Fiesole, Fiesole, Fiesole. For as long as I live, the word will be an incantation, pulling me from whatever muck I have found myself in, kissing me with sun and hill and grass, with the memory of wine and figs, of scorching Florentine meanderings, and late night conversation. Of my Tuscan interlude, there is no risk of excess in the telling, no labyrinth of words in which to be lost. It has been my midsummer night’s dream, and with less than a week to go, I would hate to face the dawn, except that surely only more discoveries await.

Villa M____ sits at nearly the highest peak of the majestic Fiesole region of Tuscany, sparsely bejewelled with stunning homes that have housed people as varied as the Medicis, Proust, and now, well, Chris and Tim. The view from almost every window – hills that roll with vineyards and olive-groves until each gives way to Florence’s sunburned valley, and then more green hills, rising and falling until vision fades and clouds consume. From our new home we watched storms come and go across the city as if they were presentations on some kind of cosmic IMAX, and the villa’s purpled sunsets would nightly compel a hundred clicks of the camera before we retired inside. Oh, and when I talk of olive groves and vineyards, I naturally speak of the olive grove and vineyard of the villa itself, which, it seems, no self-respecting villa is complete without. With rainbow gardens viewed from an imperial balcony, and skies so colourful you would swear they were fictional, one has to concede the Romantic poets were right. What happiness to pass a day in the vain company of Florence, only to retire at evening to the ancient hills without which she would be nothing!

As it transpired, our hostess was away far less than anticipated, but we remained more than welcome – helping out in doses large or small – whilst our incredibly well-read and travelled friend helped us to her lifetime of wisdom and stories … not to mention the food and wine, the likes of which I may never taste again. Her greatest kindness was to smile benevolently at my culinary adventurism, and flatter my penne arrabbiata with the charitable request that I cook again. And although my Italian is nowhere near as good as it should be, I could at least follow a conversation, flatter a chef, and ask for seconds…

Florence is, of course, one of the great gateway cities of Italy, and Tim and I made happy day-trips to Pisa and Siena. In Pisa, we even had the pleasure of meeting Tessa – another travelling writer and friend from home –  a luxury brief but wonderful. Siena we visited twice, the second time for Il Palio, the madcap horse race that on the 16th of August makes grown men weep, whilst others dress up in medieval frocks, or suits of armour, depending on their inclination. The race itself is fast and furious, horses bolting thrice around Il Campo, the town square, which is laid with dirt, and packed with screaming enthusiasts (ourselves included) praying their horse wins, and that they don’t get trampled in the dash. Imagine Phar Lap and Seabiscuit racing around Martin Place, and you have some idea of how demented the whole affair is… Our horse didn’t win – which means it wasn’t violent enough – rules stating a horse may win the race, even if its rider falls off. I’m not sure whether that’s a victory for animal rights, or not. But it’s fun to watch.

I will never forget Fiesole, a place of restorative pause, and also heated industry (there I completed a first full draft of my novel). Although we will all meet again – I have threatened our generous host with a return visit – and my path will cross again with Tim’s, eventually, it will never again be quite like this…

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My time trapped inside a crowded and wet Salzburg hostel had taken its toll, and, for the first time since leaving home, I was spine-quiveringly ill. Which was perfect timing, really, given that my next destination was one of the most longed-for of my entire trip…

Shivering and spluttering, I boarded the train from Salzburg, Venice bound, an otherwise wonderful voyage through pristine Austrian countryside that happily afforded one last opportunity to be trapped in a confined space with middle aged German hikers wearing yellow shorts too small for their five year old grandchildren… Such a beautiful country, such small shorts.

Venice arrived as promised, or rather, I did, my fever allowing me to enjoy an actual slow-motion run along the platform to greet Tim, who had coordinated his arrival perfectly. Neither of us looked quite the same as when we last met, the night before I fled Sydney. I was wearing what was left of my Greece and Turkey burn, idly earned on beach and yacht, and he was wearing his Thailand tan, not-so-idly earned in the pursuit of a better world, teaching English to children. After the euphoria of friends reunited, the awful reality hit. I was not well. And, despite the life-sustaining delight of my first journey along the Grand Canal, I collapsed in a feverish pulp on my bed, unable to appreciate the fact that we were staying minutes from San Marco itself.

