I recently added another year to my personal speedo. In those years I've had some dumb ideas and made some dumb plans. But I suspect that right up the top of that list would be my idea to avoid the crowds at St. Peter's Basilica by arriving bright and early on a Sunday morning.
I figured that the first mass was not until 9am, so the window from opening time at 7am until about 8 might be a relatively quiet period. How utterly wrong!
The first photo below shows the scene outside the colonnades when we first arrived at 6.50am.
With typical Italian efficiency no public admission occurred until 7.40am, and by then the scene where we were was as depicted in he second image.
We stayed to see how quickly those at the front of he grid got away, and which of those further down the starting order did something radical to make up ground early (almost all of them), then we turned and set off against the flood tide of further pilgrims to find coffee and cornetto. I'm beginning to think that the gods do not want me to see inside the Basilica. They have pre-disposed me to abhorring queues, then massed crowds at each attempt I have made (three so far) at getting in. I'll have one further crack before we depart the city.
Have you ever tasted a sauce, or a stock, or even a wine for that matter, and found it to be so complex, and to contain so many layers of competing and complimentary flavours, that it takes a little time to form an immediate impression about whether you like it or not?
Rome is that flavour.
Rome goes way beyond sweet, sour, salty, spicy. These are just some of the elements I've detected in the past several days that go to making up the flavour of Rome:
prThe past three days have been a blend of early starts, packing, ham and cheese baguettes (not our preferred option), train travel, unpacking, ordinary hotels and extraordinary highlights.
We watched Paris slide away behind us as the 08.23 train to Zurich glided away from Gare Lyon train station. The TGV Lyria Duplex is a magnificent train: as fast as Barry Allen and as smooth as Rob Thomas & Carlos Santana. We had secured an upstairs berth of 4 seats facing each other over a small table. The train quickly reached speeds above 200km/h. I tried multiple times to get a photo of the speed display reading 300+ but was foiled many times by the changing display or a slight uphill section of track. Eventually, I managed to snap the pikkie below. Later, I was standing in the buffet car eating a ham and cheese baguette (theme alert!) and drinking an espresso when I glanced at the display to see the train travelling at 317km/h - and I'm standing up like it's the bar at the local pub!
A quick change of trains at Zurich saw us proceed to the small Swiss city of Chur. Now, to be fair to Chur, we HAD just left the middle of Paris on a busy weekend. Chur, at 3pm on Sunday, doesn't seem to have a whole lot going on. Even the cable car up to Brambrüesch was closed. So were all the restaurants and cafés. Our dining options were reduced to seedy kebab shops and the petrol station co-op store. More ham and cheese baguettes, please. Later, when about three of Chur's "many local restaurants" opened for dinner, we found a funny little pseudo-Asian restaurant where we managed to get a plate of noodles and a random assortment of condiments for a somewhat sobering price.
Our accommodation in Chur was the Hotel Schweisserhaus. In our pre-trip planning I had begun to refer to this as the Hotel Scheisenhausen, so much so that I had trouble NOT calling it that to people who may have been offended by the reference. My Mum always told me that many a truth is spoken in jest and I think on this occasion she was quite correct.
Another early start saw us trundling out of Chur on the Bernina Express. This scenic railway links Switzerland with Northern Italy by winding its way over the Alps via the Bernina Pass. Such is its significance that a section of it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we climbed the foothills of the Alps we were surrounded by mist and cloud and I thought our luck may have failed us in terms of seeing some of the peaks, but the further we ascended the less consistent the cloud became until eventually we were rewarded with spectacular scenery. It was a true highlight of our holiday and as we trundled into Tirano Rail Station (along the Main Street like a tram) I commented to Moggy and the girls, "Do you know what that was worth? - Every single cent we paid for it!".
From Tirano we caught a regional train to Milan, which we, sadly, credited with too little time for attention. We were on a mission to get to our hotel, eat something, grab a nana nap, and then get to a concert. Our taxi driver agreed that we had given Milan too little attention and so she took it upon herself to take us past the Duomo, the cathedral, the shopping district and the banking an d finance district - all of which was interesting, and of benefit to her taxi meter. It was done so nicely and she was so pleasant that we considered the additional €10-€15 to be a reasonable price for a speedy guided tour of the old city.
