Paris – a city of contradictions

Paris is a a magnificent city – romantic and grand. It’s because of all the neo-classical buildings. Napoleon commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild the city – a massive public works program that included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, the building of wide avenues, parks and squares, the construction of new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. Haussmann was a genius. When you stand at the centre and overlook all the boulevards you have to be in awe at just how remarkable this man’s vision was, particularly when you think of what the dirty and infested city was like before. Boulevarde Huassmann with its grand stores – Galaries Lafayette and Au Printempts are shopping meccas. Still, I wish that some of the places such as the original Marais and Les Halles still exisited though I’m sure that the residents were delighted with the clean up (despite the huge resistance at the time).

As I walk around all the grand palaces and museums, the opulence is astonishing. Makes London look a bit like a poor relative. It’s opulent on a grand scale. Haussmann’s conception of Paris was a paradise for the bourgeoisie. No wonder the peasants revolted.

It was we were heading out to the airport on our way back to London that a very different side of Paris emerged: graffiti covered every surface of wall space; the backs of houses looked derelict and what I at first mistook for rubbish dumps turned out to be slum dwellings, structures built around twigs and put together with old mattresses, cardboard and other bits and pieces. The only reason I could tell they weren’t simply piles of rubbish is that most of them had some sort of pipe coming from the top – no doubt a crudely made chimney for cooking. I saw a small boy climbing on the high wire fence that was only a metre or so in front of the dwellings; and some washing hanging on the bare branches of trees. And refuse.Everywhere refuse. Signs of life. Like the slums of Bombay except there they would be picking through each and every piece of discarded rubbish to sell and trade to make a living. How do these people survive? On the streets of Paris, as in London, Edinburgh and even Sydney, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets (many with dogs who seemed to be better cared for than their owners). It seems to have become common for people to fall out of the system. The homeless are increasingly everywhere. It its always such a shock to see them in the streets where metres away are the grand magazines: Au Printemps, Galleries Lafayette, Au Bon Marche and La Samaritan. In Sydney it’s the same; you’ll find them on the corners next to David Jones and Westfield (Sydney’s answer to high end shopping). Perhaps they think that those who have spent an excess of dollars on needless indulgences will feel conpelled to throw them some coins.

The seamier side of a city is as interesting as its grand centre and somehow more honest and revealing. I read reviews of people advising against staying in Rue St Denis.  I have to disagree.  I love this place – its full of life: a vast array of types, nationalities and cultures.  I’ve never felt unsafe here (we stayed here some many years ago and felt that we were in the heart of the city).  Sure there are prostitutes and drugs and its seedy but isn’t that what a city is all about?  I’ve never been bothered or harassed – or propositioned – and I’ve enjoyed the energy day and night.  Its colourful and exotic.  As a tourist I think its as charming as its grand neoclassical counterpart.  Both form part of the texture of the experience of a city.

 

 

 

The journey south

Our journey is coming to an end. We’re on our way back to London. We left Duffus (north east of Inverness on the Moray Firth) yesterday midday and drove down to Gattonside in the Scottish Borders. It was a long and slow five hour drive with the usual detour around Edinburgh (not knowing where we were going). This morning we got up early in order to get to London at a reasonable time – hopefully before dark (4pm) and the rush hour traffic. Yesterday the peaks of the mountains were covered in snow. This morning a layer of frost covered everything. It was zero degrees – freezing; even the cows were huddled together. The sheep were just barely visible, blending into the frost covered ground. Mist hung low as did the sun which was blindingly bright making it difficult to drive.

We had figured six hours would get us to London but we’ve been on the road for an hour and a half and have only just crossed the border into England. We’ve done 100 miles and still have over 300 to go. The journey is made slow due to queues of cars behind trucks and slow farmers on single lane roads. That and the visibility difficulties due to the blinding sun. But it’s a pretty journey with the road going through the centre of villages with narrow streets and lovely old buildings. The car has finally warmed up and the water in the windscreen wipers thawed. Our iPod is plugged in and we’ve resolved to simply enjoy the trip – the only pressing need is to get the car back before the hire place closes. Negotiating London traffic will be another matter but hopefully the lovely google map lady will assist. By the time we return our car we would have covered over 2000 miles. Quite a journey.

