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

is

 

 

 

 

 

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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Un Petit Peu de Paris

IMG_1485Paris is only two hours from Luxembourg on the rocket-fuelled TGV. And as our apartment in Luxembourg is 5 minutes walk to the station, we planned to take the train to Paris last weekend. I just really fancied walking out the door and across the street to the Gare Centrale and two hours later strolling out into Paris for lunch. The ticket prices, however, proved to be prohibitive, unless you are organized (and I’m not) and book six months in advance. So we drove to Paris instead. It took a little longer, but it was fun.

As we drove west, he views across the vast, scalped fields and hills of north-eastern France were largely shrouded under heavy mist, but we spotted several birds of prey – quite likely, the common buzzard – perched on the fence like milestones, watching the traffic with intense concentration, presumably hoping for a ready-made meal.

We were going to Paris with no particular goal other than to catch up with some old friends from Prague days for dinner. A weekend in Paris. Just for the adventure of it. Just because we could. So we did. To drive into Paris was almost magical. Along the Seine and up the Boulevard de la Bastille, around the Place de la Republique – even the names felt like stepping into a story book. I found myself reading every road sign like Rainman.

I had booked a room in a great little hotel in the 9th arrondisement, a stone’s throw from the Palais Garnier – or the Paris Opera – and a short walk from our friend’s apartment. We had discovered we could book a carpark in advance, and our trusty Google maps took us straight there. We emerged from the bowels of the earth to see L’Opera right in front of us, that sumptuous, elaborately decorated Academy of Music like an exotic island in the centre of a sea of traffic.

Tucked down a nearby side street, we found our hotel. and climbed to our attic room. Where we stood, awestruck, IMG_1464and huddling like stuffed pigeons, on the tiny balcony, looking out over the rooftops of Paris, a few stray snowflakes kissing our noses. A glimpse of a golden statue atop the Palais Garnier, another of the gilded domes on Printemps, that 19th century temple to shopping.

We soon discovered that we were within walking distance of the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Orangerie and the Eiffel Tower. And that is mostly what we did, we walked. We both have the blisters to prove it! Anyway, even in winter the queues to the art galleries were drearily long, toe-numbingly cold, and we, of course, had not had the foresight to book tickets in advance. O yes, I said that already…

Jolly cold as it was, standing still was not an option, so we strolled. Briskly. Through the Tuileries gardens with its handful of scantily clad trees, no lawn, and not a solitary flower bed. Hmph. At least that allowed for uninterrupted views, as we stood by the Obelisk and gazed about at a veritable Who’s Who of Paris: Le Louvre at the foot of Les Jardins Tuileries; the Paris Eye at the other end, glaring down the Champs Elysées, to the Arc de Triomphe; the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais; St Marie-Madeline  and the National Assembly building.

L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine – or La Madeleine to her friends – was originally built in honour of Napoleon’s ‘Great Army’ intentionally designed in the shape of a Roman temple with its fifty two Corinthian columns. After Napoleon’s downfall, it would be converted into a Roman Catholic church, the site of Chopin’s funeral in 1849.

IMG_1482Across the river, the home of the French National Assembly – Le Palais Bourbon – was originally the country house of Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, daughter of Louis XIV. The palace was nationalised during the French Revolution, and Napoleon had Roman columns added to mirror the Madeline. In fact everywhere we turned that weekend, we found elegant spires, gilded domes, and a multitude of stunning 19th century façades on the elegant Hausmannian buildings that line the streets of Paris.

On the left bank, as promised, we walked past a myriad art galleries interspersed with restaurants and antique furniture stores. These were all decidedly more up-market than they were historically, but we loved the window shopping. And then, unexpectedly, a narrow, cobbled laneway between two elaborate antique shops that led to a tiny roofed courtyard and ‘Treize,’ subtitled ‘Thirteen – a baker’s dozen.’

Uncertain whether we had inadvertently discovered a secret and wildly expensive Parisian restaurant of Michelin proportions, we snuck our noses around the door to be greeted by a rousing welcome from three waitresses. In a flash we found ourselves squeezing into a petit café, crowded with an eclectic collection of tables and chairs, knick-knacks, jars, cakes and customers. Using a shoe horn, one friendly hostess levered us onto a bench at the back, tucked between a crate of champagne and a basket of madeleines. There would be no speedy escape,but we were happy enough to sit there and enjoy the atmosphere: hectic but homely. And eventually we were served our tea and a generous wedge cream filled orange cake topped with the best icing ever, and decorated with an orange sauce that tasted like homemade marmalade. I don’t often eat cake, but this was special: as full of flavour and nostalgia as any madeleine ever nibbled by Monsieur Marcel Proust. And the café itself was a delight as long as you did not need to move anywhere in a hurry.IMG_0045

And then home to the hotel to rest our weary feet for a moment before setting out to meet our friends for dinner. And another gourmet dining experience across town.