So we eventually arrived at the Assago Fawlty Towers (not its real name). The information about the hotel services and facilities was limited to a small pamphlet in three languages, and it was wrong! We had tried to arrange a restaurant booking for dinner, but the restaurant did not open until 7.30, which was too late for our concert schedule. So, relying on the pamphlet which promised room service from 5.30pm, we ordered some meals, only to be told that room service was not available until the restaurant opened. They did, however, offer us a snack. Guess what we had for dinner? Yep - ham and cheese toasted sandwiches!
In 1977 I bought a copy of Peter Gabriel's first solo album because I was completely entranced with the song "Solisbury Hill". Since 1977 I've been completely entranced by petty much all of Peter Gabriel's music and it has been a constant accompaniment for me. Thirty six years after beginning that association I saw my first Peter Gabriel concert, and I'm so pleased that Moggy and the girls were with me for it.
The show started off as a very low key, acoustic set. The house lights were up and the first few songs were simply the band on the stage reinventing some Peter Gabriel songs. The song "Family Snapshot"' for those who don't know it, is a story about an assassin, and it builds steadily in tempo and tension as the song proceeds. At one moment in the song where it starts become quite intense ("They're coming round the corner with the bikers at the front, I'm wiping the sweat from my eyes...") - in a heartbeat - the house lights dropped and a full-on light show took its place. It was a breath-taking transition to an amazing display of sound, light and technology.
Mollie and Ella were sad because they knew all the songs. I'm just happy!
Tuesday morning saw us depart Milan aboard the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) for Rome, where we settled into our very comfortable apartment at Ottaviarno (near the Vatican Walls) and enjoyed a night out (REAL FOOD!!!) with Rob and Tom.
In my pre-trip planning, Paris would have sat more in the "obligatory visit" category than the "must see" side of the ledger. In my post trip analysis it will have moved.
I've really enjoyed it here. Paris is different, and occasionally frustrating, but it has a swagger about it. I can see why the people of Paris are associated with arrogance, but my experience has been that the tag is an unfair one. We've had nothing but pleasant and cordial exchanges with pretty much everyone we've interacted with, and those exchanges have not occurred in anything even resembling passable French, I promise you (well, with the possible exception of my proficiency in ordering 'an espresso and a croissant please').
Moggy likes it here too. The icing on her cake happened when, after narrowly avoiding a collision with a fellow pedestrian and smiling in apology, he caught her up moments later and presented her with a single red rose. Arrogant bastard!
I even had some fun with a French telemarketer who rang the apartment - you guessed it - during dinner one evening. I only answered the phone as I thought it may be the apartment owner checking on us. Our conversation went something like:
We've learned little tricks about getting around the city each day: the wisdom of purchasing city zone train tickets at the start of the day so they can be used at convenient entrances to the subway which have no ticket sales facility; how to read the subway entrance signs to know precisely which lines are available at that entrance; how to exit the subway at the location you desire to be; and how to proficiently order a stand-up espresso and croissant (I'm guessing you are beginning spot sense my pride at this achievement?).
But, by far for me, it has been the beautiful architecture and public art works which have captured my imagination. For the sake of convenience one day we exited the subway at the station Châtelet les Halles and found ourselves virtually on the apron of the astounding Paris City Hall (Mairie de Paris). My point is that this exquisite building has never made its way onto my radar as a pleasing place to visit - it's just there. We stumbled upon it. And that's the thing about Paris, there are plenty of treasures to just discover by accident.
By a process other than accident we spent our final day here in the Musee du Louvre. It's indescribable! There is such an overload of priceless art, history and beauty on display that my senses became a little scrambled. I suspect that to visit the Louvre properly is to eat an elephant, and our bites were too large and inadequately masticated. One day, when I am wealthy and at leisure, I will return with a detailed art reference and spend days at a time in single galleries, learning about and absorbing what is on display. But I do feel privileged to have seen what I saw today. I also feel much more in touch with a song by the Crash Test Dummies which has been in my head all day:
If I could see, if I could see, if I could
So, I will leave Paris with regret, and I think Moggy and the girls feel the same. But the regret will be tempered by the promise of things to come; including the Bernina Express, Peter Gabriel, and The Eternal City.
