A Travellerspoint blog

More from Barcelona, and an unexpected return to Avignon


Rose in the bustling and baffling city of Barcelona to tramp the streets with the aim of finding one of the double decker buses that continually tour the main ‘highlight’ spots. Our resoning simple: we had no idea how to negotiate the transport system with absolutely zero Spanish knowledge between us. After viewing the main cathedral quite close to our lodgings, which was grand and gothic and full of slightly spooky things like matched pairs of sarcophagi hanging off the walls, containing an early contributor to the cathedral and his wife, we continued on through the warm sunny streets. ON reaching the dockside area we found the appropriate orange bus and for 18 euros each bought the right to circle the city, thinking this would help us get oriented. After all, I had only pushed to come to Barcelona for one reason: to see some of Gaudi’s architecture. Of his work, the one that intrigued me was the Sagrida Familla cathedral, a work that is also known as the Cathedral of the Poor; this is because it had no official support and was commenced with public subscriptions only. Still unfinished, once it is completed it will be one of the modern wonders of the world.

A few stops into the tour of the city it was apparent that stylistically Gaudi’s work is related to that of others and has a certain Catalan style, where bright colours, strongly geometic patterns and somewhat extravagant decorative frills are commonplace. Before long the fantastically tall and slender spires of the Sagrada Familla appeared before us. To join the queue, you first run the gauntlet of beggars who continually work the crowd, especially focusing their attentions on the tourists. The long queue slowly snaked its way into the base of the building, where a display explained the many different types of stone used in the construction, and why they were chosen, their breaking strain, their mineral composition at microscopic level, and so on. For the price of admission (8.5 euros) you get to climb the towers that appear so slender from the street and rise some 90 metres or so. However, once you have commenced the climb, being locked within a snaking conga line of multicultural tourists, there is no option but to proceed step by step. What begins as a spiral staircase of about 90 cm width , with a hand rail on the right hand side, quickly narrows into a very tight upward spiral much like being on the inside of a giant snailshell like the nautilus. Seemingly with each step there is less room to place your feet, it is dark, lit only be narrow slits to the outside, and the feeling of claustrophobia grows quickly. It is not helped by young lovers who pause to fool around for ten minutes or more blocking the progress of those below them. No room to get by; plenty of patience required. Claustrophic feelings begin to arise as more climbers come up behind you and you begin to feel squeezed.

At the twenty metre mark, Miriam was not feeling good about proceeding, having bravely overcome her aversion to heights to make it thus far. The opportunity to descend by crossing horizontally to the other tower presented itself, and Miriam proceeded to head downward. It was up to me to continue the upward expedition. The next stretch, up to the sixty metre mark above ground level, continued to narrow and now there were few hand rails, and more holes and little walk out battlement style protrusions where the young again took their chances for photo opportunities and general playing about. Through gaps in the masonry you could get an excellent view of the details on the façade that can only be glimpsed from ground level, such as birds that though made of greenish stone appear light enough to fly from the structure up to heaven. Eventually the staircase pauses and you walk across a bridge like passage where a sign warns you not to linger and of the dangers of strong winds. At the far side the choice is to continue upwards to the highest point, or to start the descent down the alternative staircase. I decided, after taking a few snaps of Barcelona from this height, that I must have caught some height anxiety, for there was no way in the world that I was going to go up any higher.

Turning to the downward stair, I quickly found myself alone for a few minutes, fairly unnerving in the circumstances. Then I caught up (or is that down) to some other downward heading tourists, and soon returned to ground level. Within a few minutes I found Miriam, who had not wasted her time. She had thoroughly explored the Gaudi museum and viewed the interior, where workmen are continuing to push on with the dazzling construction. Inside, huge columns, graceful as giraffe legs, push high into the air, and gold and green ceramic tiles are prepared in sections for attachment to the vaulted ceiling. Everywhere, the fine dust created by the construction work and the water that cools the machinery fills the air. We left with small fragments of the building fabric mingled with our hair, our eyes, and our skin.

Miriam showed me the fascinating displays in the museum that highlighted the breathtaking vision Gaudi has given the world in this building. Regardless of how you feel about religion this man has been inspired by the structures and energy flows of the natural world and has learned so much from his almost clairvoyant reading of such things as fungi, crystals, seeds, animals and birds, the secrets of how strength can be found in curves, parabolas and hyperbolic planes, it is truly a wonder to behold. I was very pleased to have made the effort to see it and Miriam found it equally inspiring.

Having just about reached mental exhaustion point, we found the next available orange bus (but note that there are other buslines running different coloured buses that the orange bus ticket does not apply to, with separate bus stops as well), and taking a vantage point on the upper deck, protected by the windscreen for much of the way, gained a quick view of the remaining touristic highlights as defined by the Barcelona authorities, the requisite grand buildings, remnants of earlier rulers, invaders and so on. All interesting, but the day was coming to an end and we stayed on the bus, happy to be able to lie down in our humble little room; also glad we had brought our own heating element and could make a cup of tea. Tea is seemingly deemed some kind of poison in these parts and could not be seen in the shops.