‘Le Clown Bar’ is a quaint and historic little spot near Cirque d’Hiver. Again, we were a little lacking in elbow room (a common occurrence in Paris it seems) but we had a comfy nook behind the bar area. This was decorated with hand-painted tiles of those eponymous clowns and topped with an ornate domed glass ceiling. The menu is fascinating: an unusual take on modern French cuisine with a splash of Japanese – a nod to Japanese born chef Sota Atsumi. The menu read so strangely that one friend could make neither head nor tale of the ex
traordinary taste combinations, but in fact Atsumi’s menu is unexpectedly magical, weaving a spell that made me temporarily oblivious to the conversation, even over the hunks of soft, oven-warm bread.

And for once, I made all the good choices, and didn’t find myself gazing regretfully at someone else’s plate. My steak tartare was a generous mountain of minced beef mixed with burrata, pine nuts, pickle and dried tuna heart. I’m not sure I can claim that my taste buds were sophisticated enough to pick out that final ingredient, but the whole was absolutely mouth watering. Enzo’s cured pork belly was nice but a bit bland. More charcuterie than barbecue. I kindly shared my more exciting and flavourful dish. Luckily there was plenty to go around.

With only three main courses to choose from, we managed to bring all of them to the table. A bowl of whole smoked pigeons, reminiscent of a big dish of mussels (ie more mess than meat); sole and Brussel sprouts with miso (delicately tasty) and a duck and foie gras pie that was rich, succulent and absolutely mouth-watering. I wish I could feel guilty about eating foie gras, but I just can’t. And this evening it tasted particularly superb. If it makes you feel any better Monsieur Oie, you died for a good cause and were enormously appreciated for your sacrifice to my stomach. Thank you, with all my heart.

There was dessert, I believe. I may even have stolen a soupçon of orange and honey ice cream, but I was far too replete to go any further. Luckily we had a good long walk home to bed. I think we may even have got momentarily lost. But I am sure it had nothing to do with the Becherovka nightcap…

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A Month in the Country

So we have been four weeks in Luxembourg and already the city is feeling familiar. And we have found a house. Now we just need our furniture to arrive from the Philippines, and we can start feeling properly settled.

IMG_1390My twice-weekly French classes continue to stretch my brain and test my memory to the hilt. It is like peeling back layers of wallpaper – I see glimpses of words and phrases I remember, but struggle to grasp the big picture. I read and remember long forgotten vocabulary, but to speak fluently I need a Brillo pad to scour the rust from my brain. And I am enormously envious of our teacher, who speaks something like ten languages fluently, while I struggle with one.  And she is certainly not the only one with multi-lingual skills in this neighbourhood. It is all a little demoralizing. But I have bought Harry Potter in French – La Chambre des Secrets – and I am learning wonderful new words like l’hululument sonore de la chouette, la cicatrice and scarabee bousiers, though how I will ever weave these into a conversation over dinner is anyone’s guess. I am determined to persist however, and perhaps one day the shop assistants, hearing me stagger through my questions in questionable French, will not pat my head kindly and reassure me that “it’s ok Madame we speak English.” One day, I pray, I will be fluent. In the meantime, everyone has been incredibly friendly and encouraging, albeit ever-so-slightly patronizing!

Nonetheless, this is a perfect place to learn languages. In Luxembourg alone, a city of barely 100,000, I daily come across people who speak every possible combination of French and German, Luxembourgish, Dutch and English, Portuguese and Italian. And geographically Germany, France and Belgium are all a mere half hour drive from our front door, as our youngest was delighted to discover when he visited last weekend.

IMG_1399On Sunday, we drove to Bernkastel-Kues, a twin town on the Moselle River, in the heart of the wine region. Arriving late in the morning, we parked on the western bank, and wandered down to the water’s edge, snow crunching underfoot, to see the frozen river. We could hear the eerie sound of the ice plates creaking and squeaking as they shifted in the current. Later, we would watch a huge, broad-bottomed barge ploughing through the ice like one of those ice-breakers in the Antarctic.

Too chilly to stand still for long, we walked up into the town. Once we had escaped the clutches of the local cemetery and a very dull building site, where we posed, giggling at our exceptional navigation skills, in front of a huge skip that warned us not to climb in, we made our way rapidly back to the river. There we discovered a lovely arched bridge, built across the river in 1874, linking the two towns, Bernkastel and Kues, that officially merged to become a pigeon pair on April 1st, 1905.

