On the Duver

The invisible, invincible, bullying wind
tears round the masts of pint-sized sailing boats
and whistles through the wires.

It buffets the screeching seagulls,
tossing them through the sky
like drunken dodgem cars.

Moorhens bob between the boats,
paddling with grim determination
against the windblown waves, while

Feather-white clouds scutter and skibble
across the cold-blue sky,
torn to shreds by a taunting squall.

 

A low tide exposes mops of rotting seaweed
but the rancid smell is dispersed,
thank God, by the fierce breeze.

Shivering trees wag furious fingers
at the boisterous, bumptious, obstreperous wind
that wheels and corkscrews through their branches,

whisking hats from heads,
whirling plastic bags into hedges,
twitching and teasing the scarves of infants on the beach and

tormenting puppies into a flat spin,
making them chase their tails
with frenzied high-pitched, yipping.

 

Biting at ears and noses and ungloved fingertips,
it drives unwary walkers back inside,
to hide from this irascible, cantankerous, querulous wind.

Last night’s frost nips the grass
and ices the puddles,
crunching underfoot like broken glass.

In the shelter of a gorse bush I huddle,
cold hands gripping a hot mug
as the wind whips by.

 

*with thanks to the One & Only for his pebbles.

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Prague Revisited

The rain has driven me off the somewhat slippery cobbled streets of Prague, and I am sitting in a corner of a rather elegant coffee shop on Rybinska with a flat white coffee and ‘torn pancakes with cinnamon sugar’ accompanied by a bowl of whipped cream garnished with a spray of mint leaves. The latter hasn’t proved a great choice – the pancakes have literally been ripped up and refried in cinnamon sugar, creating a crunchy, sugary clump of inedible ex-pancakes. The pot of canned cream does nothing to improve them. But it is warm and dry in here, and relatively peaceful considering I had to queue for a table.

For the past three days we have roamed this romantic, enchanting city with our sons, revisiting old haunts and relishing new ones. It is over sixteen years since we last visited Prague, eighteen since we lived here, when we welcomed in the new millennium from a perch above the Vltava, our pint-sized children dragged unwillingly from warm beds into the frozen night to watch the sky explode into technicolour bouquets.

Much has changed, and nothing has changed. The small primary school the children attended by the river has grown exponentially and our rather ramshackle country village is full of smart new houses. Yet the woodland paths are surprisingly familiar, the ghosts of chocolate coloured puppies and well-wrapped children dashing ahead between the trees. The city of paneláks in Prague 9 still crown the cliffs across the river and the allotments behind our house are obviously still in use. In the Old Town, the endless array of glorious buildings still makes us gasp in wonder, and the names are like faint echoes of children’s nursery rhymes, whispering their once-familiar magic through our memories.

It is cold – well, it is winter after all – but not painfully so, as we wander through market squares and winding lanes. The 14th century sandstone Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) is almost as thick with tourists on this dark winter afternoon as it is in the height of summer. I am in thrall to the spires and the statues, the Art Deco and the domes, the Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic buildings. Always there is a facade to gaze upon and exclaim at, even as your feet stumble on the beautifully patterned cobblestones. I can’t stop walking and yet I also want to sit in every cosy little bar or coffee shop and soak up the atmosphere.

We are delighted to rediscover a tiny restaurant in Malá Strana. ‘Čertovka’ is reached by a staircase so narrow there is a traffic light to prevent jams. Apparently, it was an old fire lane, the only one remaining in the Lesser Town. The service here has become infamous for its shoddiness, but the view to the Charles Bridge and along a narrow canal that runs beside it, is rather special. The name of the restaurant actually comes from the name of this canal or stream, an arm of the Vltava that used to feed the many mills and tanning works along its banks. I remember the lush horse chestnuts in summer that would shade the terrace as we sipped wine and looked out over the water.  My sister-in-law once made a lovely charcoal sketch of the scene. The food is good, if a tad more expensive than some, but I am happy to pay for the view and a dose of nostalgia. Number One Son is delighted to taste a Czech dish he adored as a child: slabs of bread dumplings drowning in rich meat gravy.  International cuisine has made some headway over the intervening years, but Czech and Italian restaurants still dominate the culinary scene, as pork and pizza become our staple diet. And the One & Only was thrilled to find that the Christmas carp is still sold fresh from tubs on the side of the street.

Further down the road, on a different day, we come across a well-heated courtyard with sheepskin coverings on the bench seats. Here we indulge in a lunchtime meat fest of extraordinary proportions: dinosaur-sized spare ribs and stonking great pigs knuckles, to the delight of the One & Only, all accompanied by buckets of Czech beer. Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, I can’t remember which, yet, notoriously disinterested in beer, I rather like these lighter Czech varieties. After gorging ourselves to bursting point, we set off uphill to walk off the calories in the fading light and find Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) at the top of the hill, with the stunningly beautiful Saint Vitus cathedral tucked behind its walls. Somewhat obscured by the castle buildings at ground level, Saint Vitus can, nonetheless, be seen clearly on its hilltop from almost anywhere else in the city. A life-sized straw nativity has been arranged to one side of the cathedral’s vast entrance (I loved Mary with her straw pigtails), and the gargoyles and glorious wrought iron gates keep us glued to the spot in awe for some time.

