I recently caught up with a good friend of mine from the States with whom I often hiked in southern California. I told her that I very much missed hiking and regretted the notable lack of contour lines on maps of Cambridge and the surrounding area. She extended her sympathy and asked what I had been doing instead. I told her that I had spent a week in Budapest on a research visit, a week in Muslim Spain attending a conference and snowboarding, three days in Italy for ice climbing, two days in Munich for Christmas festivals and museums, one week in Vienna for Christmas festivals and museums, and nine days in Morocco hiking and exploring the medieval cities of Marrakesh and Fes. She retracted her offer of sympathy.
It is hard to say whether my fondness for Budapest should be attributed to its own merit as a city or to my general longing for a big city after spending a month in the small village of Cambridge. Either way, I was very happy when my advisor extended an invitation to everyone in our group to spend one week in Budapest visiting him. Highlights of Budapest included the nighttime views of the city, the hills, the architecture, the Turkish baths, and the bakeries.
The Danube River runs right through the center, dividing the city into Buda (west) and Pest (east), which were originally two separate cities that gradually grew together. Across the Danube stretch several bridges, which are all lit up spectacularly at night, along with many of the major buildings. My initial impression of the city was that it was proof that communism is a recipe for poverty and ugly buildings, but walking across the bridges after dark and pausing for views of Parliament and Castle Hill quickly reminded me that Hungary has done fairly well for itself after leaving the nest of Mother Russia.
In the mornings, I took advantage of Buda’s steep hills (especially Castle and Gellért Hills) to get in some proper runs (the steepest thing I can run up in Cambridge is the curb) and soak in more views of the city. I even had the opportunity to go for a nice run with a friend from the States who happened to be visiting the city for a conference.
By day, I worked at the Central European University with my advisor. Without the distractions of Cambridge, the week turned out to be very productive scientifically, including the initiation of a collaboration with an experimental neuroscientist in Budapest who is willing and able to test a model of single-cell computation that I have been working on.
By night, I took long walks and reveled in the array of non-British restaurants. While Hungarian cuisine is not known for catering to vegetarians, I managed to find several excellent vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants and cafes (especially Govinda-Buda, Hummus Bar, Edeni Vegan, Falafel Önkiszolgáló, and Napos Oldal Ökocafé), as well as sample the goodies of several famous Hungarian bakeries (especially things filled with spinach, poppy seed, or chestnuts, and especially from Ruszwurm).
On one weekend afternoon, I also visited one of Budapest’s lavish Turkish baths – Gellért fürdő. Known for its spectacular art nouveau architecture, the bath (like most) had co-ed, male- only, and female-only sections. The main attraction was the hot tubs, though there was also a (freezing cold) pool for swimming. While the co-ed area was impressive, the male-only area had larger hot tubs, smaller crowds, and spectacular tile work. It also had saunas but they were so hot and foggy that I could neither breathe nor see and so left after approximately three seconds. The price to pay for these additional luxuries was a constant stream of naked old men going to and fro. While the baths are definitely worth a visit for solo travelers, the steep price of admission makes it a better deal for small groups who might stay and chat for several hours, as I found myself leaving after about an hour (admission tickets are good for the day).
My next visit to Budapest is scheduled for early April, during which time I look forward to checking out the zoo and another bath (Széchenyi), in addition to running in the hills again.
Granada & Sierra Nevada, Spain
The theoretical neuroscience community has a superb tradition of scheduling major conferences near ski resorts. Thus, my winter travels kicked off with several days in Granada at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) main conference, followed by two days of workshops (and skiing/snowboarding) in Sierra Nevada.
The “Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation” was founded 25 years ago as the first and only (at the time) professional society devoted to theoretical and computational neuroscience. Since then, the “NIPS” conference has gradually drifted more towards research in machine learning. Many theoretical and computational neuroscientists see this as a “hijacking” of a conference they founded and nurtured, but others (including myself) see it as an opportunity to get an update on the latest in machine learning, while simultaneously meeting up with the few neuroscientists who still attend.
