Singapore: Gardens by the Bay

What are those weird unearthly tree-like structures that comprise the Gardens by the Bay? We often think of Singapore as a giant shopping mall, but it is of course much more than that.

With a spectacular view from the 61st floor of our hotel — itself a marvel of engineering — it struck me just how much has been achieved in this small island state over an extraordinarily brief period. The Singapore of 30 years ago has long been eclipsed by the 21st century version. And the iconic Gardens By The Bay is a great example of this.

Beneath the towering ‘supertrees’ you step into a giant organic-looking glass dome and breathe cool air amid the overwhelming sound of a giant waterfall. You look up along the vertical garden covered with orchids and ferns and mosses to see that yes, there is indeed a waterfall falling 16 storeys (35 metres/115feet).

The whole park is laid out to symbolise the entire ecosystem that is Singapore itself, flowering like a giant orchid — Singapore’s emblem. The metaphors doesn’t end there. It takes root at the waterfront, while the ‘leaves’ (landforms), shoots (paths roads and aerial link ways) and secondary roots (water, energy and communication lines) form man integrated network with blooms (the theme gardens and supertrees) at key intersections. All this represents part of Singapore’s government-led strategy to transform Singapore from a ‘garden city’ to a ‘city in a garden’.

And so to the super-trees themselves. These are designed to represent a rainforest canopy, but one that actually functions like a rainforest ecosystem as part of a sustainable and integrated life cycle. The domes are covered in special glass that filters the light selectively to keep the heat down while letting light in for the plants. Chilled water pipes are cast within the floor to cool the ground so that cold air can settle and provide a climate for temperate plants, while the warm air rises and is vented out through the super tree canopies. The supertrees have solar panels to collect energy to power the spectacular nightly light show, and the horticultural waste is burned in biomass generators to generate power for the chillers and the rest of the systems. In addition, the supertrees collect water from the humid outside air to be stored in huge rainwater tanks that form the superstructure, and their exteriors are planted with over 162,000 plants

In Brief
area: 101 hectares/250 acres
plants: over 1 million, covering 5000 species from 5 continents
time to see: allow 1.5-3 hours
admission: Adults SN$28, Children 3-12 SN$15
: 35metres/115 feet — world’s highest indoor waterfall
opened: 2012
architects: English designers Grant Associates and Dominic White. According to Wikipedia, Alongside the lead designers Grant Associates, the design team for Bay South included WilkinsonEyre, Atelier Ten (environmental design consultants) and Atelier One (structural engineers). They were supported by a number of Singapore firms including CPG Consultants (architecture, civil and structural, mechanical and electrical), Meinhardt Infrastructure (civil and structural), Langdon & Seah (cost consultants) and PMLink (project management).

So what I am coming to realise is that Singapore is not (just) a consumer’s paradise of air-conditioned shopping malls — though it has those in abundance — but if you look a bit closer, you will find great natural beauty and places of tranquility amid the bustle of a world-class city. [Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the companies or attractions listed here and have received no financial benefit from them.]

Final preparation for the Camino

The sky purpled darkly as we set off up the hill, packs loaded as though for the journey — plus a bit. The hard part now, is not the packs, but the mind. We have trained physically, walking and increasing distance steadily, the next part was to get used to the packs, then walking with fully loaded packs.

But now, as we prepare to package the packs for the flight, the heavy part is the mind. The long-range weather forecasts are not good, and already the forthcoming French rail strike has changed our mode of travel from train to bus. And to cap it all off, much of Spain and the Pyrenees is still under snow.

But to paraphrase the novel Dune, fear is the mind killer. There is a Camino saying that the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears. It is easy to overthink and try to prepare for every eventuality. This only results in an overloaded pack. It is time to get back to basics — It is time to travel mindfully.

Our basic physical needs are simple: 2 changes of tops, 1 fleecy, 1 pair of trekking pants (the other is to wear), a lightweight Goretex jacket for the wind and rain, and rain pants in case it gets really stormy. 3 pairs of undies (one to wear), 3 pairs of socks (1 to wear) and the same with sock liners. A lightweight sleeping bag a few toiletries and your choice of tech – I recommend at least a phone – for emergencies or to make a booking ahead or to communicate with family. It can double as your camera too.