With a search of the neighbourhood we eventually found a café serving reasonable food and coffee at a price that the locals liked and patronised, and we returned several times to it. This was in the next street along from the Boqueria, and coffee, the lifeblood of this pair of intrepid travellers, was only 1.2 euros against at least twice that for a worse product virtually everywhere else. Think it was called “Bacalla” or something like that in the Portaferrissa.

The supermarket (or supermercat as it is in Spanish) was quite an experience. You enter at one end, go by the security guard, use a narrow plastic basket to gather your selections. Similar to those our parents would have used in the early 1960s, and allowing the store to squeeze more customers into the store. To pay, you line up in one vast queue that is then farmed out to one of about four checkouts. We found that paracetamol was unobtainable in the mercat, a pharmacy being required for that, but we managed to get some bottled water. You just don’t feel safe drinking the tap water, though I don’t know what state the water system is in.

The following morning it was time to bid adios to our Barcelonan experience. We checked out via the smirking sleazy guys at reception, with the free internet PC available at reception that wouldn’t go to any more than a few predetermined sites, and had a weird keyboard that slowed non-Spanish users to almost a complete halt. Basic hotmail use only seemed to be workable. Too bad for Yahoo users like me.

We rolled our baggage to the metro station up Ramblas and after the usual anxiety of trying to figure out the right ticket, the right platform, the right direction and the right place to get off, we made it to the central Barcelona station. Here I waited in line for twenty minutes while someone was stuck at the ticket office getting nowhere, and a Spanish speaking gentlemen didn’t let his lack of English stop him from chatting animatedly to me in an amalgam of Spanish, French , English and a range of other languages. Then the ticket guy shrugged his shoulders and pointed to another queue, refusing to deal with me because I had a Eurail pass. When I eventually found a more helpful woman in the Information & Ticketing area, I confirmed that he could have issued me the tickets I wanted, which were only to the Spanish/French border, from where the intention was to get tickets from the French railways to go on.

So, at last, another dirty, aged train slowly edged us towards Cerbere, the first railway town over the border. Like Portbou on the Spanish side, this is an end of the world kind of place where no one seems to smile. A homeless man lies in his own filth in the waiting area, with his only friends close by him, a bedraggled dog and a marmalade mangy cat seemingly quite happy to be the third member of this nomadic triad. As we waited for our next train to come in – we found that returning to Avignon from here was our only realistic option before nightfall – a woman bought a healthy baguette from the grumpy, sour faced café attendant, walked up and handed it to the homeless man, said “ Bon appetite” and left him in peace. After he had eaten, he walked on his way to who knows where, his dog walking like an old arthritic, his cat sitting across his shoulders as though this was their everyday existence.

There are various forms of torture in the world, but riding on the Spanish and their co-conspirators the French train system is perhaps one of the most persuasive. It’s message to the traveller seems to be – your time is nothing to us. Your journey will take as long as we choose to make it. We won’t tell you how long that will be. Just be assured, it will take longer and will be more uncomfortable than you could imagine. A couple of hours beyond the scheduled time we rattled into Avignon.

This time I made an executive decision. An Ibis sign was visible adjacent to the railyards. Arising to the reception area from a darkened threshold to an elevator that fortunately did have lights, above the crumbling concrete of Avignon station we found refuge for the night. Though it was now almost 10 pm , the hotel was happy to cook up a meal that was more tasty and sustaining than we had enjoyed for many days, the room was clean and quadruple glazed against the railyard noise, and allowed us to have a healing and refreshing sleep. And the cost for all this was less than we had payed for our night in the medieval quarter.
Thus was our Anzac Day spent – the day we remember the sacrifices our armed forces made to help keep Europe free from tyrants through two wars.

Posted by piepers 08:25 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Rapid Decampment

sunny 20 °C

Like clockwork we rolled out on to the narrow Via Romana as the early morning bus approached, just in time to meet us at the stop. Nice to pay one euro each to get back to the station instead of eighteen for a taxi. We find the right platform and train and begin to retrace our way by rail to Nice.

With no direct train available, change at Genoa required, from the fast train down to the dirty and slow rolling stock familiar to us from our night time adventures. Time enough in Genoa to stroll past the Christopher Columbus statue near the rail station (love your work Chris, but sorry we can't fund your trip to the New World. Maybe someone else can chip in?) Procured coffee and cake in the only shop in the street with visible tables and chairs in the sunshine and returned to the station in time for our train to Nice.

