Friday, 9 November 2012

Work starts today

Just on our way down through Rome towards the conference centre. Stopped for a delicious coffee at a v stylish place called 2Periodico, where they have wifi, hence this quick post. Sunny morning. We are in light clothing, most of the locals are in thick autumnal jackets etc.
A man on the bus this morning was very OCD, polishing his mobile phone over and over again.
Andrew courteously gave his seat up for a tiny nun who beamed at him, really beamed.
It's been a great week, even counting the terrible toothache and nausea which afflicted me. With the help of the nice Dr Rivabella, my gums are nearly back to normal and no pain.
We emptied the flat ok - took the rubbish out, packed everything up.  It was a pretty good place to stay apart from having no wifi and no hairdryer, but in a nice district surrounded by DENTISTS!!!!!
In an hour or so, we'll be immersed in the world of JuicePlus+

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Exterior excitement, inner calm

Another fantastic day of sunshine in this amazing city. We went by bus to the Coliseum area, stopping to peer over the imperial fori (not very well labelled, as that would take away trade from the tour-companies). We saw a couple of real archaeologists scrabbling down by the stones.
The Coliseum itself is now distanced from the terrifying swirl of traffic which used to brush around its feet... we had a leisurely stroll around, and stopped to peer inside, but were led away towards the greenery nearby. This will sound very ignorant to real lovers of Roman antiquity - but the building, financed by the sack of Judea and a monument to the public and purposeful spilling of blood for so long, is not really a very attractive place in my opinion. The slaves and failures, Christians and prisoners, wild beasts and forced gladiators were whipped into the arean with weighted thongs while the crowd, separated into their appropriate classes bayed for their death. The sawdust was mixed with ground coloured rock to mask the blood. Perfume was sprayed to deflect the stench of blood (and shit and fear)..... horrible.
We had a coffee nearby and then into one of the most wondrous, most memorable places I have ever been. This is the church of San Clemente, a little 12th C basilica church now run by Dominicans - and where for some reason in the mid 19thC, someone decided to dig underneath.  They found a whole 4th  C church almost intact, complete with wondrous frescoes and an altar piece.  Then, a few years later, someone else decided to go down even futher, and found two houses - one a kind of public space with little alcoves (shops?) and a pair of water sources.... the other a complete little Mithraic temple. Amazing.
How much more interesting and uplifting than the bloody old Coliseum.
Then a tram ride, so Andrew was v pleased.
More wandering - around the Palatine Hill,back to the Piazza Venezia and a poor choice on my part for lunch - just a bit bland and watery and an aggressive waiter pointing out that service was not included in the bill. Sigh.
On we went, the the Trevi Fountain - ah, wonders of wonders..... really a fun place to sit.
Then along to the Spanish Steps, which I saw as a child...
And along the Via dei Babuin, past all the luxy shops and boutiques, and found the amazing English Anglican Church, built in 1883 in the English Gothic style, red brick and dark inside.  In fact, as you get used to it, it gradually lightens.  It was SO peaceful in there. Very English. We might have been in Enfield!  What made it English? Dunno.  The hymn numbers up on the chancel arch. A polite notice asking people to put the chairs back where they came from. Memorials to various old colonial bishops. 
I suddenly realised, this was the most serene, peaceful place we have been during the whole week.
And when we finally left and headed home for a quiet afternoon reading on our sunny balcony, I was looking at all the buildings with their rugged stonework and massive rustications and quoins and window surrounds - everything you see here is EXTERNAL. It's all to do with a show. Like the ridiculously decorative policemen and officials everwhere, the sirens, the shouting, the gesticulations, etc.  Even the beggars are highly theatrical. They pray. They mutter. They put on a show.
Tonight is the end of our holiday. We are going to EUR tomorrow, for the big JuicePlus conference. Off for a quiet supper now and then home to pack.
I hope we have wifi in the hotel! Then I don't have to seek out these cafes to send you my further bulletins.

Fortress, popes, English walkers

The Castel Sant'Angelo could present a thoroughly brooding venue beside the Tiber, but because the day was so sunny and bright, we wandered around it feeling  quite light-hearted. The bridge beside it, adorned with Bernini's ten statues is sublime, especially when you have two beautiful grey police horses in attendance, their great hooves slithering  on the black cobbles as they quietly paced to and fro.  On either side, street vendors offer interminable shawls, wooden alphabet trains, dancing plastic Minnie Mouse things, and the chance to have your photo taken holding three budgerigars.

The great Castel', built originally as a mausoleum for Hadrian, was subsequently transformed into a fortress, palace, prison and now tourist opportunity. The huge internal ramp which must have allowed the Romans to get horses up inside it, is still intact and the whole thing quite a structure to explore. Slightly Gormenghasty. The views from the top are  fantastic, especially under a clear blue sky.  A true panorama. Various  popes embellished it over the centuries and it has marvellous internal decor in the grand rooms. They still have a safe walkway from the Vatican all the way into the castle, though perhaps in the days of helicopters not so necssary.

We walked across the bridge into the old city, found a trat for lunch, and were joined by a party of eight English men, all from a walking group in Farnham. Their gauleiter, Maurice, had made them go twenty miles that morning, they said.  Very jolly. Our lunch was delicious - mussels for Andrew and spinach risotto for me.

Then more walking through the antique-shop district, very pretty, getting an ice-cream for A at the Gelateria dei Teatro.... Then up to the gardens of the Villa Borghese, which I think is the prettiest park I have ever visited. Huge, undulating, filled with people doing various things - not just walking  or playing, but riding wonderful jalopy-shaped cycling cars, like the 'Surrey with a fringe on top', bowling along at top speed. Or golf cars. Or those things whose name escapes me a this precise moment which you stand on and  they roll along electrically.....   or horse and cart, or bike, or moped.  And parakeets tweeting about in the trees, and  with lakes, fountains, vistas, bridges, cafes, view-points, avenues, shrubberies - absolutely delightful. It proved impossible to get entry to the gallery as it's all booked in advance but we can do that another time.   It's a long  way back to the noise of the outside world. We waited for ages  for bus, in the company of a mad man who capered about like an early 16th century dancing master, clicking and puffing, and growling  at us.  Very odd.
It was especially nice that in the park you could not  hear the bloody sirens which are otherwise incessant in the city - wherever you go, nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw..... Horrible.

Home on a bus to our apartment to crash out and make supper.  I am still filled with gratitude at the pain receding from my teeth - in fact they still feel  like a row of mews cottages  inside my mouth, but not so exquisitely tender.  And I am filled with gratitude that Obama was re-elected. I do not often allow politics to intrude on my works, but Romney's victory would have been bad news for all of us, especially those not in America....

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Great morning

After waking at 5 am (mosquito alert) and taking an ibuprofen for this horrendous toothache, I find this is the first mornin g  I have not  had excruciating pain  and I feel like  a real person again. Also VERY cheered up by text from my friend Val to say Mitt Romney conceded to Obama at 6am, so he has been reelected.  Our access to news  in the apartment is very limited - there are hundreds of channels mostly devoted to quizshows (with huge supporting casts of scantily clad young people) plus on Discovery Channel showing How It's Made (juke boxes, Canadian ice-hockey helmets, glass bottles and  sparking plugs). We cand find no news channels or weather  info.  There is one rather nice radio channel playing  classical music, each item topped and  tailed with a sober announcement of what the music is and  who the performers are.  Very  nice.

Thinking of sounds - the streets here are filled with the clamour of sirens almost constantly. Occasionally  you get peals of church bells too. But this obession with sirens is extraordinary. Here's another one - ee-ah, ee-ah. ee-ah, ee-ah.....  And then another one, a loud droning waaaaaahhhhhhh with accompanying nee-nee, nee-nee, nee-nee...    It's deafening.

They have another malice. Apparently to make it easier for wheelchair users to get  along, they've created numerous ramps on the kerbsides but these are very narrow and surrounded by uplifted slopes and crevices, so that to line up properly requires everyone else nearby to move away, and then a huge manoeuvring up and down for the poor wheelchair-pusher.  Not  good design.

Talking of which, just before I left, I did a free numerology  test online and it was surprisingly accurate,  including saying I would be fascinated by design all my life - which I am.  Not what I expected at all.  Hmmn.

Yesterday, after a second visit to the nice dentist to pick up a prescription for antibiotics, we went  to that  part of Rome called Trastevere - 'the other side of the Tiber' and wandered around... it's a bit  Soho-ey, or arty. Very gentle  day. Lunch provided a little extra treat - a local cod speciality - salted, soaked for 3 days, then coated in a very light batter and deep fried. Delicious.   later in the  Campo dei Fiori I had a mocha chocolate - divine.  But the Farnese Palace was closed.   We went home early, because I was feeling so bloody washed out.  I went to bed and shivered, and then we had  another of our  home-made suppers - packet soup and a Ryvita - poor me, poor me.  I have been feeling so nauseous I can't face any more than that.     We have not seen 'puttanesca' sauce anywhere in Rome, maybe the restauranteurs fear censorious churchy people - anyway, I can tell  you, it's not  promoted anywhere.

So - this report is a bit  flat - as we had  such a quiet day  yesterday....   Today more walking and  a cheery heart  due to Mr Obama's victory.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Root canal

Rome is quite a hard city - no compromises for the halt and lame. Beggars outside every church and dotted along the pavements. Some adopt pious attitudes - as if in silent prayer all day. Some just rattle a tin at you. Some hobble about on crutches, with their palsy or staggering or shaking as their main proposal. There are masses and masses and masses of Indian umbrella-sellers, who appear as if by magic at the first spot of rain.

The traffic is nothing like a scary as we had been led to expect - in fact, if you try to cross somewhere, the cars will mostly make way for you. The parking is hilarious - higgledy-piggledy does not describe it.  The River Tiber, deep in its ancient channel, is garlanded with lovely plane trees - not the London plane, I think - but something with a small bark-patterning. Most of the leaves are still on.

The universal tourist map does have bus numbers and routes on it, but the typography is very old fashioned and difficult to identify. Still, we are getting to grips with metro and bus (despite Andrew's mugging).