It is better to pack a bit light and then add along the way if you really need something. For most normal medical requirements there are chemists/farmacia in most towns, and the larger centres will be able to supply any gear shortfalls – including backpacks, poles, fleecies etc. Even the hamlets often have vending machines with blister care and pain relief products, so for these kinds of things, just carry enough for a day or two, and buy more as and when you need them.

But the main thing to pack is your mindful appreciation for those who have gone before and for those who walk with us on our journey, both inner and outer. I call this packing a lighter mind – leave anxieties, judgemental attitudes and enmities behind, and find the world as you encounter it.

Everyone walks their own Camino, and remember, real pilgrims don’t judge other pilgrims. The only requirement of a real pilgrim is to be registered and to walk the last 100kms. The rest is entirely up to you -Buen Camino! 🙂

Why Seneca hated Diocletian’s Baths

At the T-junction of the present-day Via Nazionale and the Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando in Rome, lies the Piazza della Republica. Glancing up from your Café Latte you will see a large but somewhat nondescript Romanesque building – part ruin, part cathedral and part museum. This is what remains of the largest civic bath house in ancient Rome – indeed the largest in the Roman empire. In fact, Baths of Diocletian is probably a bit of a misnomer, because they were actually built by Diocletian’s co-emperor, Maximian, though Diocletian was the senior of the two and pulled the political strings for both of them.

Diocletian baths

The baths were in part a response to a series of public health crises that regularly brought Rome to a standstill. Rome was built on a drained swamp, and mosquito and water-borne diseases were rife. Previous emperors had recognised that hygiene played a role in disease control, and so, in addition to running water, and an enormous sewer system – the Cloaca Maximus – a series of public baths were built for the general population. And it became part of the daily routine to socialise at the public baths before returning home to dine, or before eating at one of the many restaurants and fast food outlets along the Roman streets.

Little did the Romans realise that while their intentions were sound, their knowledge of sanitation engineering was flawed. The sewer water and the stormwater ran through the same system, so any blockage meant that raw sewage flowed down the streets – which particularly in Summer, must have stunk unbearably. In addition, the system of baths with their flow-through of hot, tepid and cold water provided the perfect breeding ground for water-borne bacteria, leading to a series of deadly epidemics, which decimated Rome’s population. These included malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever, as well as various forms of gastroenteritis.

Diocletian baths

Frigidarium of Diocletian’s Baths, Rome

Seneca, for his part, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist – and was known for writing quite bluntly about life in Rome. He had a fashionable apartment overlooking or perhaps above the Diocletian baths complex – which included a gymnasium, sauna, the baths, two libraries and doubtless a brothel. The complex was built to cater for the rapid population growth in that part of Rome, so it was a busy new centre just up the road from the Forum. And Seneca hated them. It wasn’t that he was averse to taking a bath – hygiene was important to all Romans, but he was often disturbed by the noise. The equivalent today would be having an inner-city apartment next door to a large fashionable hotel which hosted a loud rock band every night.

In a letter to Lucilius (number 56), Seneca observed:

Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.

Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional (sports commentator) comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.

Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

I’ve no doubt we can all relate to the weight-lifting poseurs, the loudly broadcast sports channels and the bathroom singer, and I can just imagine all that being magnified as they try to out-do the raucous din of late-night drinkers and spruikers!

Of course, all that has passed into history, and now a majestic Catholic cathedral designed by Michaelangelo occupies what was once one of the libraries, thereby turning a profane place of excess and debauchery into a sacred and tranquil space.

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli

In addition to the interior, Michaelangelo was also commissioned to design the accompanying cloister and Charterhouse. The cloister was likely entrusted to a pupil, Giacomo del Duca, as Michaelangelo died in 1564, and work commenced on the cloister a year later. It was completed in 1600. It is likely that Giacomo de Duca was involved at least at the beginning, though it is unclear if he saw the completion. In the end, it was an extraordinary piece of architecture.

Diocletian baths

Diocletian came closest, perhaps, to wiping out Christianity in ancient Rome, through persecution and torture of Christians in an effort to reinstate the old pantheon of gods. So it is with some irony, that the very religion that Diocletian tried so strenuously to suppress, now occupies a building intimately linked to Diocletian’s name.