All we want to do now, having decided to abandon Venice as a destination, is to get back to England with enough time in hand to squeeze in the sights we missed first time round: Stonehenge and Bath in particular. So, after deep discussions with a helpful ticket clerk at Nice, it was determined that the fast train under the English Channel would be the best option despite a supplementary charge of 75 euros each on top of our Eurail passes. The alternative would be a slow train to Calais, followed by paying our own way on the ferry with maybe a discounted fare, and further uncertain arrangements from Dover back to London.

Journey from Nice to Paris peaceful enough for us - seasoned enough to gather provisions before the journey, but in this case the dining car was in operation. One young American lady found she had failed to get off at Aix-en-Provence and instead found herself several hundred km away in Paris at midnight, perhaps as a result of her insisting she could speak French but clearly could not listen to French and extract any meaning from it.

I had booked a room at the Terminus de Lyon Hotel just near the Gare de Lyon station, so it only took ten minutes and our trusty compass to find our way there. Clean, adequate room, and we were soon asleep.

Posted by piepers 03:56 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

The Day Florence Got Done

sunny 18 °C

The rail booking system for intercountry travel was 'down' last night, when I tried to organise our next move. A fast train was available to get to Florence for the morning of the 29th, but as to making our way back through France, nothing could be confirmed until this morning. We had already decided that a further excursion to Venice would be stretching ourselves too far, and I had emailed the booked hotel in Venice already to cancel it. Hence, by about 8am I had returned to the railways booking office and at least could confirm passage back to Nice. From there we would have to take our chances on what was available.

The train journey from Rome to Florence was quick and smooth, zipping by forest covered hillsides with the mist trickling through the valleys. On arriving at Florence railway station, the usual battle to find the specifics of which way to go, and how far, to find the accommodation that had been booked long ago. First step, buy a local map - the hotel bookings office at the station having supplies in a range of languages at one euro each. Next, try to find anyone with a smattering of English to show the wanted address to and seek their advice. In practise at this point you usually run into a conveniently located publicist for the local taxi drivers who insists that it is far too far to walk. Eighteen euros, including six to carry our two modest suitcases, seemed a little steep for a three kilometre journey.

Nonetheless, we were faced with but one afternoon to achieve the goal of seeing Michaelangelo's David, so we set about this in a very focussed manner. After briefly glancing at the ancient room in the Annalena guest house allotted to us, we consulted our map and planned the most direct walking route to reach the gallery. Once in the street, we marched at high speed back across the river Arne and by-passed the Uffizi gallery, reaching the Galleria Del' Accademia within a half hour. Here we queued up with a thin band of shade to protect us from the hot sun while an accordion player worked the other side of the street, playing his heart out but raising little interest from the crowd. Though we had been warned of the potential for a long wait, it only took about twenty minutes for us to reach the entrance.

Inside, we first checked out a display of unusual and historic musical instruments from many different countries. Included were some very early guitars that looked singularly hard to tune. Best was the Chinese water bowl, whose handles after being dampened are rubbed to produce an eerie sound.

After a while longer perusing the 12th-15th century religious art, full of suffering saints being martyred in various painful ways, we moved on to see several of Micaelangelo's unfinished sculptures, their forms just emerging from the marble. Exciting to see the rough chisel marks of the master, so firm and assured compared to other works of the era, including one that had once been attributed to M-A but in its style is completely wrong.

David stands proud and tall and every bit as impressive as one would expect. Bathed in the diffuse light of his own skylight his veins stand out in a stunningly lifelike manner. Yet I can't help thinking those hands are a little too large. Still, a magnificent sculpture and quite a different experience to the two inch tall reproductions infesting the nearby shops.

Leaving the museum we wander through the streets and take refuge in a McDonalds. After ingesting some sustaining junk food, we researched the local bus routes, finding that it would be possible to bus our way to the station next morning. Later in the evening, the guy on reception at Annalena gesticulated wildly to emphasise I would have to get down to the tobacconist shop pronto so as to get some bus tickets. You can't just buy them on the bus! So we ventured down the road and after waiting for every local in town to buy their fags and lottery tickets we were equipped with tickets for the morning bus.

While waiting to arrange a wake up call, I flicked through a book in the lobby that gave the history of the guesthouse. It had started as a convent in the mid fifteenth century, then was in the hands of a gentleman and his wife, Annalena. The family fell on hard times and borrowed money from Cosimo, one of the powerful Medici family. Later, Medici foreclosed on the loan and took possession of the house, together with its beautiful garden, which still exists today behind a high fence.

At night we prowl the streets and pass through the ancient doors of the Porte Romana. We find our destined pizzas and local red wine and sleep, tired from our long walks today.