Those few neuroscientists can be divided into two groups. The first are those who command an expert knowledge of machine learning and allow it to strongly influence their neuroscience. This group includes my own advisor and several collaborators. The second group include the old fuddy-duddies who cannot seem to let go of NIPS and accept that it is no longer a neuroscience conference. This group is disproportionately represented on the board and hence gets the opportunity to deliver incongruous speeches each year on the exciting new research on “neural” information processing systems that their conference features.
One (unforeseen) benefit of having so few neuroscientists present was that I find the conference much more manageable and relaxing. With only half a dozen or so posters to see each evening, I found myself with plenty of time to grab dinner and sleep (luxuries I do not enjoy at the other main conference I will attend this year – Cosyne).
Another (also unforeseen) benefit was that I find myself with enough time during breaks to see a bit of the city. As the main conference was held in Granada and this was my first trip to Muslim Spain, this was a welcome opportunity. Two friends and I spent one day during the lunch break wandering through the Muslim “medina” in the northeast part of town. Built on a hill just across from the Alhambra, the medina offered stunning views of the palace and the rest of the city. We managed to find a terrace bar and sat for a while, enjoying the sunshine and high viewpoint foreign to the Cambridge-bound. We also stumbled upon a turnstile inside on the outside of a nunnery with pictures of baked goods. Curious, we put 5 euros in it and turned it. We heard some scurrying around and out popped a huge bag of homemade cookies and sweets! By far the best mysterious turnstile into which I have ever put money.
The conference itself was divided into three pieces – tutorials, main conference, and workshops. The tutorials, delivered on the first day, are 2-hour introductory sessions on exciting new areas of research. Among them was a tutorial titled “Flexible, Multivariate Point Process Models for Unlocking the Neural Code”, which is related to my own work at Cambridge and which I found quite helpful. I ended up spending several hours over the course of the conference discussing my current project with the professor who gave it and received a number of interesting suggestions to follow up on.
The main conference included both talks and poster sessions. As I have a strong preference for conversations and poster sessions over talks, I skipped many of the talks to meet with other researchers at the conference but spent 4-6 hours each evening browsing and discussing posters. Due to the relatively small proportion of work in theoretical and computational neuroscience, I was able to see all that I wanted to see, as well as catch a few posters on machine learning.
Finally, the workshops feature a series of talks on more specialized topics in rooms that can accommodate only 20-40 people and are thus meant to promote more discussion than the talks at the main conference. Unfortunately, out of almost 30 workshops, there was not a single one on theoretical neuroscience. Fortunately, I still found a number of interesting talks embedded in workshops whose topics I was not particularly concerned with. Even more fortunately, the workshops were held in the Sierra Nevada mountain range a little over an hour from Granada, so I also managed to squeeze in an afternoon of snowboarding.
Despite the (relatively) relaxed pace of the conference for me, I found myself simultaneously exhausted yet bursting with ideas I wanted to work on back in Cambridge. However, it would be almost a month before I would get the chance to do so, as I was immediately headed for Italy for a couple of days of ice climbing, followed by a series of other holiday trips. In the future, I will likely try not to tack on vacations at the end of conferences, as I often find myself most inspired to work at those times.
All in all, I would say that I benefitted greatly from the conversations, posters, tutorials, and location of NIPS, but that the lack of neuroscience at the workshops was a bit disappointing. Although I would not consider NIPS a “must-see” for me, I will likely drop in periodically when working on an appropriate project.
Torino & the foothills of the Alps, Italy
The first serious research opportunity I was ever given was for a summer internship at the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Torino, Italy with USC physics Professor Paolo Zanardi. In addition to hooking me on science, Paolo also introduced me to mountaineering and the Alps. Ever since that summer, I have been looking for opportunities to return and when Paolo heard I would be in England for the year, he invited me to fly out to Torino for a couple of days of ice climbing in the foothills of the Alps. We were joined by a childhood friend of Paolo and our expert mountain guide Muyo, who had also led our initial mountaineering trip in the Alps.
Like any proper Italian outing, each of days began at a café with espresso, cigarettes, and croissants and was, in remarkable incongruence with the physically demanding sport we were pursing, dotted with frequent cigarette breaks. The ice park we climbed in was absolutely stunning. Massive icicles and icy stalagmites formed an intricate, deep blue playground that I could have spent (and did spend!) hours staring at.