Tomorrow will be another early start – Eurostar to Paris at 7.55am. We have to be at St Pancras Station half an hour earlier which means leaving our digs in London at 6.45am. Yikes. Once upon a time I left home at 7.00am every weekday to go to work. These days I have to set an alarm to be out of bed before 9.30 in order to make it down for breakfast. I’m looking forward to being in our apartment in Paris where we can fend for ourselves and there are no schedules for breakfast. And a sleep in. Then again, there is so much to do and see that sleeping in would be a waste of holiday time. I’ll save that for when we’re back home.

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Tartan – chintzy?

We’re staying in a lovely little hotel on the Isle of Skye. Well, let me qualify ‘lovely’. It’s a really nice, homey and comfortable place with friendly and attentive staff but it’s twee. There is tartan everywhere: the carpet is tartan, the sofas are covered in tartan (I’ve been informed that it’s check but isn’t that what tartan is essentially? The definition of tartan is:  a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in many other materials eg, carpet) and even the curtains in some rooms are tartan (fortunately in our room the curtains were chintz).  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike tartan but I think there’s a place for it – like picnic rugs and kilts and at a stretch throw rugs. The dark green and navy tartan on the stairs just looked weird.

Then there are all these quaint little touches like plates on the walls. Even in the bathroom. Why? What’s the point of putting plates on the walls? Flying ducks I understand, but plates?  They weren’t even particularly decorative or interesting – just standard old fashioned crockery).

Our room is smaller than the size of the bathroom of the place we last stayed at – barely enough room for the bed, a wardrobe, dressing table (!) and two side tables but only one chair. Cramped is an understatement. As for the bathroom, suffice to say that two people can not be in it at the same time and the toilet seat has to be put down to use as an extra surface to put toiletries on.

Still, when you’re travelling you make do. And it is comfortable enough; the sheets are crisp and white and the duvet is big and down filled and there are local toiletries in the bathroom and nice china cups and saucers and a good selection of teas, coffee and hot chocolate with a bonus of shortbread biscuits and a small bottle of the local whisky on arrival. And the bar with an open fire is just a short stumble down the tartan stairs.

 

 

The Isle of Skye

Sitting in front of an open fire in our quaint little hotel on the Isle of Sky. Once again, it’s been an amazing journey traveling from Oban to Tyndrum, past Ben Nevis and Glen Coe to Ballachulish then Fort William, past Loch Linnhe and Loch Locky to Invergarry and on past the majestic Five Sisters and Loch Alsh to Kye of Lochalsh and then finally crossing the bridge to the Isle of Skye (whew!). We’ve been blessed with good weather. We were warned that if it were cloudy/misty then we wouldn’t see much – which would be a shame as the whole point of being on Skye is to experience it’s stunning beauty.

But the gods have been smiling on us and so far the weather has been relatively mild (by Scottish standards) and we’ve had clear blue days and even sunshine. When it’s rained we’ve blissfully been indoors.
Tonight we took a pre-prandial walk. So dark. There are no street lights; the only light coming from the windows of houses  scattered about. We can just make out the mists on the mountains and the dark waters and it’s so still and quiet. The only sound is our feet crunching on the road and the lapping of water nearby.
And it’s only 6 o’clock. It takes some getting used to night falling so early – it still surprises me when I realise it’s not yet 5 o’clock and it feels like night time. Here on Skye there’s nothing to do. We sit by the fire and drink red wine and whiskies and read. A self imposed exile and a time to recharge and enjoy being on holidays in an unfamiliar territory and nothing to do. Bliss.

 

Majestic Mull

A very comfortable 45 minute ferry ride followed by a 70 minute bus journey through the spectacular landscape on the Isle of Mull had me absolutely enthralled, The colours of this countryside are wondrous: rich russet browns of dry bracken mingle with the pale wheaten gold of grass and the dark rock face is spattered with verdant green moss. Such warmth in the landscape in late November makes me wonder how the countryside would look in other seasons. I can imagine how lush and green it would be in summer with its bright blue sky and water; and in Spring  it must be full of vivid flowering blossoms while winter would see it covered in snow. In late autumn it’s stunningly beautiful. We pass seals in lochs and later fluffy sheep with black faces that look so much like caricatures of themselves standing on little black legs. And then there are the hairy (and very pretty) highland cows. Returning we spot deer camouflaged amongst tall grass. It’s delightful. I feel like I’m in another world. Nowhere have I seen such landscape.

