Living it up in London

IMG_1954Earlier this year, I spent an unusually sybaritic week sightseeing and overindulging with a friend from the Philippines on her first trip to London: Hampton Court (food), Harry Potter World (food) and Harrods (and more food). Then there was a river cruise with a highly amusing Cockney guide, a train ride or two, and miles and miles of walking through the city parks and along the Thames.

We saw a musical in the West End from the from row of the balcony. We viewed London from the top of a double decker bus, and then from The Ned’s new roof garden in the City. We walked across Charing Cross Bridge and took photos of the Houses of Parliament in the twilight. We waved to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and again at Windsor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t free to join us for afternoon tea at Harrods, but we wore our tiaras just in case she changed her mind. We brunched at Borough Market, lunched in a pub by the Thames, and dined at a curry house in Surrey. We drank Butterbeer at Harry Potter World – and I can promise you I won’t be doing that again. I have the souvenir mug, if only to remind me to keep a wide berth! (But the rest of that day was a blast, and we were definitely NOT the only visitors over twelve.) We sang thunderously at a Sunday service in the prettiest, white weatherboard church beside a duck pond. We chatted with the deer in Bushy Park and popped in to see Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. We dashed along Piccadilly in the rain, dodging puddles and pedestrians, armed with umbrellas we had bought at Waterloo… we were the archetypal tourists. It was a non-stop, whirlwind week and the most amazing fun. Even now I can’t think how we squeezed so much into a mere eight days. Or so much eating!

Yet the event we both remember best was a morning at Hampton Court, when the rain drove us out of the IMG_0728Wilderness, across the rose garden and in through the huge gateway to the Clock Court…

Once upon a time, in primary school, I did a project on the history of London, which included trips to the Monument, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament and Hampton Court. Our class even produced a short play about Henry VIII and his six wives. I was Katherine Howard in pink satin overlaid with black lace.  And I had to scream piercingly as I was dragged off to the Tower.  As a result, I became obsessed with all things Tudor.

Hampton Court Palace has particularly strong ties to the Tudor Dynasty. Located on the Thames, ten miles upriver from the city of London, it was originally owned by Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful and ambitious statesman and chief advisor to King Henry VIII for many years. He fell from favour, however, when he was unable to procure Henry’s divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon. Accused of treason, his titles and properties confiscated, Wolsey died en route to his trial. Cheerfully requestioning Hampton Court for himself, King Henry made himself at home, with his new and heavily pregnant bride, Anne Boleyn. The Palace would become a firm favourite with both Henry and his older daughter, Mary.

Yet there is more to Hampton Court than the Tudors. In the 17th century, William and Mary of Orange added a huge Baroque extension and landscaped gardens the designer hoped would rival Versailles. In the 18th century, George I added a Hanoverian flavour, employing the architect Vanbrugh to make improvements and finish the work begun by the Stuarts. So, a tour of the Palace is like travelling through time, from the vast Tudor kitchens and the beautiful chapel with its deep blue, star-spangled ceiling, to the formal state rooms designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and finally to Vanbrugh’s Georgian suite.

As you may have gathered, I have a long-standing love affair with Hampton Court, as much for its extensive grounds as its sumptuous palace. In spring, the Wilderness, on the north side of the palace, is awash with daffodils, and three-hundred-year-old yew trees line the world’s oldest maze. In summer, the walled rose garden is sublime, lush with roses of every imaginable colour. The walled kitchen garden, recently restored to its 18th century splendour, is planted with orderly rows of historically accurate fruit and vegetable crops. In the summer months, you can even buy the produce grown there. Behind the kitchen garden, the latest addition is a magical, mediaeval themed playground for the kids, built on Henry VIII’s jousting yard.

To the east and south of the palace, lies a series of formal gardens, designed in the late 17th century by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who also planted a grape vine there. Today the ‘Great Vine’ is the world’s longest single grapevine, and is housed in a large conservatory where it still produces a yearly crop of sweet black grapes. These grapes were once kept solely for the king’s table, but these days they are sold to the public. And if your legs need stretching, there are a further 750 acres of deer park and riverside walks along the Thames towards Kingston.

tudor henry-anneBut I am drifting. On a rather drear Spring morning, awash with mizzling rain, we ducked into the palace and donned headphones to listen to some fascinating insights into life at Hampton Court through the ages, following an architectural timeline through Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian England.   We were down in the kitchens, watching a kitchen boy light the fire with a flint and straw when we were rounded up by a troupe of travelling players, and carried off to the Great Hall, where, in time-honoured tradition, we settled down to watch a short production that had been written specifically for Hampton Court Palace by playwright Sarah Dickenson. In Mediaeval England, the Royal Family would not have attended plays with the commoners in the London playhouses. Instead, acting troupes would occasionally be asked to perform at Court. In the early 17th century, Shakespeare and his troupe performed many times at Hampton Court Palace.

Today’s historical drama is set in the summer of 1533, as the new Royal couple move into the Palace. The play begins in the Great Hall, where renovations are under way, and Anne is heavily pregnant with Henry’s desperately needed son and heir, and being a thoroughly stroppy cow, doubtless thanks to hormones and the ill-informed belief she is having a boy.

As the tale unfolds, we follow the players through the Tudor palace, who gradually expose the hopes and fears of this infamous King of England, and the complex political machinations of his courtiers.  There are ten performers: Henry and Anne of course, with Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the politician and the pontiff closest to Henry at the time. Anne’s waiting woman, Bess, is Anne’s dubious ally. Jane Seymour has just arrived at Court with her brother Edward, from the household of the dethroned Queen Catherine, and soon, herself, to be queen number three. Two townsfolk, George and Mary provide voices for the commoners, while Grace, minstrel and narrator, weaves the threads together.

We were entranced by the performance, and the only nuisance was that the troupe split up at one point to tell opposing tales, but we could only follow one of the lead players. Nonetheless, we were both educated and entertained by this lively interpretation of an infamous era of British history. And I find I am still besotted with all things Tudor.

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Compare & Contrast

Nine months ago, we packed our bags and too many boxes and headed out to Ninoy Aquino International Airport for the last time. It was six years and a matter of days since I had first arrived in the Philippines. During those busy years, I had some incredible experiences, made some wonderful friends, ate some amazing food (in every sense of the word), and wrote a book about it all. However, in six years, I never did acclimatize to the tropical heat and humidity. It made me sluggish and cross, and inclined to hide away in the air-conditioning during the hottest months. So, while the farewells were tough, I was over the moon to be returning to more temperate climes, where I could indulge in a boot fetish and lots of woolly jumpers…

And I must admit, I am thriving in the cooler temperatures of Europe in general and Luxembourg in particular – although I have been surprised at how hot and humid it can get here, too, in the middle of summer. I have enjoyed watching the seasons change: the crisp and misty winter mornings; the magically emerging spring; the luxuriant summer running rampant through the woods; the glorious shades of autumn tinting the trees in carmine and coral, gold and ochre, orange and vermilion. I love, love, love the long summer evenings, that stay light till forever, and I don’t even mind that the days close up so early in winter, after the never-changing routine of 12 hours of daylight nearer the equator.