Though I was a bit worried about my ability to ice pick my way up those beasts with only two days of rock climbing experience and a cushy Cambridge life-weakened body, Muyo made the introduction as gentle as possible. We spent the first half-day in “ice school” on a notably- less-steep-than-everything-else ice sheet, learning proper position, and navigating our way through pick ax “courses” that Muyo would engineer. By the end of the first day, we took our first stab at the real deal – vertical sheets of ice stretching perhaps 50m in the air. Though I was neither graceful nor fast, I did manage to make it to the top.
My rappel back to earth introduced me to a phenomenon the Italians refer to as the “boils” – the feeling of blood rushing into your hands after being raised above the heart for the duration of your climb. It is one of the more painful things I have willingly inflicted upon myself.
Our day finished with (what else?) espresso, wine, and cigarettes, followed by dinner.
The next day was spent conquering three different (and more difficult) faces of the same ice sheet we had climbed the previous day. By the end of the day, I was utterly exhausted and spent a significant fraction of my time dangling pathetically from one ax, with only a rope saving me from a very unpleasant fall. Nevertheless, I did manage to make it up every climb we attempted and so left with (most of) my dignity intact.
My winter travels next took a marked turn for the urban. Courtesy of a night train from Torino, I met fellow Churchill Scholar Samantha Strasser in Munich where we spent the next two days exploring Christmas markets and museums.
Since I arrived a few hours before Sam, I first visited Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany, after which all subsequent camps were modeled. Less than half an hour outside the city center and free to all visitors, Dachau was one of the most powerful museums I have visited. Virtually the entire site, from the bunkhouses and work yards to the gas chambers and crematoria were open to the public. The combination of the (excellent) audio tour and bitter cold and snow that day made the experience even more, well, depressing (which, in this context, felt appropriate).
Sam and I’s first targets were the Christkindlmarkten, or “Christmas markets.” Despite their angry-sounding language, the Germans apparently have no shortage of Christmas cheer and flood their streets with little booths selling ornaments, handmade crafts, baked goods, and ample supplies of Glühwein (mulled wine) and other warm alcoholic beverages. Sam and I were careful to keep warm by stopping for Glühwein frequently.
Knowing the German penchant for science and engineering (and suckers for both ourselves), Sam and I next visited the Deutsches Museum, Munich’s monument to all things involving science and technology. The highlights included a huge sailboat with cutaway hull, a massive collection of early computers, and plenty of old scientific instruments. Another notable feature was the German no-nonsense approach to explaining science. While most American science museums I have visited try to dumb down the science and replace it with flashy demonstrations and games to attract children, the Germans had no qualms about using words like “eigenvalue” and “resonant frequency”, as well as equations and laws of physics, to explain their exhibits.
That evening, we had dinner at the Ratskeller München – a restaurant beneath the town hall. Upon looking for the rest rooms, we discovered that there was not just one restaurant under the town hall but rather a vast complex that stretched seemingly forever in every direction, shifting atmosphere as one passed the (not at all obvious) borders between restaurants. We both found ourselves using the rest rooms far more often than necessary.
We spent the night at the Wombat Hostel, one of the nicest, cleanest, and safest hostels I have ever stayed at (highly recommended for visits to Munich) and Sam’s (entirely unrepresentative and misleading) first hostel ever.
The next day we were led on a 4-hour tour of the town by a flamboyantly gay, black R&B singer named Ozzie. The fast-paced tour took us to the site of Hitler’s infamous Beer Hall Putsch, pointed out the few original buildings that had survived the bombings during World War II, and educated us on the difference between Bavarian and German culture (the former is responsible for the “German” stereotypes of lederhosen and well-endowed females serving beer and pretzels, for example). Though I rarely go on tours and even more rarely enjoy them, I would most definitely recommend Ozzie’s tour (leaving from the Wombat every day at 11am) to anyone visiting Munich.
The remainder of Sam and I’s time in Munich was spent pursuing Glühwein, smoked fish, and hearth-baked bread in the Christkindlmarkten.
