Rome: a City of Echoes, Illusions and Yearning…

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… 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 Australian accents mangle the Italian language, the One & Only’s Italian name attracts the attention – and the lasting devotion – of our waiter Georgio, who remains at his beck and call for the rest of the week. Meanwhile, the One & Only reassures my disgruntled friend – who has devoted a year to Italian language classes, only to be left like Baby in the corner – that 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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Sunday Morning on the Broads

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A lazy long weekend, a boat, a bag of snacks, and hot, hot sun.
Marbled water strung with pearly bubbles.
Branches dipping low to sip at the rippled wake from passing boats.
Boat houses, thatched and neatly groomed, cluster on manicured lawns,
where “Don’t throw stones at this sign” is a warning too tempting to resist.
A flotilla of motor boats in single file chug gently past
the ‘Hunki Dori,’ ‘Too Puggled,’ ‘White Champagne’ and ‘Tarkatoo,’
Make-it-happen’ and ‘Just-the-biz.’
Picnickers roast gently under a denim-blue, stone-washed sky.
Gnarly branches raise alligator noses from the dimpled shallows.
Gluttonous Greylag geese snuffle for scraps like scavenging beagles.
Willow and water lily, beech and blackberry, hawthorn, oak, and nettles
wrangle and rummage for elbow room on crowded banks.
Feather-topped reeds scribble love letters to fish.
A black-headed gull glides over the treetops with bent wing tips,
while upended swans bare frilly bottoms to the sky.
A lone duck bobs, serenely unperturbed, on the rippled surface of the river,
as a solitary bumble bee twizzles busily overhead.
A gaggle of mocha-brown geese gather for a goosey Glastonbury,
herding scrumptiously soft and fluffy goslings
past the canvas shrouds of a riverside campsite.
Marsh marigolds and yellow flags, pale pink dog roses and bridal white cow parsley
fleck the dense and verdant banks with colour.
A dinky marina filled, like a cocktail glass, with swizzle stick masts.
The cloying tang of petrol perpetually clotting our noses.
A leggy, elegant crane swoops swiftly through an obstacle course of
luxury-launches-glossy-yachts-pedestrian-canoes-plastic-kayaks
and puttputtpootling two-stroke-motor-boats,
while waterlogged ducks bounce between them like feathery pinballs.
A dozing swan unwinds a serpentine neck and ruffles affronted feathers,
stares snootily down his beak and tuts beneath his breath
at the endless stream of waterborne vessels
clogging his river and disturbing his dreams.
An ice cream van, in boat form,
ladles out flake cones to booted and be-hatted riverbank hikers.
An affectionate breeze wraps itself softly
around my arms and waist like a mohair blanket,
as sheep-ish clouds blot the open and expansive sky.
The persistent drum-drum-drumming throb of the two-stroke engine
drowns out all chance of idle chatter,
until we reach the dock and disembark to humming silence.

 

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A Fairy Tale Chateau

IMG_8474 (2)After two days of summer heat and glorious sunshine, Luxembourg has returned to winter drizzle and scuppered any thoughts of an expedition into the countryside. I had forgotten the unpredictability of European weather after years in the Philippines. Were the skies forever blue there, or am I already glamourizing the memories? Still, the rain provides a good opportunity to sit in front of my computer, after a long break from my blog, and attempt to capture some of my adventures and expeditions over the past weeks.

Easter was a wonderful, fun-filled week, as family arrived from England. We spent a couple of days showing off the highlights of Luxembourg City before venturing further afield to explore along the Moselle and hunt for a chateau or two.

According to several websites, Luxembourg has a veritable galaxy of chateaux to visit; over one hundred they say. A closer look at the list, however, drew a slightly different picture.  Of those that weren’t in ruins (and many were) a lot of the local castles were privately owned or had been converted into municipal buildings or hotels. Very few, it seemed, were open to the public. Luckily, we quickly located the jewel in the crown, and, even better, less than an hour’s drive from home.