That there is more aesthetic appeal to turrets and spires and ancient castle walls over concrete overpasses and tangled ropes of electric cables looping overhead is inarguable, or that a walk in the woods in clean air full of birdsong is irrefutably preferable to sweating along broken pavements dodging bikes and jeepneys.

And yet… and yet, I find myself missing our life in Manila. And I am often taken aback at the odd things that make me homesick. Recently, I re-read two articles I wrote in the early days, in which I listed all the things I already loved about the Philippines.  They were light hearted articles, but they threw me straight back to those first impressions. And I found myself unavoidably comparing them to life in Luxembourg.

My points, ten in total, included fun things like jeepneys, mall trawling and the Filipinos unique use of the English language. Here in Luxembourg, I am sure I cause my fair share of amusement for my unique use of the French language, but that is more due to rust than imaginative creativity. And I sometimes think the Europeans have a better grasp of English grammar than I do myself.

There was the ‘suggestion’ of road rules, in a country where most people drive like cowboys, when the traffic is moving at all, and this bears no resemblance whatsoever to a driving culture that seems like a nanny state by comparison.  We have already totted up a handful of minor speeding fines thanks to to the constantly changing speed limits and the constant presence of security cameras. Security can be tight in Manila, but not necessarily on the roads. And I find I miss the freedom to drive like a cowboy, too.

I loved the Manila markets, and wrote copiously about them, so I was delighted to find that we have a great food market in the middle of Luxembourg, twice a week, full of the most wonderful fresh produce, home-made jams, salamis, cheeses and flowers. There is not, however, the abundance of fascinating cooked food or wonderful Filipino crafts in evidence as there were in Legaspi. And the Luxembourgers just don’t seem to have that same passion for food that was the norm in the Philippines. Even the coffee was better in Manila.

I am not yet missing the luxury of help in the house. So far, housework retains a certain degree of novelty value that hasn’t yet worn thin, but I expect that to change at any moment. After all, there’s only so much joy you can achieve with a duster and a mop. I remember one friend returning to England and bemoaning the fact that however long she hung out at Sainsbury’s, the house elves just weren’t getting the job done.

I do miss the smiling.  It sounds clichéd, I know, but people don’t smile much in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the world, per capita than anywhere but Qatar, apparently. The Luxembourgish are well educated and fluent in at least three languages. While it is a tiny city of only 120,00 (Manila has 20 million) it punches above its weight for culture, with its entertainment centres, art galleries and ridiculous numbers of eateries.

Despite such affluence, few people smile here. I am invisible at worst, unacknowledged at best. I have tried wearing them down by beaming at everyone I walk past, but mostly they are pointedly looking the other way. Or they stare at me fixedly, unblinking, as if I had suddenly grown an extra head. They will come around eventually, I am sure, but it is taking more time than I had expected. So I do miss those fabulous Filipino smiles, whatever the weather, whatever their own personal problems or hardships. Those smiles from strangers used to make my day, and make me feel as if I was a special part of the community.

In Luxembourg, buckets of euros are spent on building bridges and the most frightening efficient – and cheap – transport system in Europe, and yet nothing has the quirky charm of the jeepney. And the taxis here, while they actually have suspension, cost a fortune.

And, of course, I miss like crazy the many special friends I made in Manila, locals and expats both. I guess that will always happen when one leads a nomadic life, but I had forgotten the emptiness of facing a new life without a single friend. (And I don’t mean to discount the One & Only, but he is a bit office bound these days, and not always available for a coffee and a gossip.) After six years in the Philippines, many of my first bunch of expatriate friends had moved on, but there were plenty still in town, and more friends to be made every day. And the Philippines was one of the few postings we have had where we were able to make so many local friends. In Luxembourg, in my experience, it is not only rare to find a local, but they do tend to keep to themselves. I am slowly gathering up some friends now, but it has been a long process. This is partly because so many people working here actually live beyond Luxembourg’s borders, commuting daily from France, Belgium and Germany. This has made it hard to find a niche, as a trailing spouse, especially with no kids in tow this time.

The strangest thing I find I miss – was not expecting to miss – is the sense of adventure that flavoured every day we spent in the Philippines. Whether it was the traffic jams or the storms, the shopping or the travelling, everything we saw, heard, smelled, touched or tasted, love it or hate it, was a daily challenge to the senses, an adrenalin fix sorely lacking in this most civilized and organized of cities. At first, such methodical, structured correctness was balm for the soul, but now I find I miss the furious urgency I used to feel when trying to achieve something quite simple in Manila, and the staggering sense of delight when I actually managed to get something done.

In Luxembourg, I am reminded almost daily of Tim Winton, who wrote in his memoir An Island Home about the total domestication of Europe that he had “never encountered places so relentlessly denatured… it seemed that every field, hedge and well was named, apportioned and accounted for.”

The same could never be said about Manila. The unpredictability, the inefficiency, the pollution and the madness can all drive you crazy, but it can also be fun. While we foreigners may rant and rave when life did not go smoothly, the Filipinos faced it all with those patient, unassuming smiles. And it certainly ensures a life less ordinary.

In Luxembourg the pollution is almost non-existent, as the country is largely rural with a high density of forest: ‘the lungs of the city’ as the tourist brochures proclaim. And I certainly don’t miss Manila’s mustard coloured skies. Here the roads are wide and rarely filled with cars: the rush hour is just that. An hour. And everywhere I want to go is no more than fifteen minutes away, except IKEA which involves crossing the border to Belgium, but it’s still only half an hour in the car. Such luxury was unheard of in Manila, unless it was a major public holiday.

So, I still don’t miss the heat, the pollution or being stuck in the traffic for days. But the joy of stepping under a cold shower, when the heat was literally rising in waves of your body, was breath-taking. In the Philippines, it was a life of extraordinary juxtapositions and violent extremes, both good and bad. It was a life lived on the edge of your seat. Here I think everyone is on Valium. The atmosphere of safe, unruffled calm is something I still find a little unnerving. And on a Sunday morning you can drive across the city and see no one, nothing is moving, it’s like a ghost town.

Never, can I imagine that thrumming, smog-bound, madcap tropical city resembling a ghost town. And I miss the madness. When you are immersed in it, it can be overwhelming, sometimes even a bit frightening. But you know you are alive.

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…and North Again

6A256B92-ADB3-4DC9-BA33-C4B118E4FE1AFrom Menton, with its glimmering sea and glittering inhabitants, we drove east along the coast and straight into Italy, where the buildings instantly lost their glamour and polish. Manicured gardens became market gardens, pencil pines were exchanged for olive trees and road rules were cast aside for much arm waving and mad driving techniques. At Ventimiglia we crossed the gravelly, flat bottomed estuary of the Roya and turned north. Somehow, we missed the uscita to the autoroute – it may have been while we were dodging the dizzy bloke weaving along on his bike, or the distraction of an irate old driver shaking his fingers furiously at us – and found ourselves on a narrow road, winding higher and higher, past derelict houses and hydro-electric power plants. The road criss-crossed back and forth from France to Italy. At one border, and despite the Schengen agreement, there were police checking car boots for refugees. On our right, the Roya River, milky blue like glacier mints, leapt feverishly from rock to rock, rushing down the mountain, while on our left, five Ferraris fled down the road, racing the river to the sea. Ancient, hilltop towns clung to the cliffs and I imagined the fate of elderly people trying to leg it up and down the almost vertical roads.