The castle buildings represent virtually every architectural style since the 9th century, including its Gothic cathedral and the Romanesque Basilica. A UNESCO World Heritage site of almost 70,000 m²,  the castle was extensively renovated and extended during 1918-1938, to include a palace for the President of the newly created Czechoslovakia. Today it is a bustling tourist destination, even at 7 pm in late December. And the views from its walls are breath-taking, especially at night, like something from a fairy tale.

The Czech people are as curt and impatient as ever: car horns are constantly squawking; distracted pedestrians will mow you down without a second glance. Smiling is not a thing. But I love the sound of this guttural, vowel-free language, and they really are a very attractive race. And what infinite luxury to be able to take this picturesque city for granted. I still remember catching the metro into the old town with a small son on my back, to stand under the mediaeval astronomical clock and pinch myself to think that I really lived here. This unusual clock is another popular tourist spot, and the area beneath it is often made impassable by mobs of camera-flashing admirers. First constructed in 1410, the two-faced clock is a dizzying array of dials and hands and astrological symbols on a starry night sky. Twelve apostles appear from a small door above the double face every hour and disappear through a second one, each holding the symbol that represents him. At the sides stand four more figures: an old miser with a bag of gold depicting the cardinal sin of Greed, a well-dressed figure with a hand mirror representing Vanity; the skeletal figure of Death tolls a bell and holds an hourglass to remind you that the end is inevitable, and beside him is a figure known commonly as the Turk, as the symbol of lust and earthly pleasures. Back in the 1990s there were fewer tourists in town, so it was easier to stand and gawp for as long as a small boy could sit still. Then we would move on a few steps to find ourselves hypnotized by the jazz band that frequents the Old Town Square to this day: a double bass, a clarinet, a saxophone and trumpet, a banjo and a washboard. Tonight they perform beside a giant polar bear, their old voices grown crackly and faded after so many years, almost drowned out by the carol singing students on the stage beneath the enormous Christmas tree. So much is the same, yet we instantly miss the pen of farm animals – Thelwell ponies, sheep and donkeys – that used to entertain the children near the Irish pub, ‘Caffreys.’

We wander up to Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square) named for the patron saint of Bohemia. Wenceslas Square is more avenue than square, crowned by the elegant, neoclassical Národní Muzeum, or National Museum. All the trees are draped in tiny fairy lights, and the avenue is lined with stalls sell snacks and Christmas crafts. Here we nibble on roast vegetables, sausages and trdelník, a traditional eastern European sweet pastry that is rolled around a stick, coated in walnuts and sugar, and grilled. Some fill its hollow centre with Nutella or cream.

One evening, we meet up with my godson and his cousins in a local brewery near the square. ‘Restaurace Novomestsky Pivovar’ on Vodickova was a favourite while we lived here. Eighteen years ago, the owners sent over a whole suckling pig complete with trimmings (chips, sauerkraut, horseradish by the gallon) for Christmas lunch. It was a gastronomic delight and solved the problem of feeding fifteen people from my tiny oven. Today we order generous platters of Czech style antipasti, and towers of home-made beer, followed by the ubiquitous variations of pork and potatoes. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the food is immensely filling and tasty.

Christmas shopping puts in a last-minute appearance, as we dash to jewellery stores, Hamley’s and the Lego Museum. A fabulous Lego exhibition in the basement of Hamley’s holds us captive for ages, gazing upon the castles and cathedrals of Bohemia in intricate and spectacular detail. Meeting friends eventually takes priority over a plan to attend a Christmas concert in one of the many church venues, but the lapse simply provides an excuse to return. Number Two Son doesn’t remember living here – he was not quite three when we left – but he has proved invaluable with his instinctive sense of direction, and we are rarely lost, even when memory fails us. It has been a wonderful walk down memory lane, one I would love to repeat in the spring, as the trees start to bud, the days grow longer and the chill has gone from the air.

*With my usual thanks to the One & Only for his fab photos.

 

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Christmas Markets

  • It is a Sunday morning in mid-December. We are in Köln (Cologne) in western Germany, wandering along the Rhine,  with our hands buried deep in pockets, and scarves wrapped almost up to our eyebrows as an icy wind whips around our ears. Despite the risk of frostbite, the promenade is surprisingly well frequented with families, young lovers, elderly couples.

Walking through the streets of the old town last night, it was seriously cold. Frigid, in fact. Like everyone else, we huddled together around the stands selling local beers,  glühwein and eierpunsch (eggnog). It was a simple a survival technique. And we were hardly surprised to see a frosting of snow on the roofs this morning, much to the delight of our Number One Son who had recently arrived from a 40’C summer in Australia.

Since the beginning of the month, friends from Luxembourg have been travelling far and wide to shop at every Christmas market they could find, and the reports have been enthusiastic and varied. Having a very low tolerance for Christmas shopping, I waited to realize a long-standing plan to meet old friends in Cologne, where, it turns out, there is not just one Christmas market, but a clutch of them: Weihnachtsmarkt Altstadt, in front of Cologne´s town hall; Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom, with the largest Christmas tree I have ever seen, dwarfed only by a backdrop of the huge cathedral standing proudly behind it; Stadtgarten; Neumarkt’s Market of Angels, and a colourful gay and lesbian market… the list goes on.

Having met our friends at the hotel, we headed first to the Cathedral, struggling not to lose each other in the dense crowds. My extra tall friend and my One & Only were understandably smug about their superior view of the world, while her shorter husband and I linked arms for moral support, well below the surface of the human tide.

