Thursday, October 11, 2007

Belgium, Cologne and back to Paris

We have just completed an amazing ten days in Belgium (in the battlefields of the first world war), Brussels (one day), and Cologne in Germany with some family friends. Judith and I attended the 90th anniversary commemoration of the battle of Paeschendale, where my great uncle William Christopher Smith was killed, and the re-interment of the remains of five Australian soldiers. We also located the graves of four of Judith's great uncles and relatives killed around the same time.

We managed a close-up photo of the Governor-General who spoke to us as he walked past. In a long holiday of eating out and looking at cathedrals, museums and art galleries this part of the trip was welcome and extremely important to us. It was cerainly a part of the trip that we will never forget.

The city of Ypres (pronounced "eeper" by the way) was completely destroyed in the first world war. The main town hall, the Cloth Hall (so named because of the cloth trade conducted there through the centuries), was totally destroyed and was completely recreated in its original form after the war. It is a beauiful and impressive sight.

On a lighter note, we hired a car in Lille for the three days for this part of the trip. We ordered the cheapest automatic we could, but when we went to pick it up they said they didn't have any automatic cars so they upgraded us to a manual Alfa Romeo! So we had to drive a six-gear manual Alfa around for three days - damn!!

After our three days in Ypres we took the fast train to Brussels where we had a look around the centre of town and only stayed one night. We then took another train to the border town of Aachen where we were met by the Ehrlich family who were our extremely generous and hospitable hosts for the next three days. It was great to catch up with Joerg, who lived with us for three months in 1996-7, and to meet his family.

The Ehrlichs and Joerg showed us the cathedral, which was the church of Charlemagne, and the Treasury museum connected to it in Aachen and these were indeed impressive and beautiful. It is here that Charlemagne was buried in 814 AD. All through Aachen and Cologne can be found the remnants of the Romans and Roman buildings.

The Ehrlichs took us to their house in Cologne and we had a wonderful two days exploring Cologne, Bonn and the surrounding countryside. The Cologne cathedral dominates the cityscape and is indeed as impressive inside as it is outside. We again saw the attached Cathedral Treasury which is full of treasures from centuries past.

We visited Cardinal Clement's summer rococo palace on the outskirts of Cologne and had a good look at Beethoven's birth town of Bonn. The last night in Cologne was indeed a treat as Jurgen and Elisabeth took us to the city's underground concert hall where we heard the Cologne Symphony Orchestra directed by Markus Stent who only recently returned from Australia where he directed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for six years.

We returned to Paris the next day by fast train (four hours from Cologne to Paris) and are staying in a flasher part of town at a flasher price! (300 dollars a night). We are taking it easy these last couple of days in Paris and mixing a bit of sight-seeing with shopping.

We have had a brilliant trip with some incredible highlights but it is fair to say that we are looking forward to going home.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Well, we've finally made it to Paris. The first thing we had to do, though, was make a dental appointment to fix one of Judith's fillings! On emerging from the subway to go to the dentist we were confronted by the Arc de Triomphe - it had quite an impact as I thought we would approach it from the distance of at least two or three hundred metres, but there it was towering right in front of us.

We've been doing all the tourist things that one does in Paris and having a great time. The Eiffel Tower is indeed impressive and is a focal point all over Paris. We went up to the second level for the view as the top level was a further 45 minute wait.

We have hit the art galleries of course. We have been well disciplined and have got to all of the galleries early and have avoided any lengthy queues. We made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa straight away and got an easy view - and by 11.00 am there was a massive stream of tourists heading for the Mona Lisa and (it would seem) not much else. I found it quite amusing that when I went to the French collection there was hardly anybody there as was the case in the Objets d'Art salons.

The Louvre is very impressive but I particularly liked the Musee D'Orsee which is in an old railway station that more resembles an old palace than a railway station! It is simply spectacular as is the art housed within. It has an overwhelming collection of seminal impressionist and post-impressionist paintings and sculptures. It was exciting to not only see five, ten and twenty or more paintings of such famous artists as Degas, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and so on, but these were some of their best known works as well.

It really brings home the massive significance of the impact of the French on modern art.

The hotel we are in is in the Latin Quarter and is in an excellent position. We are about 5 minutes walk from the Pantheon (one way) and the river Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral the other way. The other bonus about Paris is the magnificent underground railway system. We bought a weekly ticket and have travelled all over the place without any worries. A train comes along to any station within two or three minutes so you don't have to wait long and waste any time. Anyway, must dash - got a train to catch!