Posted by piepers 19:58 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Now we are in Avignon

sunny 22 °C

Up not too early to investigate the options for breakfast, not too keen on the offerings at the Holiday Inn. Soon found Holland runs on sugary offerings and little by way of fresh fruit or vegetables. Plenty of cafes but all offering substantially the same menu of pancakes, waffles, ham, baguettes all skewed heavily to a high meat diet. Good coffee also seems unreasonably hard to find. Stroll through the narrow and many directional lanes of the area across from the Centraal Station square, where already at ten am people are off their faces on either alcohol or other things. Sitting at tables on the street with big glasses of beer. The interesting thing to us was the indifference that the locals displayed to all the goings on of the mainly US and British and Spanish youth, as though normal life continues unaffected, the attitude being ‘let them have their fun, they will be buying some munchies in my shop any minute now.’

Anyway, the profusion of bad taste shops selling t-shirts, hippie paraphernalia, pseudo-rastafarian hats and so on soon becomes so boring that one decides quickly to seek out the fine artworks that have brought us to this town. Now as you start to try to go somewhere with a purpose, you discover that the streets run in odd directions, basically the main streets are like spokes on a wheel ( a wheel that a drunk has jumped on and bent at angles here and there) and between the spokes canals of various widths run between the mainly 17th century houses. These houses, the legacy of the wealthy merchant class who made their pile of gold during Holland’s golden age of trade, tend to be about four storeys high, with high peaked gable roofs, and some are so old that their foundations have sagged to one side so their walls are no longer straight. Some of these are so bent (like some of the visitors to the town) that they lean on their neighbours for support, and their floors are visibly out of square.

The Tourist Info office, which had been closed tight when we arrived in the darkness of the previous evening, sold me two Holland Passes, which promised prepaid entry to a number of the usual tourist attractions and discounts to others. Being keen to avoid wasting time in queues, I had taken up this offer, which cost 25 euros for each of us. Eventually with the constant guide of my trusty map, our tram stormed its way to the Rijksmuseum. This is indeed a monument to what must have been the peak of Dutch success in world trade and a resultant pride in celebrating their achievements. At the entrance sits a model ship, based on a design that was never made in the real world, but nevertheless shows the key means by which the Dutch traders ventured out into the East Indies and returned with riches based on any trade they could profitably participate in – never mind if the natives were subjugated and the trade included items like guns and opium.

Today those traders have a strange immortality as they gaze out, with all their facial oddities and blemishes captured by master artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. For we who have only known these works in art book reproductions, it was stunning to see the artistry of these great masters of the past, and in this museum it is possible to be very close to the works and study their brushwork at close quarters. Many of the works on view are stunningly detailed, and with their smooth, thickly varnished finish some have a more real effect than a modern colour photograph – because of the artists selection of what details to include, and the effect of the composition. Brilliant works, with Rembrandt probably the master to be revered above the others for consistently outstanding execution.

Apart from the paintings, the museum also had endless displays of fine silverware, Delft porcelain items, furniture with intricate inlays of exquisite timber, all the material goods that rich merchants could possibly use to show off their wealth to each other and to history. Too much to appreciate in a visit, or perhaps ever. All in all, a strange irony that in creating these works that will be retained and savoured as examples of the highest achievements of art, the finest works contain an implicit criticism of the smug self belief of those who have been portayed (having paid their subscription to be included in the group picture, such as “The Night Watch”). You didn’t just have to be part of the group in reality, you had to have the money to chip in or the artist would leave you out of the picture, or leave you for eternity with only a portion of your face showing, obscured by a pike or something.

By the time we had left the museum, the day was almost done and after scouting for half edible food we headed back to the hotel, with art works playing on our minds far into the night.

This morning we ventured on to the train system, as the RAI station was co-located with the tram terminus near our hotel. We soon found that the railways were faster and threw you around less than the tram, and it became our preferred means of getting in to Amsterdam central. We had already found that the Van Gogh museum was close to the Rijksmuseum so no time was wasted in getting there. Whereas with the Rijksmuseum our Holland Passes allowed us to skip the queue and go straight in (although I had to convince a guard-woman-bulldog-creature of the legitimacy of the scheme, it being only in place for a few days at this stage), with Van Gogh some patient waiting was required. Once inside, this was without doubt a highlight of the journey. To see the totality of Van Gogh’s life experience and his work from its early, self taught but undeniably unique first canvases, through his interaction with other artists and dabbling with their ideas of what painting is about, to the flowering of his genius and its tragic last few outpourings in his final canvases. By the time we reached “Wheatfield with crows” I was a blubbering emotional wreck. I have never been so moved by paintings in my life. For anyone who has suffered – and I guess that means anyone who has lived in this world – you must go to see the legacy of soul filled communication Vincent has left to us all. It will affect you. It touched me in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

After that, we were emotionally drained and in need of a coffee. In my usual frugal style, I thought I would take up the offer on the stubs of the Rijksmuseum tickets, for a discount at the Cobra café located in the Museum Square. Here, the offhanded manner in which our waitress declared there was no menu, you could have mushroom soup or a baguette and coffee, was followed by twenty five minutes of watching other patrons whose orders were filled while we sat with increasing hunger and decreasing patience. Coffee came eventually, but in the end I fronted the counter and told them I would pay for the coffee but wouldn’t wait any longer for service. The business was clearly about selling booze to the tourists, as I commented to Miriam, the danger with a cobra is that one bite can be so costly.