Around the base of the Cathedral clustered the Weimersmarkt stalls, and breathing space was at a premium. To move forward was to squeeze through bodies like blood through a clotted artery. But the bodies were friendly and the mood happy. It was a crazy, but surprisingly contented crowd. No one was pushing or shouting, everyone waited patiently and politely for service, however long the queue. There was no ounce of aggression, or drunken rowdiness, but a real sense of goodwill in the air.

We tried a couple of the local specialties to assuage hunger: flammkuchen and gebrannte mandeln (candied almonds), wurst in a variety of sizes and kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), schupznudeln (potato gnocchi and bacon) and crepes. We are in the land of pork and carbohydrates, and in this chilly weather, it is a perfect diet, although my jeans may beg to differ. Craft stalls, too, were plentiful, but it was around the food and drink that the crowds converged. Fairy lights hung above our heads, coating the mighty tannenbaum in the centre of the platz, even twinkled on our heads, in the shape of a spiral-topped, red headband. Now there would no losing one other.

At centre stage, a band was singing Christmas tunes, as we sipped glühwein  from rather garish, festive mugs that we will undoubtedly take home as souvenirs. A  group of geeky Santas were warming up beside us, their cotton wool beards already askew, their glasses steaming up. A Christmas bucks night, perhaps?

Christmas markets have been popular in Germany since the late middle ages, all through the four weeks of Advent. In the twenty first century, their popularity has expanded across Europe. Now, the festive season is ushered in with a plethora of Christmas markets across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and France.  Luxembourg City alone has four or five. In Place Guillaume II there is a skating rink popular with the kids, and the Place d’Armes has a bandstand for live performances and a carousel or two, not to mention all the pretty wooden huts lined up neatly around every city square. And it is such fun and provides such childish delight to see the city streets humming with activity even on these dark, dull winter afternoons, while the forest of pine trees decked in fake snow and baubles give off a nostalgic scent of Christmas to warm the cockles of the heart.

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

 

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“‘Tis the Season to be Jolly”

Trelissick House is a three-hundred acre country estate just outside Truro in Cornwall. Built in the 18th century by the Lawrance family, has had a chequered history, having been bought and sold several times over the intervening centuries.  Today it is owned and run by the National Trust. The Trust has managed the gardens since 1955, but only took over the house about five years ago, when the previous owners auctioned off the family heirlooms and moved to a more manageable house in the area. It is rare to find a National Trust property that has been brought into the modern world. The vast kitchen was only upgraded a dozen years ago and has been turned into a coffee shop, with a little snug above it that overlooks the kitchen garden. It is amazing to step into such a grand old house, and yet be able imagine how it would feel to live in such a place in the 21st century.

Trelissick House sits on a narrow peninsula above Carrick Roads, the oddly named estuary of the River Fal, and is wrapped in acres of gorgeous gardens, designed like outdoor rooms that, even in winter, are a joy to wander through on a clear, blowy afternoon.  All the reception rooms on the east side of the house have wisely been installed with tall, broad windows that provide beautiful views across green parkland and over the water. There is even a haha, a deep, dry ditch, lined with a stone wall, and thus concealed from sight. Used in landscaped gardens and parks in the eighteenth century, it was designed to give the illusion of a continuous rolling lawn, whilst providing boundaries for grazing livestock. The ha-ha got its name from the effect of this optical illusion, as any visitor approaching the hidden ditch would suddenly come across it and cry “Ah-ha!” in surprise.

We arrived on the morning it re-opened especially for the Christmas season. The stables had been set up with Christmas craft stalls, the rooms of Trelissick House had been decorated with huge Christmas trees and colourful flower arrangements. In the library, the Christmas tree was decorated in the green, white and purple, not for Wimbledon, but for the suffragettes, as this is not only the centenary year of the Armistice, but also of women’s right to vote in the UK, and one of the previous owners of Trelissick was an enthusiastic supporter of the Suffragettes. In the music room, a volunteer played Christmas carols on the grand piano, and the scent of pine suddenly made it feel a lot like Christmas. I found myself humming the tunes under my breath as we wandered through the vast reception rooms and gazed out over the fields.

Back in the garden, a sheltered tennis court overlooks the Fal, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a thoroughly distracting view for potential tennis players. An arched wooden bridge crosses the deep lane that heads down to the King Harry ferry, and lands in the orchard, planted over twenty years ago to preserve several local, heirloom apple varieties. The gardens themselves are full of fascinating and exotic specimens, many garnered by one peripatetic son of the house from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  There is also a very decorative Rapunzel tower, which we thought at first was a pretty folly, but apparently started life as a water tower, and is now a quirky holiday rental.

Behind the house is an array of attractive farm buildings that have been converted into a café, an art gallery, the ubiquitous National Trust gift shop, a plant nursery and a large second-hand bookshop where I went completely mad and came home with an armload of books that cost the princely sum of £15.00!

Feeling in need of a longer walk, we headed into the parklands to follow a woodland path around the peninsula and along the edge of tidal creeks, catching glimpses of the river through beech and oak and wading through inches of fallen leaves. Oyster catchers vacuumed the sand for afternoon tea and a lone heron stood guard on a rock. Young, boisterous dogs charged past, gathering sticks in their mouths, while older ones paced slowly along behind, obviously longing for home and a cushion by the fire. Strolling through this ancient woodland, it is easy to imagine you have stepped back in time and will emerge to see horses and carts rolling down the lane. Much to my disappointment, my Thomas Hardy moment never happened, but it does feel as if little has changed here over the last two or three centuries. And like those older dogs, I can now curl up happily by the fire with plenty of reading material.