Vianden Castle was built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries on the foundations of a Roman ‘castellum,’ a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Vianden was originally the seat of the highly influential Counts of Vianden, who had connections with both the Royal Family of France and the German Imperial Court, and who sought to rival the Court of Luxembourg.  During this time the town flourished, renowned for its skilled craftsmen: tanners, drapers, weavers, barrel makers, masons, locksmiths and goldsmiths. By the nineteenth century, however, the castle had fallen into disrepair, damaged by both fire and earthquake. It was then bought by a local merchant, who dismantled it and sold it off piecemeal. In much the same way, the surrounding countryside was surrendered to the Prussians at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Today, however, Vianden claims to be one of the most significant castles in Europe, thanks to the inspiration of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and the mammoth efforts of the State to restore it to its former glory in the 1970s.

Driving in over the ridge from Diekirch, we gasped at our first view of this impressive chateau, looming above the mediaeval town like an eagle in its eerie, a hundred metres above the River Our. It is a steep climb to the entrance gate of the castle, but the views over the valley alone are worth the effort. And the chateau is beautiful, despite the glaringly awkward juxtaposition of mediaeval walls and starkly modern canteen in the central courtyard.

To follow the self-guided trail through the chateau is to follow its historical timeline, from its Roman foundations to its Gothic rooftops. The twelfth century chapel is a double oratory: two separate, octagonal floors with a communication shaft through the centre, so the towns people could hear the services from the vault below, while the nobles sat overhead. The guide book describes this upper chapel as the Rhenish (Rhineland) Romanesque, that is reminiscent of the early Christian basilicas we found in Turkey with its semi-circular arches, small paired windows, and groined vaulted ceilings.

The mediaeval kitchens were also fascinating, with a plethora of fourteenth century kitchen appliances on display: impossibly heavy iron cauldrons; a vast fireplace strung with long iron spits for roasting entire animals; a wooden case that would once have contained some wildly expensive, exotic spices; a solid tree stump smoothed down for use as a chopping board, decorated with lethal looking knives. There was an entrance hall filled with mediaeval armour, and the Count’s suite furnished with a dark refectory dining table, a four-poster bed and several old tapestries. A photo gallery has pictures and models of the castle in its various stages of life, not to mention a celebrity gallery of all its famous visitors, from European Royalty to American Presidents and Hollywood stars.

My favourite spot, however, was the Byzantine Gallery with its high wooden ceiling and unglassed, trefoiled arched windows overlooking the valley to the east and the hillside to the west. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so inviting on a wet and windy afternoon, but that day it provided wondrous views and an urgent desire to throw a party or a mediaeval themed wedding.bandoning the car at the top of the town, we wandered down the cobbled Rue Grande, past some picturesque old buildings older than any to be found in Australia. At the bottom was the River Our, and here we came across a handful of riverside restaurants and an enthusiastic welcome from local restaurateurs.

Feeling like chicks tucked beneath the mighty wings of the castle, we opted for an enclosed balcony where we could look out over the river and the pretty stone bridge in cosy comfort, and enjoy generous serves of schnitzels and chips in the warmth. The house we could see on the opposite side of the bridge apparently has links with the French writer Victor Hugo, who spent several summers here, writing and sketching.

After lunch, we headed north along the river, and discovered a chairlift  (le télésiège), which carried us up from the lower part of the town to a point across the valley from the castle. As my chair rose sharply up the steep hillside to the café at the top, I found myself twisting awkwardly backwards in my seat to wave at my nephew and to better see the views over the blossoming countryside – at the same time being very grateful that I wasn’t travelling in the opposite direction, to hang precariously, unnervingly over the valley as the chairlift plunged to the valley floor. Clambering stiffly off the chairlift, we meandered back through the woods towards the castle.

I can tell that this charming little town with its fairy tale castle is going to be a firm favourite to share with friends who come to stay.

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Black and white world

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Another city, another coffee shop,
just a stone’s throw from home.
Windows steaming, squawking chatter

Leaf-bare trees, pilloried, pollarded,
hem a cobbled square,
empty, but for a mob of grumpy pigeons

Street lights ooze into a sky
sapped of colour,
like ink on blotting paper

Sparse sunlight,
muffled by gloomy rainclouds,
dawdles into darkness

Headlights reflect off slick streets.
Heads bob by,
encased in knitted tea-cosies

Coats, scarves, bags, boots
in winter tones of black and grey
are all the rage

Buses queue at the kerb
to swallow and disgorge
and slide away, sated.