Major road works kept us waiting on a lonely bridge for twenty minutes, dipping fresh bread into the dripping gorgonzola we had bought in the Menton market that morning, and devouring a whole bag of vine ripened tomatoes, while we drank in the view. Then, an apple for dessert, which I would come to regret as the road continued to climb and wind like knotted spaghetti to the summit and down again for another hour before we finally flopped out into the Po Valley and onto a strip of straight motorway at Cuneo. It wasn’t the most picturesque route at that point, but eventually we passed Torino and found ourselves climbing back into the mountains towards Aosta.

Initially uninspiring, the town gradually opened up to us, and showed off some of its prettier corners. We unexpectedly discovered Roman ruins hidden behind the main promenade, when we ducked down a tiny side street to see, more clearly, an amazing view of one of the many mountains that skirt around the rim of the valley. Its peaks were still sprinkled lightly with snow, like icing sugar on a sponge, a high wind blowing it off and up to the heavens like a willow-the-wisp, or a tiny tornedo against the deep blue sky. Dressed for the sunnier south, I was sorely tempted to spend a large amount of money on a cashmere cardigan from a boutique bearing my name.

We crept into dour churches, with dark and dismal paintings depicting the stations of the cross, urns containing bits of saints, and a wooden Saint Derek clutching his head under one arm like a motorbike helmet, while a beggar praying loudly at the door in hope of alms. A quartet of paintings on the ceiling depicted a naked Mary Magdalene, her long, strawberry blond hair loose to her waist, but not quite covering her modesty, washing Jesus’ feet or posing, like Venus emerging from the waves, reminding me of the patriarchal, misogynist aspect of Christianity I have never found very appetizing.

As the sun set below the mountains, we each ordered a bowl of pasta in a quiet, dimly lit restaurant a few steps from our hotel, before we collapsed exhausted and chilled beneath seersucker duvet covers. From a dawn dip in the Mediterranean to snow on the peaks at bedtime, the whole day felt somewhat surreal.
073E47CA-CDB2-47FC-B4A3-BA26FA299393In the morning, we made an early start, and took another winding road through ever-closer mountains that were doused in frost, as the temperature crept down towards zero. A canon sprinkler, left on all night, had created a glorious display of icicles on a metal guard rail along the edge of the road. Heavy duty roof tiles – chunky slabs of rough-hewn slate – looked thick enough to bear the brunt of an avalanche, while kilometres of concrete veranda provided the same protection for the road that led us up to the San Bernardino Tunnel, and took us 6.5 kilometres under the mountain and into Switzerland, where we experienced another cultural switch to confuse the senses. Prices escalated, road signs were organized, the traffic had manners, and the coffee was dreadful. We arrived at the tip of Lake Geneva in time for lunch, and the sun shone brightly, but without much warmth, as we wandered along the banks and spotted ducks and seagulls and a small pine bedecked with sparrows like baubles on a Christmas tree. Sheepskins covered the cold plastic café seats. Coats were already in evidence. We even saw a pair of Ug boots walking across the street.

Onwards, away from the steep, rocky, overbearing southern mountains looming all round us to the lush alpine meadows of central Switzerland, where the fields looked like freshly mown lawn, and intrepid mountain goats were replaced with soporific cows.

As the sky line levelled out, we were joined by large farm tractors on the country roads, en route to clearing fields thickly forested with ripe wheat.  We passed enormous weatherboard farm houses, half barn, half house, with curling roofs, like the caps I remember on traditionally dressed Dutch dolls. Around a bend and on through beech wood and at last we landed up in a small rural town, and our B&B, Sven’s Place, complete with IKEA kitchen and a spa on the back deck, just perfect for aching shoulders.

Later, we took a walk through the woods, past a small deer farm, some horse riders and six-foot-high sunflowers on their last legs. The countryside in the north of Switzerland is more domesticated, cosy, softer around the edges than the Southern Alps.

Our last day on the road took us through the hills of northern Switzerland, passing horse studs and huge mounds of wood stockpiled against the barns for winter fires. A pretty road led us up through beech woods and into pine forests before dropping down again, along a tiny stream, Cynthia SatNav having surmised correctly that we preferred to stay off the motorways. But the last leg of our drive through Switzerland put us back on the motorway, where the Swiss showed off their penchant for tunnelling, and we found ourselves driving in and out of tunnels like a sewing machine needle hemming sheets.

Then it was heads down and a mad dash for home, as the good weather dissolved into rain-spattered windscreens and heavy grey clouds. The countryside was still heavily wooded and lushly green, but the further north we went, we saw autumn colour changes creeping in around the edges.  Back home in Luxembourg, the sky has faded to a washed out denim after months of deep blue, and the mornings are shrouded in autumn mist, and our final glimpse of summer is fading into memory.

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Road Trip South…

Dijon1

A clement, uneventful, Sunday drive out of Luxembourg, along a smooth motorway that crossed vast pastures, south to Dijon.  Here we found narrow, cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings, a handful of handsome churches and clusters of modern coffee shops that encircled town squares, centuries old. A carousel, mustard, of course, a Sunday market full of trash and treasure, a bleached Roman arch, and ‘les toits bourguignons’ (decorative roof tiles of green, yellow and black in geometric patterns), the town spiralling out to broader roads lined with large and elegant houses with a touch of Haussmann. Then a short drive into the countryside and along the lazy Saone to Seurre, once a busy market town, now a subdued country town of beautifully fading glory: crumbling old houses with washed-out, ramshackle facades; iron gates, rusty and battered; rickety rooftiles and shabby wooden beams; weather-beaten shutters and unkempt gardens.

Yet, to counterbalance the decay, there were occasional glimpses of stubborn pride, a determination not to be cast aside: overflowing hanging baskets strung from a rustic footbridge; polished plaques depicting a once illustrious history; an old-fashioned wooden bell tower to call the kids to school; an unexpectedly fine meal at a local restaurant offering boeuf bourguignon and homemade sushi; a marina boasting a small armada of fat-bottomed barges and perky pleasure cruisers; a well-maintained park edged with plane trees, spick and span.

We stayed overnight in a small chateau on the edge of town, with ice-cream-cornet-turrets, unpolished woodenseurre2 floors, and barn-sized bedrooms. Downstairs the owners had filled once elegant reception rooms with an assortment of refurbished arcade games. Outisde, the garden was hedged with well-established trees, including a spread-eagled weeping willow and an elegant silver birch.

South, south, south to Uzès, and the scenery slowly changed from broad, green fields, deep, languid rivers and ense, fecund woodland to dry, gravelly riverbeds and chalky white soil dotted with small, gnarly grapevines and stolid, sandstone farmhouses. Instantly familiar, this arid region of Languedoc was heartbreakingly reminiscent of our childhood state of South Australia, with its bleached, sunburnt, end-of- summer landscape, its sparse and dusty trees, its fierce blue skies. And it wasn’t just the sights and smells of childhood that greeted our senses, but its flavours too, as we drove past a roadside stall laden with succulent stone fruits, chucked a u-ey and pulled up in a spray of  dust and gravel. What else could we do but fill the back seat with local wines, lavender products, citrus aperitifs, and our lascivious mouths with plums, peaches and apricots, spitting stones through the car window with a gratifying plunk onto the dry earth?