*With thanks to Google images for the photos, as the One & Only forgot his camera!

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A Blustery Day

‘I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen’ ~ A.A. Milne 

Woken by the foghorns on Falmouth Harbour early this morning, we faced a grey and gloomy day, warm for November, but with mizzling skies. The One & Only had planned to walk the coastal path around the Roseland Peninsula. Uninspired by the weather, I found myself drawn instead to a cosy coffee shop in nearby Portscatho to await his return and make some notes about our time here in Cornwall.

Growing up, it seemed my family always had beach holidays in the winter, which, even in sunny South Australia, can be chilly. Whether it was to dodge the crowds or the excessive cost of summer holiday rentals, I don’t know, but whatever the reason then, I now much prefer a deserted, windblown beach, to the burning sands and burning skins of summer. Going to the beach in winter gives a real sense of escape and a chance to blow away the cobwebs both literally and figuratively. To stride across virgin sand devoid of the detritus of summer – buckets and spades, irksome seagulls snatching chips, gritty sandwiches, beach umbrellas – lifts the spirits and calms the soul.

In Britain, there are 20,000 miles of coastline that incorporate coves and cliffs, dunes and beaches, fishing villages and sprawling sea ports. In Cornwall, one third of this county’s extensive coastline is owned and maintained by the National Trust. Once Cornwall was economically dependent on farming, fishing and mining, but these have long been upstaged by tourism. Now every fishing village has an abundance of antiquated stone cottages available for holiday rentals, and it seems every farm has laid aside a field or two for campers, so that Cornwall now boasts over 160 camping sites.

It’s a bit of a schlep from almost anywhere in the UK, but for the milder climate, the beautiful countryside and the stunning shoreline, it is well worth the effort. We legged it all the way from Luxembourg, and it was a sheer delight, even in winter. Narrow lanes weave between high hedgerows or under the shadow of oak and beech woods. They follow the curve of merry brooks, and dash round sharp bends to startle an unsuspecting stone farm house or a cosy country pub. When we finally abandon the car, by our own stone cottage above the sea, the southern coastal walk is a joy.

Wildlife abounds. It is not hard to understand Daphne Maurier’s inspiration for her thriller, ‘The Birds,’ as vast flocks of seagulls swoop and soar around the cliffs and black crows amass in the empty fields. We have a friendly heron who waits for us on the road every morning as we drive off to explore another stretch of the glorious Roseland Peninsula, and we are constantly dodging the pheasant – including some surprisingly snowy white ones we have never come across before. Neither chooks, nor albinos, as we first suspect, but an ornamental variety, bred specifically for their pristine feathers. It is somewhat larger than the more typical ring-neck pheasant, and they are apparently very tasty, but these wild ones won’t oblige us by running under the wheels of the car, so it is a dinner I will continue to anticipate, until I can find someone farming them.

Chinese ring-necked pheasants were originally brought to Britain by the Romans around A.D. 1000, but soon disappeared. These days, the countryside is teeming with the more common dappled cock pheasant with its red wattle and glossy green head and its comparatively dowdy, chestnut-coloured spouse. It is a mixed breed, reintroduced as a game bird during the 19th century. The habitat seems to suit them well. Apart from the breeding programs set up by shooting enthusiasts, they have also bred naturally and prolifically in the wild, throughout the British Isles. These daft birds love to play chicken with passing cars, and so far, they are winning, despite barely a single brain between them. In the twilight, they are even more flighty, with a kamikaze approach to car headlights that keeps us crawling at a snail’s pace and lurching to a stop every hundred metres or so, as they either sprint across the lane under our front tyres or take to the air in a panic-ridden flurry of feathers.

The other appeal of Cornwall’s coast is its many lighthouses. By good luck, we are staying in a comfortable National Trust cottage that squats above the St. Anthony’s lighthouse. Built in 1835, this lighthouse stands directly opposite Falmouth, at the very tip of the Roseland Peninsula, and about 200m from our front door. The One & Only, with a long-standing passion for lighthouses, has collected photos of ‘our’ lighthouse in much the same way that Monet collected haystacks.

One blustery afternoon, we turn right at the lighthouse and follow the coastal path north, where fierce winds threaten to throw us off the edge of the narrow path onto the jagged rocks below. The shrubs and trees along this exposed ridge have been buckled and bent by a feisty wind that is all too obviously a regular visitor. Eventually, we turn a corner into more secluded fields, and follow the path through the woods to Place House and the parish church of St Anthony. Originally built in 1150 beside an Augustinian Priory, the church was extensively restored in the 19th century.  The priory itself was pulled down during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, but the site was recovered in 1840 to build Place House, the home of the Spry family, and the church, still consecrated, is filled with memorial plaques to members of that family, a number of whom held senior positions in the Royal Navy during the 19th century.

On yet another blustery day, we turn left at the lighthouse towards Portscatho. En route, we find an isolated beach where we spot a couple of grey seals, obese as walruses, lounging lazily on the rocks, while their young pups play in the waves.