Where do you start in such a place. We got to the Pantheon - and OMIGOD!!!!!!!  Thank you, universe, just for letting me see this one remarkable building.   it survives from the days of Hadian because someone said the Christians could have it as a church - so it was not ransacked like most of the other antiquities which were mosly (let's face it) quarries for later generations.   It was actually raining while we were there, so we could observe the drifts of raindrops falling in from the great oculus in the ceiling. That is the only light and ventilation in the temple. The walls are 20' thick so windows would have been useless..... They say, it could not now be built using the original materials, as the skills have been lost. A marvel.

We walked and walked, had lunch in an ok place, walked and walked, found the S Maria sopra Minerva to see the Fre Filippino Lippi altarpiece (so beautful and a nice little earner as you have to keep putting a euro in the meter to turn the lighting on).   We escaped the rain by going into the Galleria Doria Pamphilij - swoon, swoon...... how lovely, still in private ownership, stuffed to the ceiling with treasures - Titian, Caravaggion, Breughel, Lippi, Berenini, on and on - the portrait by Velasquez of the family Pope I did once see in London - and here it sits next to the Bernini portrait bust - at home, as it were.... astonishing.  Oh I loved it.

Back to the flat - via a dentist!!!! He recommended I have the root canal taken out - was going to charge me nothing but we paid anyway - a nice man, anglophile and fluent in English, and just 100m from our apartment. Today I have called in to see him again for a prescription for antibiotics, as the inflammation and pain have not really diminished overnight. Itàs a sunny morning, we have come to Trasvetere to mooch. I am in a teeshirt (all the locals in thick jackets). These postings will be short as I have to write while online....

Monday, 5 November 2012

No wifi in the flat

Adventure! The minute we got on the metro in Rome, Andrew was pickpocketed and lost one of his wallets. He went after the suspect, but of course the man pointed elsewhere and said 'Zingaro!' meaning 'Gypsy'..... It was so fast. Really slick. Luckily it was just cards, and no cash. I spent 20 mins on the phone when we got  to our rendezvous with  the landlord - cancelling all the cards, and hereby give PROFOUND thanks to our super-efficient son who rang all the banks and done the biz.

We waited ages for the landlord  to arrive, watching the black  handbag sellers, deafened by the police sirens which seem to start  up every 5 minutes  (all  those pickpockets to chase after, I expect). The  police love to run processions through the  streets  at top speed, with motorbike outriders and buses full  of smartly-dressed men being hustled through the traffic. Who are they? Footballers? Politicians? Pimps?

Our flat is on the 7th floor, not far from the Vatican, balconies back and front, and charmingly meagrely furnished. Clean and comfortable.  No hairdryer, no cheese-grater, no kettle, otherwise very good.  We walked to St Peter's and stood amazed in the  rain, and  we went to a local supermercado and bought pasta  and stuff, and made supper when we got back.

I have got toothache - broken tooth - aaagh - I rang the insurance just now and I'm covered for treatment but now I have to find a dentist. Oil of cloves is not bad as a temporary pain-killer.

Saturday, 3 November 2012


Tonight in Faversham it's crispy dark with stars faintly speckling the sky. They may be magnificent but they are distant and veiled. Their glory tonight is outshone by the rockets which swoosh up from moment to moment, from bonfire parties around the town.
The profound pagan meanings of these few nights - the end of the old year with it's pain and fear - and the welcome of the new - whether expressed in moderne alternative poetry or Catholic liturgy - all this is mostly squandered and lost.  People just want a traditional fire and fireworks.
We have been for a glass of wine with friends along the road - Tony and Deborah. Their lives are dedicated to music and painting and their house is exquisitely furnished with Georgian things appropriate to the style of the house.
We are going to Rome tomorrow and went to ask them what places they recommended we should see - as they are both quite expert in the ways of the City.
They recommended the Borghese Palace, the Castello Angelo, the Villa Giulia, the Palatine Hill, the Museum of Modern (ie 19thC) Art, and a few other places.
Tony says how dark Rome is, the undertones.
We also spoke about the Mani - their friends who have a tower house there, and the influence of Patrick Leigh Fermor - regular readers of this travel blog will know how much I revere PLF.  Apparently, last year, Tony happened to meet up with a German Naval commander in a back street cafe in Chania - this chap knew nothing of PLF and the capture of General Kreipe (Ill Met By Moonlight) - said it was all rubbish!
Well, tomorrow night at this time we should be in Rome. I will have a second writing obligation on this trip as I have entered the 'Write a Novel in November' competition, and have to complete 50,000 words by 29th.  I think the novel will suddenly now have to be set partly in Rome as I find travel so inspiring, but it may mean having to curtail the blog to get the novel written.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Well, I apologise to all my readers who expected the usual day-by-day account of our travels in Dalmatia - but due to weird keyboard experiences and very difficult internet access, I just gave up. Now that we're back home I can summarise a bit for you.
Some observations.
The rock formations along the coast of Croatia look rather nice from a short distance - you can see the squidgy effects, the folding and sheering, the slumping and erosion. It makes the rocks look a bit like toffee, or some other malleable stuff. But the fact is, the closer you get, the harder and more unrelenting the material is. In fact, it is extremely hard, gritty, scratchy and painful if you get your skin (or your boat) anywhere near it.
Compared with our visit last year and a couple of times before that - admittedly in an area we had not been to before - I think the development rash is spreading along the beauteous coast... there are more houses, more apartments, more building projects, extensions to marinas, etc.    It is startling what a relief it is to find a stretch of coast without any houses on it. Some are in fact settled with ancient buildings - a little church, or a monastery, or maybe a farm building - but these have weathered and sunk into the landscape, and do not poke themselves forward with bright paint, smooth concrete, etc.
We visited two separate waterfall systems during the week - both worth visiting, if you have the chance. The first (as reported) was at Plitvice - up in the mountains and forests, where there is an absolutely extraordinary sequence of large lakes and smaller pools which seem to be held in place by enormous natural vertical dams. The water finds its way down either in cascades over these dams, or through sinkholes, or sometimes just by flowing over the ground over the roots of trees. The dams are forming in front of your eyes by the calcification of anything that crops up in the lakes - fallen trees, little animals, whatever. This rock-formation leads to that lovely marbley kind of stone called travertine - which is used in grand buildings like my beloved Bush House.
The other waterfalls were near Skradin on the R Krka (there's a name for you), and are more normal - that is to say, the angle of the river's descent is about 30 degrees, and the water tumbles down as you would expect. Both of the parks where these marvels are to be found are well run, with access by bus, boat, what-have-you. There are clean loos, cafes, etc. and I think it would be advisable to go a bit out of season if you can, as the numbers visiting are colossal.
The Croat language is hilarious - either the letters form into something reminding you of a funny English word such as 'slob' or 'slag', or alternatively the letters are arranged in totally unpronounceable sequences of zfjkvlnzjs with the addition of various accents and diacriticals, and I found myself just boggling at the whole thing.
It was a relief to find that voda = water, and pekari = bakery, and I just hope that these two words at least arrived in the Croatian language by a kind of English pidgin, perhaps thus: "I said, bring me a glass of WATER!"  "Ah, ladksfjsdl, skf, gjksl, VODA!"    And, "Can you tell me, where can I buy bread? I'm looking for a BAKERY!" "Ah, skjfhdkl, sk gng n slob PEKARI!"
There is no shortage of pointy, shiny, fast speedy boats knocking about down there, and we could only imagine what sort of people might be in them - Russians, for the most part, I imagine.
Yesterday we saw a very interesting little group.  We had arrived back at the marina in Split, and our skipper was refuelling (to leave the tank full of diesel to minimise the risk of condensations during the idle winter months). We had to wait for another boat to finish - this was an inflatable, but my! what a boat. Long, sleek, light.  There were five people on it, a grey-haired American guy, on the phone arranging for his bank card to be activated. He was serious, cool, quiet, quite alarming in some ways... powerful.  The others were two guys and two girls, all in their late 20s, mostly in camouflage gear, they looked purposeful too.    As they finished up with their fuelling and set off across the huge bay towards Hvar, they went tremendously fast - really faster than anything I've ever seen on the water. And their boat left  NO WAKE.   The fuelling guy told us, they were from the Norwegian Army.
So, what is the Norwegian Army doing in Croatia? That little crew, on their very fast rib, which leaves no wake..... on a Monday afternoon in September.  I love it.
Top pleasures of the week in no particular order - walking round Trogir - a World Heritage city - SO BEAUTIFUL - do go and see it - it's only a bus ride up from Split Airport.
Listening to Klappa Music here and there - it's a kind of random busking thing - a small group of harmonising singers, sometimes m and f, sometimes just m, standing in an echoey doorway and just sending out this marvellous music.... a cross between Portuguese fado and Welsh Male Voice Choir, or maybe something like Ladysmith.....  Really lovely.
Swimming with NOTHING ON in the sea - a completely liberating feeling - as a middle-aged woman I am so conscious of the need to be covered, in our society - being undressed is a sign of looseness, or shamefulness.  And yet, paradoxically, if you are naked you must be beautiful (young) and so being slack, or fat, or with vein-marks, or wobbly in any way - this makes you feel you cannot be naked - and I am caught both ways. But, to be on a boat in a remote place, and no-one looking - ah! the pleasure, of swimming, of feeling unconstrained..... it is wonderful.
We ate simply wonderful food.  The price of restaurants is amazingly low, the way the currencies are at the moment. For instance, we had a wonderful and memorable meal last night, 4 of us, with a litre of wine and bottles of water, and ample amounts of delicious fishes of various kinds, risotto, lasagne, salad and vegetables, and marvellous home-made breads, etc.... and it all came to £36.... that was in quite a luxy restaurant, by the sea (at the Ballet School, if you are interested, at the end of the Kastela Bay, which is west of Split).
The waters remain clear and sparkling. The people are friendly and getting on with their lives - we saw SO MANY young couples and families, and little children.  The churches are full. The streets are clean. Lots of people speak English, or will find someone who can.  It's a very nice place... 

