Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Family fun in Luxembourg and France

The weekend before we went to the Belgian Grand Prix, my parents came for their first visit to Luxembourg, to see Jules's home country and meet his family for the first time. It was nice to show off what is, I think, a pretty underappreciated destination. The weather wasn't playing into our hands, but we still enjoyed walking around the key areas of Luxembourg City with them. We even went over the fortifications to the other side of the Grund valley, where I'd actually not been before (obviously I had been on that side of the river plenty of times, but not specifically the part straight across from the Bock). The large amounts of green space, the different levels between valleys and plateaux, and the old city fortifications makes it a very picturesque city for a walking tour.

View of the Grund

Ha, me and a small child

It got a bit drizzly by the time we got to the far side of town
The next day, we went just over the border to France, to visit Château Malbrouck. The route passed through the town of Schengen, in Luxembourg, and you can really understand why it gave its name to the Schengen zone. When you're in Schengen, you drive onto a bridge across the Moselle river and you're in Germany for 100 metres or so, and when you get to the bank on the far side, if you turn left you stay in Germany, but if you turn right, as we did, you're now in France. After we visited the château, we had lunch just down the road in Germany before driving back over into Luxembourg for a drive along the Moselle. It really made you realise just how inconvenient things would be if they ever did end up going back to proper borders.

The Château, which is actually named after the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill's ancestor, who came here at some point during the War of Spanish Succession or something (there was an explanation of this in the château but I got a bit lost in all the details), is mostly reconstructed, but it's been done really well. One interesting thing in one of the towers was a display of the methods used to reconstruct the site. The level of detail and the care they took to make sure they used authentic methods and tried to reconstruct exactly what was here before it fell into ruin was very impressive. I think it's one of the biggest and most expensive castle renovations undertaken in France.

On the walls of Château Malbrouck

View from the Château

The main reason for visiting the château on this occasion was that I saw a friend's photos of its current exhibition, Knights and Samurai, on Facebook. It's a pretty interesting concept for an exhibition - to compare and contrast the culture, lifestyle and history of European Knights and Japanese Samurai. On one level, the similarities are obviously - both noble classes of fighting men. But it went deeper to show how the two groups fit into the wider culture of their homelands - the influences of things like courtly love poetry and adventure literature in Europe and the place of knights in Japanese art and literature, knights and samurai on film, the different ceremonies that took place to become a knight or a samurai, the codes of honour - chivalry and bushido - etc.

There were some great displays of samurai armour and masks too. I'm usually not that interested in displays of armour and weaponry, but the intricate Japanese armour really was a work of art. Interestingly, most of these pieces came from a single, private collection, which I imagine must be someone's lifework and passion (or maybe they're just really rich?)

Samurai armour

I liked how you could really see the influence of traditional Japanese art on things like manga (not that I'm an expert)

Got to have that fake moustache

Cute 19th-century owl
We finished off the weekend with a very nice dinner with Jules's family in the heart of Luxembourg - with our old friends the péckvillercher standing guard outside. I think it was a pretty successful family visit!

Péckvillercher outside the restaurant

Friday, September 04, 2015

Going to the 2015 Belgian Grand Prix

My second trip to watch the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps differed quite a bit from the first, in 2013. That time, we were commuting to the track by train and bus from Liège, this time we were camping near Tiège (they like their ièges in these parts), taking the bus on Thursday and Friday but driving in for Saturday and Sunday. That time, we had expensive grandstand seats at Eau Rouge, this time we had (still fairly expensive) General Admission tickets (i.e. no seats). That time, it rained during qualifying, this time, we had sunshine throughout the weekend. That time, Vettel won, and this time, Hamilton did!

So, which was better? Actually, each has its pros and cons. While the campsite (Spa d'Or) was a lot closer to the track, public transport connections weren't that great (and the campsite's own shuttle was exorbitantly priced), so it still took a long time to go there and back on Thursday and Friday. Driving in on Saturday and Sunday was actually pretty hassle-free, but it took at least an hour just to get out of the carpark after the race on Sunday. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun getting to pick our spots to watch the different practice sessions and the race, and we saw a lot more of the track than we had in the grandstand. The disadvantage was you had to arrive really early to get the best spots. On raceday, we woke up about 6.10 and were at the track before 7.30, all to watch a race that didn't begin until 2 pm! (And trust me, it got pretty crowded pretty early.)