Long a fan of Daphne du Maurier and Mary Wesley, I was excited to discover that many of their book and film locations can be found in the area. ‘Menabilly’ at Fowey was the inspiration for ‘Rebecca’ and her beloved Manderley, while Broom Parc, at Port Looe, was the location for the miniseries ‘The Camomile Lawn’. There is an actual Frenchman’s Creek, a tributary of the Helford River, and Jamaica Inn is a real pub on Bodmin Moor. Many other writers have escaped to this region for inspiration. Maybe, one of these days, I will follow their example. Now, we must reluctantly pack our bags and lock the door on our snug and tranquil cottage. As we drive for the last time, up the now familiar country lane, half a dozen foolish and feeble-minded pheasants dash out into the middle of the road and our friendly heron, lanky legs loosely dangling, rises sedately into the cloudy, grey sky.

*with grateful thanks to the One & Only and E.H. Shepherd for the perfect pics.

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Remembering the Armistice

“They do not know that in this shadowed place It is your light they see upon my face” ~ Mary Borden

There was no forward planning whatsoever, but by pure fluke we ended up in the UK for the centenary celebrations of the end of the Great War. Although the last living veteran of World War I died in 2012, aged 110, this rather special Remembrance Day has obviously hit a chord here in England.

On Saturday night, on BBC One, we watched the Royal British Legion host the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by most of the senior members of the Royal Family. This is an annual event that has been held at the Albert Hall since 1923 to commemorate the British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their lives in the two World Wars and today, subsequent conflicts as well. Full of pomp and circumstance, marching and music, there were many spine tingling moments, not least when the ceiling rained with red poppies upon the heads of the silent servicemen and women during the two minutes silence.  And despite the recent Royal fervour, following two royal weddings and royal babies, it was a sign of the solemnity and importance of the occasion that for once the cameras were not fixed on the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, but on those soldiers performing in the centre of the hall.

We also joined in to two minutes silence on Sunday morning, when we walked down to the village green, to observe the Remembrance Day service in front of the village church. The local scout troops, church officials and the choir paraded around the village pond, before gathering around the cenotaph. It is a moving, albeit a slightly unnerving experience, to stand in complete silence for two minutes among a large crowd of strangers of all ages, from the elderly in wheelchairs to the small children in their prams, and everyone in between. The rain fell lightly throughout the service, but as it came to an end, the rained stopped and the sun came out as if specially choreographed.

Later, we caught the train to London, to stay near the Tower of London. From the seventh floor of the CitizenM hotel at Tower Hill, we were able to watch the fabulous light and sound installation, “Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers,” created as an act of remembrance for those that died in the Great War.

As the sun set over the Thames, on this chilly but clear Sunday evening in late autumn, the crowds gathered around the outer walls of the Tower and the moat filled with smoke, resembling the trenches of the Somme submerged in canon smoke. Then, a procession of Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London entered the moat to light the first flame. The subsequent lighting of thousands of flares was accompanied by the music of Mira Calix, a piece commissioned by the historic royal palaces. This choral piece is described as ‘a sonic exploration of the shifting tide of political alliances, of unity and division, of love and loss in war. Calix used lyrics taken from “Sonnets to a Soldier iii” by suffragette and war poet Mary Borden, and performed by Solomon’s Knot and Laura Cannell. How the flares were lit so quickly is beyond me, but in a very short time, the moat was lit up by the glow of thousands of small flames

(Coincidentally, I have been reading a book about the women who influenced the life and reign of Elizabeth I, and it seems ironic to be watching a display that celebrates those that died for their country on a spot infamously renowned for the beheading of traitors in previous centuries.)

From country churches to city cathedrals, poppies have been thick on the ground. You may remember the ceramic poppies that were made to fill the moat at the Tower of London four years ago, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. This year, every country church we passed was bedecked in knitted woollen poppies. They may not survive a heavy deluge of winter rain, but for now they are a bright, international symbol of remembrance in an otherwise grey world.

* With thanks to Google Images for the amazing knitted poppies, and the One & Only for the glorious view of the Tower on Armistice Day.

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A Jewel on the Costa Brava

One of the joys of living in central Europe is the ability to flit from place to place with cheap airlines. So, when a good friend announced she would be celebrating a significant birthday in Catalonia in October, we were there.

I visited this corner of Spain a couple of years ago with the kids and was more than happy to repeat the experience with The One & Only last month. We booked a flight to Barcelona, a car and a boutique hotel in Begur, and packed our bags with bling, having been told this would be a dress-up party.

Begur is a delightful hilltop town ninety minutes’ drive north of Barcelona Airport on the Costa Brava. It has become a significant tourist destination, where the summer crowds can swell the town from an off-peak 4,000 to 40,000 at the height of the tourist season. And yet it maintains a sense of style, charm and calm not often seen in other tourist towns in the region.

Luckily for those of us who are not in favour of crowds, the town has been returned to the locals by mid-October, parking is a cinch and there is always a table free at which to drink coffee, nibble on tapas and enjoy the blue skies and sunshine.

Our hotel, Le Petit Convent, has been recently, and attractively, restored. Our room is bright and airy, with huge windows overlooking the neighbours glorious walled gardens. Downstairs, there is an attractive lobby and a cosy lounge area under arching stone ceilings.  The hotel is only a skip and a jump from the town centre, where we find an impressive array of restaurants, tapas bars and cafes for such a small town. There are also several pretty boutiques and jewellery stores.

