In many large cities of the world, especially in the Middle and far East, there’s an unspoken race to create stunning new architecture. As a result, massive constructions appear every year all over the globe in the shape of gleaming airport terminals, luxury hotels, rocketing skyscrapers and more. Many of these new builds carry a message that goes beyond their stylish design and size. Above all they’re a symbol of the host country’s growth and ambitions on the international stage. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, for example, are considered an emblem of Malaysia’s “developed nation” status. Similarly, the Burj Khalifa and Al Arab do the same for the Emirates. Perhaps the Lakhta Centre in Saint Petersburg is an icon of Russian aspirations, as well.
I’m neither an architect nor a civil engineer and can’t comment on the hazards of building modern high rise structures. However, what I do know is that some architecture, whether ancient or new, can amaze and stun the public. It can also capture the imagination and stir feelings of national pride. After all, how could the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore fail to impress? How could the Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi not leave an onlooker in awe? Similarly, what can be said about the CCTV building in Beijing?
In Brussels, at the heart of Europe, there’s an older piece of architecture that delivers the same sense of admiration described above. It’s called the Atomium and it’s hardly a skyscraper nor a fashionable hotel. It’s neither a museum nor a government building. In fact, the Atomium has no real functional purpose whatsoever other than being an architectural wonder in pretty much the same way the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.
The building’s charm has all to do with its futuristic design. Its weird appealing “space ball” geometry captures everyone by surprise, it draws smiles and raises curiosity just like every decent work of art. It’s like no other building in the world and rightly considered one of the most iconic in Europe.
You can reach the Atomium easily from down town Brussels. A twenty minute ride on the subway, on line 6 to the Heizel metro stop will get you there. As you exit the station the massive silver spheres and connecting branches of the Atomium’s structure fill the skyline. You can’t miss it.
There are nine eighteen meter diameter balls in the design that at first glance seem positioned randomly. As you get a little closer to the building though, it becomes clear that there is indeed an order. The Atomium is a gigantic model of the “cubic centred” crystal structure, the same structure that is found Iron ore (Fe), Lithium (Li) and many other metals, too.
There’s a wealth of information about the Atomium on line that I won’t repeat here. I’ll just hint at the fact that the structure was built in 1958 for that year’s World International Expo. It was designed by the able hands of Jean Pollak (architect) and Andrè Waterkeyn (engineer) and was never really intended to be a permanent landmark.
Tickets to the venue cost around 15 Euro each for adults and are best purchased on line. However, queues at the entrance are to be expected due to strict security checks. Because of this it took me about fifteen minutes to get through the inlet barriers.
Out of this world
The Atomium’s inside doesn’t disappoint at all. A clever system of escalators, and stairs allows visitors to move easily from one “ball” to the next. In each of these there are temporary art exhibitions, pictures, videos and artefacts from the Atomium’s past, all worth some attention. The round shape of the chambers plus some fancy soft coloured lighting gives each room a different dreamy feeling that is both soothing and exciting at the same time. Part labyrinth, and part museum there’s something to keep everyone entertained inside the Atomium, enough for a few hours of fun at least.
Space ships and movies
The Atomium reminds me of something from a 1950’s movie, like The Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Destination Moon or similar. For this reason once inside I felt as as though on board a C-57D space ship with captain Adams (Les Nielsen) and crew ready for take off. The steampunk style iron cladding, the shape and colours of the inside design reeked of cold war science fiction nostalgia. This was a time in which Sputinks were launched into orbit and atomic bombs kept everyone in check. Maybe Pollak and Waterkeyn purposely meant to capture some of this post war drama when they drew up their plans for the Atomium in the early days of the space race, who knows.
Meal with a view
The highest point of the Atomium is at around 100m form ground level. Of course there are some great views to admire from the windows of the upper most sphere. There’s also a bar and restaurant up there. The menu includes lobster, meat cuts and steamed mussels. Prices are steep but the food is worth it.
I enjoyed the Atomium immensely. If nothing else I took some unusual pictures and got excited about a landmark I think is definitely unique. Hence, I look forward to visiting again some time soon.
If you’re in Brussels, Belgium and have any interest in architecture or perhaps in old sci-fi movies then pay the Atomium a visit. You won’t regret it!
Lake Inari in Lapland, Finland has long been a popular spot for cold weather enthusiasts eager for some outdoor winter fun. People flock to this arctic resort from all over the world, especially during the Christmas season, usually with kids in tow. After all, it’s no secret that Lapland is also home to Santa Claus, his reindeer and merry helping elf’s, too.
Throughout the winter months, tour operators offer a “full on” package here with wooden cabins to sleep in, saunas to relax in, reindeer farms, snow mobiles, and of course a chance to witness the northern lights in all their green luminescent splendour. For many this lasts attraction is the greatest of all.
So, taken by striking web pictures and keen to try some snowmobiling as well, I set off in late February for some Aurora magic. I packed my Nikon D7200, a Sigma 18-35 Art lens, a sturdy tripod, a few other essentials and boarded a Finnair flight from Gatwick to the great North.