The journey homeward in mid-afternoon is equally transfixing as the sun goes down (we’re in Scotland – the days are short) and hits the large rocky cliffs and sets them glowing with an orange light. The pale watery blue sky is slashed by pale pink clouds. Stark white houses with grey slate roofs dot the landscape and look like they have been transplanted from a picture book. Later as thesunlight fades there is a magenta hue to the foliage of trees and ground cover (or perhaps it’s heather) which contrasts with the deep green of the pine trees. There is so much colour here. Russet, orange and the occasional yellow leaves hanging on to bare branches. This place is majestic.

Mull_2 copy Ilse of Mull copy

 

Holiday bathing

One of the things I like to indulge in is lying in a bath, sipping a white wine and reading my book (kindle).  We often stay in hotels that have great baths in the bathrooms and they always have good products – shampoo and conditioner, handwash, shower gel, body lotion, but never anything to put in the bath. This perplexes me.  I’m a real fan of bath additives: electric soda, lush bliss balls, bath salts, essential essences, all manner of foaming, good smelling products to make having a bath a truly luxurious experience.

I always wonder if I should take along some bath products when I go away but inevitably I don’t because its just one more thing to pack and packing is challenging enough: no matter how long or short the journey/trip my luggage is always crammed full of stuff – the “I might need this” or the “just in case” items: one too many pairs of shoes or extra tops that inevitably don’t get worn.  But then there’s also the risk of not packing enough – and then having to tramp all over the place looking for an extra t-shirt/gym shorts/socks, walking shoes etc.  Items that you wished you’d brought. Travelling dilemmas.

At the moment we’re staying in a beautiful old mansion in Oban (Greystones) that is deceptively large and modern inside.  We have a huge bathroom with an enormous shower and a really big stand-alone bath.  Its deep and perfectly proportioned so that I don’t need to  hang on to the sides of the tub to stop myself from sliding under (have you been in one of those large marble bathtubs that are so deep and curved  that you have to hang on for dear life?  It doesn’t make for a relaxing experience).

So off I will go to purchase some bath salts or something to make the water soft and enhance my bath time experience.  Note to self:  next time, do bring the bath stuff.

London – Cambridge – York – Scotland: dispatches from the road

From Hong Kong to London felt like an endless journey. 13 hours air time arriving a few hours later from departure time. An interesting experience. Never ones to sleep on arrival we stayed up chatting, eating, drinking. We were staying with M’s brother and sister-in-law right in the heart of London – across the road from the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and around the corner from the Eye. Walking distance to everywhere. And walk we did. There is so much to see in London, so many monuments and places of interest, museums and galleries. We had a list of places we wanted to visit but we also just took pot luck wandering about and found ourselves in some amazing places – like the Courts of Justice and Southwark Cathedral- simply because we liked the look of a street or a building and wanted to just explore.

Amongst the places that I wanted to visit/see were those that were familiar through songs, films and nursery rhymes: Picaddilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Harrods, and of course all the Monopoly sites. We walked from place to place, from morning till late afternoon, stopping at a pub for a fine English Ale and one of their fabulous pies. One day we walked the equivalent of 20k (which included the many steps we took around the National Gallery where so many of the art works just took my breath away).

British Museum
British Museum
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London
London
London
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London
Picadilly Circus
Picadilly Circus

 

London
London

From London we hired a car and drove to Cambridge. A straightforward journey should you have NavSat or similar. We thought our iphones would do the job with Google maps but for some reason neither of our phones were able to accesss data. Fortunately we had a paper map but this was of little use for those who aren’t familiar with the streets and traffic of a foreign city. But many fraught turns and deciphering of the signs got us out of London and on our way. It was a relatively short drive to Cambridge but again, not knowing the city and not having proper navigation meant that we spent some time driving around one way streets that ended up nowhere till we found our accommodation, a gorgeous B&B right in the centre, and conveniently located near a very friendly pub.