I meditate on friends far away,
In a technicolour land,
as my coffee gets cold…

…but time passes,
and the barren trees become blotted
with clusters of pink popcorn

Skies brighten into cornflower blue,
blemished only by soft, white clouds
and the sword-like streak of contrails

On once-bare branches
new-born leaves unfurl
and droop like lime-green bats

Bird song speckles the air,
from the first whisper of rose-pink dawn
‘til the blood-orange sun slips below the trees

Trousers walk the streets
in garish colours that require
the protection of sunglasses

Colour returns to a monochrome world

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Spring Flowers

cannon download March 15 156The Cotswolds.  A rural idyll just west of Oxford.  A variable landscape of high, open hilltops, narrow wooded valleys, villages of butterscotch limestone, and dry stone walls edging fields dusted with black faced sheep and their newborn lambs.  Today, in many of the main towns, it feels like wandering through Duty Free at an international airport: all designer labels and expensive souvenirs, coffee shops and gastro pubs. But the walled gardens are beginning to burst into bloom and the cottages still have that heart-warming, skin-tingling chocolate box appeal.

We are there to revisit the town in which we were married, twenty-five years ago.  Much to our delight, little has changed, although the Broadway Hotel, where we held our reception, has experienced a fabulous makeover and is looking a million dollars. With the Cheltenham races in full swing, the surrounding Cotswolds pubs are crammed with punters after dark, but during the day we have the place almost to ourselves. We meander down the High Streets of all our favourite towns – Burford, Boughton-on-the-Water, Broadway – peering into a profusion of art galleries, pottering around churchyards splashed with daffodils and trudging up muddy tracks onto glossy green hills. And of course, we popped into Saint Eadburgha’s, the 12th century church in which we were married, out on the Snowshill Road beneath the shadow of the Broadway Tower.

Saint Eadburgha was a great granddaughter of King Alfred the Great, a girl who preferred prayer to play, apparently,cannon download March 15 116 and there seems little else to know of her. Her church survived the 16th century Reformation, but not the earlier Norman invasion, who tore down many a simple Saxon church to replace it with a more sophisticated Romanesque design of rounded arches, square towers, spacious naves and thick Norman columns. However, the font at Saint Eadburgha’s Church is a simple stone tub that has been arranged with moss and daffodils for a funeral. Twenty-five years ago, my mother filled it with pussy willow branches she garnered from a neighbouring garden, while a childhood friend played the flute from the 14th century pulpit. My Catholic husband found it a little stark, I think, but I love its simplicity and grace. Again, little has changed: some new wooden pews at the back of the church have replaced the older Victorian ones that were irreparably damaged in a flood ten years ago; a new front door was created using all the original ironwork after a mad arsonist set fire to the 17th century door in 2014. The thick-stoned interior has certainly got no warmer in twenty-five years, when we stood at the altar, mottled with cold.  Outside, under sunny blue skies, the churchyard is bright with daffodils and snow drops sprinkled amongst moss-blurred gravestones. The view, across a narrow stream to the Cotswold hills beyond, is happy and glorious.

IMG_0154Later in the week, we make our way to the ancient market town of Chipping Camden, nestling into a nook in the hills. Here, we paused to enjoy a quiet moment and a coffee in a pretty walled courtyard full of bees and butterflies, before heading off to follow a sign for Hidcote Manor Gardens.

Arriving early, we saunter, unhindered by the usual deluge of tourists, through acres of beautifully designed gardens, from the casually arranged orchard to the more formal ones lined with topiary and refined garden beds. It soon became clear why Hidcote is considered ‘the jewel in the crown’ of National Trust properties and has gained horticultural celebrity status in the world of gardening, the epitome of a rural English garden.

Hidcote Manor may be a well-known National Trust property today, but ironically, this iconic English garden in the heart of the Cotswolds was created by a retired army major, born in America, raised in France, and a veteran of the Boer War and, as it transpired, an amateur but inspired horticulturist. Major Lawrence Johnston came to Hidcote in 1907 with his mother, a domineering and lemon-lipped social climber, less than impressed by the sensibilities of her shy and sensitive son. Independently wealthy, Mrs Johnston was keen to transform her only son into a gentleman farmer. Instead, he became a gentleman gardener, transforming the sparse, windswept hillside into a series of luxuriant outdoor ‘rooms,’ decorated with an impressive display of plants that he gathered during his travels from the Alps to South Africa, to Australia, China and Japan. His collection would bring exotic colours, scents, shapes and textures to the rambling English garden.