“Stendhal Syndrome”, named for the author, describes that feeling of dizziness one gets from too much sightseeing. It essentially refers to that combination of too much cultural sublimity, mixed with the negative health effects of always looking up – at sunsets and cathedral roofs and tall women – such as neck strain, reduced blood flow to the brain, and difficulty appreciating Jackson Pollock. Well, combine that with Salzburg Syndrome, and you have an entertainingly original perspective of Venice’s treasures, and I passed out, or very nearly, in front of every one of them. For catching me, helping me eat, and generally Florence Nightingaling, I commend poor Timmoth, and promise to do the same one day.

Appropriately, the first day I felt well enough to enjoy my morning coffee – rather than regurgitate it – coincided with one Festival di Redentore. This timely holiday is when Venetians commemorate the Almighty’s decision to spare them from total Bubonic annihilation during the Middle Ages, but not, unfortunately, to spare them from bad Frank Sinatra impersonators, employed by every cafe, bar, and restaurant from San Marco to Santa Croce to entertain customers with mangled renditions of “My Way”, and thus – without any trace of irony – celebrate the demise of one rat pack with the abusive misappropriation of another.

The day ended just as it should, with the grotesque marriage of Italian classical music and techno beats, boatloads of Italian weekenders celebrating on the Grand Canal in their boats to strains of “I Will Survive” (perhaps another Bubonic gag?), as families, friends and miscellaneous others (such as us) piled into San Marco to sit – in our case right in front of the Palazzo Ducale – and watch an extraordinary fireworks display, igniting over the Grand Canal. Just the sort of night one wishes one had a girlfriend. What I did have, however, was Tim, my health, and Frank Sinatra. Which, in a city like Venice, is more than enough to thank the Redeemer for.

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Ah, Vienna…

City of Mozart, chocolate and chocolate Mozarts, I was immediately seduced by this living gallery of art and music, an architectural utopia in which nearly every building is a museum piece, particularly, but not exclusively, around the unforgettable Ringstraße, where the Hofburg stands as testament to the Habsburg’s imperial ego, and the Opera House stands as a reminder of that ego’s unrivalled commitment to the arts (take note Australia)… A pretentious git was always going to feel comfortable in a city whose statuary immortalises the names of Mozart, Shakespeare and Strauss, whose streets, like Papageno Street, are named after characters from opera, and whose most incendiary scandal in the last 200 years was the Secessionist movement in art. Oh, and Hitler.

It had not been the plan, but I soon found my three nights in Vienna becoming four, then five, and then a week. Seven days, even so, was not enough to take in every treasure in the Museums Quartier and Kunsthistorisches Museum, or to visit every dead genius buried within her cemeteries. It was not all educational, and, in between the Klimts and Kokoschkas, I sunned away countless lazy hours in the Imperial Gardens, which, like so much of Habsburg Vienna, is now open freely to the public. Mercifully – for the drunk or culturally exhausted – Vienna’s past need not consume you, as the happy crowds, young and old, drinking beer in the imperial sun would attest. Like her famous Empress Elisabeth, Vienna is fiercely proud of her history and beauty, but seldom to the point of dull excess.

Appropriately for my last night in Vienna, I had a ticket to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Volksoper, and, after visiting St. Mark’s Cemetery to pay my respects, pre-show, but post-mortem, to the composer himself, I was able to spruce myself up (as much as any backpacker is able), relax (as much as any backpacker is able) and luxuriate in what Vienna seems to do best.

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If the hype of hyperventilating backpackers is to be believed (and, let’s face it, it always is) then Europe’s hottest destination is Croatia,  “the Mediterranean as it used to be.” So it was with great joy that my train from Ljubljana to Budapest made an unavoidable detour through sunny Zagreb, allowing me to claim a Croatian stamp in my passport, and thus be able to play stamp snap with the backpacking elite. Less triumphantly, it also meant that when my train finally arrived in Budapest, I was all alone after dark in a scary drug-eyed corner of a city whose population (criminal element included) spoke a language quite unrelated to English. Indeed, where one might infer the meaning of a drug addict’s burbling in, say, Italy or Germany, in Hungary, one must simply stiffen up the sinews, dry one’s eyes of tears, and hope that the taxi driver knows where he is going.