Cambridge is full of people on bicycles – just like in the films. They’re something of a nuisance on the raod, but given that we were the foreigners, we couldn’t complain. The buildings were stupendous. Seriously old. Seriously beautiful. And gorgeous little narrow cobble stone roads. I felt that at any moment I would turn a corner and meet Harry et al. It was charming and delightful. So many of these ancient buildings had retained their original character, though many were now big brand name shops. Such a contradiction.


From Cambridge to Ely to see the great Cathedral and climb its winding narrow stone staircase to the top of the Octagon to see the physical structure behind the beautiful decorated internal facade. Mind boggles at how so many hundreds of years ago men managed to construct this magnificent edifice; not just in terms of the carved stonework but the structure itself: there are huge beams made of single oak trees that must have weighed tons. Ely was well worth the detour.

Next stop York, home of York Minster Cathedral. Once again we got lost trying to find our way in to the town – so many one way streets and road signs that meant nothing to us until we had driven by and realised we should have turned left/right etc. Fortunately we stopped and asked a passer-by where we were and she gave us very clear directions. We were not far at all, but without her we could have been driving around all night.

Our hotel was directly opposite York Minster which is something of a jewel box or tardis. It doesn’t appear to be very big but inside it is huge, and impressive. York is another place like Cambridge – but perhaps older – where most of the buildings are original – Tudor mostly – but now house restaurants and all manner of shops. It was fantastic to walk around in the evening, marvelling at these ancient buildings and the little alley ways and all the old pubs. Again, like being in a fairy tale or film set, though the biting cold reminded us that this was, indeed, reality.


From York we headed off to Scotland. It was meant to be a short(ish) journey – some 2+ hours but we found ouselves on the motorway going in the wrong direction more than once and then ground to a stop on a section where there were roadworks. Motorways generally make for a quick but not particularly scenic journey so being stuck on one going at a mere 2mph wasn’t very rewarding. It took us over an hour to cover perhaps 10 miles. The delay did give us the opportunity for a fine photo of the Angel of the North, a huge and dramatic iron sculpture beside the motorway. It transpired that a truck had broken down and once we were clear of that it was all systems go. And go we did. Through Northumberland where we got off the motor way and traveled along small roads through beautiful countryside. It was like all of a sudden the landscape just opened up. It was so pretty, so picturesque and so so different from Australia. We passed through James Herriot country (All Creatures Great and Small) in Thirsk (North Yorkshire) to Northumberland and then crossed into the Sottish Borders. Travelling through this country has been delightful and I’m only sorry that we couldn’t have taken longer to stop and marvel at this incredible country.

5 star spas

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I’ve become a fan of 5-star hotels. How could you not? King sized bed with pillows that make you feel that your head is resting on clouds and doonas so light you feel that you’re in heaven and never want to get up. Turn down service. Bathrooms with the biggest fluffiest towels you could ever wish for and all the amenities you could ever want. Room service that is prompt and friendly and nothing to do but relax. This is holidays. I think that spending a week (or even just a few days) in a fabulous hotel is a holiday all on its own – never mind the journey or the destination.

And then there’s the hotel spa. Sure they’re expensive (sometimes incredibly so) but it’s an indulgence well worth the price. I badly needed a massage. A long flight followed by hours of walking, pounding the pavement in shoes not meant for more than prettifying my feet and a serious morning work out in the gym gave me a sore back and tight shoulders. In Kowloon I thought I’d just go to one of those cheap massage places the city has in abundance but on reading reviews of massage places it turns out that many of them are fronts for brothels or else they’re so dirty (report of one where a dead mouse fell on to the head of the masseur) that I had to rethink the proposition. My husband suggested I just have a massage at the hotel. I thought it was too expensive but he persuaded me – we’re on holidays so may as well indulge. And so I rang and booked a session. I was asked to come in 30 minutes earlier in order to have a sauna and relax in the warm spa pool before hand. What bliss. The massage was exactly what I wanted/needed and without a doubt this was the best spa/massage experience I have ever had. I’m now won over. Bypass the ordinary and go for luxe. Your body is worth it.
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Kowloon: Temple St Blues

Last night we went down to the Temple Street markets to eat local food. We finally found a small place with outdoor tables serving beer and a menu that included soy marinated goose. Yum. We’d just sat down and poured our beer and were just ready to order when our bowls and glasses were quickly whisked away together with the table and stools. In 30 seconds flat all the outdoor tables were packed away and the diners were standing off side. It was the civil police. Apparently it’s illegal for these little places to trade outdoors. They’re all really tiny, having room for only 3 or 4 tables inside – and not very pleasant, so they rely on their outdoor seating which is much more atmospheric.