Strolling through the cobbled streets and finding secret stairways to houses higher up the hill keeps us amused all weekend. Eventually, we clambered up onto the mediaeval castle walls, where we can gaze down on the terracotta tiled roofs of the old town and out to the heavily wooded and rugged coastline, with its beaches and fishing villages tucked into the nooks and crannies. Defense towers around the rim of the town have, in the past, doubled as look-outs and safe havens from the pirates who cruised the Mediterranean in the 16th century.

While our friends have a modern house full of glass and sunshine on the lower reaches of town, the old town is a medieval jewel of twisting, cobbled alleys and shady squares. With touches of Moorish and mediaeval architecture, there is also an unexpected South American flavour here. In the nineteenth century, many local adventurers fled poverty and an economic crisis to make their fortunes in Cuba, returning later with enough money to build colonial style – ‘Indiano’ – villas, such as those along the main promenade, Carrer de Bonaventura Carreras. These grander streets are interspersed with cobbled lanes lined with whitewashed fishermen’s cottages. Everywhere we go, we come across wooden benches where we can simply sit and soak up the atmosphere.

In early September each year there is a 3-day Cuban celebration – the Fira d’Indians Festival – when visitors can guzzle mojitos and join in the salsa dancing till you drop. (It’s in our diary already for next year.)

On our first evening, though, we are happy in our own company, and wander through the streets and squares, trying to decide where and what to eat. We eventually choose an outdoor café on the main plaza, where we share a bottle of red wine and a tasty selection of local tapas while we watch the world go by. Our waiter looks somewhat taken aback at our request for a whole bottle. Apparently local drinkers show rather more decorum than these thirsty Aussie tourists, and survive on a mere glass of Tempranillo. Neither will they need a steady arm to navigate the cobbles home again at the end of the night.

The following day, there are several walking paths down to the sea and along the coast to be explored, but I selfishly settle myself in a café with a book, a notebook and a cup or three of coffee, while the One & Only scratches his calves to shreds hiking through the vicious wilderness. Later, I graciously agree to drive down through the pines and around looping, spaghetti roads to the coast, where we sip coffee on the seafront at Sa Tuna, overlooking a small family beach and a handful of fishing boats floating lazily on an unruffled bay. And the water, as promised by every website I have read, is absolutely crystal clear.

This coastline is thick with such picturesque villages clustered around tiny coves. Further inland, there are also a number of attractive hilltop villages. Pals, only ten minutes’ drive north of Begur, and just a few kilometres from the sea, is one such spot. It is an absolute gem of turrets and honey-coloured walls, cobbled lanes ducking under stone archways and rock gardens filled predominantly with cacti. In summer, it is bedecked in a deluge of red and purple bougainvillea. We poke our noses into a smattering of craft shops and art galleries, and find a handful of good restaurants for lunch or a coffee break. And there are so many fabulous photo opportunities around every corner.

The party – our raison d’être – is great fun. Plenty of old friends to catch up with and new ones to make, combined with an amazing view over the exquisite, emerald green Mediterranean and a veritable banquet of exotic tapas. I did, however, feel like Bridget Jones at the Vicars and Tarts party – it seems only three of us had read the memo to dress up. Even the birthday girl had ignored her own request and was attired in a modest sundress. Ah well, at least my gown fitted better than Bridget’s infamous bunny girl outfit…

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Ducks & Dumplings

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We have been blessed with an Indian summer in Europe this year that did not pack its bags and head south until the middle of October. Since then, Autumn has kicked in with a vengeance (making up for lost time?) and the early morning mists and chilly damp have returned. On Tuesday, we even had the first snow for the season, although it only settled briefly on roofs and heads, melting as soon as it hit the ground.

This morning, in need of fresh air and a good walk, I head north to Echternach to stroll around the town’s thirty-hectare, man-made lake. Here, the clouds are sitting low on the brow of the hill, entangled in the treetops, bleaching the colour from the leaves.

Still, the park looks beautiful in its autumn colours, and the lakeside is humming with activity. Walkers, dogs and fishermen are unusually prolific. Stripy, hand-sized fish hang suspended in the dark green water of the lake, while a brace of ducks socialize noisily on the shore. One solitary and elderly crane sits on a rock, huddled, arthritic and miserable, in dire need of winter woollies.

After a lap of the lake, I drop into the new Lakeside restaurant, where the lovely waitress remember me from a previous visit and makes me the best coffee I have found in all of Luxembourg, so hot that it melts the plastic straw that I have been given to stir it with.

Lakeside only opened this summer. Light and airy, it is perfectly located at the top end of the lake, with the fountain taking centre stage. On a warmer, sunnier day, there is a broad terrace on the foreshore. Today, I find a table near the bar. Lakeside has a touch of Scandinavia: lots of space, blond wood and simple, unfussy décor.  Apart from the back wall, it’s all windows, from the polished concrete floors to the high ceilings that are strung with large onion shaped, wooden lampshades.

I love this town, and this peaceful spot in particular. It’s a wonderful place to write and Echternach is so much more relaxed than Luxembourg City, the people welcoming and friendly. The second language here seems to be German more often than the French of the city, and the attitude is much more easy-going than the highly-strung atmosphere of the capital. The staff smile, chat and do what they can to make customers happy. It’s a far cry from the clipped, impatient, somewhat cool customer-service one receives in the south. How can a twenty-five-minute drive make such a difference? Yet, it does.