The people at the campsite basically told us there was no way to get to the track on Thursday afternoon for the pitlane walk/autograph session. We suspect they might have been withholding some information about the bus routes in order to promote their own shuttle service (which wasn't running that day), but luckily since we had been in 2013 we remembered that there was a bus line that ran along the main road, about a 20-minute walk uphill from the campsite. We weren't sure if it would be running at a good time, but we thought we'd take our chances rather than just sit around the camp doing nothing.

The bonus being that I finally got a proper picture with the famous "Drink Drive in Tiège" sign (Bernie says...)
We actually arrived there quite a long time before they opened the gates and had to wait in a large crowd with many people who snuck around the outside in order to get closer to the front (grrr). The other big problem was that cars kept coming through, forcing everyone out of the way. At one point, some dude had enough of this and (not sure exactly why), starting punching one of the car's windows and trying to open the driver's door. Luckily he had it locked, but someone else got in on the act and jumped on the guy's bonnet. Probably not the best place to kick off, since the police were duly called in a short time later, but the instigator managed to melt into the crowd anyway, and (I think) only the joiner-inner in bonnet-jumping was actually apprehended.

Other than that, things were calm, but man were there a lot of people in the pitlane. It was basically impossible to move or to see anything once the popular drivers started coming out. Unfortunately, I lost my Dad and he stuck in a spot where he managed to get some photos of Nico Rosberg (boo) and even saw Lewis Hamilton (sob!) I only managed sightings of Marcus Ericsson, Arrivabene (Ferrari team boss) and Sebastian Vettel.

Marcus Ericsson having a good time in the car

I hoped to see something of the Mercedes garage, but it was impossible, and I was very uncomfortably shoved up against a fence too

So I moved on to Ferrari and managed to catch a few glimpses of Vettel through the crowd (wearing the cap in the middle)

Standing on hallowed ground
On Friday, after watching practice, we managed to get royally lost out in the Belgian countryside. We had already done a ton of walking around the track, watching FP1 and 2 from different vantage points around Pouhon and also checking out the area around Les Combes, and my cellphone died after recording nearly 12 km of walking. We got so lost that I think we added at least another 5 km on to that, downhill thankfully, so by the time we got back to camp we were exhausted and filthy, it being a very hot day too!

The countryside around the track is quite pretty though!
On Saturday, we drove to the track around 7.30 am and found a spot on the hillside overlooking the busstop chicane. This turned out to be maybe my favourite of the places we watched from. While the view was not as extensive as the long sweeps around Pouhon, the cars slowing down and changing direction made it easy to take photos and we saw several cars go wide or spin here. It was also a bit easier to get a comfortable spot for our chairs than it was on raceday. There was also a fairly good view of a big screen. The disadvantage, though, is that there's less room for people to sit, so I think you do really need to get there early to get a good spot.

Another beautiful day

A Lotus spinning at the corner
On raceday, we were back at Pouhon. One of the things I liked here was that you were well above the safety fencing, so you could see the cars properly. You also had a good long view of them down the straight and through the corner. There wasn't much action going on here during the race though, and we could have had a slightly better view of the big screen. Another disadvantage is that the hillside is really steep, and the menfolk had to do a lot of digging (literally, with a spade) in order to wedge our chairs into the hill. We were really lucky that the weather stayed nice - it poured down shortly after the race - because I'm not really sure what happens when the whole hillside turns to mud! I could definitely imagine everyone sliding down on top of one another. It was also a nightmare to get out to go to the loo or get food, sincelatecomers crammed themselves into every free spot there was left. I actually managed at one point to kick a very big rock down on to a poor woman, and I was absolutely terrified the whole time that I was going to fall over! We were completely in the sun all day on Sunday (appropriately enough) and I got very tanned.

Quite proud of this pre-race panorama

The crowd on the hill

Showing off my Mercedes cap

The race itself was perhaps not the most eventful ever, but I was just happy to see Hamilton win! Last time, in 2013, he was on pole but Vettel won (with hindsight, he was always going to, since I think he went on to win every race for the rest of the season, but I had high hopes at the time) and in 2009 when I went to Monza, Jenson Button only managed second even though that was his championship-winning year. So I finally broke the curse and got to see my favourite win, the only bad thing was they didn't come round for a victory lap.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The pearl of the Balkans

A few more observations to finish up our time in Macedonia. We didn't do too much, a bit of wandering around, eating, shopping and visiting a couple of key sites.