In Ivalo, once landed, I found a world of ice, snow and temperatures well below zero to greet me. The border formalities took very time to sort out and once through, a driver escorted me and a small party to our lodges.
The Nellim guest house was comfortable and cosy. The food served was good (especially breakfast) and the day activities for guests had something for everyone to enjoy in the snow. Amongst the favourites were dog sledging, ice fishing and cross country skiing.
The snow mobiles provided transport and were easy to ride, albeit bumpy. I discovered they offered the same sort of thrills an off road motorbike does. As a result, I promised myself I’d find time to investigate these machines a little more some time in the future. It was picture taking that I had come for though on this trip and a chance to take some snaps of the Aurora Borealis most of all.
What set up did I use on my camera? What worked best? Was it easy? Here are the essentials.
1. It’s best to have a DSLR or equivalent with manual settings.
The manual settings available on a DSLR camera, along with a decent lens, permit easy vibrant, detailed images. When set up correctly a modern DSLR yields instant results that require little post processing on a computer.
A smartphone will also work, but image quality might not quite be the same as that of a DSLR. A lower quality smart phone camera might simply be disappointing.
2. A “full frame” machine is preferable.
A 35mm “full frame” format camera has a bigger sensor, bigger than most consumer grade machines. This allows for shorter exposures, lower ISO settings and consequently comparatively less grainy, noisy pictures.
3. Use the fastest wide angle lens available.
Use the best quality, biggest aperture lens you have available. An aperture of maybe 2.8 or bigger still is ideal for low exposure times.
4. A tripod is a must!
It’s cold out there, in the snow and ice in the middle of the night and exposure times in the dark can be several seconds long. Consequently a tripod is the only way to avoid camera shake and blurry pictures both for cameras and smartphones.
Set the lens to the widest angle available (18mm or even less). Aperture at maximum or just under maximum, wherever image quality is best. Focus needs to be on “infinity”. This can be achieved by focussing the lens in auto mode on a bright subject 30m to 40m away (or more). The lens will set itself to infinity this way. Then, disengage auto focus mode, flip to manual and do not touch the lens again.
Exposure times should be around ten seconds at the most. Any longer than that will produce images with noticeably blurred stars due to the Earth’s rotation.
ISO settings depend on the combination of the camera’s sensor and lens. A compromise is necessary (while shooting) for bright enough images and the exposure times mentioned above. I found that ISO 800 to ISO 1250 worked well for me without too much noise in any of my pictures.
6. Shoot raw
Raw images allow greater post processing flexibility.
7. Have a spare battery!
The cold will run down batteries faster than normal. It’s best to have an extra ready to go. Keep the spare warm in a pocket until needed.
8. You need luck.
A combination of clear skies and good solar activity is essential to see the aurora. It’s no use standing around with camera in hand on a cloudy night. Furthermore, it’s always good to be creative. It seems like the better pictures of the lights are all about telling a story and creating an atmosphere. The lights work well when used as a detail (albeit a big one) in the background. Glowing camp fires, tents, snow mobiles or people are effective props to “anchor” pictures in the foreground.
I spent three hours on lake Inari, at minus fifteen degrees with my nose pointing to the heavens. The lights were one of the most captivating spectacles I have ever seen. At first, they darted around in the sky, twisting, coiling and turning, Sometimes they appeared suddenly as if by the flick of a switch. Other times they would take shape slowly in a warm glow. Similarly, they would then dissolve and reappear elsewhere above the horizon.
Colours changed from green to green-blu with occasional streaks of red. Sometimes the lights were sharp and bright, more often they were a misty blur. Many times shafts and beams of green seemed to drop from the heavens and bounce low on the clouds above the tree line in a yellow glow. It felt all a bit mystical.
I had two batteries with me for my shoot and used one up entirely in the space of just over an hour. I remember brushing off some frost from my camera to change the battery out. Finally I made my way back to the guest house in the early hours of the morning when the cold on my feet became unbearable. It would have been good to have had more time to experiment with composition and maybe a change in location, too.
All in all Inari was a great, worthwhile experience and lucky one as well. The best time of the year to see the lights is autumn and early spring. There are apps available that can accurately predict times and places for the best sightings that work very well. “My Aurora Forecast and Alerts” is one of the most popular.
Georgia, the South Caucasus nation, is hardly on the radar of western mass tourism and isn’t really part of the beaten backpacker track either. In fact, the country’s existence and location is regrettably ignored by most people. For sure Georgia’s past as a somewhat obscure republic of the Soviet Union still feeds suspicion to the minds of those who remember the Cold War and know who Joseph Stalin, a very prominent Georgian, was. Also, Georgia’s recent ruinous 2008 conflict with Russia has done nothing to promote the country as a tourist destination.
So, it was with a bit of apprehension that I reached Georgia on a Black Sea ferry from Ukraine, not sure what to expect and totally ignorant about what I might find. However, my doubts disappeared pretty quickly. Infact, within a couple of days of my arrival my doubts were replaced by surprise and keen curiosity.