Walking across the bridge, we found ourselves on the decidedly more attractive side of town, where the medieval buildings of Bernkastel snuggle up against steep hills that are threaded with almost vertical vineyards. Perched high above the town, on top of the hill, squat the ruins of Castle Landshut, burnt out towards the end of the 17th century and never rebuilt. The dark stone clock tower lours, imposing and self-important, over the parish church of St. Michael, a landmark from almost any vantage point in the town.

IMG_1392Bernkastel is a truly charming little town, with its medieval market square, cobbled lanes and quaint, timber-framed and gabled houses. It seems to have stepped straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, or from  a Walt Disney cartoon –  ‘Beauty & the Beast’ perhaps? By now, feeling as frozen as the river, and decidedly peckish, we
wended our way through the narrow streets, past the Platz am Bärenbrunnen, with its lovely fountain depicting the town’s eponymous bears. Eventually we came to a bright, cosy little restaurant in the old railway station – die alter moselbahnhof  – where they served up an excellent schnitzel with pepper sauce and crispy chips, and some local pizza-like creations known as flammkuchen , a dish from the sometimes French, sometimes German region of Alsace. Flammkuchen, like pizza, is made from a thin, bread dough base covered with white cheese or crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons. And of course the men had to finish off with the hand made apple strudel. It was a delightful lunch, after which we felt too soporific and replete to continue sightseeing. Instead, we marched briskly back to the car, through the diminishing afternoon, and home, vowing to explore further in the spring!

Inspired by our Germanic Adventure, on Monday we decided to lunch in France. Unfortunately, not so well prepared, we drove through less salubrious country side, discovering a no-man’s-land of industrial smoke stacks, silos and truck yards in the wasteland that lies along the borders of Luxembourg, France & Belgium. Even the smattering of snow did little to improve the scenery. We tried to pretend the silos looked like castle turrets through the smoky air, but it was hardly convincing.

Longwy, historically, was the industrial centre of Lorraine’s iron mining district. And that’s probably all we need to say on the subject. Being a Monday, everything was closed, and we searched in vain for a welcoming , character-filled French restaurant. Eventually, starving hungry, we tossed up between driving on to Belgium or resorting to a double cheeseburger at Mackers. I won’t dwell on the results. However, we later found a lovely spot for coffee in the town square at Arlon, where we also discovered a rather splendid church, St Martin’s, whose Gothic spire stands out above the small town like a beacon. Followed by a half hour drive home.

Not the most glorious afternoon’s entertainment, but we did, after all, achieve our goal to visit four countries in two days. Mission accomplished!

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Landing in Luxembourg

IMG_8366As we flew over Luxembourg last week, we were thrilled to observe that the countryside had been lightly dusted with snow.  I was reminded, inconsequentially, of that classic Aussie film ‘The Castle’ and Sal’s dab hand with the icing sugar. As we pulled up to the terminal in our tiny prop plane, a few snowflakes skittered, teasing, past the windows, but refused to settle. We dragged on layers – woollen jumpers, coats, hats, gloves that have not seen the light of day in years – and scampered across the icy tarmac to the warm arrivals hall. “Wëllkomm, willkommen and bienvenue!”

What a very different landscape from the hot, humid concrete world of Manila. Here there are no madcap buses or jam-packed jeepneys honking furiously. No barefoot kids are begging on street corners, nor are there touts selling snacks to passing motorists. No forests of high-rise buildings stretch to the clouds like Jack’s beanstalk. There are no street stalls selling balut on the cracked pavements, nor swarms of motorbikes dodging and weaving through the traffic. Brightly colours billboards, huge shopping malls or shanty towns there are none.

When we left Manila in early December, we headed for London, to catch up with friends and family and to celebrate our first cold Christmas in years. It was a strange buffer-state month of long brisk walks and boozy lunches amidst endless administrative emails, as we continued to wrap up one life and reinvent a new one, not to mention the logistics of choreographing a family of five again. So what with all the activity, and a sickly computer, this is actually the first time I have sat down to write anything longer than a shopping list in weeks. The lack of writing tools has made me feel incredibly flustered and discombobulated, as I seem to need to write about my impressions of the world around me to keep my head in order.

So here we are, in Luxembourg at last, and I have already signed up for French classes in an attempt to polish up language skills that have grown rusty and dusty from neglect. (“Mon cerreau est rouillé”). I fear I will need gallons of boot polish and elbow grease to get back to any useful standard. Thankfully the locals seem to speak reasonable English, as well as French, German and their native Luxembourgish, for which I am grateful, although, it does make me feel most inadequate!