We spent one afternoon on a beach about 15 minutes' drive out of the city. It's called Sveti Stefan, which means Saint Stefan, but since it sounds like 'Sweaty Stefan' in a slight German accent, we were amused. Since it was pretty hot, there were not a few Sweaty Stefans to be found on the beach. The beach itself was not as nice as those on the Albanian coast, which is to be expected. A bit crowded, full of kids, and with only a small strip of gritty sand. But, you know, not exactly a hell-hole, so can't complain.

I forgot to say earlier, Lake Ohrid's claim to fame is that it's one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back up to 5 million years ago. I was surprised to learn that most lakes only have a lifespan of around 100,000 years before they fill up completely with sediment. So Ohrid is kicking most lakes' arses! In honour of this, a lake on Saturn's moon Titan is named Ohrid, and both the lake and city of Ohrid are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Talking of heritage, they are clearly proud of their wines in Macedonia. They were a big wine producer in Yugoslavia, and local wines still feature prominently on Macedonian menus, many produced from local grape varieties such as Vranec. We picked up some bottles of red and rosé from the Bovin and Stobi wineries (the latter has a bottle with a cute peacock mosaic on it) to bring home with us. Not bad at all.

A stroll along the lake front
We dropped in to a couple more painted churches. One was completely covered with scaffolding, and had a team of people working to restore its frescoes. It was a shame not to be able to see all of the frescoes properly - as with many of the other churches we saw, they were literally covering the entire interior - but it was pretty cool to see the restorers meticulously working away on one tiny patch of paint at a time. I'm not sure I approve 100% though - some of the restored bits looked way too bright and fresh for my tastes. It is great to be able to see the colours and patterns as they would have been, but restore too much and you lose the authenticity.

We also visited Saint Sophia, the largest church in Ohrid, with frescoes which date to the 11th-13th centuries. These retain more of the authentic "faded" look. Photos a bit blurry since I wasn't meant to be taking any!

Ceiling of St Sophia's

Interior St Sophia's

Night in Ohrid

Dinner on the lake (literally, on a sort of jetty)
Lastly, we spent our final morning in Ohrid in pursuit of icecream (gelato-style, much better than the insipid stuff we got in Albania) and pearls. Ohrid is known for the imaginatively-named "Ohrid pearls", which are on sale in approximately one billion shops in the city, despite authentic Ohrid pearls only being made by two families. Yes, made, not harvested. For these pearls do not come from oysters, but are crafted from the scales of fish! The very same lake fish that you might find on your plate in one of the city's restaurants. The secret of how to make the pearls was supposedly learnt from a Russian immigrant who knew how to make pearls from similar fish in Lake Baikal, and it has been scrupulously guarded by the two pearl-making families (not sure how family #2 got in on the act) ever since.

I bought a single black pearl pendant, which was fairly cheap, and the three-string necklace below, which was really not all that cheap. And the clasp on it broke as soon as I got it home, boohoo! But I think it's a pretty cool souvenir that I can keep for years (once I fix the clasp) to remind me of my holiday in Macedonia and Albania.

My Ohrid pearl necklace

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Naumin' Aroun'

Naumin' Aroun', Naumin' Aroun'. A monastery made for young adults, by young adults.

The Monastery of Saint Naum lies just inside the Macedonian border, near where we crossed over from Albania. It was founded by Saint Naum himself at the turn of the tenth century, although much of what remains today dates back only to the 16th or 17th centuries.

The monastery church
Something went wrong with the latest anti-tobacco advertising
According to one website we consulted, the peacocks of Saint Naum will "welcome you with their screams". This turns out to be very true. I've only ever seen peacocks one or so at a time, and haven't previously noticed much screaming, but there's peacocks running around all over the monastery, screaming their little heads off in welcome.

Not heeding the anti-peacock warnings
The church is liberally covered all over the walls and ceilings with frescoes from the 16th-17th centuries. A lot of the frescoes and icons we saw in Albania and Macedonia were deliberately and literally defaced, or had the eyes excised. I'm a bit confused as to why, since I don't think there was a Protestant-style movement in the region - could it have been done during the Communist period?