Georgia has it all. There are stunning mountains on its northern border soaring above 5000m, sunny beaches and resorts on its Black Sea coast, green valleys and plains where good wine is made. People are generally friendly, proud and hospitable and there is a wealth of history in this geographical crossroads between Christianity and Islam that it’s mysteriously puzzling. Of course there’s also good cuisine to try and buzzing night life especially in Batumi and Tbilisi. Most of all though the country feels safe, genuine and is unspoiled by masses of tourists.
Riding through Georgia from East to West gave me the opportunity to notice some of the paradoxes this nation faces. Two frozen conflicts within its borders (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is the price the country pays for antagonising the interests of Russia, its dominant neighbour. Equally, aid from the West is obvious. The police for example wear American style uniforms and roam the roads in Ford patrol vehicles that would not look out of place in a cop movie based in New York or Los Angeles. Furthermore, The people I came across in Tibilisi, in the guest houses and bars, included journalists from known media organisations, NGO workers and even British aristocracy. Un unusual mix and a certainly different to the back packer hostels you generally get in any major city in the world.
Georgia is also a stunning place for some motorcycle adventure. There’s an abundance of white top (un tarred) roads that carve their way for hundreds of kilometres through amazing mountain scenery in the Caucasus and lead to remote border hamlets reachable only during the summer months. The routes can take days to ride and are a thrill to explore on a capable, machine. I enjoyed the green lanes in Georgia so much that I can confidently say they offered some of the most satisfying off road experiences I have ever enjoyed.
But where to go to get at a taste of the trails in Georgia? One route in particular will not fail to satisfy. It’s the road that leads through the Stori valley to the village of Omalo in the Tusheti region north west of Tbilisi. This route is fairly recent, opened up in the late seventies and maintained every year with bulldozers and gravel. It takes the better part of a day to complete a one way ride to Omalo from Tbilisi and three days for a return trip is plenty. This road has been featured as one of the most dangerous roads in the world in a BBC television series from 2012.
You need to pack light for the track, so leave heavy excess items at whatever guest house you’re leaving from in Tbilisi before heading off for the hills. Camping gear is not required. Make an early start to avoid the rush hour traffic and then head east, away from the capital city’s centre along the Kakheti Highway. Pass the intersection to the airport and continue along S5 all the way to the junction with Route 38. Make a turn north and follow the signs for the town of Telavi.
The ride to Telavi starts off a bit bland but once you reach the village of Sasadilo there’s plenty of rural farmland to stare at. Animals are free to roam here and it’s not unusual to find cattle, dogs and the occasional pig in the middle of road. Beware!
Respect the speed limits and do not cross the solid lines that divide the the carriageways. Georgian police are unforgiving and the fines are steep as I painfully discovered at my own cost.
Telavi is a small town with plenty of affordable guest houses. It’s a good place to spend a night especially on the return route from Tusheti and Omalo if necessary.
Just north of Telavi the route turns west and follows the Alazani river valley. Fields and arable land surround the road here all the way to Pshaveli where the Stori Valley commences with wooded forest all around. Make sure to fill your tank in Pshaveli as there are no other fuel stops from here onwards. The hard tar surfaced road disappears soon after the village and now the real fun begins. Jagged twists and loose gravel along cliff edges, tricky mud, knee deep fords, slippery rock and snow are the hurdles ahead on the trail. You need momentum and a minimum of off road negotiating skills especially where the mud gets over ankle deep. There are roadside waterfalls, roaming cattle and the occasional 4×4 truck to overtake while keeping an eye out for the drops at the side of the road. It’s fun and the adrenaline pump, constant.
Knobbly tyres are an advantage and hard suspension is a plus as well but there is nothing too extreme about the road to Omalo and calling it one of the most dangerous roads in the world is an outrageous exaggeration. Do it all at your own pace and it’s fine.
The maximum elevation is around 2850m so temperatures can drop noticeably especially at the Torha Pass where snow can be found even during the warmer months of the year. Take extra care here when crossing the fords swollen by melting snow. Probe the depth of the running water with a stick if necessary and do not underestimate the force of a gushing stream. I was caught out at one point and risked drowning my bike.
It can take the better part of four hours to ride the 80 km circa from Pshaveli to Omalo and every second will have your pulse racing. Once you reach Omalo the Tsasne guest house is the place to stay. It has warm, clean dorm style rooms and typical local food. I spent a couple of nights there with other guests. Safe parking was provided too!
The village of Keselo is just a short ride from Omalo and there are some recently restored iconic stone dwellings here worth a visit. The fortified houses were used by local villagers as a refuge when hoarding Daghestani tribes from across the border ransacked the area repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.
The road to Omalo is sure to impress and will create a lasting memory for whoever ventures up its muddy path. There is stunning scenery, hospitality good food, history and plenty of photo opportunities. The ride is simply enormous fun both there and back to Tbilisi. Don’t miss out if you’re ever in Georgia, on an enduro machine between May and October. Enjoy!