Johnstone, displaying innovative brilliance, blended two, then current, horticultural philosophies. Neither entirely structured nor randomly naturalistic, Hidcote was an unconventional ‘wild garden in a formal setting,’ an unorthodox approach that would quickly become the norm. Four and a half miles of well-groomed hedging divide twenty-eight distinctive gardens, each one displaying a different character, portraying a different mood, exuding a
different atmosphere.

The most breathtaking vision on this early Spring morning is the huge, hot-pink umbrella of the Japanese magnoliaIMG_8425, rising above the garden like a vast sunrise. We stand quietly on a bridge across a tiny stream to admire its gracious presence. Up the slope and through the woods, we find ourselves in a well-stocked orchard, located beside the sprawling kitchen garden and a collection of greenhouses.  One of these takes me straight home to South Australia, as we recognize the scents  the various blooms more commonly found in warmer climes.

Hidcote is both romantic and a touch theatrical, its cosy woodland paths giving way to broad views over the tousled hills towards the Vale of Evesham. It was a joyful end to a  joy-filled week of nostalgia.

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Consider the Teapot

 


804486d231c4c72e45ef979cdcffe590“Yes, that’s it! Said the Hatter with a sigh, “it’s always tea time.” ` Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Consider the teapot: a vessel with spout and handle for making and serving tea. It may be tall and silver-stately with a long spout, designed for an elegant afternoon tea on the lawn, or short and stout like the kindergarten song; it may be created from delicate blue and white porcelain or from bone china, scattered with Spring flowers like an English cottage garden. There are dimpled pewter teapots with wooden handles, or novelty collectors’ items oozing kitsch and ingenuity. And there are those tinny teapots you find in tea rooms on the English seafront which invariably pour with a sloppy disregard for the cup. In Australia, we have billy tea: the tea of bushrangers, rovers and campers, made in what resembles a rusty tin bucket – a far cry from my Russian grandmother’s intricately carved,  silver samovar. A teapot world of infinite variety, yet all devised for the creation of a simple cup of tea.

And then there is the World of Daniel de la Cruz, in which the utilitarian teapot is transformed into wondrous fantasy.

I have long admired the sculptures of Mr. de la Cruz. You may have seen them at St Luke’s Hospital in Bonifacio Global City, in the lobby of the Raffles Hotel in Makati or at the Pinto Museum. I first came across one in a friend’s home: a metal staircase, on which the figure of a voluptuously pear-shaped woman is walking up, while the man – hanging upside down – climbs up the underside of the stairs. Or you can flip the staircase over to produce the reverse effect.

Using a combination of different metals, many of his pieces breath a joyful and liquid movement out of this o-so-solid medium. And every piece is individual. He has, for example, created a series of dancers, twirling and leaping in lacy dresses, yet no two are the same. They strike different poses, dance different dances, are not even shaped the same. One we saw atop his grand piano had the muscular bearing of a Spanish flamenco dancer, another, in the lobby at Raffles, had all the lithe and petite airiness of the White Swan. It seems no body shape stifles an innate desire to move to the music.

One weekend, long ago, in Makati, we came, unexpectedly, across an art exhibition at The Link. There we discovered much grim and blood-curdling Filipino art: paintings full of skulls and crucifixes, body parts and blood that seemed to inhabit all the darker corners of the Filipino mind: nightmarish images that mocked, with bleak, black despair, the much touted image of a race of ever-smiling Filipinos, reflecting instead, its grim Catholic past.

Feeling a little queasy, we rounded a corner into an alternative landscape. A quirky, whimsical, lyrical, fantastical, world full of childhood scenes from Alice in Wonderland in 3D, sculpted in a variety of metals. Here, de la Cruz had indulged in a joyful exploration of all things Alice. And with intricate detail, ingenuity and illusion, he had, magician-like, created an extra dimension.

I was completely smitten. And since then, my One & Only and I were agreed. If we took only one thing away with us from the Philippines, it would have to be a Daniel de la Cruz sculpture.