You can see two of these faces are scratched out - we saw too many similarly disfigured for this to be just by chance

Ceiling inside St Naum's
Legend has it that if you press your ear to Saint Naum's tomb, you can hear his heartbeat. I tried, despite the tomb being covered with a probably gross cloth, and could kind of hear something. Jules didn't, though. A Guardian article I read posited that it was the sound of "water dripping somewhere in the monastery", but I think it's much more likely to be the same effect as holding a seashell to your ear, i.e.  your own heartbeat. Proof at last that Jules is a zombie.

Inside a different, newer church built over a natural pool at the spot where three springs converge. Supposedly the water helps women conceive, so I didn't get any closer
We found Rachel Dolezal's sunscreen in the gift shop. How's that for a topical reference? Seriously though, think harder about appropriate names for sunblock, Macedonia.
The main church above, with the frescoes and tomb of St Naum, is the chief attraction as far as the monastery goes. I think, however, the site is a major tourist destination mostly because of its location. As you walk through the grounds, on one side you have Lake Ohrid, which appears mostly placid, as lakes do. On the other side, though, water rushes from a smaller lake through a stream into Lake Ohrid. This smaller lake contains many springs (which ultimately themselves are filled by water flowing underground from the nearby Lake Prespa) which feed Lake Ohrid.

There is a cottage industry taking tourists on boat trips around the smaller lake, which we partook of. The springs were nowhere near as big and obvious as the one at the Blue Eye, rather, you had to look quite closely and listen to the guide's local knowledge to spot them, which was pretty cool. The water, filtered through layers of karst rock on its way out of Lake Prespa and back into Lake Ohrid, is very pure (or so we were told), and we had a little drink leaning out of our boat.

Water bubbling up from these springs reminded me of bubbling mud at Rotorua
After we had finished our boat trip, a walk around the small lake, and lunch, we moved a few feet to Saint Naum's beach on the shores of Lake Ohrid itself. After sunbathing, we took a dip in the lake, which we shared with hundreds of tiny fish. The lake is so clear (with visibility up to 22 metres/66 feet) that we could look down and see the fish swimming all around us - and sometimes feel them brushing against our legs or arms. Quite bizarre! Finally, a trout sighting (maybe?) for my Dad!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Out and about in Ohrid

After a delicious "Macedonian tapas"-style lunch at a restaurant right on the water's edge, where we stuffed ourselves with delicious pepper spread, the ubiquitous feta-style cheese also found all over Albania, chicken wings, stuffed fried pancakes etc., we decided it was time to work off lunch by tackling Ohrid's hilly streets.

We had heard the church of St. John, further along the bay, was a beautiful spot, so we headed there first. It actually wasn't nearly as far as it looked on the map, although the steep streets and flights of steps make you work for it! Dating back to the 13th century or thereabouts, it is pretty tiny inside, and covered with frescoes. What really makes it special is its beautiful location, perched on a cliff looking out over the lake.

Since we were there, we decided to head up a nearby flight of stairs to get the above view of the church and also to head to a nearby archaeological site called Plaoshnik. According to the internet, it features beautiful mosaics and an old church. All we could see was a fenced-off collection of unimpressive-looking ruins. Maybe we should have tried a bit harder to find it, since it seemed we missed out on a nice spot.

It was pretty hot and tiring work getting up the hill, but since we had come halfway up and failed to find the archaeological site, we kept going to the very top of the hill and visited Tsar Samuel's Fortress. This is basically a shell, with only its perimeter wall really left intact. You can climb all the way up this in a couple of spots though, and walk around most of the wall, which offers some beautiful views both over the city and the lake.

Standing on the walls - not much to see in the middle of the fortress

But the view from the battlements over the lake is gorgeous

We also read online that St John's was the perfect place to watch the sun set over the lake. From our hotel, you couldn't really see because the hill was in the way, but St John's did indeed offer the perfect vantage point. We timed it to perfection, arriving just as the sun began sinking over the horizon. Lucky we did, because it set really fast, dipping below the hills on the Albanian side of the lake in a matter of minutes.

For some reason, I get an almost Egyptian vibe from this photo - just imagine the boat is like one of those you see on the Nile

St John's just after the sun set
Apparently this is Macedonia's most photographed spot, and you can definitely see why. A magical place to watch the sun set.