Friday, 7 September 2012

The real deal

Writing on Friday night, reporting on Thursday and Friday as well.
Six hours voyage out of Preko - mostly with diesel but with some wonderful sailing when the wind co-operated (not dead on the nose). I slept for some of it, looked for dolphins, pondered on my sailing life as a human cushion (totally inactive as a crew member), and enjoying the beauty of the scene.
We saw a huge storm gathering over Italy, and brilliant planning ducked straight into Prvic - one of the sweetest, prettiest, most conveniently placed islands in the Adriatic.
We moored up without difficulty, walked along to Sepurine (swoony nice), and back again.
Met some Australians along the way who were on a swimming holiday - breast-stroking from island to island, with their luggage carted along for them, and B&B catering which they loved
Today (compressing the story due to annoying computer buggery), we went from to see the inland lakes and waterfalls at Skradin - via a kind of fjord - and eventually at a monastery on an island - v beautiful but with execrable art - one is left almost speechless.
Supper tonight ended with delicious rose-water flavoured brandy - not much to be said for the rest of the meal which was cheap but boring - not even worth sending back.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Food things

Fact: in Zagreb, I lost a filling (privately paid for just a few weeks ago, very expensive), while I was eating SCRAMBLED EGGS.
Fact: I have not sent a plate of food back to a restaurant kitchen for about 40 years - not my style - but in the last 3 days I have sent three dishes of food back. In Plitvice, my crisply grilled trout was accompanied by cold soggy chips - I sent it back, and the plate returned from the microwave, with hot soggy chips and dried soggy trout.  I refused to say how pleased I was, so they cooked me another one.
In Zadar, in a very nice resto near the Five Wells, where the others in my party had delicious food, my octopus salad was bland and a bit off - I did not eat it, the waiter enquired, so I told the truth..... only to be told that the chef said it was all fresh......
At lunch yesterday, I ordered sepia risotto and was brought shellfish - I sent it back, encouraged by the others (three complaints in a row).... the sepia, when it finally arrived, was wonderful.
The garden and field crops here have all suffered from drought and extreme heat this summer. Many people have no tomatoes (though the grapes and figs look pretty good). I think we will have riots based on expensive food prices this next year.... the harvests in America and Russia came to nothing. All the big revolutionary periods in history, I am told, were preceded by food shortages.
Today we are off south....

Night lightning

We had a wonderful thunderstorm during the night. I was SO pleased to be tucked up warm and dry in the boat. Andrew and I nipped out of bed and closed all the portholes etc., and then lay there watching the stupendous flashes above us, and listening to the rain lashing down on the deck.  There had been some heroic work during the latter part of the evening to get the guest cabin heads to work - and this was achieved! The problem was some sort of blocked inlet valve - but lordy! the relief! That if I needed a pee in the night I did not have to go out into that great storm, across the tiny little wet gangplank, in the dark, and then all round the whole marina to get to the public loos.  Blessings, blessings and eternal gratitude to the two Andrews who worked out what was wrong and how to fix it.
Actually, what with the rocking of the boat, and the storm, and the muggy air, it was not a great night's sleep, but who's complaining? Not me.
In the morning we sat here, rocking gently on our mooring, having a gentle breakfast, deciding not to go out of the port today - all the other mariners were deciding the same thing because of the forecasts....
We had lunch with some of the Cruising Association committee who had gathered here - what a hoot! Then we two went out with Andrew (host) in his rubber dinghy to visit the little monastery just 80m away in the bay - Gaveka??? - where there is a tiny monastery, and the grave of a hero called Ivo Masim who lived from 1927-1961 and was strangled in prison for opposing Tito...    So he was only about 34 when he died, and his statues around here show him looking like a bit of a rocker.  He is buried in a beautiful place.
We have just now done a goodly walk round to the western tip of the island  - lovely boat mooring all along, and children playing in the water, and tiny beaches, and palm trees, and occasional ice-cream cafes, and ruined houses, and new villas and apartments.... so calm and idyllic with the wide reach over to Zadar lit by this pearly putty-coloured light.
We had a drink at the Olive Island marina - ladies' loo approached through a very dark and dank passageway and then with a hard-to-find lightswitch at the very far end....  
And we walked back again through the little smallholdings, olive groves, vineyards, gardens... with families relaxing in the dusk. Here you can be simultaneously in a kind of medieval world with a 21st century gloss... the modern is not necessarily so attractive, in comparison.
It will be an early night for me. I am zonked.
However, for any readers who know about the Juice Plus+ Smiley you will be pleased to know we have hit the full smile three days running, with all this trekking about.  Ha!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

You know what its' like

I am seizing any chance to post - but this opportunity is only a little window....
We are now on the Lady Olivia, our friends' beautiful yacht, anchored in the marina at Preko on the island of Uglian, off Zadar, on the north Croatian coast.  It is unbelievably beautiful.
We had a smooth bus journey down from the forest fastnesses of Plitvice this morning, on a cheeky private coach service which arrived shortly before the scheduled bus - a bit quicker, a bit smaller, a bit whizzier.....   All good, apart from the passengers who insisted on having the curtains closed (to keep the intermittent sunshine out), but thus obscuring the spectacular views of our journey down from the heights.
Please, if you have a chance, make this journey. It's cheap, easy, and wonderful.
We got to Zadar, met up with our friends, rushed inside to shelter from a massive rainstorm which hit (thank GOD we were not on the boat at this time)... Had lunch, mooched, visited some churches and shops, bought a drain-scouring implement to help clear the heads on the visitors' cubicle (:-(   )    We went to see the famous sea-organ on the quay - invisible but creating magic soft noises as waves hit the pier... like a huge harmonica, and with little children lying on the white marble paving shouting back into the cavernous spaces beneath and hearing their calls magnified and echoing back. Delightful.
The ferry out to the island is like a mini version of the Dover-Calais but ro-ro, and quiet and smooth and magic.
We just walked round to the marina, and here we are.  All of them (3) can pee during the night without much trouble, our hosts in their heads and A over the side.  I, if needs be, must walk thousands of yards round to the marina toilets..... Poor me.  Tomorrow the guys will try to unblock the lav in the guest heads.
I will just add this.  This morning, before we left the hotel in Plitvice, we saw on CNN news a weather forecast with a HUGE storm over Italy - massive, with tornadoes.......   coming over Italy and heading for where we are.   Truly, a big hurricane shaped depression. I should have photographed the screen.   It is coming this way. I have mentioned it to our hosts, and they are looking at the maritime forecasts.... but, at this moment, on this idyllic boat on this idyllic evening, I am WORRIED.  I can't pee in the night, and I will be in a huge storm tomorrow.  
But, you know, it's ok.  I can do nothing about any of these things. The air is warm. The sea at present is glassy calm. The supper is cooking.   The view is spectacular.   Really, truly, stunningly beautiful. Ancient. Wild. Wide. Soft.  Hard.  Mysterious.  Fantastic.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Filling in some details

Why is queuing so tiring? Why does Easyjet not allow you to check in when you arrive? We got there early and ended up in a 70 minute queue which developed while we were waiting to be allowed to queue....  Grrrr.

Met friends from Faversham inside the 'Paradise' beyond the security scanners... first time that's ever happened.

Flight good - we are getting this down to a fine art... Buy your picnic from Boots in the airport, the sushi is a very good option btw.  No gluten, delicious, no mess. Sit near the back - quieter, and smaller queues for the loos, for some reason.

Zagreb - ah! This is Tintin land - I mean, the look of the place reminds me of the settings in Eastern Europe which I pored over as a child, following the amazing adventures of the young journalist as he chased spies and other villains.  Big Victorian facades, avenues, parks, etc.  Very helpful people who conferred about where we should stay... recommending the very excellent Hotel Centar, near the train station (we had arrived by bus from the airport). So we got a tram (Andrew in heaven), didn't pay because no shops open to sell us tickets.  Hotel very good and recommended. The breakfast next day was terrific.

Walked about - went into the Cathedral where they were in the middle of Mass - the place was packed out, lovely singing, lots of very devout people.   A drink, a meal, wandering around, getting our tram tickets at the station ready for morning departure.....  Excellent place.

The bus to Plitvice yesterday was quiet and comfortable - an hour through the suburbs and plains and then up into the hills...misty twisty.  They say there are bears and wolves up here...maybe not v visible from tourist hotels and pathways. The hotel here would not let us eat outside on the pretty terrace (is it subject to attack by bears?). 

We took the land-train up to the upper lakes - a huge Mercedes tractor-bus pulling two other carriages, but something was surely wrong, the gears were grinding away as if the brakes were on.    Then we walked down - miles and miles of wooden causeway around the dozens of crystal-clear lakes, this causeway is really an amazing structure - made me think of Flag Fen near Peterborough - but this one took two hours to walk.  Easy to stumble, and no hand-rails. How I love it with no health and safety features. It's like the old days. This is an amazing place, well worth the effort to get here, and everyone should do it.... the walk round the lake is not for anyone with poor eyesight or mobility. Actually, access for disabled here is pretty terrible.  We saw two families with buggies going the route - bonkers.


Internet access problems prompts v short posting. We like Zagreb - spacious parks, pretty bandstand, radiant cathedral, friendly atmosphere. The Hotel Centar is marvellous, cheap, clean, central, with excellent service and full breakfast.     A very nice old steam engine is on display outside the railway station.
We made it to the bus station this morning, a helpful old lady (local but lived last 45 years in  Australia) made sure we were on the right bus.
2 hours brought us to the National Park - where there are still bears and wolves. We checked into the functional and pretentious but practical Hotel Jezero - had to wait for room, couldn't have lunch on terrace, two different kinds of risotto - shellfish and mushroom - both had copious quantities of the SAME gravy poured on top, urgh...
BUT we strolled into the park, had a delicious ice cream, rode on the 'train'  up winding roads to the top of the lakes and then walked down MILES of wooden causeway-footpath to see lots of waterfalls and lakes (enough).
Supper back at the Jezero was - what? I sent mine back - haven't done that for 40 years - waiter v sweet but it was all pretty horrible.  V tired, off to sleep now.
Down to Zadar in the morning.