Dijon and Troyes

We got to Dijon from Avignon (again on the train) on Friday. Dijon is indeed a beautiful old city. It too used to be a walled city but there are only a few remnants of the wall left - and yes, this is where they make the mustard. We walked to most of the tourist places, but on Saturday we took the free bus around town (as you would)! At the same time, the whole centre of town was turned into a marketplace with wall-to-wall people which was quite amazing in itself. When we asked, we were told that this happens once a year, so we were very lucky to be there on that very day.

The town square (place?) was about 600 metres from our hotel and it was a beautiful space. At the front of the square was the Musee de Beau Artes which has an amazing collection of paintings and sculptures. The building has a tower which everyone is able to climb to see the amazing view of the whole town and distant hills. An additional bonus is that it is free to climb on Sundays so it cost us nothing for the privilege!

The tower was three hundred and twenty three steps up (I know - I counted them!) We are starting to realise why we are both losing weight. The upside is that we were both able to climb the steps quite quickly without any problems at all.

These are a couple of the views that we were rewarded with for the effort.

We really enjoyed our three days in Dijon and would readily go back again.

On Monday we took the train to a relatively small provincial city about 150 kilometres north of Dijon called Troyes where we stayed two nights. We have been staying in relatively budget accomodation (by European standards) and the hotel in Dijon was a bit rough around the edges so we decided to treat ourselves to four star accomodation ($200 a night). It was a good hotel and, except for very poor lighting, worth the extra money.

Troyes is yet another pretty town built originally within walls. Its particular claim for notice is the preponderance of old medieaval buildings with external timber. Being in a very nice hotel in a beautiful old town we used our two days here to re-charge our batteries and just chill-out a bit. In this spirit, Judith made an appointment and had her fingernails manicured.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Les chiens

One very noteworthy thing about France and Italy is the presence of dogs. They are everywhere - a good thing in a way if you consider that most of them live in apartments and would need regular exercise. However they are not only on the streets but also in restaurants, museums (in Italy) and on the trains.

There appear to be no rules about picking up after your dog, so consequently there is dog poo all over the place. I note in Avignon and Dijon the local councils do suggest you might clean up after Fido and give plastic bags but it is only a suggestion, and frequently not acted upon by local residents.
I am, as most of you know a dog lover, but being in a small railway carriage with someones dog or with their furry friend sitting next to you at a restaurant has its limits. But I would rather sit next to a dog than a smoker!
We did note at the Archaeological Museum in Naples that whilst we had to go through security and leave back packs, umbrellas etc in the cloak room that dogs were allowed in. I am not sure what happens, if anything, if Rover lifts his leg on a artifact from Pompeii.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

If this is Tuesday we must be in Avignon

We got off the TGV fast train at the new station out of town. It was very windy and quite cold - a shock after the last five weeks of heat. We stayed in a small hotel in an "apartment" - that is, it had a kitchen as part of the bedroom. It was in fact very good with quite good views of two separate churches (see one below) - although it WAS up three flights of stairs. We have both lost weight and we think it is due to all of the walking and particularly all of the flights of stairs we keep encountering in hotels, railway stations and tourist sites.

We took a boat trip up the Rhone river and saw the famous bridge and took a guided tour of the town which included the Popes' Palace which they occupied in the fifteenth century.

On our last day there Judith enjoyed a couple of hours shopping while I visited the Langladon Gallery which proudly boasts the only publicly exhibited Van Gogh in Burgundy. They also have one Modigliani, one Pisarro and a Picasso but this is very small beer in the European context. However, it was a very well kept gallery and I spent a pleasant hour there. I figured that this was just a little taster for the real McCoy in Paris.

We're in France

We arrived in the town of Menton on the French Riviera after a six hour trip by train (changing at Genoa). In a telephone conversation with Rohan he suggested I drop the "arty" shots and put a few more shots of where we are - so I'm going to take his advice.
Menton is a lovely smallish town on the Cote D'Azure just about fifteen kilometres from Monaco. The weather is beautiful and I felt I had to go for a swim just to say I had, although Judith wimped out preferring to take a photo for evidence (so, no arty shot here).
Below is a photo of the hotel we stayed in; the Hotel De Londres. Our room was rather small but we had a small balcony which we could sit out on and take in the view - we did manage a glimpse of the Mediterranean from our room.
Menton itself is a relatively quiet place with a lot of ageing tourists - we fitted right in. I'd put in a few exclamation marks at appropriate times (such as then) but neither of us can find it on the French keyboard.

On Monday we took the train to Nice and got on a hop-on-hop-off bus. We got a good look at Nice, especially the obscenely expensive boats in the harbour. It is a beautiful city down by the sea but other parts are decidedly seedy. A highlight was that we got to see the Henri Matisse gallery and museum. This was extremely well organised and curated.