The next morning (December 23) we took a train to Vienna. True to form, the German trains arrived and departed precisely on time, contrary to those of some other countries. We had decided to spend a week in Vienna, after a friend at Churchill, Frederica Stahl, had offered her family’s apartment while they were spending the holidays in New York City. Thankful to have free housing, we were unprepared when we found that we were staying in a three-story penthouse overlooking the former summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. We decided immediately that we were slightly indebted to the Stahl family and spent the remainder of the week buying them gifts to assuage our embarrassment (of riches).
Also meeting us in Vienna were another Churchill Scholar Jonathan Wang and another Churchill student Sherry Gong. Our first day there was spent checking out the Christkindlmarkten, which were similar in spirit to those of Munich.
Christmas Eve and Day turned out to be the least traditional of my short life. On Christmas Eve, I met up with a Viennese friend and his girlfriend and they took me up into the hills northwest of town to get some nice views of the city and to marvel at the art nouveau architecture of the insane asylum located there. Part way through our (frigid) walk, we decided that a coffee would be hit the spot and found a nearby café. As we sat down and awaited the arrival of our drinks, we gradually noticed that the other customers seemed a bit more disheveled than the typical fashionable Viennese resident. When one of them suddenly burst out yelling in monologue, we realized that the café was actually run by and for asylum inmates. We shrugged and soaked in one of the more entertaining cups of coffee any of us had ever had.
That evening, hungry and without groceries, I ventured into the city to find something to eat. Not exactly sure what to expect to be open (I had never spent my Christmas Eve wandering a foreign city), I found that it was just me and the Turks and so settled down to a non-traditional Christmas dinner of falafel, hummus, and pita.
Christmas Day was even stranger, as the four of us ventured to the western edge of town to visit Schönbrunn (the former summer palace of the Habsburgs), which, in addition to the palace, contained a Christmas market, several greenhouses and cafes, extensive gardens, and the world’s oldest zoo. Although I usually loathe palace tours (too ostentatious), the included audio tour made it a tolerable, perhaps even enjoyable, experience.
My favorite part of the visit though was the zoo. Given that it was winter in Austria and that we had never heard of this particular zoo, our expectations were very low. Thus, we were stunned to find penguins, giant pandas, elephants, koalas, hippos, tigers, orangutans, naked mole
rats, and pretty much every zoo-worthy animal you could imagine. It is very possibly one of the finest zoos in the world and certainly the highlight of the Habsburg summer estate.
Though Jonathan and Sherry left the following day, Sam and I spent the rest of the week exploring Vienna’s famous kaffeehaus culture and museums. The kaffeehausen range from magnificent marble palaces with tuxedoed waiters (Café Central) to cozy, intellectual retreats for those who wish to read or discuss philosophy and politics (Café Hawelka) to smoky, 50s diner- like cafes that only the Viennese could love (Café Prückel). At each location, a simple espresso can be quite pricey (3-4 euros), but you are really paying for the right to sit in the café for a couple of hours, chatting with friends or reading a newspaper or book, which just so happens to come with a free cup of coffee. My personal favorites were probably Hawelka, Central, Sperl, and Savoy, albeit all for different reasons.
In addition to the kaffeehausen, the Viennese are also known for their bakeries and, in particular, their cakes. While I am not an especially big fan of cake, the multi-layered pieces of art that we did try from Oberlaa (several locations throughout the city) were the pinnacle of cake evolution, while the chestnut dishes and cheeky service at Sluka (near the Rathaus) were alone reasons to return to Vienna.
Of the museums Sam and I visited, my favorite by far was the Haus der Musik (“House of Music”). Although I was unimpressed by three of the four floors of the museum (those hero worshipping Viennese composers and hosting puzzling demonstrations for children which tried unsuccessfully to make connections between music and the brain), the floor on the science behind acoustics, sound perception, and music production was excellent. Combining the German tradition of no-nonsense science education with the American penchant for showy demonstrations, the exhibit was entertaining and informative and I spent perhaps two hours in that section alone.