Uzes1We eventually reached Uzès, an ancient town just north of the Carmargue. For centuries, it has been a bishopric and home to the first, the oldest Duchy in France. Dismantled after the French Revolution, the Chateau, hidden in the cloistered centre of the old town, has been restored to its former glory by the current Duke – the 17th – and his late grandmother. We peeked through a door in the centre of a huge, heavy gate and found a courtyard, a wall thick with Virginia creeper and an astonishing Renaissance façade. In one corner a tall, square tower rose 44 metres (and 135 steps!) above the town, providing amazing views to the distant horizon over a sea of terracotta roof tiles.  We trudged down steep steps to the wine cellar, once used to store supplies in case of a siege. Overhead, a petite, fifteenth century chapel blended a Gothic ceiling in gold and eau de nil with 17th century trompe l’oiel walls. Family history was mounted on every wall: solemn paintings of the illustrious souls who have borne the name of Clussol and Duc d’ Uzès.

Later, we headed back to town for dinner, and parked the car carelessly beneath an orderly row of Plane trees. Birds chattered, frantic and furious, among the treetops, late into the night, spitefully splattering their ‘petits besoins’ all over the car, like sloppy painters.

Bec à Vin, a sign we passed earlier in the day, is a IMG_2360traditional restaurant that came recommended highly by our Parisian host. It was a little cool to sit in the garden, as planned, but the rustic stone interior was warm, inviting and quietly bustling. We had already drunk our fill of local wines at our B&B, so we resorted now to water, which meant we were fully focussed on our food: a light, spicy watermelon gazpacho with the best, most flavourful, crispy toasted cheese ever made – or, in more sophisticated terms: Gaspacho de pastèque et bruschetta au pistou rouge, jambon cru et mozzarella. The One and Only chose squid stuffed with vegetables and conversation became non-existent. Later, we were equally aphoristic as we immersed ourselves in Carré d’agneau Catalan au miel et romarin, risotto au pélardons et épinards (rack of Catalan lamb with honey and rosemary, risotto with pélardons and spinach) and a melt-in-the-mouth, almost-local Iberian ‘Bellota’ pork – the pork equivalent of wagyu beef, only better.

We returned to base through a looming guard of honour that seemed to inch ever closer to the narrow road: upright plane trees, their white bark coats ghost-like in the headlights, that lined our route up to Arpaillagues-et-Aureillac.  There we creep through the front door of a silent guest house, built eons ago in rough-hewn sandstone, the rooms dim and cool, with attractive, barrel-vaulted ceilings, the garden full of delicate laurel trees that shaded a wide stone terrace and a sparkling pool, doubtless a real haven from the heat at the height of summer. Here, in the morning, we would nibble on fresh croissants and home-made apricot jam, on crusty bread and baby goats cheese smeared with salty-sweet olive jam, and sip hot coffee, before we packed our bags and headed east…

IMG_0284…turning our our eyes back, once more, towards Menton, on the eastern end of the Cote D’Azur, a short stroll from Italy along the rocky Mediterranean shoreline, trimmed with a multitude of yachts and motor launches. Dinner was served high up on a blustery balcony, sipping Aperol Spritz and listening to the crack and crackle of the surf.

At dawn, I wandered down to the pebbled beach, as the glowing sun, like a peach-slice, rose swiftly over the rim of the hills, morphing first into a round blood orange and then bouncing into the sky as a luminous, dazzling white ball. Reflected on the surface of the sea, it pointed a glaring white signpost across the rippling water and cast the palms on the headland into sharp-edged silhouettes. I watched, as early bathers edged warily, painfully, across the unforgiving stones to the bracing water. Beyond their tortured feet, a steady stream of cars and motorbikes roared along the coast road, waking the day with a crotchety clatter of engines. I sipped my first coffee and gazed over the glittering sea.

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History Upended

blog3A birthday. I forget which one. I was probably about ten. A card arrived from Australia with a $10 bill inside. There was a financial exchange with my father, a trip to the local bookshop, a new book: The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marrayat.  I read it cover to cover in one sitting, and a passion for historical fiction was born.

Marryat tells the tale of the four Beverley children, orphaned during the English Civil War, who hide in the forest to escape from the evil Roundheads and their puritanical, Protestant leader, Oliver Cromwell. For three hundred pages, I joined the children, as they learned to survive in the forest. The story is set in the south-east corner of the New Forest, between Lymington and Sway, and the Beverley’s manor house was modelled, apparently, on the real-life manor of Arnewood (written without the ‘e’ in the book).

Three years ago, my younger brother and his family moved to the New Forest, just a stone’s throw from Arnewood. Having grown up with the steep, wooded hillsides and narrow hedge-rowed lanes of Kent, the New Forest came as an enormous surprise. More reminiscent of the Yorkshire Moors than my impression of South East England, I gazed in awe at its huge open skies, broad tracts of open, gorse-covered heath, wild horses, deer and cattle, and a handful of wooded areas nestling in the river valleys.

Ninety miles south west of London, the New Forest ranges across Hampshire and Wiltshire, and was designated a National Park in 2005. It covers an area of 566 square kilometres and is made up of vast tracts of heathland, regenerated woodland and valleys lined with shallow, tea-coloured rivers. Several small towns and villages are scattered through the National Park, but access roads are narrow – and scarce – and seize up with tourist cars and camper vans in the summer months.

The name New Forest seems somewhat inappropriate to our modern understanding of the term, for there are  neither miles of impenetrable  trees, malignant and creepy, nor can it honestly be called new, having been created by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a Royal Hunting Ground. With Kingly disdain, he carelessly evicted the peasants of almost forty parishes to clear the way for herds of deer and wild pigs, for the sole use of Royal hunting parties. Once deciduous woodland, it was cleared for cultivation way back in the Bronze Age, but the poor soil ensured a total lack of success for agricultural  development.

In fact, in Norman times the word ‘forest’ applied to a legal system, known as forest law, set up to protect the deer and the undergrowth they fed on. This law was hugely unpopular with the residents of the newly named nova foresta, who were suddenly forbidden to continue their traditional way of life, on pain of death or mutilation. No longer allowed access to the wild deer and pigs, they were not even permitted to gather wood for building their houses or lighting their fires on what had originally been common land. Nor were they allowed to enclose their own land, as fences disrupted the hunters. Punishment for contravening forest law was severe, and for more than a century, these laws were strictly upheld by the King’s foresters. Eventually, sometime in the thirteenth century, a new charter was written to re-establish pasturing rights to the disgruntled commoners, and the death penalty for poaching the deer was abolished.

Today, common pasturing rights are still in place, and you can see wild horses, donkeys and Shetland ponies, a wide variety of cattle, deer and even pigs grazing freely all over the New Forest. Speed limits are low throughout the National Park to prevent accidents – and bodily mutilation – as the animals wander freely through the villages, stroll along the verges and cross the roads at will. They will often gather under bridges for shade and a spot of gossiping. And they all play a part in park management, thanks to their constant grazing.