That night it was again difficult to sleep, our minds swirling with the hundreds of images, so many familiar but yet so much more powerful in their true appearance. The room unbearably stuffy and no possibility of fresh air except by travelling seven floors down and walking on the streets with the resident schizo who constantly approached passers-by soliciting money. I went for a long walk in search of milk to make some coffee in our room, and felt like I had walked half way across Holland before finding a shop still open at 9.30pm. Be advised: out of the city centre everything shuts early. Find the local supermarket and stock up on what you will need for the night, or feel like a prisoner in your poky little hotel room.


This morning we concluded we had had quite enough of Amsterdam and would have been happy to move on, but the room had been booked already so no escape possible. We found that walking was a good way to get to see more of the city and make sense of its layout, so set off on what we knew would be a fairly length stroll, towards the Hortus, the botanical gardens. Surely we made a comical sight, me with my head in a map half the time, straining to find the street signs or recognisable landmarks, Miriam constantly rescuing me from dangerous traffic or from bumping pedestrians with my backpack as I turned this way and that. At last we rounded a corner and glimpsed some greenery, and after completely circumnavigating the perimeter, found the entrance to the gardens.

This long established garden, originally the place where medicinal plants were grown and doctors taught in their usage – and we are talking about powerful plants that can kill if the dosage and use is not well understood – was somewhat of a curiosity. An ambitious greenhouse arrangement provided three different climatic conditions, one of which provided a suitable environment for a number of Australian plants, such as the Eucalyptus Ficifolia, Ericas, Grevilleas, Queensland Bottle Trees (with no bottle formation likely in the next twenty years by the look of it) as well as such Ozzie cottage favourites as Pelargonium and Geraniums! Elsewhere, we searched in vain for a Gingko Biloba, but among the conifers section, pride of place was given to a small Wollemi Pine protected by a steel fence, one of the small original release to botanists worldwide of the rare Australian tree. All in all, I must say that our front yard contains a plant collection that is broader and in better condition than this pride of Dutch horticulture, and we don’t charge 6 euros for admission to the public!

Again, this was a case of having to explain the Holland Pass system to the guy on the desk, but he didn’t seem at all fussed about it.

It was a different story in the afternoon, when we decided to get one last scrap of value from our passes by visiting, of all things, the Bible Museum. As a recovering lapsed Catholic, Miriam has an interest in the historical aspects of biblical times, and I was also keen to see some of the antiquities there. Already tired from the day’s walk so far, we became somewhat lost, being far from the areas to which we had become accustomed around Centraal Station. As we pondered our maps, a classic Dutchman, complete with broad smile, funny hat and bicycle, appeared before us and obviously wanted to help us. Even more so when we mentioned we were looking for the Bible museum, he clearly took us as pilgrims earnestly seeking a holy site. He proceeded to give a fifteen minute or more exposition in an amalgam of Dutch and something that might have been English, or perhaps not. We were to go “oder da bridge and oder da bridge and oder the bridge” (that cross the little canals) one doo drei and dat way (waving to the left). Then to make sure we understood, he repeated the performance with more hand signals and heavy stress on the number of bridges and which way NOT to turn. And perhaps he was some kind of Dutch angel after all, because we followed his directions as best we could and on the edge of exhaustion, found ourselves outside the Bible Museum after all.

This museum had some interesting Egyptian artefacts that the original owner of the house had collected, his model of the Tabernacle, and displays of models various loonies had made over the centuries of the Temple of Solomon based on measurement derived from the Bible. It was a convincing demonstration of how a list of specifications can be interpreted in absolutely different ways by people, depending on their own mind set. The best part of the house, I thought, was the oval shaped staircase that runs down through the house, and off which the various rooms of the museum are reached through doors of different colours. As the steps widen towards the base, the levels go a little crazy and you are advised to hold the railings to not lose your footing.

Retracing our steps oder der bridge and oder the bridge et cetera, we found our way back to Central Station, and emboldened by our Biblical adventures, and unable to find where to buy tickets, we rode the train freely as the street urchins of Amsterdam back to the transatlantic blandness of our Holiday Inn.