Saturday, 1 September 2012


We're off again in the morning to Croatia. Flying to Zagreb - and the plan is to take the bus down to Zadar, calling at the lakes in Plitvic en route. Then we're meeting up with our friends and taking a week to sail down to Split. 
We had an email from them last night - the weather has changed. Oh dear! Is it autumn already in the Adriatic too? The landscape here is looking distinctly ahead of itself - the way the light falls on the land, the trees just on the point of turning - the sort of look I associate with the end of September rather than the beginning.
So I hope we do manage to catch a bit of summery heat on the boat, and not too many storms. I am looking forward to swimming in the sea - maybe with no clothes on in quiet places, and staring at the finny fish in those clear pelucid waters. I doubt they will stare back at me.
As usual, a kind of pre-travel panic is starting to set in. I am so ill-prepared - just remembered to put some vital clothing through the wash this morning. We spent the last 3 days in Brighton, helping our son and his girl move into their new house. It's very pretty, Victorian, and will be a great place for them - but the previous owners managed to smash more or less every door in the place, and a considerable portion of the bannister rods.  So our visit was all about ripping up filthy old flooring, washing down walls, mending these doors, carting out rubbly stuff which emerged from under the vinyl, sweeping, making tea and meals, washing up with no hot water, all that sort of thing.  Really good - and tiring too.
One great thing is that their new house is just off the Lewes Road, where there are lots of shops selling ethnic food (are we allowed to say 'ethnic' still?) So, wonderful dates and baclava from the Turkish shop, fresh spices from Pakistan, fruits which you barely ever see anywhere else, hot Algerian bread and freshly cooked falafels, packs of the most amazing olives, a ffoodie paradise. Lucky young couple!
Anyway, here we are, packing and tidying the house, doing admin, checking maps, passports, etc.
Outside, the extraordinary Faversham Hop Festival is in full swing - bines on sale, stilt-walkers stalking the crowds, people drinking beer in copious quantities, loud loud music coming from platforms, Morris dancers clacking about, people with faces blacked up like sweeps, all having a jolly time.
It's pretty surreal when you come to think about it. 
So - now - off to make lists, water the potplants in the garden, empty the bins, that sort of thing.
I will do my best to keep you up to date with the blog as we go - not sure how often I can reach the internet.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Photos from the French trip

You can now see some photos from our French trip on Facebook. I will try to get them installed into the text of the blog itself, but that will take a little time.
Meanwhile, many of the places and events described can be seen if you click France 2012:

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Scratchetty ratchetty

When you are in your cheapie, modern hotel, with air-conditioning and your best beloved, you have this opportunity for FALLING OUT.  Is the room intolerably hot, or not? Is the fan intolerably loud, or not? Is it FAIR PLAY to change the mode while the other one is asleep, or not? Eh?  The only thing I can say is, we were both actually alive in the morning when we woke up, and not dead, which is something.

Breakfast in these Etaps/Ibis Budget hotels has been pared down to a simple, excellent service. The orange juice from the machine is delicious. The muesli is unsweetened (hooray!) There are various  yoghurts in the tiny fridge, including unsweetened (hooray!) There is a good selection of breads and brioches to choose from, and the marmalade (which comes in a long thin plastic squeezey tube) is very good indeed.  Well done!   They should apply the same careful thought to the weird lighting arrangement for the toilets in the rooms.  The light goes on automatically when you go in, and then goes out, and leaves you sitting in the dark and no means of finding how to switch it on again.   Hmmn.

Our last day in France was spent grinding up through the great plains of the north. Blois was truly lovely in the morning light. For some reason, we chose to believe our satnav when it suggested going via Paris... surely, surely we knew that the péripherique of Paris is the WORST ROAD IN THE WORLD?  And even worse, when we got halfway round and decided to ditch Beauvais and head out past Charles de Gaulle Airport (more direct), we found we were in a further colossal TEN MILE traffic jam right through the rural countryside, which is so bad and has been there so long that they even do traffic reports on it in English (except we hadn't heard about it).

My beloved had promised me 'lunch in Beauvais'.... so when he said we might be better getting a sandwich from one of the aires along the road, I said Non! non! Non!   We peeled off at Pailly and looked first of all at the restaurant touristique which is called le Gentilhommerie, and where the menu is 24€ - i.e. too much food if you still have to drive a further 150 miles or something.  So we chose the Turkish pizza caff in the village instead, and had a very nice snack - my kebab was excellent and I recommend it.

While we are on the subject of food (again!) I must record some more of what Tom Vernon told us. He feels that life in France is a good 40 years behind life in England, still laying great emphasis on manners, family, study, society, etc.  (I worded this so much better 30 mins ago, but lost the whole of the blog and I am now trying to recreate my words... it's not how I said it last time).  All the English people we have met who choose to live in France say the same thing. They like the certainties.  Everyone knows who they are and how things work.  Tom obviously is a fan, but he said there are three things the French don't eat: parsnips, gooseberries and rhubarb.  Gooseberries exist (for the French) only in relation to mackerel. They  have no independent existence away from fish. So if you offer them gooseberry jam or gooseberry fool, they are amazed.  He also said there is a (new?) kind of onion grown slightly to the south of Valleraughe - it is red, sweet, mild and dry - great for eating raw. It is so important, so highly regarded, that it has an AOC of its own - an appellation controllé.  I wish I had found one to bring home (and grow) but it was a jour ferié on Monday, so no shops open.

We were so late and so stressed because of the traffic and the awful night's sleep that we did not manage to call in to see our friends Jeremy and Mary Kemp at Morienne, near Aumale, on the way. That was a shame, but they may not have appreciated my horrible sore throat and cough, and we would only have been able to stay for about 20 mins. Jeremy is working on the proofs of his book about art produced apparently in the trenches during the first World War. He happened upon this extraordinary and previously little-known subject when he kept finding marvellous (shocking) prints and aquatints showing the total destruction of villages and towns in northern France. These were made by various artists, who may or may not have known each other, and who were recording a kind of 'end of the world' - their homes and communities smashed to shreds by fire and bombardment.  The book will be timely with the centenary of the War shortly upon us.  Our drive, through the heat of the afternoon, was through the very landscape which appears over and over again in his book... today all was calm and rich, with peaceful fields full of barley, and quiet villages and trees.  Then it was all destruction and death.  We drove past the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Albert and Peronne...  Makes our little squabbles over the air-conditioning seem really puerile.

At Calais we went through the usual thing. Someone passes your passport over a scanner and then looks at you to see if you are the same person (difficult in my case as my passport self is a redhead but I am now a stripey blonde).  The ticket lady give you that card to hang on your mirror bracket, which says '2', meaning two people should be in the car, but no-one really checks. Is this security? Does it matter?  Here we are on the ferry, with free wifi (thank you), and surrounded by maybe two or three hundred English school children. They are quite well behaved, but much noisier than their French counterparts would be. They are growing up in a restless, fast-changing, self-doubting, contradictory, media-led world. In France, though, the old values are still evident. First and foremost, everyone in France is FRENCH!  The handwriting, the manners, the communities and their facilities, the time-table, everything is consistent.

Crossing the Channel now, in fog, like we did on Monday last week also in fog, it seems to me we will never really understand each other.  It means France will always be a wonderful place to go on holiday.  We can go back in time. We can eat fantastic food. We can experience truly huge landscapes. We can grasp some of our own history - the time when 'their' kings and ours were the same super-rich tribe, playing a massive game of Monopoly with castles, countries (such as Aquitaine, or Normandy for example), wars, torture, dynastic marriages, murder etc etc....   It's like looking in a strange mirror. They are 'the same' as us, and yet quite different.  They remain wedded (aesthetically, at any rate) to concrete and cement in a way we do not. They have colour schemes which would never work in England. They do not apparently make puns very often (apart from one we saw in Albi - in a dry cleaners' shop where they do ironing, and a sign said 'Savoir Fer', which seemed pretty good to us). They all know what to do, how to be French, and I often think people in England don't know how to be English, which is what actually makes them English.  They have FREE PARKING for two hours at lunchtime.  They can all shrug in a peculiarly Gallic way and we cannot.  They cannot spell pony and they cannot pronounce 'th' (which always comes out as 'z' (why?).  They are out and out republicans but they adore the Queen (do we?).   So - that's why we go there for our holidays.  Marvellous place.

Now we are approaching Dover in the fog. A teacher has ROARED at all these children and told them to BE QUIET!!!!  All in good humour.  What a week it has been.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Loir et Cher

Just arrived at our cheapie hotel on our way home. It's called an Ibis Budget and it opened less than 2 weeks ago.  Feels like we may actually the very first people to stay in this room! It's basic but v well designed - little loo cubicle, smart spacious shower, basin, desk, double-bed, aircon, upper single bunk, and quite good TV channels.  All up (including secure parking and breakfast €54.90 which is about £45.
We'll head off into Romorantin for supper in a few moments.

I just want to bid farewell in my mind to Tom and Sally Vernon in their amazing house, in a deep, steep, forested valley on the southern edge of the Cevennes. A heron coasted by the mysterious terraced wooded garden this morning.  A nightingale was singing last night. The rain had kept everything pristine - every wall, every nook and cranny, every step and wall is filled with tiny flowers. There is an amazing perfume from the Provence roses which Sally has tucked in everywhere, and soft wild campanula softens all the edges.  It is completely magic. The three house cats disdain to be stroked but control things pretty well.  The Vernons say it's quite something that the chasseurs have not so far shot these beautiful animals. Many English residents find their beloved moggy left on their doorstep, shot, because the locals think they are too much competition when it comes to catching wild things.

The little village of Valleraughe - just further up the valley - is (very slightly) reminiscent of a coal-mining village in Wales, something like that - made of dark stone, not much space, tall houses and passages, walls, the river rushing down the middle....   It is, very surprisingly, a centre of Protestantism with no less than five sects discernible. It was a silk-weaving town, maybe some of the Huguenots fleeing the pogroms after the Edict of Nantes and the infamous massacres of St Bartholomew's Day settled there .... but the Vernon's house is not the only great edifice built for the production of the finest silk imaginable.