This summer we have been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time with family in the New Forest: trudging acrossblog1 (2) the heath, thick with gorse and delving deep into the woods; picnicking by the gravel-bottomed streams; pottering wide-eyed through village art galleries; guzzling greedily on luscious cream teas; sipping cider in the local pubs; gazing adoringly at new-born foals and young, rust-coloured calves; wandering along the coast and through pretty seaside towns laden with sailing boats. Suddenly, I remembered Marryat’s book, and went searching for a replacement copy in second hand bookshops, sadly to no avail.

And then, we found ourselves in Ely, and I dropped into Oliver Cromwell’s home to hear his side of the story. An attractive, half-timbered house just up the road from Ely Cathedral, Cromwell’s family home abuts the local parish church of St Mary’s. The portrait of the sometime Lord Protector of England shows a doe-eyed man the spitting image of Alan Rickman, with a reputation as infamous as Rickman’s alter ego, Severus Snape.

As I explored the old house, now an inter-active museum, I learned a lot more about this much-maligned British Head of State. Often remembered as a traitor, Oliver Cromwell led armed forces against King Charles I, and would eventually oversea his beheading. Yet, as a Parliamentary soldier, he was apparently one of the greatest military leaders England has ever known.

Life was a struggle after Cromwell’s father died, when Oliver was only sixteen. Some years later, however, he inherited the house in Ely and considerable lands. He moved his family of nine children across the county and became a respected member of parliament. When King Charles, a devout believer in   in the divine right of kings, began to take the law into his own hands, defying Parliament at every turn, and trying to convert the country back to Catholicism, the Protestant Cromwell found himself leading the opposition and openly criticizing the King.

Civil War broke out in 1642. Cromwell was among many to take arms against the king. The War would continue for eight years, and shook the country to its roots. In 1645, a national army was created. As second in command, Oliver Cromwell led the New Model Army to victory time and time again. After the King’s execution, he was installed as Lord Protector and ruled as “King in all but name.” His supporters say he kept a firm hand on the tiller and restored peace to England long before his death in 1658. Nonetheless, his name was mud when Charles II returned to England and the throne, and set about his enemies with a vengeance.

Blog2So, was he the traitorous rebel that Marryat described in my childhood novel, or was he in fact a national hero? A matter of perspective, perhaps, but at least I now have a more objective view. And Ely also provided some pretty parks and gardens, and a stunning cathedral. Here Shakespeare had taken over from God the night we arrived, with more juicy tales of Royal intrigue in a production of the black comedy, Richard III.

We arrived too late for a ticket, but not to worry – it was a perfect evening for lounging outside the Cutter Inn, where we could admire a flotilla of canal boats moored along the riverbank and overindulge in steak and kidney pie. We stayed overnight on the outskirts of town, in a cosy B&B filled with a cornucopia of Victorian cranberry glass, and a fecundity of photo frames and frills.  Hardly a reflection of a dour local hero accused of banishing the fripperies and furbelows of Christmas!

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Wine Song

Moselle_Valley_attr_1

 

 

 

 

 

Land of fairy tale beauty, land of the noble Riesling.
Rotund, juicy fruits of a hand-picked harvest
stemming from a soil rich in time and tradition
The chant of an enduring, intoxicating desire that spirals down the centuries…

A deep, broad river of crazy, curling corkscrews
sweeps through the valley, from southern mountains to northern seas;
An exalted river teeming with bosomy barges
and layered river boats laden with tourists.

Half-timbered mediaeval houses
huddle together on cobbled squares,
their old, arthritic walls bending and bowing.
Spindle-thin spires snag the woolly clouds,

Castle ruins perch eagle-high on rocky outcrops
shouldering the weight of history like Atlas.
Tonsured hilltops, wreathed in verdant woodland
approached by narrow lanes that zigzag up the bluff.

Tenacious vines, leafy and lush,
Are laced like corn-row braids,
taut, tight, tidy
up treacherous, majestical, manicured slopes.

Burrowing underground,
like Smaug beneath the mountain,
dank tunnels are lined with the elixir of life,
secreted in oak and and glass and steel:

the crisply vivacious, ethereal Riesling,
of floral notes and zesty palate;
bright, blushing bubbles, courtly crémants
for the most elegant occasions.

a sprinkle of spice, a smidgeon of citrus,
a soupçon of apricot, a pinch of peach and pear
a hint of almond, an aroma of apple
a quixotic, exotic curlicue of quince…

Boutique wineries, masters of the Moselle Valley,
harmonize bouquet and flavour,
terroir and vintage in a bottle…
weaving a spell, orchestrating a symphony.

 

*With thanks to Google Images for the pretty picture!

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North Yorkshire: then and now

IMG_1093Once upon a time, my One and Only set out to walk the Pennine Way. This is a challenging, long-distance track that lumbers painfully up the spine of England from Edale, in Derbyshire’s Peak District, north through the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland to finish, muddy and weary, just across the Scottish border.

It was a tough, exhausting slog, and an adventure from which I was more than happy to abscond. Yet, two weeks later he bounced home again, like Tigger, with a new mission. This time I should come with him. He had found another long-distance trail: Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. This path would take us across the north of England, from the Irish Sea that pummels the coast of Cumbria, to the North Sea that bludgeons the Yorkshire beaches, traversing many of the glories of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and Moors en route.

Alfred Wainwright first published his pocket-sized, hand-written book in 1973, just a year after he had walked the route himself. It has been updated at least twice since then, but we travelled, in eons past, with the original version. Dedicated to ‘the second person (unidentifiable as yet) to walk from St. Bee’s Head to Robin Hood’s Bay,’ the book simply connects the public walking tracks in ‘an approximate beeline’ from west to east. While Wainwright firmly states in his introduction that ‘this is in no sense an official route such as the Pennine Way,’ in the intervening decades, his particular trail has become sacrosanct for the flocks of keen, ambitious, long-distance walkers who have traipsed across the country in his wake.

I was dubious about such a venture, but after I was promised the unheard of luxury of B&B accommodation instead of the requisite two man tent, I was sold. A real bed to sleep in and a full English breakfast to start the day? A pub meal at night and the possibility of a hot bath to soothe aching bones? Done.

I noted in my journal ((back in the days when I kept one), that it was hard not to look a little smug as we trudged blithely through the London Underground during the morning rush hour. Decked out in our hiking boots and lugging unwieldy rucksacks, we wedged ourselves in among the pristine suits and the polished shoes, ignoring pursed lips, tutting sounds and raised eyebrows. I couldn’t have cared less for their disapprobation. After several months of suffocating, self-flagellating, insecurity working in a tightly knit and xenophobic London Publishing House, I was euphoric to be fleeing the city, in search of adventure.

While my journal hardly makes scintillating reading, it was a lovely reminder of what we achieved over the followingIMG_1086 fortnight. By the time we had crossed the country, we had acquired a battalion of blisters and lost all interest in any further carbohydrate-heavy pub meals, or full English breakfasts. But we had delighted in the scenery, the fresh air, the birds, beasts and wild flowers, and the quirky characters we had met along the way.

Last month we found ourselves back at the eastern end of the walk, in a small village we had passed through twenty-five years before, on the penultimate day of the Coast to Coast, which had seen us trudging nineteen miles along a disused railway track from Clay Bank Top.