Time to get the hell out of this city ringed by water, dirty water befouled by take away containers, scraps of plastic, pigeons and Canal Cruising Captains raking in 11 euro a head for a brief tour of key localities you can walk between within an hour anyway. Training in to Centraal Station for one last time, I ventured to the ticket counter to have our Eurail Select passes endorsed for validity, the necessary step before you can use them out on the rails. Tickets were issued to get us to Brussels, where we would have to change trains to continue on via the Thalys Fast Train to Paris. There is always a time of anxiety when travelling in a land where you don’t have a scrap of the language, is this the right platform, is this the right station, can we go in this carriage….. But once on board, all was well, though the inspector glared at me as I hadn’t written today’s date in the Eurail pass, a big no-no. The second leg, the smooth sleek thalys high speed train, zipped by almost like travelling on a plane, but at ground level. The scenery zips by with a dream like quality, by the time you point something out you are way passed it and there is something else briefly coming into view. Arriving in Paris in the late afternoon, it was necessary to use the Metro to find our way to the hotel, and we found that quite smelly, dirty and intimidating, the air filled with the stench of Parisien Pissing. Steep steps, me cursing the weight of Miriams suitcase and wondering why she has brought so many bricks with her. While I pondered the map after coming up from the Metro she looked around and pointed out the hotel just behind me. The Campanile Hotel…. Tiny room, plastic cups, the electic jug permanently mounted on the wall, lots of street noise suppressed by double glazing. A room for sleeping not one you want to stay in.

Here I pass authorial control to Miriam who will provide some commentary on the delights of Paris, by special request of her sister Esther. She will also give a few comments on England and elsewhere, perhaps. Here goes:

To quote Paul Simon, there are angels in the architecture, and it’s the first time I’ve understood the statement. Not sure if he was referring to Paris but there are angels in the architecture there. The city is humbling, beautiful and so historic. On ground level the stench of urine is everywhere not limited to the gaffers who sleep around the churches and riverbanks in little cardboard shelters, and small tents provided by Doctors Without Limits. The contrast is the smell of some beautiful perfumes of women walking passed. The women are tastefully dressed but not expensively – they are not overdone, just tasteful. None of them have big bums. I conclude I have no French blood. The children are happy and black children seem to have equality here that was not evident in London and Amsterdam and especially Ireland. In France the races are irrelevant, the only crime is to have milk in your coffee.

It truly is a country where democracy rules but contradictions are everywhere. A lot of crazies on the streets but a charitable attitude is shown to them by society. Even to go into the churches you have step across foul puddles and fumes of human and animal excrement. You can’t take your eyes off the architecture; it’s wonderful with gold leaf renewed on public buildings and statues shining in the sun, lots of pigeons. Outside our hotel a heating vent gave out warm air from the Metro beneath, where a crowd of pigeons would warm themselves before nesting for the night. In the morning, we found a crowd of Algerian looking youth rolling around with the pigeons on their dung and happily feeding crumbs to the pigeons like some ritual.

The highlights for me of Paris and Amsterdam was seeing in 3d the pictorial icons of my youth, the Eiffel Tower good but disappointing. In my childhood it was a marvel of engineering but has been outdone by many other projects since. After viewing the world from the plane the Eiffel Tower seems not so high at all. More quaint, yet to contrast Notre Dame breathes history and makes one feel insignificant in history. An archaeological dig beneath Notre Dame explains and puts in context the Celts who first inhabited the site around 300-500 BC only to be driven out by the Gauls who were driven out by the Romans. The island on which the cathedral stands was the site of the original settlement, chosen for its defensive qualities. And the people are still eating the same things that were found in archaeological evidence… beef, mutton, fowl pork and oysters a favourite. Don’t know about snails. Can’t come at them. Even after wine.

The church magnificent, stained glass windows dead bishops organ music permeating the air, Shane went to try to climb the bell tower but too late to get in, I went around relighting peoples prayer candles that had gone out. Couldn’t resist it. On this very site the real St Vincent started his charity in about 1623, still going strong. Part of the archaeology, not part of the church PR machine.

The wealth of art in this city between the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay astonishing, and there were dozen of other museums we couldn’t get to see…just arted out, brain full, couldn’t take in another image, and it’s true that the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room no matter where you stand, I tested it and it is absolutely true!
I even squatted on the ground, the guards thought I was nutty, but I had to test it. The guards spent their whole time saying “PAS DE PHOTOS!” but arrogant tourists seem to think their endless flashlights have no effect on the precious artworks, both in Paris and Amsterdam. More Van Gogh in Paris, mainly from the psychotic phase, very powerful…. More sunflowers in London but didn’t get to see them there. Hoping to get back there. We saw a Cezanne and Pisarro exhibition, tit for tat, both painting the same scene side by side as painting buddies and influencing each other. Fantastic art.

Also walking along beside the Seine, passed the bridge where Resistance clandestine meetings were held during the war, leading to many shootings by the Nazis, moving memorial plaque there.

Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was a very emotional day and his works are truly inspired though flawed in part, probably by his mental state. The museum claimed his condition was epilepsy but I would dispute that. The canals though filthy were just as Bill Berkelmans, Antoinette’s father, described to me as a child. The youth of Amsterdam made me feel old. The old people my age and older hanging around with the youth just looked pathetic. Didn’t see anyone with a finger in a dyke.
But lots of the old lift up bridges you see in some of Van Gogh’s paintings across the canals.