At last, with departure from Manila unexpectedly imminent, and feeling very much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, we found the opportunity to meet Mr. de la Cruz and get a sneak preview of his latest exhibition that would open in December, days after we had left. The new pieces were a far cry from Alice, but nonetheless compelling. Far more masculine in content than previous shows, it was full of unfinished bridges and spiral staircases, adorned with almost Golum-like figures made from an unusual blend of metal and clear resin. Yet somehow, despite the solidity of such engineered images there was, as always, a sense of movement, of lightness, of spirituality, as bodies hung, in trance-like suspension, off the end of bridges, or climbed to the top of spiral staircases to gaze, longingly, towards the heavens.

We gazed upon each piece with awe and wonder, my fingers reaching out to touch the beautifully proportioned bodies, a wisp of metal hair caught in a breeze, a net curtain drifting across a window frame, a bare arm, a delicate hand.

We returned, too, to the catalogue from his Alice in Wonderland exhibition. In so many of the pieces, de la Cruz Duchess, it would have made a dreadfully ugly child, but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.plays repeatedly with the puzzles and perplexities of the ever-so-eccentric Mad Hatter’s house, where “it’s always teatime.” And, not surprisingly, the modest teapot plays a starring role. The Hatter’s forlorn statement is illustrated in a tea table scenario of mixed metal and glass, in which Alice is trapped in perpetuity beneath a glass dome on the centre of the table, encircled by all the paraphernalia of a decadent afternoon tea. The title piece, ‘Curiouser and Curiouser,’ depicts Alice, in mixed metals, her lacy dress doubling as a lace table cloth over a round table covered in a higgledy-piggledy array of cakes and plates and cups and teapots.

So like the pieces in a doll’s house, I found myself suppressing a childish urge to pick up the tiny teacups, rearrange the table setting, run my fingers over the lace tablecloth. Another piece, designed to hang on the wall like a three dimensional picture, shows the figure of Alice runs through the looking glass, her image reflected into infinity. And then, to return from whence we came, there is a mouthwatering series of teapots, each featuring a different character from the book. These included the cranky Queen of Hearts, the proud and particular Gryphon, the pernickety caterpillar, and the fierce Duchess clutching her pig-child to her breast, each embroidered with details pertaining to their characters.

In the end, we chose not from the Alice collection, but a lovely piece that also touches on dreams and reflected our own emotions, as we tried to imagine a different life beyond the Philippines, our home for over six years.  And at last she has arrived down the rabbit hole, into a world far removed from the warm air and chaotic colours of Manila to a more sedate world of skeletal trees and winter tones. Culture shock is paramount. But we have a glorious reminder of our life in Manila tucked securely into a small wooden crate. Now where to place her in our new home..?

*With thanks to Google images for the blue teapot and to Daniel de la Cruz for the Duchess from his catalogue.

 

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The Ides of March

cases“Then, suddenly, the day was at an end, and the house was furnished. Each stick and cup and picture was nailed immovably in place; the beds were sheeted, the windows curtained, the straw mats laid, and the house was home.”

~ Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 It is two months to the day since we arrived in Luxembourg, and I have been very remiss about keeping you abreast of events. While the One & Only gets to grips with his new job, I have wandered the highways and trudged the by-ways of Luxembourg, with its higgledy-piggledy cobbled lanes, its twists and turns, its tunnels and bridges, its nooks and crannies. Slowly, slowly I am starting to feel familiar with this fascinating little city. Spring has been settling in too. The snow drops are emerging in thick drifts in front gardens, through the woods and across the park lawns. March is as blustery and rambunctious, moody and volatile as cliché would have it, but the days are getting warmer.

And we have been house-hunting.  After a few false starts, we found one. Last weekend we moved into our new home, with little else but echoes. Thanks to IKEA, we now have two fold-up beds, a couple of bar stools and a camping kit of two-plates-two-mugs-two-spoons and we have rediscovered the dubious joys of build-your-own furniture. Everything else is still dog-paddling its way across the oceans from the Philippines…

Without TV or the internet until the end of the month, we have resorted to reading together, to while away the long evenings. It’s something we haven’t done in years, probably not since our last road trip, way back in an earlier decade. One book I have been saving for just such a moment is ‘The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow,’ written by a bloke I knew in Adelaide many years ago. Sandy was at university when I met him. Later, he would move to the UK to teach English and drama, and from there, he would start his Big Adventure. While I was hanging by the pool in Kuala Lumpur with three small children, he was sailing a minuscule mirror dinghy from Shropshire to the Black Sea.