Sally has been saying there has been a scourge of illness lately - cancer is so prevalent that no-one raises an eyebrow nowadays when someone's diagnosed. She was going to visit various sick friends in hospital today....   Last night, some friends came round with a piano for them. It was strapped to the back of a trailer and Andrew took the opportunity of playing it - it's a lovely upright Bechstein and in perfect pitch too. See the little video clip on FB:

They'll have brought it into the house by now, using a tractor to unload it.  It will live in the huge new salon they have made... I wish I was there to hear and see it.

Tom has spent his life as a musician, writer, broadcaster, thinker, cook, film-maker, actor, traveller and host...  He is a true polymath.  Now he has been ill, and is working through the considerable indexes of his life's work... trying to bring together the many recording media which have come and gone in his lifetime, to make sure everything is accessible for the future. Among his works are at least 2 CDs of original songs written and performed by him - some political, some romantic, some funny and all bitter-sweet; he recorded a huge amount of Dickens' work on  BBC Radio London, he produced and recorded many rare operas, he wrote and made TV films using his 'Fat Man on a Bicycle' brand - around England, Scandinavia, Europe, and further afield. His 'voice' in all this is so humane, so loving - the whole thing needs to be archived properly and made available again to the public. He was hugely popular till the everything at the BBC went wonky - the great exodus of real broadcasters and producers was a massive cultural loss to Britain and the world. I hope he can maybe get some sort of grant to help him get all this work gathered up and properly presented - it might make him some money (and why not?) but the world would be a richer place if all this was available again.  It was really lovely to see him and Sally again. They look absolutely happy in their mountain valley, with their fantastic garden, rushing river, lush forests, and that amazing old silk-merchant's house.

Today we had a divine drive through the Cevennes, where the wildflowers along the rocky verges were so rich and varied it was completely indescribable. Each section of road seemed to attract a particular combination of flowers - some pinks and blue, some pinks and purples, some red, some white, some blues and purples, some brilliant yellows.  There were millions of them. Stunning, breathtaking.  We went through medieval country and Roman, had lunch in Marejols which has 13 towers and 3 fortified gates (but a lot of closed-down shops in the centre). We were rushing along through the most spacious, beautiful countryside... we must come back.  There is so much more to explore.

Now - being really tired and with supper to find, I will end for tonight. Tomorrow we head up to Calais, having done more than half the journey from south to north today.


I will add a postscript. We drove into Romorantin to find supper. Parked, strolled, found a place near the river Sauldres with its weirs and lovely old bridge.  We could have a demi-menu for €11.50 - quite a good price for an evening meal.  Andrew had an assiette de crudités  which turned out to be green and red tomatoes with strawberries and lots of flowers, and I had a tartare de concombre which was a little dish with chunks of cucumber, covered in cream, and the plate on which this sat was fantastically carefully decorated with hundreds of individual elderflower florets and petals of gorse (?) or some other yellow flower.  It was nearly impossible to eat - the cream being far too runny, the flowers being far too flimsy.  Really weird.     The main course was salmon for A and chicken for me...  it took a very long time to arrive, and was mostly out of a packet, I think.  My glass of rosé never arrived.  A party of Dutch tourists arrived, ordered, and waited and waited and waited.....  We thought it was all rather funny.  On the way back to the car, we found two women holding a bundle (surely not a baby?) and wailing and rushing about, outside a vet's.  They shouted at us - incomprehensible - but it seemed they wanted to ring the vet (office closed) using our portable... but I had left my mobile in the hotel by mistake.  The bundle was a dog. They were running around, really distraught.  Nothing we could do.  They were shouting, running, waving at empty shops, the older one holding the dog in a huge pink blanket, the younger one wailing and calling out. No-one answered.

We have filled up with diesel in one of those sensible pay-by-card-automatically pumps which are open 24/7 as they say. Now back at the base, dog tired.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Setting off north

We're off heading back north very shortly. Yesterday was a lovely quiet interlude. Andrew managed to get the chainsaw going and he cut logs while I stacked them. The timber came from trees along the banks of the Herault, at the foot of Tom and Sally's land. The commune came and felled a line of trees near the water after there had been terrible high floods - the idea was to remove these potential hazards in case the river should rise again, sweep them from the banks and thus risk the bridges downstream. So they have a fine pile of wood to cut.

We also had a grand tour of the house - the huge old room upstairs which once housed the trays of silkworms (magnanerie) has been transformed into a salon of great beauty with a new wooden roof and ceiling (Dutch elm), a polished wooden floor (chestnut), a mezzanine of elm approached by a wonderful elegant and easy spiral staircase, and with such space and height - it could be used for concerts, parties, card games, yoga, theatre, what-have-you....  It has taken Tom and Sally 20 years to plan and execute this (and pay for it) and it is superb.

Later in the evening, during supper, a friend of theirs arrived bringing with him on a trailer a fine upright piano. The friend and his son deemed it best to unload this tomorrow (today) using a tractor to lift it off, but in the meantime we had a short impromptu concert with Andrew leaning over the edge of the trailer to give us a couple of numbers. Then the Bechstein was careful led back down the lane to an agreed parking spot, wrapped lovingly in plastic against further rain, and we all went back inside.

Now it's time for breakfast - I hope Sally will be able to give me cuttings or babies of two of the most wonderful plants from her garden - we will stay at a new cheapie Ibis near Bourges tonight, and get to Calais tomorrow.  Our holiday has been dogged by rain and storms but we have had an interesting time and it's been lovely seeing friends.  Right now, the sun is shining on those magic steep woods opposite, and a sea of (3) cats are weaving round Sally's ankles waiting to be fed, like the cats in Gormenghast.
We will be leaving in an hour or so.


Time to say goodbye to Sheila and Chris.... we never did get into the swimming pool because although it felt warm on the top few inches, the water deep below was really still cold. There had not been enough sun to warm it through during this week, hélas!  They have such a pretty house, in such a pretty place, and they are very happy there.  They will have fun managing the gardening of the steep slopes on their terraces, but those could be planted with shrubbery or bamboo in due course, and meanwhile they have their roses, fruit trees, lawns and woods, all very charming and enticing.
We left Caumont in fine clear sunlight, following the old road towards Toulouse, through ecstatically beautiful gentle country, and abandoning our first plan to go via Castres, diverted up to Albi. Parking just outside the old city, we wandered around and a man asked what we were looking for. After a confusion caused by my reply - 'un petit déjeuner' (meaning a light lunch) - which he took to mean 'breakfast' - he suggested he take us to a place he knew, where, unlike the other restos all around, there is a real kitchen. He said he had a bar of his own but did not serve lunch, and we said we'd take a look. So he led us on a roundabout route down little alleys and twists into a hidden courtyard which looked very promising. That is where we ate - whether hustled or not - and it was wonderful... Andrew had a confit de lapin, and I had joues de porc....  copious amounts of perfectly cooked regional peasant food, with chips cooked in duck fat and lovely salad.   All up, 33€, and worth seeking out if you are ever in Albi. It's called Lou Sicret, which (you've guessed it) means The Secret in the local patois.
Albi Cathedral was emptying of Whitsun Confirmation crowds - with dozens of local children in their best dress and photos being taken, and all the loving families clustered round. We slipped in to see the inside - this is the largest brick cathedral in the world - and huge too. Inside it's all painted, something we are not used to seeing in England - but with vivid highly detailed geometric designs right up through all the vaults, and every surface covered with something or other.....   I have never been into Indian temple but I imagine it might be like this.
Then we headed east again, and through part of the Cevennes National Park - up and up, to thousands of feet, all forest, zigzags, stacks of felled trees by the side of the road waiting for collection, stunning distant views back down onto the plains we had just travelled. Our satnav eventually threw a hissy fit, could not understand where we were, told us to go back, turn around... like some demented seer or prophet, foretelling doom and indeed our position on its little map seemed irretrievable, but in fact of course, this is an ancient road which knows exactly where it's going and that is to our friends' house just below Valleraughe.   We have not been here 14 years, and it was a bit of a game trying to find which turning we should take ... but there it was... up across the Herault, past the old houses, into a cool green lane, down and up... and there's Tom! Looking thinner and older but still the same, how lovely.
We bring various bags and boxes in, too much stuff even on the road... some foie gras for their fridge and Pineau des Charentes.  The drinking water for our meal comes from a tiny cistern outside on the terrace, fed by a little spout with water straight from the heart of the mountain. We settle down to tea, supper, memories, conversation, laughs and eventually - sleep. Our bedroom has a high dark wooden ceiling. Sally has created a shower room next door with pebbles laid as mosaics in a pretty design.  No need for curtains - there is a tree outside the window and the only view is of the steep mountainside on the other side of the river, covered in forest, only about four hundred yards away. It's all silent, deep, hidden.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Goose quills

Yesterday, when we were having a quiet local mooching day, it was dark and grey and nearly drizzling. Today, when we will be in the car moving east to the Cevennes (six hours) it is sunny and already hot at 8.30am.  Darn it.
My sister took us to Auvillar yesterday - another surprise.  This is a little brick town on top of a hill - with an ancient clock tower, a large sloping triangular arcaded place, and a marvellous Romanesque grain market in the middle of it, complete with columns, an auctioneer's platform, and very old signs showing where each kind of grain should be found - rye, wheat, barley, oats etc.
The town is definitely on the pilgrims' route and though the day was drear there were quite a few of them about, encouraged by cute little statuary showing how nifty and easy it is to be a pilgrim.
The town has ancient roots of course, as revealed by its architecture, but it kept itself going in the 18th and 19th centuries making faience (13 factories 150 years ago), and goose-quill pens.  Trade was by boat on the Garonne - 3000 visited in one year in the early 19thC.  All this carried on till someone went and built the canal des Deux Mers (not close enough), and then the railway (even further away).  Everything dried up. The huge factories are now either art galleries (closed) or for sale, or empty.
We walked round St Peter's church which had large 18th century artworks casually leaning on the arches, admired the spectacular view over the Garonne river from the chateau carpark (the canal and railway barely discernible), tried to get lunch at a creperie which had wonderful purple metal tables and chairs on its terrasse and was firmly shut despite having a large notice saying it was open, ate in a pilgrims' cafe, then headed into Valence d'Agen to shop for supper. The two fountains in the place in Valence are noticeable for having all the water coloured with bright turquoise dye.
We chose to make a tapas for our last night - this and that... the anchovies from the Intermarché were superb, I must say. The lady behind the fish counter assured us that the brandade de morue in a packet was exactly the same as the brandade de morue out on display. That was nice too.
We cooked and ate out by the pool - Tom and Kate were there too - as the evening gently warmed up, and then the stars gradually revealed themselves, and then Andrew and I came in and zonked out, leaving the locals to enjoy themselves.
Now it's time to set off to the east - maybe go through Toulouse which we have missed out on this trip. We are heading into the country of the great Herault river, with its enormous glaciated valleys and forests.... that is what I remember from last time, anyway.