I sip slowly through two coffees, before the morning drifts into lunchtime.  There is a very reasonably priced menu du jour or a more varied a la carte menu. Either way, many of the dishes have a Germanic influence, which is hardly surprising given that we are literally a stone’s throw from the German border.

After a little help with translations, I opt for the menu du jour. A hefty slice of homemade terrine de volaille aux champignons (chicken terrine with mushrooms) followed by a wholesome noix de jus de porc braisee, knödel de pomme de terre et choucroute (braised pork, with sauerkraut and potato dumplings). I could have chosen carbonara or träipen (Luxembourgish black pudding) served with red cabbage and apple sauce, but I love the sound of pork and dumplings: plenty of meat and carbohydrates to brighten up this rather dull and heavy autumn afternoon.

Feeling rather heavy myself, after such a filling lunch, I stroll outside to chat with the friendly Egyptian geese by the lake, and dodge a couple of rather officious white geese (straight out of Beatrix Potter minus the bonnets), who make a dive for my ankles. Safely back at the car as a light drizzle sets in, I meander home through softly rolling green hills and golden woods.

*Photos care of the Lakeside Facebook page and Google Images, with thanks for better photography than mine!

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A Weekend of Food & Waterfalls

My One & Only and I have always loved wandering through the woods on a fine day, and this weekend was no exception. With guests in town and the rain holding off, we headed for the wild woods of Luxembourg,.

Always a popular place for walkers and cyclists, Mullerthal – or Mellerdall in Luxembourish – is located in eastern Luxembourg, south west of the Ardennes. It is known affectionately to the locals as Little Switzerland. Despite the somewhat romanticized nomenclature, there is no doubt that Mullerthal is a gorgeous area. With myriad walking paths, thickly wooded hillsides, clear, sparkling streams and boisterous waterfalls, pretty bridges in wood and stone, caves and craggy rock formations, Mullerthal is enchanting at any time of the year. Walking up through the quiet, green beech woods along the river, the only sound we could hear was the gurgling and plashing of waterfalls below us, and the odd bird call.

Our path eventually dipped back down to the valley floor, and into the tiny hamlet of Mullerthal, which houses both a vast population of 146 and one of my favourite restaurants in Luxembourg. Heringer Millen sits in the centre of the valley, an old water mill converted into a bright, modern restaurant with an outdoor terrace for sunny days. Usually, it is necessary to book weeks in advance, but in August, with the entire Luxembourg population denuded to about 146 (everyone has run away for the summer), we have been able to book a last-minute table most weekends.

Service here can get a little curt and distracted as soon as there are more than a handful of diners, and it seems I’m not the only one to have noticed this. Yet, despite the frantic flurry of staff, we were soon sipping cold beer on the terrace, and only moved inside when this summer’s plague of wasps scuppered our plans to eat outdoors.  However, a table by the window meant we could still watch the beautiful day through walls of glass.

Heringer Millen has a seasonal menu, and this one is melting gently into autumn, with the appearance of rhubarb, apples and chanterelle mushrooms. Beautifully presented and carefully prepared, there is something to suit everyone’s tastes, be it a glass of crémant with designer lamb burgers, a Pinot Gris served with a tagliatelle topped with prawns and chanterelles, or a cold beer and flammkuchen. There is a casual menu for muddy-booted hikers, if they can find a table on the terrace. And the surrounding meadows provide plenty of space for the kids to play when they get restless. Worth noting: the homemade bread is especially good, and generously served with a light, creamy fish paste. And luckily for our waist lines, there was a short hike back to the car when we were done.

Later in the day, surprisingly hungry despite that hearty lunch, we walked down into Clausen, dodging the crowds heading to the Schueberfouer, the annual fair at the top of the town. Founded in 1340 by John the Blind, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, the Schueberfouer visits Luxembourg for three weeks towards the end of August. The carnies park their huge mobile homes in a road at the top of our hill, which is always a good reminder to avoid Glacis Plaza at all costs. Of course it’s great fun for the kids, but surprise, surprise, I am not a crowd person, and no longer enjoy the wild rides that used to be such a thrill in my teens. So, instead of joining the throngs heading up to the fair, we headed for a calmer corner of town.

Beside the Alzette river backing onto the old Mousel brewery, is La Biblioteca, a Mexican restaurant offering tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tequilas – not to mention margaritas and mohitos! The weather had cooled noticeably after weeks and weeks of an unusually hot summer and unadulterated blue skies, but the evening was still. Again, the prominent sound was the rushing water, but here the wine was Argentinian, not German.

Reviews have been mixed – some will never go again and complain of bland food and bad service. Others loved it. We were in the latter category. The food may not be cordon bleu, but it is extremely tasty. The setting is relaxing, with a lovely view over the river, and it has a cosy atmosphere. The staff wasn’t wildly enthusiastic to see us – perhaps this is simply a Luxembourg trait? – but perfectly polite, and the food hit the spot. I am no expert on Mexican food – to me it always suggests fast food drowned in American cheese – but I found this menu surprisingly appetizing and nicely presented. And it was undoubtedly the perfect accompaniment to mohitos and beer. We strolled home full of guacamole and good cheer.