We tottered into town after a full day on the moors, during which, apparently, we had got quite giddy over the panorama across miles and miles of moorland. ‘Heather, old and new, dead, burned, interminable,’ I wrote then. When we had finally wended our way down from the ridge to the village, we found a slice of heaven in the form of a high-ceilinged blue and white bedroom in an old farmhouse, with a view across the valley to die for.

Wainwright describes Glaisdale as ‘not in itself pretty… but its setting is delightful [and] luxuriantly wooded.’ Today it is much the same.

IMG_1095This time, we were again equipped with hiking boots, but we also had a car, which allowed for a different level of exploring. Courtesy of my dear sister-in-law (my unofficial travel agent), we were back in Glaisdale, staying in converted stables overlooking another glorious green valley.  As we drove into the farmyard, we were welcomed by a strident and extremely cocky California Grey rooster, who pranced about the farm yard, regaling us with fulsome tales of his nobility. In the shadows, his two dowdy wives fluffed about nervously, shepherding their half-grown chicks out of sight.

Glaisdale, once a small farming community, expanded during the 19th century, when iron ore was discovered in the surrounding hills. At the foot of the hill is the River Esk and a pretty stone bridge built by a local farmer in memory of his wife. The village shambles up a  steep hill from the railway station, and the views get bigger and better as you climb.

One fine evening – I do love the long summer days in England – we found our way to the moors and along Glaisdale Rigg. We walked through fields hedged with grey stone walls. We chatted with the curly-horned, black-faced sheep, some of whom had wrapped themselves up in ribbons of green tendrils as if for a party. We watched carefully for skylarks and curlews on the tops as we trudged past heather and fern. The sense of space up there is awesome, especially for a couple of Aussies used to more elbow room than England commonly has to offer.  This stretch of wild, open moorland is encompassed by the Yorkshire Dales National Park, over five hundred square miles of moors, valleys, hills and villages.

Many of the place names we came across in North Yorkshire were eye-catching and imaginative, and often inclined to make us giggle: Crunkly Ghyll, Fryup, Fangdale Beck and Hutton-le-Hole, to name but a few. And then there was the aptly christened Limber Hill that winds steeply, almost vertically, up from the Esk.

We walked a lot that week, but we also drove often to the coast, where we found surprising stretches of sand and some brave young surfers edging tentatively into the steely grey waves of the North Sea. Quaint fishing villages spill down the cliffs to deep harbours.

We came across one such town by chance, after missing the Sainsbury’s at Whitby, and headed back the next day for a better look. We arrived in the rain, and like all good English people, we parked in the clifftop carpark and ate our picnic lunch in the car, before venturing down the precipitous cobbled street, slick with rain, into the town proper. IMG_1099Living here would certainly keep you fit, we thought. The terraced houses that clamber down the hill to the quay are pocket-sized, slender and tall, and many have been converted into holiday homes. Every rocky ledge or outcrop has been transformed into a modest patio or tiny terrace.

Staithes, once a thriving fishing port, has now become a miniscule Mecca for local artists. Kempt fishing boats, or ‘cobles,’ lay on tidal sands within the harbour, and feature in many of the paintings on display in the local art galleries. Staithes also lays claim to our own Captain James Cook, who lived there for a year or so as a grocer’s apprentice. Then, having fallen in love with the sea, he moved south to Whitby and joined the Royal Navy. Despite this somewhat tenuous and momentary relationship with Staithes, Captain Cook now has a pub and a local cottage named in his honour.

We resisted the temptation to fill our backpacks with artwork, before clambering back up the hill to the car, promising ourselves a pub and a cider if we made it to the top. Glaisdale once boasted three pubs. In recent years, these have diminished to only one, and that one did not come highly recommended by our host. Instead, returning through winding back lanes from the coast, we dropped into the local pub in a neighbouring village: The Board Inn at Lealholme. This old staging inn squats beside the River Esk. Opposite, on the village green, the locals play quoits. We would happily have settled in for the evening, watching the river from the terrace, like Ratty and Moley, and listening to ‘the sound of the wind in the reeds and willows.’  But the pub had been requisitioned by local mourners for a wake, so, after a quick cider, we headed home to drink a glass of wine less guiltily by the pond at Red House Farm.

*Photos, as always, gratefully borrowed from the camera of the One & Only!

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Rome: a City of Echoes, Illusions and Yearning…

Rome6

… so says Giotto di Bondone, Renaissance painter. It was the middle of June. We were in Rome to celebrate a significant double birthday that suddenly felt, joyfully, incredibly insignificant among an overwhelming density of history and antiquities.

Rome is a gluttony of crumbling arches drenched in sunshine as thick and viscous as olive oil, and every piazza is sizzling with tourists. A scrum of coaches advances up the Viale Aventino, disgorging multitudes into the piazza before the Coliseum, as in Roman times when as many as 80,000 spectators might descend on the arena to watch a smorgasbord of gruesome blood sports involving gladiators and wild animals.   Across the city, the hot and stuffy corridors of the Vatican museum swarm with bodies, crawling slowly but implacably towards the Sistine Chapel, like worker bees towards their queen.

We walk up the hill to the Parco del Colle Oppio, away from the dense hoards mobbing the Coliseum, the Forum and the splendid Vittoriano, known locally as the wedding cake. Like London, Rome has many parks, but these Roman parks are not burnished in green, lush and fecund, but parched, droughty and dusty, reminding me of a sun-bleached, South Australian summer. Every blade of grass has been burnt to a yellowed crisp. Umbrella pines are espaliered onto a fierce blue sky, providing scant shade. Pink and white oleander, that venomous evergreen with spiked-tongue leaves, cluster together like gossiping schoolgirls.

Everywhere, pavements are awash with tiny tables, precariously balanced and bedecked in white linen, to tempt the tourists to relax for a quiet moment or two in the shade, with a bowl of pasta and a glass of vino rosso. Everywhere, ancient buildings and monuments are modestly swathed in scaffolding, suggesting never-ending repairs and renovations. Everywhere, marble fountains and statues scream for the hedonistic gush of a high-pressure hose to rid their once opulent lustre of the dull, debauched, ash-grey coating of pollution.

And yet, despite the crush, the prices, the enervating heat, Rome continues to weave a magic that few can resist.

I love to be of the city, not just in it. So, renouncing hotel chains and room service, we have booked an apartment near the termini. Heaving our suitcases off the train, we stagger over wheel-snapping cobblestones while dodging the surging flow of pedestrians, trams, cars and buses, to reach a thick wooden door and three flights of slick and slippery marble stairs. Up, up, up to an airy apartment with lofty ceilings, narrow, shuttered windows and blessed air-conditioning. Here we find a red Smeg fridge, which we fill promptly with beer and bubbles, cheeses and cold chicken, San Pellegrino and salamis.

Leaning out of the window we spy Il Papa’s favourite Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, with its Guido Reni frescoes, Rome3 (2)mosaics ancient and modern, and the requisite Bernini statue. It’s our first night in town, and we watch from on high, with much interest, the fuss and activity at the end of the road. Later, we learn that His Holiness had dropped into the neighbourhood to say Sunday night mass.