We travelled out to Versailles today and visited the Chateau de Versailles which is, as you probably know, the former royal palace of the French monarchy up until Louis XVI was chased out of there by a stick-wielding populace in 1789.
I'm beginning to see why!
The buildings and the artworks contained within them are extraordinary treasures which the world is fortunate still to own and to be able to view. However when you realise that those priceless assets and extreme opulence were once the exclusive property of a single family, who continued to bask in privilege while their subjects were experiencing food shortages and tax increases to support the nobility, is to understand how it came to that which it did!
My photos cannot hope to convey a sense of the place. This website (http://www.stockholm360.net/list.php?id=versailles) does a better job.
Earlier in the day I bailed out early and left the females to compete for the bathroom and associated accessories. I wandered and enjoyed un espresso et un croissant, si'l vous plaít, before parking up in the morning sunshine by the Seine and reading for a while. While there, two motorised, inflatable police boats launched across the river. One headed upstream at a rate of knots while the other faffed about nearby. Then I saw a single swimmer making his way along the opposite shore for about 200m until he was picked up by the second boat and taken upstream. This didn't appear to be an exercise in physical fitness, and I can only assume that they were searching for something more interesting than, say, an old bike which had been dumped in the river.
We travelled to la Tour Eiffel where the queues for the single operating lift were substantial and serpentine, and so we settled for viewing the monument from the ground only. I also learned that, if a person approaches you in a place frequented by overseas tourists, and asks, "Do you speak English?", it is unlikely to be anything but a con.
A somewhat more endearing con was being worked on the train to Versaille in which one or more chaps, armed with a saxophone and an accordion, will serenade the carriage with some oomp-pah-pah music and then march up the aisle seeking a gratuity for their trouble. This one, I was happy to contribute to.
I'm just a shy romantic with my eyes on the loose
Now, I will concede that quoting James Reyne is an odd way to commence a post about Paris, but since we arrived at our apartment, the "Unpublished Critics" song has been pretty much constantly in my head. This place is in the 6th Arrondissment of Paris, very close to the River Seine, and directly opposite the small island upon which sits Notre Dame Cathedral. It is, understandably, an old building. We are on the 5th floor in an attic (read garret - hence the 'Reynesness' of the place) apartment with sloping walls and low beams. It's utterly charming, in a quirky, cosy, historical kind of way. The wooden stair-treads to our apartment (yep, no lift!) are worn with the traffic of a million footsteps over the centuries, and have a distinct reverse camber which throws one to the outside of the staircase. Fortunately, speeds dangerous in relation to the camber are rarely reached on the ascent!
Eurostar from London to Paris was pleasant and hassle-free. We departed from St Pancras at 11.31 British Summer Time and immediately put our watches forward one hour to Central European Time. Within an hour we were in the Channel Tunnel, and within 90 minutes we were in France. We arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris at 2.50pm to find Rob, Jeannie and Tom waiting at the station for us.
After hauling our bags up to the garret, we were guided by Rob across the Pont Neuf Bridge and into the central courtyard of the Musee du Louvre. A left turn at that point reveals the Avenue les Champs-Élysées, a wide and arrow straight avenue of about 2.5km through the Place de la Concorde and on to (and beyond) the Arc de Triomphe.
It was and is one of the most spectacular walks of my life!
It's impossible to convey the immensity and grandeur of The Louvre, and we haven't even been inside it yet! The extent and quality of the works of art on display along the Champs-Élysées are astounding: it is an outdoor, public gallery of itself. To stand in the Place de la Concorde feels like being in a movie set - it is so familiar. And the Arc de Triomphe is a spectacularly grand and beautiful monument.
We also had a lovely personal moment along the Champs-Élysées when Ella, who had sworn not to partake of her first macaron until we arrived in Paris, spied patisseire 'Laduree' where we purchased enough for all and had a small ceremony nearby.
