to have them close in my face?

I was soon to realised that whatever the outcome, for the next couple of hours, the experience of being in the company of a group of Vietnamese of varying ages would be something to cherish.

The meandering, endless line of people was controlled by a small army of police and marshals and apart from the odd young male attempting to queue-jump, whom the marshals berated and sent to the end of queue, there was self-imposed respectful order. It was difficult to imagine such a thing happening in Melbourne and the crush to get into the MCG to see a football game.

But, the police and marshals can be harshly unforgiving at times. A teenage boy left the queue to retrieve a hat blown from a toddler’s head, on returning the hat and to his place in the queue, the marshals ordered him to the end of the line. To the marshals, he was a queue-jumper despite protests from his family and those around. I learnt there and then that while totally unfair to this well-meaning youngster, in this country, you do not argue with those in authority.

Because if this discipline, those in front, behind and beside me would be my constant companions for some time. Most were families of two or three generations, from babies to perhaps eighty or ninety years old. It’s difficult to determine the age of the older Asians, as their skin tends to retain youthful resilience.

The younger ones in my immediate company smiled and tittered behind raised hands at this bedraggled, sweaty westerner. I smiled back, said, “Hello” and watched as they went into a giggling huddle. Immediately in front of me a mother had a baby in her arms with its head resting on the mother’s shoulder and facing directly at me. Even at this early stage of life, the sight of a greying, bearded, fair-skinned Westerner is a sight to behold, and behold she/he did. Not once did it blink or its bewildered stare deviate from me.

The giggling, chatter and the odd quick glance in my direction, had me feel something of an oddity, of which I surely was. My sweating, dishevelled appearance was not a good advertisement for Western values among the neatly dressed paying their respect to Uncle Ho. Was this an affront to Uncle Ho? Was I being disrespectful? Probably, but here I was and all I could do was hope the scorching heat would overcome the high humidity and dry out my shirt before too long.

When travelling you inevitably meet many locals, even creating long-lasting friendships, but, apart from waiting at train and bus stations, becoming integrated into a group going about their cultural routine is something different. My immediate neighbours consisted of the six or eight people directly in front and maybe six behind. After their initial curiosity, giggling and teetering at my inclusion, I was soon accepted.

Feeling more relaxed, I turned my attention to the baby in front who continued to focus on me as if mesmerised by some alien being. I shook its little hand hanging limply over the mother’s shoulder which provoked another round of laughter. The mother turned sharply to see her baby had latched onto my finger and wouldn’t let go. It took only an instant for the her to evaluate the dangers of such contact, and, with a broad smile, she accepted we were now firmly attached…possibly for the remaining metre-a-minute journey. I had become a focal point, or maybe just a source of amusement to quell the boredom of a slow journey ahead. Young males began practicing their English by asking me 'where I from' and responded to my 'Australia' reply with, surprisingly, “Aussie, Aussie”. This evoked more giggles from the young girls, as they too, relaxed in my presence.

In contrast, the elderly were more constrained toward me. It was the men in their sixties who eyed me with a degree of suspicion. Being of similar age, I felt they saw in me as past enemy. Remember, this is Hanoi, the seat of the North Vietnamese push for Reunification and the stronghold of the Vietnam Peoples Army in the 60s. Though I took no part in the conflict, in their eyes I could have once been in their gun sights as they could have been in mine.

Whether I was of no further interest or the motion of the mother's slow stride lulled the baby to sleep, I finally had my hand back. Freed up, I took out my notepad to jot down some observations and again attracted the attention of the young. They closed in around me to see what I was writing and in what language. It was obvious they were interested in learning another language, as people in most countries are, except, unfortunately, for my own. It saddened me that I could not converse with these young people to learn more of their lives and ambitions. All I could do was share a smile with them and feel accepted.

An hour into the journey and the heat had soared to around forty-degrees celsius and my shirt was drying nicely. Those around me were now fanning themselves as fan and bottled water sellers patrolled the line. I exchanged some Dong for a bottle of cold water but the fans were sold out. One gentleman of about fifty something must have felt sorry for me. He moved a little closer, and while continuing to fan himself, directed some of his breeze in my direction. This was done without looking at me or showing any sign that it was intentional. The mother in front was also fanning herself and sleeping baby and very discreetly directed some of her generated breeze toward me. I was touched by such generosity to a complete and foreign stranger.

As we slowly progressed, the orderly patience of these people amazed me. The young children, who would have been bored out of their brains within a few minutes back home, entertained themselves and rarely ventured from the line. I felt that the few teenage boys who did attempt to jump the queue, were seen as Western influence breaking down centuries of cultural tolerance and patience.