Pilgrimages, Buzzards

This whole area falls within the ancient pilgrimage route for those thousands of people who walk to Santiago de Compostella. As an activity, it was the old-time version of going on a holiday, with the benefit of a special kind of blessing for those who could say they had touched the tomb of the saint. Every country had its pilgrimages - the devout went to Walsingham in Norfolk to meet up with Mary and to Canterbury to ponder on the brave end of St Thomas. And some, like the amazing Marjorie Kemp from Kings Lynn, actually made it to Jerusalem. But northern Spain was - and is - a popular destination for people from throughout Europe.
Actually, I even know of two people from little Faversham who are engaged in this particular pilgrimage - Mefo Phillips who travels on horseback and has written books about it, and Carolin Clapperton who is doing the walk in stages, a modern variant where you tick off each section of the walk as you finish it, and then go back to complete the next one.
Today's pilgrims are readily recognised hereabouts. They look tanned and wiry. They carry backpacks - judiciously packed with essentials only, not too heavy. Some have one walking stick, some have two.  They sometimes are carrying a little picnic, and they stride on, along the roads or up to the cathedrals and abbeys, which for these dusty travellers must be like glittering palaces of statuary and gleaming gold, havens, oases of cool air, somewhere to pray and give thanks that another stage of the perilous journey has been accomplished.  We saw them in Moissac, and at Auch, and along the roads and passes.
It's impossible, really to reconfigure the medieval mind, but I feel we can get tiny glimpses into it by watching these walkers and their ecclesiastical destinations, and all the cafes and lodging houses and tat-shops clustered around. It would be another thing to go on a long-distance holy walk myself. Perhaps - one day.

There are wonderful birds to be seen and heard here - notably buzzards and black kites at the top of the predatory tree, I suppose, but we hear songbirds (what is it?), and last night, amazingly, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a solo peacock.    There are hawks and herons and swallows and martins.  I wish I had brought my bird book.

We saw the peacock en route to a restaurant at Bardigues - quite a smarty-pants place. It's run by a team who rent the premises from the commune - a common idea in these parts.  The meal was swanky and brilliantly described by our waiter while we were ordering. It was also (for us) very expensive and maybe not worth the money - but the evening was warm, the terrasse was welcoming, the decor was pretty, the scenery beautiful, the service reasonably deferential, the wine slickly presented, and the food looked very pretty on each plate.  The best things were the snails in a garlic sauce, the borage flowers decorating my foie gras, and a cheese from somewhere (the chariot de fromages had about 40 to chose from).  The worst thing by far was an inedible portion of veal (gristly and tough), and the smell of the ashtray which my sister insisted on filling, in a continuous chain of fags between each course.   It is a loathsome and unpleasant habit for anyone sitting near, but it is an addiction and the worst part of it is the truculence and belligerence which accompanies it all.  Sigh.  We haven't fallen out over it yet, but we might.

Back to the house, under the stars.  They are pure and brilliant.  It would be worth investing in a telescope.

Today we had planned to go into Toulouse but I am pleased that we decided to stay around the house and do very little. We will cook a tapas type meal this evening, and Tom and Kate Absolom will come over. Then tomorrow we're heading off towards the Cevennes, about six hours away to the east, to see Tom and Sally Vernon, old friends from my BBC days.  We were last at their house - a maison de maitre - belonging to a silk grower, 14 years ago.

Friday, 25 May 2012


For several years, I have had an ambition to see something I read about in a history book. It said that there was a misericord in the Cathedral at Auch with a carving of the popular medieval saint, Eloi, performing one of his miracles - namely shoeing the devil (who was in disguise as a horse) and overcoming the wild and dangerous stamping of the horse by the ingenious method of cutting its leg off, putting the new shoe (Christianity) onto the horse's foot, and then restoring the leg to the horse.
I have seen a marvellous early English alabaster carving of this episode in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the one in Auch has called to me for about 15 years, maybe more. Today was the day to go and find it!  Auch is about 50 miles from my sister's house, and we passed through the particularly pretty town of Fleurance (with a lovely arcaded place and ancient covered market), on our way to the Cathedral. Auch is quite a city, well appointed and bang central in the department of Gers.... very historic and rich.
The Cathedral is quite something - most of the ancient work has long since been swept away, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all built up again and then adorned. The choir is stupendous - almost a closed room on its own account, with utterly amazing oak carvings all round. The scenes are a mish-mash of Biblical, Classical, imaginative and and monstrous - literally hundreds of panels, portraits, stalls, ledges, seats, morals, lessons and so on. Dazzling.  Earlier work would have been scriptural only, but here they did not stint on the new ideas of the Renaissance, so everything is jumbled up together. It's absolutely terrific. You pay €2 to go in, and that is worth every penny.
My hopes were high, as there is actually a whole chapel dedicated to St Eloi down the nave - he stands carved in wood on top of a marvellous wooden Nativity, with his anvil and his hammer (patron saint of blacksmiths).
However, I could not find him in the misericords. There is a nice George and the Dragon, with a spirited and beautiful horse, and a false hope in a carving of a decapitated woman being restored to life, but no misericord of  St Eloi.
I am really downcast. I cannot remember where I read about this little work. It may be that it is in a different church in Auch.
The reason I want to find images of this saint, who appears twice in the Canterbury Tales, by the way, as St Loy, is that this story of a saint shoeing the devil-in-disguise-as-a-horse, is duplicated for another early saint, Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a metal-smith, and patron of metal workers including blacksmiths.  Dunstan and Eloi were both real people, working for royalty, who had been missionaries to the Low Countries (where as we know great horses were bred for centuries), and both may well have taken Christianity into horse-worshipping territory at the end of the Dark Ages. So the metaphor of shoeing the horse may be quite important.
And the back-story for all this is that I do just wonder if the old, widespread, pre-Christian religion of Europe was horse-worship.  You are not allowed to take horses into churches. You will find almost NO images of horses in early churches, despite their fantastic importance throughout history as beasts of burden, war, aristocratic connection, intelligence, farming, etc etc.   Why should that be?
Anyway, don't get me started.
If I had found St Eloi in Auch I would have been ecstatic. But this setback won't stop me.
I have more questions - especially after spending all this time in rural France. Who on earth are (or were) all these saints who gave their names to so many obscure places? St Clar, St This, St That.....   Hundreds, thousands of them. I bet they are not all post-5th century. I bet a huge number of them go back way before Christianity - local deities, of water, woods, light, fertility, war and love.....  Their names are especially well preserved in Gaul - by the Romans and then the Roman Church.  A treasure trove of names and stories.... if only we can work out what it all means.

Escaping the Gestapo

I had some trepidation going to lunch yesterday. It was to hear an old lady talk about her experiences as a child in France, escaping the Gestapo - because she was Jewish.  I wasn't fancying anything too harrowing.  We picked up a friend en route to the venue. She had invited us to come along and said it was a Ladies' Group who had fixed the whole thing.
We met in a spacious salle des fetes such as is found in most French villages, and there were about 80 mostly English people. We were offered Pimms, or orange juice and then sat at pretty tables to eat curry. The speaker was introduced - called Yvonne Franklin. She was 12 in 1939, born in England and the daughter of a Polish/French pianist and composer called Roger Jalowicz or Sinclair, living in Paris. The terrifying sequence of events - registrations, deprivations, removals, escapes, betrayals, abandonments, midnight journeys through the forests, having to trust complete strangers, guns, questions, loss.... on and on.  The great-aunt who blithely told the police 'Oh yes, I have family - they live a xxx...'  The man who stole all their money. The strangers on a train who led them to shelter, only for neighbours to denounce them.... The group of young men taken hostage and shot for nothing. In the end, this little family all got through. A statistical fluke given the numbers of people who vanished. The audience in the hall gave her a full applause, and we were all served birthday cake to celebrate her forthcoming 86th.
Heading home, we sat by our friend's pool and soaked up the sun.
Then back at my sister's we did almost nothing... relaxing at last.
Her pool is now almost finished - all honey-coloured and with salt water, surrounded by blonde stone and tiles.  We ate a very English cauliflower cheese out there, watching bats flitter about, and listening to bullfrogs down in the valley.  All calm.
How fortunate I have been in my life - no wars, no genocides in my country, no terror to speak of.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

First sunny morning

It's quite ridiculous to feel so peeved, and so personally slighted, by weather. We left Kent on Monday morning on a dull greyish morning - but as we crossed the channel, things at home were heating up, and friends and neighbours have had sweltering sun, lovely brightness and summery pleasures all week - while we, spending ALL this money, driving ALL this long way (about 1000 miles), being SO much in need of a holiday - have had rain, cold, wind, darkness, fog, mist, drear..... oh horrible.  Surely 'it' KNOWS we came here to the south of France for some 'guaranteed' warmth and tanning? Isn't anyone listening?!?!?!?

Then reasonableness creeps in - this aberration of the weather is just a trifle, an inconvenience, nothing at all. There are people whose whole lives are endangered by mad weather, so what am I complaining about, eh?