 

 

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“Really Traffic” or “Jurassic Prawns”

i could not find the ballads
or read the books dedicated to writing the grief
we fall into when friends leave
it is the type of heartache that
does not hit you like a tsunami
it is a slow cancer
~ rupi kaur

‘the sun and her flowers’ is a wonderful little book about loss and grief by Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. And yes, I have transcribed it correctly. Rupi Kaur uses neither punctuation nor capitalization, but occasionally throws in a phrase in itallics, for emphasis. I won’t attempt to mimic it in prose, it would just confuse both of us, but the sentiment is all too familiar.

As serial expatriates, our friendships – when we know our time together may be short – become very strong, very fast. And we are used to the notion that we must frequently say goodbye to friends packing up to leave, or as we move on ourselves. And for that reason, much to the chagrin of my One & Only, I love social media. It keeps me in touch with friends and family all over the world. It has even reunited me with a couple of mates I thought I would never see again. Friends, like us, who have moved so many times that we lost touch somewhere down the track, and I had come to believe only a miracle would allow us to cross paths again. My One & Only may groan, but the life of a trailing spouse would be far lonelier without the likes of email and Facebook, What’s Ap and Twitter.

From time to time, I read whimsical little quotes that remind me how lucky I am to have such friends: where neither time nor distance matter, because we always pick up where we left off, however long the time between meetings, and I am grateful for them.

Setting up home in yet another new country, without the kids to provide an entrée to the PTA or rugby clubs, social media has proved invaluable. It has also given me the chance to reunite unexpectedly with friends on the road. ‘You’re in Norway? So are we. Dinner on Friday?’ or ‘What are you doing in Bali? We’ll be there next week. Lunch at the beach?’ or ‘Hey, I’m in London too! Got time for coffee at Borough Market?’ OK, don’t mock, these are first world privileges I know, but such mobile communities are a pure blessing when you don’t have a constant base.

A year or so after leaving the Philippines, I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, feeling deeply homesick for Manila. I was really keen to return, to good friends, favourite places, favourite food. Thus, after a family reunion in South Australia, I took a detour from Hong Kong, to spend ten days back in Luzon.

The anticipation was enormous, and let’s face it, that can be the best recipe for disaster. Yet, it was all I could have hoped for. The weather was mild. The sky was blue. Our driver of five years put himself at my disposal, which alleviated all the hassle of finding taxis and kept a good friend at my side for my time in town.

For several days I stayed with a girlfriend in Rockwell, admiring the latest developments, revisiting my regular haunts (The Refinery, Rambla) and discovering some new ones (Wildflower, a new Japanese restaurant at One Rockwell), meeting friends for coffee, Aperol Spritz and Matcha ice-cream. The only disappointment was the lack of Christmas decorations. By October, I had thought the usual ‘Ber months’ syndrome would have kicked in and at least the orange fairy lights would already have been strung around the buildings and the palm trees. I did, however, find a small stall with a selection of grumpy Christmas angels I couldn’t resist acquiring for my Christmas tree.

Then I decamped to Dasmarinas, to another close friend, for Craggy Range wine by the pool and regular trips to Greenbelt for Colin McKay’s specialties: pork and pink peppercorns at People’s Palace and salt and pepper squid at Blackbird in the much-diminished Ayala Triangle. (I do so wish the Filipinos would appreciate the benefits of city parks as the Brits do. It is my greatest sadness about Manila.) I caught up on all the  news of children have also moved away and grown up in the blink of an eye. We shared dreams and aspirations for the future, laughed over past idiocies, reminisced over past adventures. We drank too much wine, ate too much rich food, hugged and giggled and loved each other’s company.

At the weekend, I headed out of Manila to the south west coast of Luzon, beyond Nasugbu. Here, far from the madding crowd, is a peaceful little coastal estate where I have stayed with my friends a number of times, and was delighted to return to their warm and generous hospitality, to wander beneath the native trees, smell the frangipani, dip my toes in the sea, take naps, read books, write, build a rockery, and of course catch up on all the news. Then it was back through the achingly beautiful scenery north of Nasugbu, where the mountains meet the sea drenched in jungle, and the earth is chocolate-brown-rich with nutrients. A tunnel, a national park, a sprawling town, and then we were plunging back into the city along a new motorway that has arisen on reclaimed land in Manila Bay, providing a view of all those stark contrasts that remind me so clearly of our life here: a gently lapping sea on the left; fishermen’s huts built from reclaimed corrugated iron and other unwanted rubbish on the right, balancing precariously on stork-like legs, knee-deep in the lagoon; an horizon of soaring high-rises and shimmering casinos and endless knots of concrete overpasses before us.

No, Manila traffic has not improved, and the high rises continue to breed with unbelievable speed, particularly in BGC. Everyone I spoke to commented on how bad the traffic has become (when was it ever other than ‘very traffic’ or ‘really traffic’?) Yet the people still smile a welcome, the food is fabulous (did I mention the Jurassic prawns of spectacular proportions?), and after two return trips to The Refinery for my morning coffee, everyone knew ‘my usual.’ I felt, in the best ways possible, that I had never been away.

I was sad to say goodbye but at the same time happy to know it would not be difficult to return. And it was good to get back to my own apartment and my One & Only. Life has moved on. People have moved on. As in all expat communities, existence, like a sunflower, is a transient thing. Nonetheless, it was both heart-warming and uplifting to go back ‘home’ for a while and find that everyone still knew my name…

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