After endless paths and seemingly retraced steps, we finally came into view of the mausoleum. Turning into Ba Dinh Square, young girls in traditional white pants under long, white, side-split tunics replaced the brown-uniformed police. Each girl wore a badge showing their name and a photo in school uniform. These smiling, immaculately dressed young girls presented a cultural sensitivity to the occasion.

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Further up the avenue we entered a canopied walkway. Beside keeping the line tightly organised, it also offered welcome relief from the heat. The mausoleum was now within reach. White uniformed guards replaced the girls to watch over the now sombre crowd. Children stopped playing and dancing and a silent respect of the occasion had taken over.

Reaching the towering granite building, I noticed a group of three guards in brilliant white ceremonial uniforms at a side entrance. Two were armed with rifles while the third kept an eye on his watch. Was my timing fortunate? Could I be about to witness the changing of the guard?

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Photo from external source.

We’re stopped to allow the three guards to march in regular step formation onto the paved surround leading up to the entrance. Approaching the entrance they changed to a goose-step, a slow, straight-legged stride with arms swinging across the body. They turned, and, without breaking stride or rhythm, climbed the steps to the large double-doored entrance. Without hesitation, the guards being replaced descend the steps in the same slow, ceremonial march back to their quarters. The two fresh armed honour guards took up their positions each side of the entrance and the change-over completed.

We're now allowed to climb the steps, and, in orderly single file, enter into a contrasting world. From the glare of sunlight and oppressive heat we are suddenly enclosed in sombre semi-darkness and chilled air. Despite the dull light, the presence of red is both political and a relief within the cold, grey structure.

This is one of the holiest sites in Vietnam and the following buddhist protocol must be adhered to and is strictly enforced by ever alert honour guards:
- wear clothes that cover you up, and that means no shorts, singlets or sleeveless shirts
- hats must be removed
- hands must be out of pockets
- don't even think about smuggling in a camera/phone
- don't talk or smile and continue to walk slowly and without hesitation
- you are required to bow
- always maintain a respectful attitude.
Any deviation from the above and the guards will not hesitate to single you out.

The appropriate deadly silence is disturbed only by the gentle movement of cool air that controls the internal atmosphere. Not even breathing of the continuous line of viewers can be noticed. It's as if the solemnity of the occasion has everyone holding their breathe.

Then, suddenly, you're in his presence.

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Very few photos of the embalmed Ho Ch Minh can be found. This is from a news source and shows members of the communist party surround the body of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh at the opening of the mausoleum.

There is no lingering to take in the detail. The movement of the queue must not pause or falter. The sudden impact of casting your eyes over this man, Ho Chi Minh, is all-consuming. Even now I struggle to remember all I witnessed. There are four sentries. One stationed on each corner of the bier that supports the glass sarcophagus wherein his embalmed body lies. The make-up and pin-point lighting on face and exposed hands crossed on his stomach, has the initial impact of a wax model. The familiar grey goatee beard is there as is the familiar khaki suit he's dressed in. The cosmetics applied have given life to the flesh, yet the missing soul cannot be replaced.

The long anticipated view of the man is only but a fleeting glimpse. But for those I'd spent the last two hours in the company of, it was a decades long deep and meaningful offering of respect.

  • It's estimated around 10,000 people visit Ho every day. If you intend to visit the mausoleum, check for current opening and closing days and times as they could vary. For two months of the year (October and November) the mausoleum is closed when the embalmed body is sent to Russia for preservation maintenance.

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After reclaiming my camera, a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum was next on my agenda. The building is next to the Mausoleum and in contrasting style to the Soviet edifice…white, as opposed to grey, a little more inviting and people enter and leave without police control. Once inside I'm greeted by a large wood carving of the revered man hovering over you in the clouds. But it's the interior that attacks the visual senses. It's more a walk through a dream world than casting an eye over the man's interesting artefacts and mementos. This museum brings the cultural imagination of the Vietnamese to a futuristic level. After all, a future was all Ho Chi Minh wanted for his people.

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Before leaving this district, I passed by the iconic One Pillar Temple (Chùa Một Cột). Constructed by Lý Thái Tông, who ruled between 1028 and 1054, and based on a dream. Lý Thái Tông was childless and dreamt of being handed a baby son by Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion) who was seated on a lotus flower. Not long after, his Queen gave birth to a baby boy. In honour of the Bodhisattva, the Emperor ordered the temple be built to represent a lotus flower rising from the water.
The pagoda was destroyed in 1954 by retreating French Union Forces after the first Indochina War. It was rebuilt a year later.

As I travelled back to my hotel reflecting on my visit with Uncle Ho, I saw what I my research wanted me to see. But unexpectedly, and to my mind, more importantly, was the time spent in the company of his admirers. My presence was in stark contrast to their culture, as was the growing contrast in the younger generation. Western fashion and values are seen infiltrating their way of life. But, the greatest surprise came from these same young Vietnamese. They were unaware Australia took part in what they call the American War. This was a good thing?