It is a gem of a book, in which he takes us through the waterways of Europe: meandering through the pretty and picturesque English countryside, across Northern France and north east into Germany, then onwards and eastwards through the Danube’s more grandiose scenery. Having walked the Thames path a couple of years ago, and now living a stone’s throw from the Moselle, it is all wonderfully familiar. Sandy shares funny anecdotes about the quirky strangers he meets along the way and tells many droll and self-deprecating tales as he regularly causes mayhem among the boating fraternity on the Thames and regularly avoids death by the skin of his teeth, as he bravely (foolishly?) takes on supersonic cross channel ferries, hunkering French barges and vicious locks.

While I may not fancy rowing the English Channel – and I think I am wiser than he for this – I love rivers, and I love his style of writing. He tells a good story, with plenty of literary references, as an English teacher would and should, although I occasionally get entangled in sticky webs of words and convoluted sentences, threads of thought and poetic prose. Of course, it is not making the minutiae of resettling any easier. All I want now is to clamber aboard anything that floats and sail off into the sunset, although I would prefer something a little larger than a mirror dinghy. Instead, I make up our camp beds and head out through the drizzle and across the city for my French class.

Last week, walking home from class, I came across a busker, warmly wrapped against the chilly afternoon, playing his violin.  When he stopped, I gave him some money (not enough, sadly, my purse being almost empty). He continued with a composition of his own, lyrical and haunting, like a Keats poem. Afterwards, I stayed on to chat, reminded of a recent Facebook post that showed a top-class violinist busking in the London Underground where he was virtually ignored by commuters, despite the superb quality of his performance and the wonderful acoustics of those tiled tunnels. Determined not to appear so plebeian, I was well rewarded by my decision to pause and enjoy the moment, although I don’t think my violinist was any Joshua Bell.

And then, after countless delays, our furniture was suddenly en route from Antwerp and would arrive in Luxembourg on Friday. It was a fascinating process to hang over the balcony and watch the container disgorging. Like a boa constrictor swallowing a pig or a deer, it seemed to have swallowed far more than seemed physically possible.  Our new apartment is located two flights up, with no lift and a narrow staircase. The un-packers needed a cherry picker type machine (I think its formal name is an external elevator) to get our furniture up to the balcony and over the sill into the apartment. Anything I feared might prove too awkward, cumbersome or likely to plummet to the ground from a great height had to be stored in the garage. So much of our life seems to end up in garages!

So I tick off the boxes as they chug up the travelator, and, despite the purge before we left the Philippines, I am, as usual, asking myself with querulous disbelief, when did we accumulate so much stuff? We even sent half a houseful back to the kids in Australia! But at last, the apartment is finally starting to look like home. I have found mugs to make coffee for the workers, replaced light bulbs in the bedside lamps and unearthed a salad bowl so I don’t have to make the salad in a saucepan again. I have even found a pair of crutches and a trumpet. There may still be a mountain of boxes full of books to be unpacked and re-stacked into a phalanx of book cases, but that can wait till next week. Now, we are off to celebrate our wedding anniversary in the Cotswolds…

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Chocolate House by Nathalie Bonn

IMG_1437In the centre of the oldest part of city sits the picturesque, almost fairy tale palace of the Grand Dukes of Luxembourg. A stern, armed guard stands in the sentry box, upright and expressionless, occasionally stamping his feet loudly – to retrieve his circulation? – and taking a short, stomping walk down the street, below the two stone angels that guard the skies from the rooftop, before returning to his sentry box. I look around for Alice and Christopher Robin…

Opposite the Palace and the guard with his inscrutable gaze, there is a tall white building. The pavement in front of it is covered with closely packed picnic tables, the chairs scattered with red rugs and cushions.  Inside, the shop displays layer upon layer of chocolate in every imaginable shape and form. And there are more in pretty beribboned boxes, not to mention a plethora of beautifully decorated cakes, novelty chocolate gifts, ice cream…

I am in the Chocolate House, one of the oldest aristocratic houses in the city and my new hideaway. It is the place where I go to restore my wounded dignity after French classes and reward my exhausted tongue with a small, joyful, self-indulgent treat.