We returned to the garret, but knowing the cupboards to be bare I went in search of some provisions to facilitate evening cups of tea and breakfast. To say I failed is an understatement. I could have purchased a thousand bottles of wine, a meal of any cuisine you care to name, cigars, jewellery, souvenirs, clothing - but no milk. Eventually I went to a crepe stand near the garret where, through passable English and appalling French, I negotiated the purchase of 4 chocolate crepes and a take-away plastic tea cup of milk (no lid) which I carefully conveyed back to our building and up the 5 flights of reverse-camber steps without spilling a drop!
No disappointments today! In fact, if I maintained a bucket list (which I don't; why invite the bucket?) this would have been a definite tick on the list. Moggy and I have just arrived back at our apartment after seeing Macbeth at the Globe Theatre: a thoroughly enjoyable experience made even more so by sharing it with Rob and Jeannie.
This was a production containing no lighting wizardry, no elaborate stagecraft, a tiny bit of smoke but no mirrors - just acting and story and audience engagement. It saw the cast members regularly competing with the nose of aircraft overhead approaching Heathrow Airport, but this did not diminish from the performance - not even during Macbeth's crucial, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy.
Macbeth, as I'm sure you know, explores some very dark themes and delves into the unpleasant aspects of human nature. This production had humour - plenty of it - which I'd not previously seen in the text, but which is certainly there if you choose to see it, as ably demonstrated tonight.
The production has given me a different perspective on the works of Shakespeare (whoever he may have been!). The reading I have done, the productions I have heard, the adaptions I have seen all treat the works with reverential respect. With the exceptions of the designated comedies, 'fun' is not generally an element immediately associated with Shakespeare, and certainly not with Macbeth. This production had lots of fun with the text, and I think I am now much closer to understanding how the plays - even "dark" plays like Macbeth - were pitched at, and received by, the baser levels of Elizabethan and Jacobean society.
AND I got to be in it! (albeit to a VERY minor extent). In Act IV, Malcolm and Macduff are on stage and Malcolm says:
With this there grows
At "desire his jewels" the actor playing Malcolm points with flourish to an audience member and engages in a little giggle-inducing raising and lowering of the eyebrows and nodding of the head. That audience member was me.
The play ended with one of the witches playing a sad, slow, fiddle refrain, which built in momentum, gathered in the orchestra, and became a lively jig in which all the cast participated and all the audience clapped in time. It was a wonderful end to a tremendous night of entertainment.
Two icons of the city attracted our attention today: St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London - and I'm quite surprised at the difference in my response to each of them.
It's an overused cliche, but St. Paul's really does inspire awe. It's an extraordinarily beautiful building, and all those issues of scale which I have spoken about in earlier posts apply to this place. And then there are the mosaics, paintings and statues which, being surrounded by such architectural grandeur, could easily fail to be recognised for their own beauty and genius.
When we were high in the sky on the London Eye yesterday I noted the prominence of the dome on the 2013 London skyline and could only wonder at its prominence when completed in 1712. The image that really captured my imagination today, which is reproduced below, is a shot of the dome still standing amongst the mayhem of the blitz on London in 1940 or 1941. It struck me that this masterpiece could easily have been destroyed and how fortunate I was to be standing within it today.
By contrast, the Tower of London inspired very little awe. I've read heaps about its famous and notorious occupants over the past 1000 years and am acutely aware of its place at the very centre of the history of this country. Yet, all the time we were there today, I could not dispel a feeling of artificiality about the place. It feels like TowerWorld Theme Park. At least now, when I read about Traitor's Gate or Wakefield's Tower, I will have some idea of how they relate to each other, but, all in all, visiting the Tower was a disappointment.
Here are some things.
Thing One: When you arrive at Covent Garden Tube Station, no matter how hot and stuffy you think it might be in the lifts back up to pavement level; no matter how correspondingly cool the breeze down the stairwell seems, DO NOT TAKE THE STAIRS! At Cape Wickham on the northern end of King Island is a lighthouse which, until today, was the most number of steps I have attempted to climb without resorting to oxygen. I reckon there are multiple lighthouses in vertical height between the Piccadilly Line and street level, and wasn't I popular by the time we got - oh, about 1/5th of the way up!? Actually, it wasn't so much the derision from my own family that hurt, but the abuse I was copping from the complete strangers that followed us!