Beyond the Basilica, down a tree lined road, we descend most evenings upon a cosy restaurant on a leafy square: ‘Tempio di Mecenate’ with its forno a legna (wood oven) and an array of tasty pasta sauces. While our attempts to speak Italian go largely ignored, the One & Only’s Italian name attracts the attention – and the lasting devotion – of the waiter Georgio, even though the One & Only’s Italian is almost non-existent. But that’s OK, the One & Only blithely reassures my poor, disgruntled friend (who has devoted months to learning the lingo) she will be just as easily understood if she simply throws her arms about.

Italian is such a histrionic language.

We walk everywhere. Turning down a narrow lane full of souvenirs and gelati, we emerge in front of the Fontana di Trevi, with its throng of selfie-obsessed young tourists who will only ever see this masterpiece of sculpture on their iPhone screens. We stroll along the River Tiber, channelled between high stone walls and huge leafy trees, flowing ceaselessly around the Isola Tiberina, where wood carvers arrange South American nativities on the balustrades of the Ponte Fabricio.

Near the Spanish Steps, we duck into a wayside church and discover, to our surprise, that it is an Anglican church,  the Church of All Saints. Empty of tourists, serene and cool, there is a captivating series of stained glass windows depicting all the saints to whom the church is dedicated.  There is a gentle simplicity not common in Rome where more is invariably more in the 17th century Roman Catholic churches, super-sized and excessively decorated in gold and marble to counteract the Reformation.  We wander through the calm, warm air and examine the assortment of elegant, stained glass saints and the staid memorials to English expatriates.

Rome5 (2)Early one morning, beating the heat, we gather on the steps of Santa Maria delle Popolo for the Angels and Demons tour.  There we meet a well-informed, engaging Australian guide, who debunks some of the fantasy, but assures us there is enough fact entwined in the tale to keep us goggle-eyed. She also invents the word volumptuous, which I love and now plan to use regularly. If you have read the book – even if you have only seen the movie – this is a great tour. Much to my relief, we are bussed between the various destinations. Well, it is 32 degrees and the tour, like the book, is a madcap race back and forth across the city: from the Pantheon, home of the world’s largest concrete dome and Raphaelli’s tomb to the myriad putti angels in Saint Marks Square; from the church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria to Bernini’s Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi and, finally, to the Castel Sant’Angelo, originally Hadrian’s Tomb that provides a fabulous panorama over the city from the battlements. After a long chat with a seagull posing for photos on the parapet, we wander off to collapse for lunch at one of the plethora of pizzerias tucked down the narrow, cobbled alleys that wind around the Piazza Navona.

On yet another molten morning, we find a light, bright air-conditioned coffee shop full of colourful finger paintings, opposite the Circus Maximus. Sadly, the market we came searching for is temporarily closed, but the coffee is good and the paintings are fun and modern after our undiluted immersion in antiquity.

I was daunted at the prospect of a five-hour tour of the Vatican museum, but in the end, I am utterly dazzled and bewitched by the paintings, sculptures, relics and architecture; this mountain of treasures as endless, as priceless as Smaug’s. It is an exquisite cornucopia of all the super star artists. architects and sculptors of Renaissance Rome that makes your mouth water and your feet forget their blisters: Raphael, Bernini and Boticelli. Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Our guide is a flamboyant, enthusiastic Roman woman with a PhD in art history and a terrific sense of humour, who fills us with apocryphal tales of the live and times of the various artists, then takes us off the beaten track to show us an amazing staircase designed by Bramante.  Built in 1505, it is a stairless staircase that rises up to the Belvedere Palace, to the pope’s private apartments, allowing him to remain in his carriage all the way to the front door – and providing him with wonderful views of the city en route.

And thus we spent a whole week swinging from the sublime to the prosaic and back again. We have loved every minute, evening finding time for the odd siesta. And we will return, for as Charles Dickens once said, in Rome there is “a history in every stone that strews the ground,” so there is still plenty more to explore… and plenty more to eat.

* And, as always, the photography is care of the One & Only.

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The Allure of Bruges

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town…
Not a sound rose from the city at that early morning hour,
But I heard a heart of iron beating in the ancient tower.
From their nests beneath the rafters sang the swallows wild and high;
And the world, beneath me sleeping, seemed more distant than the sky.
Then most musical and solemn, bringing back the olden times,
With their strange, unearthly changes rang the melancholy chimes,
Like the psalms from some old cloister, when the nuns sing in the choir;
And the great bell tolled among them, like the chanting of a friar.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

IMG_1768If you are looking for a comely city in which to wander, then I would like to recommend Bruges, or Brugge, in the northwest corner of Belgium.  Last month we drove across from Luxembourg to meet up with old friends there, for a weekend, and we were utterly delighted with this charming little city.

Many years ago, in early December, the One & Only and I popped over to Bruges from the UK for a romantic weekend break. The city square was clotted with Christmas stalls selling mulled wine, handcrafted Christmas decorations and Belgian chocolates. The air was crisp, almost brittle, and I remember taking a boat trip on the canal that turned my legs into two frozen tree stumps. By the time I tried to clamber out of the boat, my limbs wouldn’t function, and I was convinced I had frost bite. I staggered in geriatric fashion across a cobbled square, on the arm of my One & Only, to a cosy wine bar, where we thawed out over a bottle of warm white port.

This time, the sky was a deep, uplifting blue, the trees were blooming with verdant exuberance, and the sun was toasty warm on our arms and faces. It felt like a different city altogether.

Driving from Luxembourg, we were gobsmacked by the glorious architecture in the centre of Bruges. Luxembourg unarguably has its beauty spots. The old mediaeval town is lovely, with its Baroque ducal palace as the centrepiece. Yet beyond the UNESCO Heritage fortifications and a few elegant church spires, Luxembourg architecture becomes largely practical, pragmatic, functional, serviceable. Houses and municipal buildings are often boxy, pebble-dashed and lacking character. The Kirchberg Plateau, once covered in fields and woodland, was transformed in the 1960s. Today it is home to one of the three official capitals of the European Union and the seat of the European Court of Justice, and the plateau is covered in vast, almost Communist style office blocks; the main thoroughfare broad, straight and unromantic framed by empty, concrete plazas, and a dearth of trees.

Bruges – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and approximately the same size as Luxembourg – is, in comparison, dulcet, leafy, enchanting. It is like walking through a fairy tale.IMG_1749 The picturesque architecture makes your heart melt, and the winding, cobbled streets and hidden squares are chock-a-block with restaurant tables donned in white linen or red and white checked table cloths. Church spires and towers aspire to tickle the clouds, while market stalls clamber for space on the pavements. One craft market has even taken over the old fish market with its broad stone counters. The architecture – traditional Flemish – is reminiscent of Amsterdam, with its tall, narrow buildings, stepped gables and steep, peaked roofs lining canals stippled with swans. Pretty houses lean over the edge of the canals, like Narcissus, to admire their own alluring reflections in the water. My friend and I claimed the loveliest for ourselves, and dreamed of one day being neighbours in various wisteria-clad stone houses with their small, neat, walled gardens.