Luxembourg, in case you have never been introduced, is a small, neat, mediaeval city, at the southern end of a small,IMG_8362 neat country of the same name. Covering an area of only 999 square miles, it is a pocket-sized land of fairy tales castles, fortresses and deep dark woods, wedged snuggly between the borders of Belgium, France and Germany. Like piggy-in-the-middle, Luxembourg has been frequently invaded, squabbled over and swapped like the properties on the Monopoly board. Its original perimeters have shrunk considerably, too, as its neighbours played snatch and grab at its borders. Over the centuries, Luxembourg has been ruled by all and sundry: Kings of France and the Netherlands, Burgundy, Bohemia and Spain, not to mention the Hapsburgs and three Holy Roman Emperors. It finally gained its independence in 1839, only to be occupied by Germany during both World Wars.

This role as a lowly pawn on the political chessboard of continental Europe obviously wore thin centuries ago, reflected in its motto ‘we want to remain what we are.’ Luxembourg has therefore chosen to take a lead role in modern politics, as a founding member of NATO and the European Economic Community, the United Nations and the EU. Financially, too, it has become a heavyweight, and is now almost the richest country in the world, second only to Qatar. Today, this Lilliputian realm that would fit twenty five times into Tasmania, is the last Grand Duchy in the world, with a constitutional monarchy, currently headed by the Grand Duke Henri, and a democratically elected Prime Minister, Xavier Bittel.

As you can see, I have learned a bit about my new home already, largely thanks to a visit to the Luxembourg City History Museum and a fascinating walking tour of the old town. Despite freezing fingers and toes, our group of five (four nurses and me) cheerfully followed our informative guide through the cobbled streets, soaking up the history of this charming city with its medieval fortifications balanced upon sheer cliffs, its broad,
IMG_8368pedestrianised boulevards reminiscent of Paris, and its generous collection of Baroque and Gothic churches. And the city centre is wrapped about in a thick scarf of parks and woodland that will undoubtedly look even better when the trees are properly dressed. By the end of the tour, damp and cold, I wandered into a cheese shop to thaw out and taste a local Riesling – a worthy restorative! – from the Moselle Valley, the Luxembourg stretch.

So for two weeks I have walked the length and breadth of the city, testing my new winter coat and my stamina for chilly winds. One weekend we discovered an ice rink on Le Place Guillaume II, where we watched small kids learning to skate with the aid of plastic chairs, while their elders  huddled round the braziers and cuddled cups of mulled wine for warmth. By midweek this winter wonderland had been replaced by a twice-weekly produce market, where rugged souls braved the cold for fresh vegetables and French cheeses. We found a hot chocolate shop opposite the Palace, and sat outside with rugs on our knees, sipping luxuriously and somewhat guiltily as we watched the poor guard stomping cold feet back and forth past the tables. The cold temperatures have been challenging, but I love the ability to walk everywhere without dripping with sweat. Yet I find am already missing the Filipino smiles. The locals are perfectly friendly but they don’t smile much – although, to give them the benefit of the doubt, temperatures have been consistently below zero since we arrived, so smiling isn’t easy with frozen cheeks and lips! I have made a point of smiling a lot, but they stare back at me in horror, obviously thinking I am quite crazy. Ah well, perhaps I am!

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First Impressions

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Icy air bites at fingertips and ears
with teeth as sharp as a kitten’s
Talcum-soft snowflakes drift down through the lamplight
to kiss naked branches, car bonnets, tongues
Church spires and clock towers
sketch a fairy tale silhouette on a bleached sky
Audacious stone bridges
leap like gazelles over deep gorges
Skeletal trees  grimly shiver
preoccupied with dreams of spring weddings
A frozen weekend market
clutters the grand designs of a cobbled city square
Stained glass of claret-red, cobalt-blue and shamrock-green,
throbs in the narrow arched windows of Baroque cathedrals.

Soldes” signs march crisply across every shop window
Walking eiderdowns march crisply down broad boulevards
Bundles of feathers squat disconsolately on the frozen pond, craving skates?
Bundles of fabric squat disconsolately on glacial pavements, craving ciggies
Lonely tables cower under windswept awnings, craving the summer crowds
Lone men pace and puff like steam trains on the pavements outside the bars.

And we stroll on, hands deep in our pockets,
regarding this strange new world with awe:
A world where all senses seem muted,
like a silent, black and white movie,
bar the sound of winter boots clipping the cobblestones.

 

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