Thing 2: When you are meandering through a busy market area it pays to regularly ensure that your youngest daughter has not been abducted by a street conjuror and indentured into his act. We'd gone about a hundred metres down the street when a breathless Ella caught us up and informed us that, since we last laid eyes on each other, she'd been corralled, placed on a pedestal, introduced to the crowd, then conditionally released (on condition of a handshake) on the understanding that her family were moving away with some rapidity.
Thing 3: Beware of the Bryson Trap. I've quoted Bill here before and, because he always puts it best, here it is in his own words:
Here's an amusing trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck's map - which even people from Newfoundland can understand in a moment - they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and that you have had a nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them. Now take them to Great Portland Street and tell them to meet you at Regent's Park (that's right, same thing again!), and then to Temple Station with instructions to rendezvous at Aldwych. What fun you can have!
Without labouring the point, I can tell you from personal experience that Bill's list could also include starting at Charing Cross Station and travelling to Covent Garden.
So, to recap: Newfoundlanders and Tasmanians would appear to share some traits, and London can teach us all a thing or two.
We arrived in Bath on the same Saturday afternoon as every single university student in south-west England, AND their families, AND their family cars, AND their bicycles ... well, you get the idea. Our cabbie from the train station was a humorous and apparently good-natured chap, although I am certain that he thought that I didn't notice that he overlooked giving me my change as he leapt out to assist the girls with their bags. But, as I was going to tip him that amount anyway, we elected to call it a draw and speak no further of it.
I feel like I've struggled to get to know Bath; firstly in a geographical sense because the city centre is something of a sandstone maze and the placement of street signs is somewhat irregular, like a partially completed crossword puzzle. But also in a personal sense. Have you ever stayed at a "nice" hotel (only during a conference at someone else's expense for me) where it's shiny and clean and comfortable and the staff are all so, so friendly - and yet there is an absence of genuineness to the experience? Bath has been that hotel for me.
I suppose the analogy holds when you consider that Bath has been a city for visitors since it's inception. Right from the moment when Stone Age chaps out for a stroll noticed warm, smelly water bubbling up out of the earth, people have "visited" this place, and the place has developed to accommodate those visitors. I am sure that somewhere behind the practiced facade there is a "real" Bath, but I suppose it's naive to expect to discover it in a few short days of standing in queues to visit the various attractions - particularly at a time of the biggest influx of students since the invention of cheap cider.
Now, having dwelt on the difficulty in discovering the real Bath, let me stress that our welcome to the city could not have been more genuine and friendly. Uncle Jack Mackay gave up a large chunk of his Sunday to come into the city and guide us around the streets, shops and attractions. Jack was personable and knowledgeable and I suspect that, without his welcome, the feeling expressed above of "visiting" may have been far more tangible than it is currently.
We took the opportunity to hop on a tour bus which pretended that it's primary function was to travel the hour or so to Stonehenge and to visit the picturesque village of Lacock on the return journey; but it eventually became apparent that it was in fact a Peter Gabriel homage. The tour diver: pointed out that PG was part owner (along with Robert Plant and bunch of local shareholders) in the community-owned Bell Hotel; drove us past Mill Lane, the address of Real World recording studios; pointed out Solisbury Hill and told us the story behind the song; then, for good measure, played us the song on the bus audio system. At the end there was a moment of silence, then he asked, "Has anyone heard that song before?" to which the response was: (me) beatific smile; (Mollie & Ella, sitting behind me) death-dagger stare at the back of my head; (Mog) resigned, slow rolling of eyes; and (rest of the bus) blank, uncomprehending stares.
I was SO inspired (a little PG pun there for those in the know) that the following day I went on my own little pilgrimage and climbed to the top of the hill.
Lacock was interesting in that it looks like a film set that people live in. The village is owned by the National Trust who let the properties to tenants. It confuses the senses a little to see buildings from a Jane Austen period drama with Audis and Fiats parked outside.