Strategically situated at the crossroads of north and south trade routes, Bruges became a wealthy trading centre from the 12th to the 15th centuries renowned for its Portuguese spices, British and Castilian wool, glorious weaving and successful banks. Unfortunately, natural silting in the river brought an end to the city’s prominence as a trading port in the 15th century, and its prime position was usurped by Antwerp. It sunk into insignificance until the second half of the nineteenth century, when appreciative British and French visitors began to flock to this bewitching city.

Fortunately, Bruges suffered almost no damage during either of the world wars, and in the 1960s, the mediaeval city centre was overhauled, experiencing a renaissance that brought a surge of tourists that would increase significantly over the next fifty years.

Despite the crush of early summer tourists, the city is calm and peaceful: canals encircle the city like a giant moat, fringed in lush trees and gardens. The restaurants fill quickly at meal times, but we can still garner a table without too much effort when we get hungry. Everyone serves mussels (the city’s favourite dish?) and while the food is not spectacular, for a town dominated by the ever-flighty tourist trade, it’s tasty and generous. When we tired a little of mussels, we even found an excellent Thai restaurant! The town, heavily reliant on tourism, somehow manages the annual influx better than most. Our friends are staying in a terribly posh hotel and we gawp at its glamour. The Duke’s Palace is a 15th-century palace with lavish rooms, stained glass and fairy tale turrets tucked away off Noordzandstraat, one of the main shopping streets. We found a quaint, and slightly cheaper little spot just around the corner on Kopstraat, where we received a warm and wonderful welcome from the Dutch manager. The Grand Hotel Sablon is more down-to-earth than its title would suggest, with high ceilings and a homely, shabby-chic touch to its décor. It also served one of the best breakfasts I have ever wolfed down. Both hotels were right in the heart of the city, a mere skip and a jump from the main square, the cafes, museums, shops and galleries.

IMG_1769As we only had a couple of days, we generally avoided the tourist highlights, preferring to meander through the narrow back streets, admiring the gorgeous buildings, drifting along the canals, nibbling the odd chocolate and getting comfortable with the place. Spiralling out to the edge of town, we found four eighteenth century windmills (once twenty-seven) standing guard like blousy sentinels. They have been carefully restored, one apparently is now a museum. On Sunday morning we got up and out early, and strolled to the canal, through  Smedenpoort, one of the original 14th century city gates, and along the banks of the canal that wraps around the city. On the way, we pointed out a profusion of stepped roof lines, wisteria dripping in grape-like profusion over stone walls, little motorboats ducking beneath the low-slung, hump-backed bridges, an enclave of swans snuggling on the river banks.

A three-arched, hump-backed bridge led us through a narrow, heavy wooden gate into the grounds of the beguinage, a Benedictine convent that was built for a community of pious women in 1244. We found ourselves in a quiet courtyard filled with the last of the spring daffodils, and surrounded by neat white houses. It seemed to embody the tranquillity, the serenity that overlays the entire city.

And as in the poem, our days were marked by the stolid, steady bells of Belfort, a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and 83 metre tall tower in Markt square. Ringing out on the hour, every hour, the bells will apparently warn of fire or enemies approaching. Truly, a ‘strange, unearthly sound,’ yet somehow calling you out, irresistibly, to explore this delicious city.

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A Classic London Market

London has a veritable cornucopia of markets: from Camden to Covent Garden, Brick Lane to Brixton, Spitalfields to Nottinghill and Petticoat Lane, these popular markets attract shoppers from all over the world. Last Christmas, staying downstream from the Tower of London, we uncovered another little gem of a market. And given the publicity it has sadly received this week, today seemed a particularly good time to celebrate its historical importance and its infinite attractions. 

bisto kidsBorough Market is tucked under the railway arches beside Southwark Cathedral, only a stone’s throw from the Shard and London Bridge station.  We wandered past one nippy December morning, to be greeted by the delicious aroma of mulled wine simmering away in a huge cauldron. Moments later our noses were assailed by the glorious fragrance of Spanish meatballs cooking gently beside a vast pan of seafood paella. We were like the Bisto Kids, eyes closed blissfully, following the mouth-watering odour of a home cooked roast dinner, despite a huge pancake breakfast only an hour before, just around the corner.

Resisting temptation, but barely, we sauntered into the depths of the market, past stalls selling piping hot bread, myriad cheeses, charcuterie and artisan chocolates. We chatted with a friendly stall holder who tempted us to try some salami and fresh Italian cheeses. We found barrels of olives and shelves teeming with olive oils. There was produce from Chile, Ethiopia, Austria and Granada, and street food from India, Thailand, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. Not to mention all the traditional English pork pies and Cumbrian sausages. And over the Christmas holidays, we wandered back again and again to stock up on fresh vegetables, fruit, wines and cheeses and soak up the cheerful atmosphere.

The clock ticked on, until I was there again, on an unexpectedly mild day in March, to find that the cauldron of mulled wine had been joined by tall jugs of Pimms, eagerly heralding in the Summer. Wishful thinking, I remember thinking at the time. But the arrival of summer is inevitable, I guess, albeit a microscopic beacon in the distance. So there I perched on a tiny bar stool against the church railings, watching the crowds ebb and flow, and catching up with a long lost friend over plastic cups of Pimms and spicy, Spanish meatballs.

Back in the days when Vikings roamed the sea and regularly came pillaging and plundering in Britain, Southwark was already a mighty market town on the southern side of London Bridge – the only bridge into the City of London, from the ports on the south coast. Reading the history of Borough Market on its website, it sounds like Southwark and the City spent centuries squabbling like children over trading rights and traffic.

Eventually, Edward VI stopped the brawling by simply selling Southwark to the City. The market continued to thrive, until it was razed to the ground by fire in 1676. Naturally, it reconvened – in the middle of the main road. Surprisingly, this did not prove popular with Parliament,  which promptly passed an Act declaring it would have to cease trading within the year.

Local traders refused to take this lying down, and petitioned parliament for a new market place off the High street. Recognizing a possible compromise, a second Act was passed, declaring that the parishioners of St Saviour’s were welcome to acquire land away from the main road on which to re-establish their market for perpetuity. By 1756, sufficient funds had been raised to establish the market to the west of Southwark High street.

During the 19th century, south London developed rapidly, Borough market expanded, and Britain became mad for railways. A viaduct was built to carry the trains over the heads of traders. This did not greatly bother their customers, however, as the filth of smoke and soot was outweighed by the market’s increased accessibility. It soon became a wholesale hub, and thus it would remain until the 1970s, when the opening of the new Covent Garden market at Vauxhall and the relentless growth of modern supermarkets brought a sudden, sad end to this ancient market.

Yet Borough Market would be reborn only a generation later, as food fairs and gourmet food products became all theblogbm rage in the 1990s. Gradually, European traders swelled the ranks of local artisans, and Borough Market expanded from a monthly to a weekly affair. Today, it has evolved to such an extent, that it is open six days a week and there is barely room to move between the stalls at lunchtime, as local workers gravitate to the multitude of fascinating and tasty food stalls for lunch.

Cooking demonstrations, pop up restaurants, pod casts, food related debates, specialist stalls… Borough Market is a daily hive of activity, a forum for every aspiring Foodie to gather in. It’s enough to make me move to London!

* In remembrance of those unfortunate few who also loved spending time at Borough Market, but will not pass this way again. 

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