Posted by DenOS.08 19:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people gardens temple vietnam museum hanoi guards mausoleum ho_chi_minh Comments (0)

Venice from the altana

Rise above the crowded back streets and canals for a different view of Venice


View Darwin & Dili & Italy with passion on DenOS.08's travel map.

Life in Venice can be very confining. Narrow alleys that never feel the sun’s rays. Canals quickly clogged by by more than one gondola or where water taxis manoeuvre through them by touch. Where houses are higher than they are wide, unless you live on the Grand Canal, of course. But Venetians are very adaptable. They conquered living on a timber pylon city with water lapping at their doorsteps, so it was only natural to reach for the sky, to access the sun and take in the vista of Venice from above.

Around 1500AD the first ‘altana’, or roof terrace, was built. A simple open-sided wooden platform primarily for the hanging of laundry to dry in the sun. While not intended to be a focal point of any building, the construction was often basic, simple and often precariously located like left-over scaffolding.

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One of the first paintings picturing an altana - by Carpaccio (from the year 1494)

Before long Venetians were finding ways to access their roof tops. This then led to the realisation that the altana had the potential for more use than just drying clothes. Herbs and flowers could be planted in pots as a culinary garden and decoration. Tending the pots and hanging clothes soon became so enjoyable in the warm sunlight that the altana evolved to a place of leisure as well. Family and friends would gather to play and relax. The warm sun transformed living in Venice. Now there was an opportunity to rise from the stuffy, often overheated rooms below to breathe in the fresh air that sailed over the rooftops. A simple structure now became ones own penthouse.

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Pianta prospettica di Venezia, from the year 1500 shows roof-top structures spread all over town

In the 1480s it became the fashion for Venetian ladies to have loose curls of hair flow down over their ears to their chin. The desired hair colour was blonde, to attain this, the ladies would sit in the relative privacy of their altana with hair spread out over a large circular disk worn like a hat. With the aid of the juice of a lemon or two and the sun, bleaching would hopefully occur.

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Two Venetian Ladies detail of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio.

Today, the altana is a value-added piece of the real estate in Venice. Furnished with sun lounges, a table and chairs attracts higher rent, or, for the home owner, extra floor space for relaxing and entertaining. Rental apartments make the most of this attribute in their advertising and are heavily sought after and booked well ahead.

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An ancient picture of Hotel Concordia facing the Piazzetta dei Leoncini and the northern facade of the Basilica di San Marco

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The altana today (from the Concordia brochure)

On my recent visit to Venice I stayed in a top floor apartment with the delightful benefit of an altana. Breakfast overlooking canals and roof tops is a great way to plan the day. With landmarks such as bell towers and cathedrals sprouting from the sea of terra cotta tiles, the panorama opens up like a map for a day of exploring. Though juggling a mug of hot coffee and a plate of toast, eggs and bacon as you ascend the steep steps can be a bit of a challenge.

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Internal stairs leading up to the altana at our Ca’ Malvasia apartment

Then, after a day of successfully winding through back streets, crossing countless bridges, several vaporetto canal trips, stopping for a lunch and a glass of Campari, some shopping and sightseeing, the day can be celebrated and discussed over a glass of wine atop your own altana with a soft breeze and the approaching evening light transforming Venice into your own kingdom that you survey from above.

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An evening glass of wine with the Teatro La Fenice (Opera House) peeking over the tiles top right.

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Our altana as seen from Campo S. Angelo

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Santa Maria dei Frari in the background with canal below

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Imagine reading a book with your feet up, a Campari resting beside you and no traffic noises below.

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A touch of greenery against the greying of age

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It’s not all terra cotta and grey from the rooftops

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Some altanas must share their high vantage point with satellite dishes

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Don’t just look down at the canals, look up. There is greenery in Venice.

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Wiring on the roof. Another example of Venetian adaptability but not sure about the safety issue.

Watching the sun rise or go down over Venice can be far more enjoyable from you own high vantage point. Take time out to rest and plan the days activities, or just reflect on the day passing. Point to destinations been to or on the agenda for later. Ease you mind from the overwhelming impact of Venice with the novel you started to read on the plane. Or, end the day with a slap-dash candle-lit evening meal of the cheeses, meats, pasta, sweets and other tasty offerings you discovered during your colourful visit to the bustling markets and stalls of Venice.

Venice is never more yours than presiding over its grandeur from above.

Posted by DenOS.08 16:23 Archived in Italy Tagged venice terraces rooftops altana alfresco Comments (1)

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