Stonehenge was yet another significant and thought provoking monument where the visiting experience is cheapened by being shepherded out via a "gift shop" that offers the most tasteless tat that you have ever seen as a "souvenir" of the experience. I promise you that my default position is for minimum regulation, but I'm beginning to think that a National Standard for Minimizing Souvenir Crapness might be a reasonable proposition. What they have done well at Stonehenge is to construct the viewing areas in such a way that the visitor can take photographs of the monument without including many of the several thousand other people doing the same thing at the same time.
Over the past two days I've been allowed the privilege of having a "cheat's peek" into the world of the Coast to Coast walker. Alfred Wainwright's route along the public footpath's and back lanes of northern England stretches for 300km through the Lakes District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. I joined Rob Reid and Chris Smith for days 8 and 9 of their Coast to Coast sojourn; walking the vale of the Swale River from Keld to Reeth.
If you want a mental image of the Swaledale, imagine bumping into James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) tending a flock of sheep. The vale is a series of green rolling hills decorated by winding country lanes and dry-stone fences. Small hamlets of small-roomed, stone buildings occur here and there, for no apparent reason.
Across this landscape is a network of tracks, lanes, trails and paths, which occasionally converge - usually near a tea shop or a pub.
The Coast to Coast is a popular pursuit, and the walker is rarely alone. But, due to the multiple possibilities of route selection, neither are you always walking in the company of the same folks. Rob and Chris had, over the past week on the trail, come to know many of their fellow walkers with whom they would share a few miles of pathway, part company, meet again at the lunch spot, and/or then share a B&B with of an evening. It makes the walk into a curious blend of personal and collective experiences.
We started in light rain at Keld and elected, due to the lack of visibility, not to pursue the high route via the old lead-mining fields of Gunnerside, but instead to follow the course of the river downstream via the villages of Muker and Ivelet. At Gunnerside we were somewhat crestfallen to find that The Kings Arms is no longer an operating licensed establishment, but then uplifted to find that the nearby Ghyllfoot Cafe provided good food and a fine selection of Yorkshire Ales. One of those ales, Buttertubs, is named after small sinkholes in the local limestone hills which, when filled with rain, made for fine cool storage for butter and other dairy products as the cart drivers paused for their own lunch on their delivery runs.
After a convivial lunch we continued across the lower slopes of Melbeck's Moor to Feetham where we stumbled upon the Punchbowl Inn. Over a pint of Black Sheep ale we did some calculations regarding the remaining distance to be covered before the las bus left Reeth, and discovered that I was in danger of arriving too late for my ride back to Richmond for the night. After a mile or so of Olympic Games paced walking, I surrendered, hung out the thumb, and was picked up by the first passing vehicle which dropped me at Reeth 10 minutes before the last bus departed for Richmond, where I made full use of the spa jets in the bath tub to ease my aching legs.
Friday morning saw me back on the bus to Reeth and reuniting with Rob and Chris whom I had abandoned the previous day. From Reeth we wandered along the contours of the river to the old Marrick Abbey, then up through the Steps Wood to the village of Marrick, pausing for a wee dram of Islay's finest at the top of the climb. On the hills above Marrick, Rob managed to find some 3G coverage, and we stood for a few moments in a cow paddock in North Yorkshire, listening the events unfolding in the night Preliminary Final at the MCG!
As we approached Richmond, the mysteries of the Coast to Coast network had seen the numbers in our walking party swell to 8 or 9. At the same time events at the 'G were approaching their climax. Several of our party stood as bemused bystanders as Rob and I sat on a park bench, staring intently into the distance, listening to ABC call of the final moments. When Trav Varcoe missed the shot which would have tied the game there was much bemoaning from the park bench, and muttered condolences from the assembled crowd.
Poxy Bloody Hawks!
We found our way the the Bishop Blaize Hotel and enjoyed some condolence ales. Later that evening Kleppy, Mollie, Ella and I had the pleasure of Rob and Chris' company at dinner at the George & Dragon Hotel in Hudswell (a community owned pub) where we were all entertained by the children being entertained by the puppeteer. A lovely way to end a very enjoyable couple of days on the Coast to Coast.