The menu at the Chocolate House includes some healthy juices, teas galore, a simple lunch of quiche, soup and salad, but not surprisingly, the real draw card – the real reason I have walked across town – is , of course, the hot chocolate. Or more accurately, the ‘hot chocospoon,’ a novel way of serving this time honoured beverage that adds sparkle and decadence.

Imagine an elegant white mug, with pretty frilly edges, embossed butterflies and a curly handle shaped like a butterfly wing. It comes to the table filled with hot milk, accompanied by a pot of whipped cream, a homemade marshmallow and a small packet containing a chunk of chocolate – like a giant chocolate ice cube – fixed onto a wooden spoon, in the flavour of your choice. Dip and twirl, and the chocolate melts into the hot milk in a seductive swirl.

The first time I tried this, I was tempted to suck the melting chocolate off the spoon. For true chocoholics, I am sure this would be both wondrous and quite irresistible. For me, the strong blast of sweetness and flavour was overwhelming, and my taste buds cringed. So I sucked in my cheeks, and waited patiently for the chocolate to evanesce slowly into the milk.

The result is a dream. Not the saccharine sweetness of those chocolate drinks of childhood, but a dreamy, gentle waft of dark chocolate through warm milk, that laps around your mouth and drifts down your throat, as soft and smooth as satin. And of course the Dairy Queen adds whipped cream liberally, and was even pushed to steal a spoonful from her son. Bad mother badge. So worth it.

The first time I came here, I had the One & Only and our younger son in tow. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon and the café was seething, so we squeezed ourselves onto a tiny outdoor table designed for two hobbits, edged as close to the heater as we could get, and wrapped the rugs over our knees. Eventually, between the rugs, the heater and the hot chocolates, we no longer noticed the cold.

Today, I have climbed the staircase to a room with tall windows overlooking the palace and a vaulted ceiling decorated with the coat of arms of the original owner. On the walls are several giant and somewhat garish paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, possibly Bob Marley and a couple of others I don’t recognize. The space is filled with an eclectic collection of old schoolroom desks and heavy wooden benches. On the tables, red and white teacups have been accessorized with checked ribbon and charms and filled with pots of tiny red flowers. There is an enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and the wooden chairs and benches are softened with white and bright orange cushions. It is all very cosy and inviting.

Now back to the chocolate. I need to tell you about the fabulous flavours. And there are lots. I am on a mission to try them all. The temptation is to wait till I have been through the entire list to write about them, but unfortunately, by then I will be the size of a house with sausage fingers too fat to type, so I must start now.

Chilli Chocolate is something I discovered in the Philippines in solid chocolate form, and it was just perfect on that first, freezing day, oozing a three-dimensional warmth into every corner of my temporarily frostbitten body.

Lavender was an unusual choice, a little like chewing on one of those dry and dusty lavender bags my grandmother tucked in amongst her clothes. That doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, I know, and yet the flavour was beautifully floral and up-lifting. It whispered to me of the purple, lavender fields of Kent, humming with bees, creating a lovely atmosphere of sunny days and soft, scented skin. Somehow nostalgic, soothing, and utterly beguiling.

Honey and Guérande Salt was a twist on the popular salted caramel. There were those bees again. And the salt with the odd name is due to the area in southern Brittany from whence it came. This blend of sweet and salty is something that I thoroughly enjoy. Bliss.

I opted next for Raspberry Almond enveloped in dark chocolate. It tasted like those delicious freeze-dried raspberries dipped in chocolate. Moreish and mmmmmmmm. Too intoxicated to talk…

And finally, before I turn into a chocolate coated heffalump, I choose the dark chocolate infused with pear and cinnamon, a delicate combination reminiscent of the poached pears and chocolate sauce my mother used to make for dinner parties. Scrumdiddlyumptious, Mr. Wonka. I will, without a doubt, be waddling home.

There are many other flavours to choose from, if the ones I chose don’t take your fancy. And they are changed regularly. They are mostly self-explanatory, but I did have to Google some names, and check with the waitress on others. So if you plan to drop by, and you are feeling adventurous, you might want to consider some very Willy-Wonka-like flavours, such as matcha (stone ground green tea powder), apfelstrudel or spekuloos. The last is apparently a traditional Christmas cookie in this neck of the woods, and a popular breakfast spread. Or perhaps the really brave amongst you will dare to try the wasabi. If you do, let me know what you think…

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