Back to Ireland for a minute….. the Ring of Kerry is as good as if not better than the Great Ocean Road but the weather was too rainy to see it at its best. Ireland full of familes with at least four girls and sometimes one boy at the end, often no male progeny, very attentive fathers. People of Ireland on the streets very helpful but service in commerce quite shockingly bad. Indifferent, rude, do as little as they can get away with. Filth in the streets of Dublin, can’t understand. Non Irish treated as second class citizens. Hothouse atmosphere of a union meeting, everyone on the verge of being in a bad temper in the media. Sinn Fein up in arms about the sale of the Irish National Anthem words and treasured documents coinciding with the anniversary of the 1916 uprising but not offering to put up the money to buy them. Just whingeing that someone should do something.

And as for England……where I got sick, struck down by the cold of the place. And detoxing from cigarettes, I admit. It was like visiting Grandpa’s birthplace. The place where he decided to come to Australia (Lyme Regis, they just call it Lyme ) full of history but the cliff he walked on has slid into the sea in the last few years. Fossils are the big business of Charmouth not to mention our encounter with Sybil Fawlty. I think Shane described her.

Moving on to our visit to Iris at Braunston, near Northampton, she was just lovely. Shane couldn’t get over the resemblance in the way she sat at a table and the fall of her hair, the family traits of the Whites were definitely there. Iris claims I am very “White” and look very much like one of her aunts. She did discuss Jessie’s bargepole delicacy, describing her and Peter just appearing stepping over the building rubble without notice while she was busy with renovations. Some interesting family stuff but more of that on our return. The canal was where I got really sick, couldn’t get warm and kind of lost three days. Fortunately Shane bonded really well with Iris. Anyhow, Esther, this is my input for now, more later hopefully and sorry to hear you have been ill, don’t blame me I wasn’t there to give it to you. Love from Miriam. PS Please keep an eye on Sean after Liam’s departure just till we’re back.

Back to Shane now……

By day three I had grown fed up with Paris, the daily grind of searching for something to eat that didn’t contain ox tongue, or pate, or cow’s head or other bizarre things, where is the fresh salad and vegetables , what’s so hard about turning on a bit of that?
We had seriously overdosed on the best art in the world, possibly. A full day in the Louvre, with works ranging from Egyption antiquities through Greece, Rome and all the best of Europe upto the mid nineteenth century. Then the following day an even more determined visit to the Museum D’Orsay, full to the brim with every great impressionist work you have ever seen in an art book, topped off with an excellent Cezanne and Pisarro exhibition. And then when I complained that I hadn’t seen any Delacroix, Miriam found some for me within minutes. It was a feast that made the brain hurt and the heart ache. To see the peak of achievement of so many different approaches to art was really something, and at the heart of what I wanted to get out of this trip.

We discussed what to do next, with a room booked for the town of Perpignan for tomorrow (Saturday), where to go, what to do…. I plumped for a quick dash down to Avignon, for no better reason than that I like the sound of the town, and couldn’t get the childrens song out of my head. “sur le pont d’avignon, la la la la, la la la la”. Again a fast train, the TGV that cris cross France very efficiently, gorgeous scenery straight out of Cezanne’s canvasses, sweet villages with ruined medieval towers perched on green distant hills. Avignon was a Rome away from Rome for Popes seven hundred years ago who didn’t want to leave France, so they moved the papacy here for a while. Things are just so old here, the clock tower was last restored during the reign of Napoleon the Third; I think that’s about 1830 or so. And it’s still ticking away….
It is actually a walled city; the medieval stone wall is visible through the bathroom window (which also has the first bidet we have seen, don’t think I’ll be experimenting with that). The streets are in parts so narrow you can almost stretch out and touch either side, cars squeeze by and still there are homeless drinkers in the streets. You could easily make a computer game out of this town, it’s just like a Hero’s Quest kind of town. We enjoyed a pleasant meal at the Pi 3.14 Brasserie, where my French seems to be improving enough to almost hold a conversation with the proprietor. They certainly appreciate it when you make the effort. Man, don’t know how I’ll do in Barcelona, don’t have any idea of how Spanish grammar and syntax work.

OK, gotta get ready for bed now, as tomorrow has come all too soon. It takes as long to write about what you have seen as to see it, it seems….. good night to all. Even if you are just waking up for the day, as the sun rises in your part of the globe.

Posted by piepers 02:22 Archived in France Comments (0)

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Emboldened by the ease with which we had walked into reasonable acccommodaton at Killarney, we simply packed up the car and headed east. It became a long, long drive in terms of time at least, as the roadworks that seemed to afflict every main road in Ireland had brought the city of Cork and twenty miles either side of it to a standstill. I’ve been in some traffic jams, but this one was from the sixth circle of hell or thereabouts. In damp and darkness we hauled our hungry bodies into the town of New Ross, with nowhere to stay and shops visibly closing down around us. A hotel clerk tipped us that there was an Italian restaurant at the far end of a dark lane that could have had a doorway to a Thieves Guild or something equally shady. However, the restaurant was there, open, and putting something resembling food – but not very good Italian food – before us. So it was with a heavy gut that we humbly asked at the hotel if they could give us a room. Inspection showed it to be clean and with plasma screen tv mounted on the wall – quite unexpected from the appearance of the old fashioned pub downstairs.