My instinct to beat myself up over things like this is somewhat mollified this morning, as the sun is actually shining. Outside, the first of the workmen has arrived to start on installing a shower beside the new swimming pool, which so far consists of an elegant basin surrounded by tiles...  and that all set in a swathe of mud and weeds, and banks of bare earth.  They've had such weird weather during the early part of the year, and the tile-maker created the wrong kinds of corners, so the pool is way behind schedule.... all my dreams of lounging beside my sister's own fab pool will have to be delayed till our next visit (if I can bear the ciggie smoke which I keep forgetting about. I wish she would give up. Apart from the fact it's clearly killing her - cough, cough, cough - it makes everything smell disgusting, clothes, hair, skin, furniture.... I truly hate it).  Oh dear, see how easy it is to slip back into negativity.

So, the sun is shining. A bird (unknown) is singing its heart out. A cherry tree down the lane is laden with glossy sweet fruits, free for the picking. We will go and see the confluence of the Garonne and the Tarn in a little while. Both rivers are swollen brown with flood waters. The village set where they meet is called St Nicholas de la Grave - St Nick as patron saint of sailors, and the 'Grave' being gravels which have been loaded onto boats as ballast since Roman times.  Then we're going to hear an old lady talk about how she survived as a Jew under Vichy government (a talk arranged by one of Sheila's friends), and we're following that with a curry.

"I didn't come all this way to the south of France to eat curry!"

'Oh yes you did..."

Other items on our itinerary are the city of Auch (where I want to see a misericord showing St Eloi - have I mentioned this before?), and the city of Toulouse....  Quite a lot to fit into the next 2 or 3 days.  In the SUN!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Local land and buildings

The typical Gers farmhouse is quite modest in appearance outside, but spacious and generous in their inner capacity - Tardis-like, in fact. The walls are made of mud bricks, which are sturdy enough as long as they remain dry. Under their Roman-style roofs made of undulating and alternating tiles, cased in a tough waterproof coating called crépis, and with their doors and window openings made of expensive and beautiful local whitish limestone, these walls are secure enough, but should water get in anywhere, or if the mud-bricks are exposed to rain or damp - then they rapidly crumble into dust.
The layout of the houses, which are low and organic-looking, with wide barns or sheds pulled in under the same roof, often centres around a long, wide, central hall running the length of the building. With a modernising eye, this central space can become a stunning gallery-like walkway. In the old days, once the harvest was in, the hall served as a festive dining area, with a long trestle table set down the middle, and all the workers and hangers-on allowed into the master's house, to celebrate the end of the season's work and fruitfulness.  The wide, light rooms of roughly square proportion, all open off the hallway, giving a symmetry and classical feel to the building, despite its modest and quiet use.
In fact, one could trace a lineage for the design of these houses back to some of the early chateaux up in the Loire, and I am thinking of Chenonçeau in particular, with its Italian origins and stylised layout.  But these houses are not in the least aristocratic.  Just practical, made of local stone, very beautiful and unassuming.
The farms are quite numerous in any landscape here, presumably because the land was rich enough to support a family in a smallish acreage.  They are set among marvellous undulating hills and valleys, with groves of oaks or other firewood, and small streams, and bulbous swellings of land, and views of no more than say a mile or two of distance, but lovely and contemplative.  None of the houses looks to be older than the early 19th century - so God knows where the peasants round hear lived before the Revolution. In shacks and hovels, presumably. I must find out.
We went for lunch to a  cafe in a little bastide town called St Clar: three courses for 11€, and totally delicious. We looked at the lovely, wonky, typical arcades around the two town squares, bemoaned the effect of the recent opening of an Intermarché supermarket on the all the little local shops, admired a useful 24/7 automatic laundry machine with drier, set into the supermarket carpark.
We called in on Tom and Kate Absolom, who've lived here for about 4 years and have made their own Gers farmhouse into something so radiantly beautiful that it could be a New York loft, set down in this medieval and empty landscape. Stunning.
We came home again. The men set to getting the new hover-mower to work, and started transforming whole swathes of rough grass and weeds into smooth velveteen.  I cooked supper, opened wine, made salad, listened to the crickets, picked nettle tips to make anti-hay-fever tisanes, and now - at quite an early hour - have fallen into bed to try to do nothing, and catch up on rest and sleep.
Downstairs, my sister has lit her new magic patent double-burning hearth called a Polyflam.  It's supposed to pump hot air round the house.  Not sure if it's working.
Tomorrow we are going to hear an elderly Jewish lady talk about how she survived the war and Vichy government in France, and then we are having a curry lunch.  Very Aryan, I guess. This was booked for us before we left England, as someone thought it would be suitable entertainment. I am not sure if I am looking forward to it or not.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Driving in France

The péages in France are excellent. Empty, clean, quiet smooth motorways, no hold-ups.  In England I would feel incensed having to pay to use 'the Queen's Highway' but somehow, away from home, it all seems a good idea.
Even going cross-country, covering the vast distances which represent an every-day experience in France but which are colossal to this 'little' Englander, the place is empty. We covered mile after mile, sometimes in regions where the farmhouses are clustered quite closely together, sometimes going through empty regions, with huge fields and forests, and no-one in sight. Compared to England, France is a void.
We had an excellent simple breakfast in the Etap in Tours, and headed off before 8.30 towards Poitiers.  I had no idea what a treat was waiting for us.
It's a lovely, inspiring place.  A collection of medieval houses, hotels, courtyards, squares - now largely occupied by the university, and well labelled for the casual tourist, makes any simple walk around the citadel a delight. Music shops everywhere.  A waitress confirmed - lots and lots of English people live in or visit the city.
We watched a beggar-woman settle heavily into her accustomed spot on a pavement. Once plugged into her pitch, nothing was going to move her for the day. Very professional.
We had a coffee, went into two stupendous churches from the early medieval period - one being a fantastic marriage of Romanesque and Flamboyant, and the other even earlier and still ablaze with wallpaintings and decoration, such as no longer exists in England.  I am too tired to remember their names now, but will add these in tomorrow.
Eventually, leaving the city, we had a bit of a struggle trying to extract diesel from an automatic pump in a Super-U garage - it should have been simple but apparently our debit card couldn't be accommodated. Eventually a very nice man (speaking perfect English) helped us - we used a different pump and all was well.  He had been sent as a child to speak English every year since the age of 9 - his parents thought he should be bilingual.
Then we drove to stylish but louche Angouleme, where we had lunch in a Gallerie-Cafe: very English, very laid-back, very nice.  Very hippy, in fact. The 'art' on display was pretty dismal but the atmosphere was accommodating and gentle.  It was all in a stone building of superb quality and finish, now rather down in the world.
We set off into the unknown towards our destination near Toulouse - gradually finding vineyards, seeing really very few people, loving the light on the huge landscape. Unlike some of the territory further north, which we are more familiar with, here there are no empty houses waiting to be done up. It's all plush, green, well-cared for.
Hill and valley, huge rivers, bastide towns, forests, bridges, more hills and vallies... it's a lovely country. No wonder kings fought over it, back and forth.
I find I am very excited by maps and new country. It's the place-names which do it.   I keep imagining love affairs, historic duels, tragic ends, love matches, jokes, hoaxes, puns, cunning tricks.... I want to be an EF Benson of these countrysides.  (When will I get on with it?)   For instance, I saw a place called something like Chef Boutonne. Chief Button?????!?!?!?!   Wild.
We finally reached my sister's house just after 7pm - about 11 hours on the road, including meal breaks etc.   A little old Gers farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, still a bit of a building site, with swimming pool installed but not fully tiled, and the garden all mud.   Inside, lovely tall rooms, wooden stairs and beams, thick walls, uneven floors, packing cases, loose wires....    Outside, the lovely light but with a  cold wind still blowing and treetops bashing about a bit.
Chris made us a supper, we ate and drank and did some catching up.
I am SO tired.
So tired.
I wish my sister did not smoke. It's disgusting and poisonous and makes me want to retch. But her house is charming and she is a perfectionist about how she wants it arranged.   We must find a compromise.
Tonight, now after 10pm, I am almost weeping with tiredness.  I hope things will read more coherently tomorrow.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Fog fog fog fog

It's three weeks into May but it might as well be November. All across Northern France, a thick dark cold wet windy dark murky fog covers everything.
We have left a balmy 24 degrees in Kent (with all the attendant flower-pot-watering problems now in the care of a diligent neighbour), but here in the Hexagon it might was well be the Falkland Islands, or Wales.
Still, P&O obligingly gave us passage on an earlier crossing, the motorways were empty, and we reached Tours in enough time to bag the last empty room in Etap.  Supper was an Italian/French melange - anchovy, salad, olives, osso bucco, filet de bar....
Our room overlooks the railway lines just outside the terminus. We called into the station on our wet way back to the hotel. The building is undergoing extensive modernisation, in the best possible taste, as Kenny Everett used to say.  The town is also installing a tram system. Gaston and his wheelbarrow still have a lot to do, but it's shaping up nicely.
Outside, a late train clanks into the station.
The TV has the ubiquitous, horrible BBC World on... a rushing, frothy, urgent, sham-glam, meaningless, violence-addicted vomit of rubbish, but all in perfect accent.
Bed beckons.
Tomorrow, we head south to Poitiers and eventually, the comforts of my sister's house in the rural NW of Toulouse.
I am too tired to write. More later.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Early Christianity in Mercia

No doubt this is a sign of getting old but I find visiting old churches very interesting. You get this narrow glimpse into life from hundreds of years ago, when Christianity played a greater part perhaps than it does now in our daily life, and yet there are these tantalising hints of something pre-Christian too: the green men, the scrolling beasts, the choices about what symbols were Devilish and which were not.

We had a merry breakfast with Mary and Jessica, who is a Downes Syndrome child of great charm and independence. She comes home at weekends and although she did not remember us was chatty and involved us in all her conversations. She was anxious to get to church, part of her routine, where her daddy was playing the organ, and she was also keen to remind us of her siblings. She looks so well and happy, it was a joy to spend this little time with her.