On the way back from Nice we stopped off at Monacco and had a quick look and an ice-cream - talk about life in the fast lane (another one of those exclamation marks would be handy here - and here).

The next day we took the fast train via Marseilles up to Avignon but that's another post. Below is the fast train at Nice central station.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Well, we have had our three days in Florence in quite a nice hotel with a (small) lift and air conditioning - what more could you want? None of the significant sights and sites are far in Florence so it was an easy but quite expensive couple of days (52 euro/84 Australian dollars to see two galleries!).
One of the major attractions is the Duomo or cathedral - this was about 120 metres from the front door of our hotel. While this is the fourth largest cathedral in the world, to us it is almost an "inside-out" cathedral - all of the decoration and splendour is on the outside and inside it is very restrained for European Roman Catholic cathedrals.

Our first gallery visit was to the Uffizi on the edge of the Arno river. This is a fantastic gallery with a staggering collection of renaissance paintings. We were thrilled to see Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" and "Spring", and two Canalettis of the Doges' Palace and Grand Canal in Venice.
No trip to Florence could miss the goldsmiths' area on the Ponte Vecchio. However, while the bridge on the Arno was a picturesque sight, we were particularly underwhelmed by the experience due to the incredible number of traditional jewellers stores, the over-abundance of gold jewellery almost cascading out of the windows and the ever-present wall-to-wall river of tourists!

Our last gallery visit was to the Galleria Accademia largely to see Michaelangelo's statue of David. This was quite inspiring and we were both very impressed and appropriately awed. There is a life-sized facsimile in the nearby piazza but it is nothing compared to the real thing.

My eye was caught during a last minute stroll by a gift shop almost next to our hotel. I think it very fitting to finish this entry with a photo of what caught my eye. Yes, it is a small figurine of a middle-aged David - Michaelangelo is probably still rolling over in his grave. And, yes, the figurine is still there and not in either of our suitcases!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Italian observations

Milton is busy putting photos on the blog and it is my task to make more social observations.

Fashion is BIG - and most Italians are extremely well dressed. This includes small children. I have priced some toddler and baby clothes and they are very stylish , beautifully made and extremely expensive.

In spite of the dietary staples of pizza and pasta we see very few overweight Italians.

Smoking is widespread. There
a ban on smoking inside restaurants but that does not stop people lighting up at the outside tables.

Along with potential lung cancer I must also assume that skin cancer is not a worry either as many Italians, especially women, are extremely tanned.

The range of calendars available for the tourist dollar is huge. Of note is the one featuring 12 very sexy looking priests. Or at least 12 very sexy looking men wearing clerical garb. If only I knew a good Catholic girl I could buy this one for! (Marg B or Michelle I thought of you both and then discarded the thought.)

This calendar is only rivalled by the one featuring various sculptured penises from statues in Italy.

Lucca and Pisa

We got to our "Guesthouse" room on Saturday afternoon and decided to change our plans and only stay in Lucca for four nights and then go to Florence. The room was up one flight of stairs, fairly basic and old but clean, and we had access to a shared kitchen.

We then settled in to three days of taking it easy and just enjoying the ambience. Lucca is a city of about 81,000 people but the heart of the town is the old walled city. The town has maintained the wall and the old town within and this is where we stayed.

It is a truly beautiful place but definitely a "tourist town". As the wall is an old fortification, it is very wide on top and the locals and the tourists alike use it to walk, cycle, run, walk the dog, roller-blade and simply stroll on a Sunday afternoon around the city. It is also Puccini's home town and this is reflected in some of the statues, street names and tourist souvenirs.

On Monday we took the train to Pisa (a 30 minute trip) and spent four or five hours walking around Pisa and going to see the leaning tower. As the Lonely Planet says, nothing can prepare you for the reality of the lean of the tower - it certainly does lean. The authorities have been working on ensuring that it does not lean so far that it falls over, and apparently their efforts have been successful. The interesting point is that they could probably fix it so that it doesn't lean but then no-one would come to see it and the town would not get so many tourist dollars!!

One thing is becoming increasingly clear, Italy's economy would crash without all of this tourism - a point that a number of the locals do not seem to be aware of (!).

My main question on the Leaning Tower is why do so many people have their photo taken with their hands up as if they are stopping it from falling over? Who said this was a funny, memorable, amusing or whatever thing to do?
We took the train back to Lucca and spent the rest of the time on housekeeping matters such as the laundry and getting a haircut. The restaurants recommended by the Lonely Planet are very hard to get into so we booked one for our last night in Lucca. We had an excellent meal followed by a stroll along part of the wall, after which we had a very tasty gelato. A very pleasant last night in Lucca.