It is no understatement to remark that – to the untrained ear – Magyar is a merciless language, unrelated as it is to our Indo-European family of languages, and proudly defended by a population with little (or no) patience for confused travellers hurling English at them like arrows against the dignity of their wild and peculiar tongue. Without a word of Hungarian to my name, I was forced to subsist for days upon nothing but gesticulation and natural charm.

With a slightly rusted feel, in personality, as in architecture, Budapest is like Vienna’s punk twin, somewhere between her sublime Habsburg majesty, and a Gotham City sinister. But don’t bother telling that to the young people of Budapest, most of whom had chosen an aesthetic straight out of MTV. Not matter one’s taste, there is an awful lot to see in this slightly mad city, from the glorious palace at Buda – accessed by a funicular railway – to the titillatingly creepy pleasure of placing a coin in Pest’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, to see that sainted king’s withered hand light up in its reliquary like an interactive feature on a Ghost Train. (So lifelike was it, all lit up, that I thought it might strangle me for my sins).

On my last night in Budapest – still recovering from the nightmarish Communist statuary preserved in Budapest’s “House of Terror” – I called Mandy, a girl I met in Ljubljana, to meet for dinner. Irrepressibly Californian, she had been studying in Hungary for a year, and was even able to sustain a sophisticated conversation with the local wait-staff (which, on reflection, was scarcely worth the effort). She had brought along her sister and best friend and, after some hearty Hungarian fare, informed me we were going dancing. Now, if there is one thing that terrifies me more than terrorism and bumblebees, it’s dancing, with its tyranny of slide, slide, slap and shake. But, under the insurmountable weight of peer pressure, I submitted to her Californian will in the knowledge I would hate myself in the morning …

Now, as we all know, the Europeans fancy themselves as being pretty debauched, yet Eastern Europeans, I had begun to observe, made even the French look like eunuchs on an icicle collecting expedition … So it was with buttocks tightly clenched I entered the open air dance party taking place on the banks of the Danube at an hour past midnight, my hand gripped tightly by the devil who had brought me there.

If your life, like mine, has been one of utter misfortune, then you may have seen The Matrix Reloaded, and might recall therein a tit-flailingly awful dance sequence that climaxed with a naked Keanu Reeves juxtaposed against a million bouncing extras dressed in body length bondage socks. Out of work NIDA graduates, all of them. Well, I didn’t actually see Keanu that night in Budapest, but he was surely there. If you have ever had the chance to microwave your head – or eat a nest of spiders – then you will already know what Hungarian dance music sounds like, and (for future reference I note that) it would take a millennia of sex education to unravel some of the biological misconceptions held by the folk there partying.

Lamb that I am, I thought I would be home by three o’clock, but as I boarded the bus, having been bumped and grinded into oblivion, the sun was already rising on what would be my last day in Hungary… As I sidled irritably up to my hostel, I would have bought myself a consolatory kebab, but I had long since lost the will to gesticulate.

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The wisdom goes, as wisdom does, that if you have any preconceptions about the Germans (of the sauerkraut, bratwurst and beer kind) then you will have them realised in Bavaria in glorious abundance, and every German I had met on my travels – from North Strathfield to Istanbul – had a firm opinion on the matter. If they hailed from the north, say, Berlin, then they adopted the same lofty and dismissive tone when talking of the Bavarians that the French traditionally reserve for the Americans: “The Bavarians!” they would guffaw, “are peculiar, conservative and insular, caught up in their own interminable myths, etc…” or something like that. If they were Bavarian, on the other hand, then they would inform you, misty eyed, that Bavaria is the true Germany, and (often literally) sing her praise… Well, both of them are right, and, frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s not every day you can walk into a department store and find an entire section devoted to lederhosen.