The patrol had been by an hour earlier and shut all these places down but once they’d left business resumed as usual. This time a huge altercation ensued. The owner was remonstrating with them – to no avail. Four of the officers stood by and then the federal police were called. A number of the diners started yelling. It was quite a fracas. We stood by, holding our bottle of beer and glasses, wandering what was going on. One man who had been very vocal told us how apalled and ashamed he was about this kind of  heavy handed regulation. Hong Kong citizens were being denied liberty and it was very unfair on the proprietors. They can’t make a living serving just a few tables indoors and they cop a huge fine – the equivalent of AUD2,000. This was yet another example of the slow but inexorable advance of restrictions since the end of the UK lease.

We stood waiting for the gendarmerie to leave but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere so we finished our beers, paid and left in search of somewhere else to eat. Unfortunately the bustling food scene had been well and truly shut down. No one was serving outdoors. We finally decided to eat indoors at a place around the corner but it wasn’t quite the atmosphere or experience we were after. No matter, it was late and we were hungry. And the food was good. But within a few minutes shopkeepers started putting out their tables and calling to passer-bys to sit and eat. The constant hustling for customers had resumed and Kowloon night life kicked on.

Hong Kong bustle

Hong Kong is a giant city full of skyscrapers, teeming with people. 7 million people live in Hong Kong. 3 million of those are in Kowloon where we are staying.
We arrived very early in the morning – 4.30am – half an hour earlier than our scheduled arrival. In the quiet hours of the early morning the airport was almost deserted. We sped through Immigration and collected our baggage and were quickly whisked by taxi to our hotel. I had estimated that it would take at least an hour to get through customs/immigration and another hour to drive into Kowloon but our driver had his foot to the floor and we arrived at our hotel before 6am.

We had decided that rather than book an extra night so that we could check straight in to our room we would simply drop off our bags and go out in search of breakfast and then spend some time at the pool while we waited for our room to be ready. Alas, it didn’t go to plan – the weather was cold and miserable and there was no room at the inn. Lovely lady at check in tried to see if there was a room available immediately but the hotel was fully booked the night before so she suggested that we wait upstairs at the spa till the breakfast place opened at 6.30. So we sat and waited and then went down to have a coffee Before venturing out into the streets for breakfast.

All the shops had their shutters down. Hong Kong was still asleep. Finally we found a little Chinese shop where we had a rather strange breakfast: noodle soup with roast pork came with a side of a thickly sliced piece of toasted white bread and two fried eggs. A rather revoltingly sweet iced coffee accompanied it – it tasted like it had been made with glucose syrup. Not really what we were after but it filled the time and our stomachs. Walking along the streets we had a call from the hotel to say that our room was ready. We returned and checked in. It was 8am. Great service. We had a lovely room on the 22nd floor with a king sized bed and large bathroom and views over Kowloon.

A nap and then out to explore the city. It’s vast. Full of big name shops alongside small local ones selling all manner of things and all sitting alongside towers of housing that look as though they belonged in another world: tall, dirty and over populated. It felt like something from a different world.

It gives the sense of being a dirty place except that the streets are regularly swept. Perhpas its just the grime clinging to the edifices and the pollution and lack of adornment. Inside the malls all is gentrified – gleaming clean and full of expensive designer label goods. It’s not cheap. The shopping mecca that it once was is no more. Goods that were once cheap are now the same price as back home. Has Hong Kong caught up with the West or has the West caught up with Hong Kong? Now you get the same shops everywhere in the world including Sydney. And it’s all the same. So forget coming to Hong Kong to shop – that era has gone. But we didn’t come here to shop, we came as a stop over en-route to London. A break in our journey and an opportunity to indulge in some hot weather before plunging into the cold UK winter. And to just be amongst the bustle of an Asian city. Nothing beats discovering street food and market stalls and exploring the underbelly of a great metropolis.

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