The ultimate (in both senses of the word) highlight of our visit to Vienna was a walk from the top of the hills north of the city down through the heurige (vineyards). Not one to usually spend my vacations in cities, I was eager for something approximating a hike and Sam was kind enough to oblige me. The walk turned out to be far more impressive than either of us anticipated. We wound our way along and through several heurige, enjoying unmatched views of the city the entire time, before finishing at one of the few that was open in winter. Occupying a complex that included an alleged former apartment of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Mayer am Pfarplatz was a cozy, rustic tavern-like space, complete with pretty courtyard and, most importantly, excellent house reds and whites, all for surprisingly reasonable prices (2-3 euros per glass).
After a week of luxurious Viennese living, we finally packed our bags, arranged a pile of wrapped gifts and thank you notes for the Stahls, and headed to London for New Years’ Eve.
Unfortunately, I awoke that morning with a cold and decided not to stick around London for midnight. After meeting several friends from Churchill for a dim sum dinner, I caught the train back to Cambridge. I was not too disappointed with my fate, however, as the overwhelmingly large (and drunk) crowds deter me from wanting to ever spend a New Years’ Eve in London anyways. I spent the next two days nursing my cold and preparing for my trip to Morocco.
Marrakesh, Fes, & the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Joining me for this 9-day trip were fellow Churchill Scholars Alicia Schep and Ethan Schaler. Our trip included three days of hiking in the Atlas Mountains, two days each exploring the medieval cities of Marrakesh and Fes, and two days riding trains between the two cities.
The time we spent in the mountains was the unanimous highlight of our trip. Our trek took us through Berber villages, snowy mountain passes, and terraced farms, and along snaking rivers and high mountain ridges. For 150 euros per person, we received a private taxi to and from Marrakesh, accommodations in Berber guesthouses, all meals, two mules, a muleteer, a cook, and a guide. Though we had some idea of what we paid for in advance, the luxury far exceeded our expectations, to the point that we were actually quite embarrassed on the first day when we found out that we had a 1:1 ratio of support staff to hikers, that the mules could carry everything, and that the cook was going to make us hot meals even on the trail. Furthermore, it turned out that the Berber guesthouses, which we were expecting to be no more than a mat on a floor, possibly amidst goats, actually had hot showers, toilets, beds, and satellite TV. Thus, our second night was spent watching Bollywood movies and Rambo II. Our embarrassment of riches felt slightly less undeserved on the second and third days, during which our journey included some serious elevation gain.
Besides the fantastic weather and views, a key component of our enjoyment was the interaction with our guides and the Berber villagers, all of whom were nothing but hospitable. Our guide, who had grown up in a nearby village and spoke fluent English, was eager to answer any questions we had about the Berbers and Morocco as well as ask his own questions about England and the US.
Besides the luxury, another big surprise during this part of the trip was the lack of foreigners. We were the only white people we saw until the very end of the third day when we approached the largest town in that part of the country, where some Europeans were staying in hotels and making half-day treks into the mountains. We seemed to be the only ones who were actually doing multi-day trips through the villages. Given the dismal weather and depressingly short days in the UK and much of Europe throughout the winter, we were shocked that more British and Europeans did not spend their holidays walking in Morocco. Apparently, winter is even low season in Morocco, and those who do visit tend to do so in the summer, at which time the temperatures in Morocco often reach 40C (104F). This seems entirely backwards to me. If I find myself again spending a winter in the UK or Europe, Morocco will be my go-to outdoors retreat.
While the Moroccans we met in the mountains were unfailingly hospitable, the cities were a considerably more mixed bag of hospitality and hustling. Common greetings included “Hey, my brother!” and “Remember me?” My favorite, offered by one restaurant owner, was, “You and me, we have same color blood. Its red, no?” In most (all) cases, however, the goal was to sell us something or extract a tip. Males young and old all eagerly offered directions… after which they staunchly demanded a fee, offered to take us to family stores where we would get a great discount… when in reality the price was hiked to cover their commission, and pointed out that wherever we were going, be it a hotel, restaurant, or historical site, was closed, regardless of the time of day, and that they would show us to an alternative location… which of course would
have been happy to offer our benevolent guide a commission. Beyond these more standard requests, however, I had the questionable honor of being offered marijuana approximately once every fifteen minutes. That Ethan and Alicia received not one such offer is a clear statement by the Moroccans about my appearance. After only a couple of days in the cities, we were quickly trained to be pessimistic and misanthropic, ignoring, frowning at, or even scolding anyone who approached us unsolicited.