Most of my time in Munich was spent doing as the locals do, eating sausages by the cathedral-lode, and drinking beer by the litre. A festive city, after dark Munich brims with laughter, until, like the characters in a Bavarian Dawn of the Dead, an army of contented drunks flirts and shuffles around the city where, hours before, they had been shopping for the latest in European couture. Or lederhosen, perhaps, depending on how early the drinking started…

My final day in Munich, and the sun has disappeared. Overhead, dark clouds shift uneasily and the air thickens with the threat of storms, typical of Munich at that time of year. It was without any trace of meteorological irony that I had just joined a tour to a picturesque German town, half an hour from the city by train, and the second most visited town in Germany. Site of some of the worst crimes that man has ever committed against man. Dachau.

As our bus from the station approached the remnants of Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp, we approached her just as her inmates and liberators had done, passing the luxurious SS buildings, still standing,  before entering the camp on foot, through its infamous steel gates, still inscribed with the words “arbeit macht frei.” The site is intimidating, lifelessly grey, and the school-children and tour groups who wander about in their colourful modern clothes seem almost superimposed, coloured faces in a black and white photo.

The history of the place immediately overwhelms. As Hitler’s first concentration camp, Dachau was the model camp, without which Auschwitz-Birkenau – the great abyss of the 20th Century – might never have been conceived. Within its fortified walls, the Final Solution was puzzled out by the psychopathy of policy-makers and guards, who piled dissidents, homosexuals, Roma and Jews into the diseased boxes they passed off as rooms. Although much of the camp remains, the barracks have been torn down, bar one, reconstructed by the government as a monument to past misdeeds. Officially, as our guide explained, this was done because of the high costs of maintaining the site intact. Unofficially, he added, it allowed for a subtle, yet convenient, revision of history, the spacious reconstruction offering little idea of the cramped horror of its actual operation, stacked as it would have been with its doomed cargo of living skeletons. As it stands, the building looks much like an old school dormitory.

Still, it is difficult to fault the intensity of the onsite museum, and the long line of German children pass each stand in silence, their backpacks covered in the usual graffiti, but also “No Nazi” slogans, and other little defiances against their nation’s history prominently displayed. Even with this narrative drummed into them at school, they clearly find the trip to Dachau as harrowing, if not more so, than anyone else.

Our last stop is the most grotesque, the crematoria whose human smoke rose over Dachau village’s supposedly ignorant population, and a small darkened chamber labelled “brausebad,” the shower room. One has only to place a finger inside a shower-head to see no water ever ran there … Officially – and according to the decade old documentary screened hourly at Dachau – this room was never used for the purpose for which it was built. A death camp Dachau may have been, but not an extermination camp. Unofficially, as our guide explained, this is less than certain, and historians continue to debate the evidence of Dachau’s role in the concerted annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population. What is certain about Dachau’s gas chamber, however, is that, as one team of experts appraised, it would only take one afternoon of preparation to have the system operational once more.

As the storm finally broke, we left the crematoria and filed, soaked, past Dachau’s unmarked graves, filled with the ashes of so many unidentified dead. After ten minutes of quiet reflection, we came to the end of our tour, and slipped quietly away. By that time, it felt not a minute too soon. Quite frankly, as I boarded the bus from Dachau to Munich, I felt poisoned, and it would take me days before I could even start to work the feeling out of my system, if indeed I ever wanted to. The visit felt, as everyone agreed, both horrible and essential. In the illumination of my feelings about the place, no further words are necessary, except to quote the simple exhortation of Dachau’s Jewish Memorial: “Never again.”

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Without doubt, the greatest influence on my childhood imagination was British science-fiction television series, Doctor Who. Throughout primary school, I faithfully watched every episode screened during James Valentine’s Afternoon Show on the ABC, including all of Tom Baker’s peerless run as the Fourth Doctor, and Sylvester McCoy’s as the Seventh. Then, I had the chance to encounter the Fifth (Peter Davison) and Sixth (Colin Baker) when the ABC screened their adventures at the ungodly hour of 4am, inspiring my mastery of the VHS video timer (look it up, kids), and watched each new episode before school.