Then we set off to head back home, through yet more of this elastically expanding and vivid countryside. I realise how much I love rookeries. Each time I see the cluster of strong-looking nests I feel cheerful. Sometimes we see a rook actually sitting on top of its nest. They look simultaneously comic and masterful. I admire their sociability, their strength. Presumably this has been their habit for MILLIONS of years. It's stood them in good stead and they are sticking to it.

By squinting at the tiny print on the road-map I spotted a little pair of antiquities just off our route, one of which was called Odda's Chapel. That sounded good so we went to find it, turning off the road too soon at first and finding a delightful stretch of the Avon with a little sailing club, down a twisty marsh road. We then tried again a bit further east, and reached Deerhurst and there was the amazing Odda's Chapel, reminiscent of St Peter's on the Wall at Bradwell in Essex, a stark, empty, tall, beautiful thing with a marvellous chancel arch and the remains of a residential space created from the adjoining (later) farmhouse.

All this was discovered by the local vicar in the 19thC and various other finds included a dedication stone. Outside, marker posts show how high and recurrently the river swells out of its banks, and makes this little foundation into an island. We walked across one field to the river and saw where we had been standing shortly before, on the other bank. It seems this was the boundary of the Roman empire, and the river was fordable in ancient days, so although now it all seems very rural and quiet, it must once have been an important place, not only with trade and access along the river, but with military implications and visits, and this illustrious long-standing Christian chapel since 1050-something.

But I have kept the best to last. About 200 yards from the chapel, and set back a little further from the river and higher up the knoll is the parish church of St Mary's - a minster dating back even earlier - 800AD. It's a really odd place, with a great towering porch on the west side, a pretty farmhouse at right-angles to the main nave (once an arm of the cloister and still with great corbels which once supported the roof of the cloister-garth). Inside, the porch is in two cells, one bearing an amazing abstract Mary over the door. There are some wonderful early animals on either side of the west door into the nave. Lots of triangle-headed openings, some plasterwork torn away to reveal Anglo-Saxon herring-bone work, doorways up high leading to empty space now, in the nave. The font is covered with spirals and was found as a drinking trough in a field. Its base, which matches very well, was found somewhere else and reunited when spotted by the local Lady. There is on the east end the remains of a vanished apse, all gone now except for one panel which has the remains of an angel up high, very mysteriously difficult to see and now facing into a tiny little exterior alcove or nook. It took a while to get my head round it all...

There has been intense historical and archaeological work done here, Victorian, 1920s, and latterly more or less continuously since the 1970s, and numerous lectures published and on sale. Oh, this place is one of the great early treasures of our land, and having now read some of the lectures I can report it was probably once built of wood, then embellished with stone, and is now all of stone which sort-of follows the shape and height which wood could achieve. The detectives have done a marvellous job, comparing the sometimes barely legible carvings with known examples from manuscripts and metalwork around England and Europe. This little place is just four miles south of Tewkesbury and worth an hour or so of anyone's life, if you want to get a little look into what mattered to our ancestors.

 Incidentally, the very abstract Mary in the porch was once (like all the other carvings) brilliantly coloured - the shape no more than a canvas on which fine details would have been laid, rich not only in colour but in meaning and reference. The two animals on the inside door arch may have had jewels inset... Churches must have looked a bit like fairgrounds inside, all glitter and bling.

 We went to Tewkesbury for lunch - chose a cafe, visited the warm and welcoming the Abbey, admired the way they get you to pay willingly for your visit (it costs SO much money just to keep the place open). They have a screen where you pop your card in, take the Gift Aid option, and make your contribution. They suggest £5 per head. It seems painless. We also admired the old roof-bosses with musicians and the Magi now displayed in the aisles, and we liked the fine stone tomb depicting a rotting corpse with worms going in and out, and we liked the fantastic towered sepulchres or tombs made like miniature churches within the apse walk... how theses things survived the Civil War I do not know.  Incidentally this was the only church we visited on this trip which had incense in the air.

A postcard on sale shows what happened to Tewkesbury in the recent floods. The Abbey on its egg-shaped island remained above the waters, as did a few of the nearest houses, but the horrid red waters of the river lapped right round the whole town, cutting it off and gnawed at the outskirts. We think we are so safe in our modern world, but the old physical dangers are all still there, confronting us just as they challenged the medieval people who lived and worked here. Hedging and ditching, building good foundations, using the right building materials, seeing where the danger lies - all still needed today.

 I wish I knew more about birds - we saw one kind in two or three places - what could it have been? Solitary, big wings, able to glide and then flap a bit to move along, tail not so prominent as the wings, quartering the empty fields beneath. Was it a harrier of some kind? It looked hawk-like but bigger than birds I commonly see in Kent. We have come home tired, but calmer, quieter. I have been enraptured by this trip to the west. Living in the urban south-east, it is easy to feel (sometimes) that there is no emptiness left, that all is spoiled and filled-in and damaged. But it is not so. Pasture and husbandry, pub and lane, river and wood, hill and rain, it's all still there. Miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of it. Everywhere you look. Go and see.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

South Pacific

I did almost nothing yesterday, feeling very under the weather. Andrew helped Stewart make part of the music desk for the new organ. In the afternoon we drove in Stewart's big BMW down to Cardiff, through mile after mile of radiant countryside. We sightly overshot on the motorway but eventually got into the Bay area, and parked in the appropriate concrete block. Walked to the Millenium Hall which looks like a huge chunky beetle carapace, dark and lumpy - not a very beautiful thing at a distance but with marvellous slate walls and a bronzed overhang to the entrance. The lobby inside is spacious and inviting, spreading out wide on either side. Loos seem inadequate in number with long queues. The lift is very very very slow, up and down - in contrast to the one in the carpark, which is swift, shining and clean. We wandered around, admired a statue of two people and a dog on the waterfront, took Stewart and Mary to eat at Wagamamas, then went back to the Hall to see South Pacific. It's a pacy production, with a terrific orchestra, sold out for every performance, and the audience loved it. This is the production from the Lincoln Center in New York and it has a bit of American pzazz about it, and the Hawaiian 'Bloody Mary' stole the show as far as I was concerned. Home in that smooth motor, under a starry sky, with Venus dazzling from the west. Now it's Sunday morning and we are packing to go home. I must face a dentist to deal with this inflammation and broken tooth.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Brecon Beacons

We had hoped to go and see some friends in SW Shropshire but it was not convenient for them, so we went up into the Brecon Beacons instead. The day was so astonishing, visually, that by the time we got back to our base in Hereford I was completely exhausted. In fact I think I have been cooking an infection - an inflamed gum, painful knee, and weariness. This is so unlike my normal experience, and so unexpected, that I know I will not really be able to do justice to this episode of the blog - sorry! I must take back some of my dislike of the River Wye, because up here where its banks are less steep and its floodplain a little broader, it acquires some of the restful qualities I feel I need from a river. In fact, at Glasbury, for instance, where you can launch a canoe and float downstream, there are wide gravelly shoals and beaches and it reminded me of the River Ceno in the Italian mountains above Parma, where we go and stay with our friends Suzanne and Pietro ( near Bedonia. The river makes powerful meanders across its meadows, but the road is often quite far away from the water, and the occasional glimpses you get are surprising and sought-after. We criss-crossed, over and across, up steep lanes, through farmyards, staring at the phenomenal rich colours and contrasts. It was like being in some sort of 1950s movie, with super-saturated colours - brilliant yellows from the poplars and willow buds, deep purples from the distant shadowed hills, radiant greens from the fields and hedges, stark black outlines of trees biding their time, the reds of the ploughed fields and the mud spilling down the lanes, the smatterings of white and pink blossoms through the hedges, the white bundles of sheep-bodies and their wiry babies, the grey stones of the church towers and cottages. It was stupendous. In Hay we had a coffee, I fell in love with an actual magic crystal wand but felt so rubbished by Andrew's disdain for such things that I didn't buy it (I will ring ask her to send it to me). It was made of stone and silver, from Thailand. I loved an 18th century upstairs wooden wall in a trendy antiquey shop owned by two rather alarming women who could possibly be rather occult. We liked the place and thought we will go back, but later over a supper an old friend who lives nearby said 'Hay is a poisonous place!' (and would not elaborate). On to Brecon, taking a tour round the Cathedral where we found a warm welcome, and I liked the almsot African-looking Cresset Stone with its rows of little holes to take night-time candles to light the monks to their services. We wandered around the town looking for somewhere to eat lunch - in the covered market, the microwave in the cafe had caught fire. Everywhere else looked a bit flat.... really all the cafes and bistros now base their cooking on BREAD - pizzas, sandwiches, paninis, baguettes, etc. If you are avoiding gluten as I am this is means you are hardpressed to find something to eat. Jacket potato again, back at the Cathedrals' Pilgrim centre, where a busload of old ladies was having a gay old time, having been to communion earlier on. We avoided the torrential rain which burst down from time to time.... explored the Canal down the valley, and set off again to the mountains. Oh dear - I know this is not a very scintillating report. Nothing much happened. We loved the high moors, saw almost no-one up there (like Dartmoor). We went to the Brecon Beacons Visitor Center and A bought two delicious ice-creams (mango yoghurt and then coffee) from Llanfaes Dairy - superb. The lady who sold us a pretty jug to take to our hostess (who had broken hers last night) had a black eye. Back home, crash out. Supper and laughter shared with another old BBC friend Lyn Webster who lives up here and is planning a new film project marrying Indian and Welsh myth and riddle. It sounnds wonderful. We sat and watched the famous Tyger Band film, made back in about 1973, featuring Andrew and Stewart and the rest of the gang - the film is a bit hard to follow but very well made and the music is superb. All shot on a clockwork Bolex 16mm camera using snitched stock and very well edited. Very funny and also very moving to see our menfolk reincarnated as young 20s again. Sigh. Bed, oblivion. Now we have had breakfast and more chatter, with the sun streaming over the smooth lawn, and Stewart standing and doing more wiring om the extraordinary loom which will be slotted into the organ, sometime soon. We are going down to Cardiff tonight to see South Pacific (ENO production) - a real treat. Then home tomorrow. I am not feeling very well. Not good. This is not how I should be.