To be clear, however, the Moroccans whom we approached were consistently friendly, helpful, and hospitable. This leads me to propose the following rule of thumb for traveling in Morocco – if they approach you, expect a hustle; if you approach them, expect hospitality.
Although we managed to escape unrobbed, unconned, and unrepentant, our closest brush with being hustled occurred on the train ride from Marrakesh to Fes. Having paid for first class seats in a small cabin for six, we felt reasonably safe and well-protected from the second class cars, the suspected haunt of the hustlers. Among others, an older man with a newspaper sat down across from us. After a bit of conversation, we described our trip and told him that we were headed to Fes and would be staying in a riad called Dar Hafsa. We chatted for a bit longer before he excused himself for a phone call. A couple of hours later, the man returned and introduced his friend, whom he claimed was an official tourist guide. The friend quickly flashed a badge at me, which I neither had time to see nor knew what to look for anyways, and then unleashed a five-minute tirade against our riad. Highlights included his prediction that a dark man would offer us tea, but that we should not trust him, for he was in cahoots with the maid and together they would steal our bags. They were also, allegedly, involved with the mafia. When the man concluded and rocketed out of our cabin, Alicia, Ethan, and I were left slack jawed, wavering between nervous laughter and a serious reconsideration of our plans. Deciding to continue to our riad but to remain alert and leave if uncomfortable, we departed the train in Fes and made our way towards the riad. It was by now after dark and we were having considerable trouble finding our way. We finally identified our intended path as a small, dimly lit alley off the main road. As we entered the narrow passage, a man shouted, “Be careful! The mafia operates there!” Right on cue, loud wails began blaring on unseen speakers and a swarm of children began running behind and around us. My heart was doing gymnastics in my chest. Nearly ready to turn back, we stumbled upon a dark wooden door labeled “Dar Hafsa.” We desperately knocked on the door and were immediately welcomed in. The interior of the building stood in stark contrast to the alley outside – beautiful tile work stretched for three stories above on all four sides, a large comfortable-looking couch wrapped around a glass table with a silver tea set, and a host that could do nothing but smile. He was also, however, a dark man and offered us tea, as the prophecy had stated. Over the next day and a half, we remained suspicious and responded to any offers to show us around, clean our rooms, or otherwise interact more than minimally necessary with nervous rebuttals. The man’s sister, and co-owner, finally approached Ethan and asked what was wrong. Eventually, we realized that the train had tried to scam us, that no one travels from Marrakesh to Fes with just a newspaper, that “a dark man will offer you a tea” was about as vacuous as Moroccan prophecies come, and that the loud wails we had heard were an announcement for Muslim prayer time. Relaxing our trigger fingers, we thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our stay at Dar Hafsa.
Although we explored historical sites and museums in both Fes and Marrakesh, the obvious highlight of both cities were the medinas – the medieval, walled, inner cities free of cars and full of narrow streets and bustling marketplaces. While the medinas were initially sensory and social overloads, their excitement and charm quickly grew on us. Other favorites in Fes included the views from the Merenid Tombs and the food at Café Clock and the restaurants near Bab Bou Jeloud (“The Blue Gate”) and in Marrakesh included the Jardin Majorelle, a beautiful garden established by French fashion icon Yves Saint-Laurent, the ornate Saadian Tombs, and the Djemaa El-Fna, one of the largest and busiest squares in Africa (and the world).
For only about £50 and 3.5 hours each way, Morocco was not only inexpensive and accessible, it was likely my favorite of my winter travel destinations, and for my own sake, I hope the British and Europeans continue to unjustifiably ignore its opportunities for winter hiking.
This post is part five of a six-part series on my first four months in Cambridge adapted from a mid-year report I submitted to the Churchill Foundation – the sponsor whose generosity is allowing me to spend one year at the University of Cambridge. It was written in January 2012.
Photo gallery: click the “i” in the upper right for captions, the “SL” in the bottom right for slideshow mode, and the “FS” in the bottom right for full screen mode.