I was a strange child. Although I did try, I couldn’t understand my class’ obsession with Michael Jordan, Nike Air and Street Fighter II, when there was another episode of Kinda to be savoured and decoded… Fortunately, there was a small group of teachers and students at the school who shared my obsession, similarly red-eyed the morning of Adric’s (spoilers!) at the hands of the (spoilers!) in Earthshock.

Meanwhile, thanks to an expanding range of BBC Videos, I was able to acquaint myself with the legendary first three Doctors (William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee). Thanks to my rapidly expanding collection of Target Novelisations (God bless you, Terrance Dicks!), and a proliferating collection of non-fiction books about the series, I knew exactly what treasures I was looking for. Of course, anything with the Daleks was a top priority.

The show expanded my vocabulary, inspired an interest in history and science, taught me to dress unfashionably, and to boggle my eyes at people, like Tom Baker. I built my own K-9 out of ice cream containers, imagined there was a Jagaroth under the house, and was terrified during swimming lessons because of the crab robot in Paradise Towers. In fact, although it looks rather silly now – despite a great script – Paradise Towers did me loads of damage. I was separated from my mother in K-Mart Burwood after encountering a robotic cleaner, and ran for my life. Also, there was that one time my family was locked outside our house. I was small enough to squeeze through a window to open the door to let everyone in, but was too scared of the Rezzies (elderly cannibals) to enter the house alone. Instead, my parents had to smash a window! Oh, and I forgot to mention, the bath was left running and soon flooded the carpet thanks to my anxieties. See what you did to me, Stephen Wyatt!

Most of the stories I wrote at school and home were about Doctor Who, most of the games I played in the garden, park, or  beach were about … Doctor Who. I was never content to simply swim, I had to become a Sea Devil or Marshman, rising from the deep. Fortunately, my sister and cousins were willing accomplices. Some of the time.

Like the Last Centurion, I carried my love of the show through the wilderness years (appropriately enough a teen at the time), when the BBC no longer made new episodes, despite the false-dawn of the Paul McGann TV Movie. I was no longer making robots from ice cream containers, but the inspiration had not faded, and I continued to owe a debt to the show in everything I wrote. I joined fellow die-hards in reading Virgin’s New Adventures and later BBC Books’ series of on-going adventures, listening to Big Finish audio dramas, and attending the occasional convention. I read, and still read, Doctor Who Magazine every month.

One of the highlights of my year backpacking around Europe in 2005 was spotting Russell T. Davies in a W.H. Smith in Manchester, a week before Christmas, and only months after the show’s long-awaited revival. I was purchasing a copy of Doctor Who Magazine – what else? – as he waited behind me in the line. I was too star-struck to speak, but as I left the store turned and caught the great man’s eye. And so with wide smile and booming laugh he joined me for a chat, about what a triumphant return the show had made with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in the lead, and what a treat we had in store with David Tennant soon to take the TARDIS reins.

Months later, when I finally returned home (from Barcelona, as it happens; apt choice, as fans will know), I was pouring over a pile of unread DWMs, waiting beside my bed, when I stumbled upon one of Russell T. Davies’ monthly columns, the opening line of which read: “I just met Chris from Sydney!” My heart (almost) literally burst with joy.

I often think of that meeting in Manchester. In my youthful exuberance I naturally told the great RTD I was a writer (carrying an early draft of Empire of the Waves in my backpack at the time), and what an inspiration his work was to me, and he took the time to share some words of wisdom. Nothing heavy-handed, though, just a good-natured warning about the challenges of the writer’s life. (Incidentally, RTD’s book The Writer’s Tale is one of the best books I have read about the subject. Read it!)

Well, it only took me another ten years … but here I am!

I’m so grateful for the return of Doctor Who to our screens. Naturally, it warms the heart of an old fan to have had five incredible new Doctors to appreciate, but it especially warms the heart to think a new generation of children (and future writers) will have their own imaginations kindled by the adventures of the mad man with a box, and by all the wonderful men and women who have brought him to life: actors, writers, directors, producers, designers. All of ’em.

Happy times and places!

Jordan Raskopoulos, Ingrid Oliver aka Petronella Osgood & Christopher Richardson

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