Breakfast the next day was notable for the attitude of the serving girl at breakfast , who dished out poached eggs that were stomach turningly undercooked. It’s the first time in history I’ve had to send eggs back to the kitchen. Indeed, for all friendliness and willingness to help that the people in the streets show here, the service attitudes of shop assistants has been disappointing, with a few cases of us just up and leaving after waiting excessively long for attention. Enough griping for now, the car must be taken the last hour’s drive to Wexford before I start incurring more charges beyond the excess milage.

After dropping off the hire car at Wexford, just over the bridge where fifty seven odd rebels had been executed in the eighteenth century, I rejoined Miriam who was waiting at the station /bus stop guarding our baggage. A slow bus ride up along the east coast and inland took us through the streets of Arklow , the rolling green hills of county Wicklow, and at last into the fair city of Dublin. Tired from another long afternoon of sitting still, we decided to grab a cab to the Mespil Hotel, where I had managed to book a room via internet from Killarney. After settling in briefly we headed out for a walk along the Grand Canal opposite the hotel, where a statue of local poet and character Patrick Kavanagh sits on a bench waiting for people to sit alongside and have a yarn in spirit at least. Through St Stephens Green, where James Joyce walked and wrote of , and where a bust of the writer looks out on the lovers of this generation as they court upon the damp but sun tinged grass.

The streets of Dublin are lined with rubbish and papers that blow around wildly, catching in the spikes of fences and festooning the many building sites. A few old men with long handled tools pick ineffectually at the flotsam, resplendent in their high visibility vests, a fashion item that has been all the rage right across England and now Ireland as well. Stepped into a huge church with many fine pews labelled with the long dead who had paid for the privilege. Massive dome arcing above, and beautiful marblework everywhere. Once we had driven our feet to the edge of pain, a great famine descended on us. This was duly resolved at an American style diner with burgers, chili for me and the standard vegeburger for M. Delicious onion rings and a thick, thick shake to sluice it down.

Fitful sleep after little but Irish TV or the CNBC exposing maltreatment by the Chinese authorities in land seizures in the cities. Early to bed with a plan to rise and see the town some more.

14-4-6 Good Friday

In the morning a brisk walk through the centre of Dublin, hello to Oscar Wilde reclining on a large boulder in the park, a busker grey and immobile jerking into a convulsive dance if given coins, a small boy startled running to his Dad for comfort, and coming back with another coin for more thrills.

Researched the way out of here – a five minute walk to a stop where the airport bus comes by every fifteen minutes. Throw the bags in the luggage bay and off we go, as always when driving to the airport of cities everywhere you glimpse the seedier, dilapidated side of the city, then wind on to a blank motorway with nondescript half dead plantings struggling for life among the fumes.

On reaching Dublin Airport, we played queuing games for an hour or so, first lining up at a RyanAir counter but that was only for the flight to Stanstead, next counter, wrong flight showing on the monitor, at last a Host unhooks a barrier and marshals various would be passengers into a newly formed queue in the correct location. It was a bit like being a bee in an unknown hive, where the energy flow eventually pushed you into the required behaviour.

Onto the flight, 737-800 just like Virgin and Qantas use back home, but this one decked out in the gaudy yellow and blue of RyanAir. And they delivered us safely and on time despite late departure to Eindhoven airport.

Eindhoven airport is relatively new, with a sparse modernist architecture and no kiosk or shops hat could be found. Bus connections to Amsterdam though are no problem, and cost no more than Heathrow to London. As evening descended we rolled across the flat land of Holland, cris crossed by canals, and glimpsed a few old windmills and more contemporary wind generation mills, rotating gracefully and without ruining the aesthetics of the landscape.

The bus deposited we few passengers – just us and a small group of youngsters out for a lark in the freedom of Amsterdam – at the Centraal Station. In the darkness of Good Friday night, it took us a little while to find the right tram to get to our hotel. IN the end it was a short ride of 20 minutes to the RAI station precinct, where a large convention centre and theatre provides a venue for businesses to meet. The Holiday Inn was visible from the tram stop, and after a quick meal we crashed, exhausted, into bed. Holiday Inn like similar American hotel chains everywhere, you could be in Geelong and it would look the same, but the toilet is bizarre and difficult to flush.
Have nicknamed it the Hitler toilet it is almost sexually macabre.

This travelling lark can take it out of you when it goes on and on. Memo: factor in more substantial rest breaks in the future. More later……

Posted by piepers 03:54 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

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