Saturday, August 28, 2010


In further proof that I might be a grown-up one of these days, I successfully bought sports shoes without having a tantrum, yuss! My mum will be especially pleased as she actually gave me money to buy new shoes several months ago, so thanks mum! AND I bought boots - the pair that I bought in NZ and which carried me through last winter developed a hole and a cracked sole, fortunately just as spring was coming and I could ditch them. The new boots are pretty much along the same lines as those ones - slouched ankle boots - but hopefully better quality! They're Bata (Bat'a in Czech, pronounced Bahtya), which doesn't scream chic to those of us who grew up with Bata Bullets, but they're still going strong in Europe!

The trainers are Le Coq Sportif, so again I'm hoping they're good quality. They're pretty light-weight with a sort of satiny finish, so maybe not hard-core sports shoes, but definitely will work for me around town & maybe in the gym (or maybe I'll keep my old shoes for the gym, there's still some life in them yet selon moi, although mum would probably tell me to throw them out. Easy now, I haven't even managed to chuck the cracked-sole boots or my broken-strap sandals yet, you can't expect me to *throw out* shoes just because they're scuffed and shapeless!) Buying proper sports shoes might still bring on a tanty, I don't want to risk it...

Kinda depressing looking around the shops today and seeing all the winter styles in already, sigh! Seriously, summer didn't even arrive until mid/late June! That said, it is a lovely sunny day today (still, at 7 pm) and it was great last weekend, a bit iffy in between though.

Nothing too exciting to report (I guess obviously, since I'm filling the world in on my shoes). The first week of work went okay, a little bit boring. Things are slow with the world's universities still on summer holidays or just heading back... As of next week, apparently we're going to be working in the morning and then discussing the website redesign in the afternoon EVERY DAY! Ha! It's more a comprehension test for me than anything (mostly I do okay). My big boss asked for my opinion on Thursday in a sort of afterthought-y way, and then I think she was surprised that I actually had things to say! Could probably have delivered them more effectively though, I think my level of French declined over the 3 week holiday... Ah well, interminable meetings may be even more interminable when conducted in French, but it's something to do and definitely good for my aural comprehension. And you bet 'participated in planning the redesign of the website' (or something much more elegantly phrased) is going to be on my CV!

Looking forward to my sis coming to visit in a couple of weeks, and I just booked a trip to Venice for the Toussaint (All Saints' Day) holidays! Super excited! And the F1 season is go again after the summer break, judging by an exciting quali session today, it should be an awesome race tomorrow!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Porto days 2-4

So, must finish the Porto trip before work starts (tomorrow! However will I get out of bed!) or I'll never do it.

Saturday morning I was up earlyish to do a bit of sightseeing before Carolyn arrived. She wasn't sure where her bus from Spain would drop her, so we were pretty much winging it on meeting up, with me expecting a text from her once she arrived at about 1.30. Basically, my sightseeing can be summed up with churches and the riverfront. As with every day I was in Porto, it was hot but not insufferably so, blue skies without a cloud in them (there was a bit of haze on the horizon - you could see the wildfires burning flying in and out, although they didn't seem *huge*. Hard to know, I suppose, I don't have much experience in assessing the size of wildfires from the air.) Anyway, the churches were much of a muchness. I almost didn't go into St Francis's, since I hadn't heard anything about it, and because it's actually a state-owned monument rather than an active church, so there was an entry fee and I kinda thought "why pay when I've already seen a bunch of churches for free?" It didn't cost much though and I had nothing else to do, and glad I did go in - as I said below on the photo post, it really was magnificent. You have to imagine all those carvings gilded and gleaming, fabulous. I will miscellaneously note also that I walked up a flight of stairs from the riverfront to the town above, and it is STEEP! There's a reason there's a funicular up there! I had an icecream but could barely eat it for panting. It wasn't a big loss, I thought from the description that it would be Europe's answer to the Choc Bar (mmm), but it wasn't as good. Miscellaneous note #2, I saw a woman of about 80 do a big hocky spit in the street, disgusting! It's bloody bad enough when feckless hooligan types do it, lady!

Anyway, after a while I headed into the centralish bit to hang about and await Carolyn's text, since the hotel was a little bit out of the centre (only about 5 mins' walk though, but wanted to be ready for action.) 1.30 went by, 2 pm went by, and eventually I decided to go back to the hotel, since I was tired and hoped that if anything had gone wrong on her end, she would at least turn up there. Just when I was getting worried, there was a knock on the door and there she was! Looking just the same as the last time we hung out in Krakow/Prague 2 1/2 years ago. Turned out her bus had been delayed and her phone stopped working as soon as they crossed into Portugal. That would be a Spanish cellphone - ridiculous!

After a spot of freshening up, we headed out across the Dom Luis bridge to the Villa Gaia Nova side of the river, where the port houses are. For some reason, there was a big parade with bagpipes and drumming and so on going on, which was sort of cool for about 5 minutes, but went on for at least an hour and would have made any relaxing riverside drink impossible. Luckily, we ducked the parade by going into Sandeman's, one of the port warehouses, for a tour and a tasting. It cost about 5 euros, I think there are free ones, but I would rather pay anyway and not get the hard sell and feel obliged to buy something. To their credit, there was no 'sell' at all, hard or soft (there was a gift shop, but no-one made you feel you had to buy anything).

The tour was quite interesting, I learned that port is strong because during the fermentation they add pure alcohol to it, which obviously in itself bumps up the alcohol content, but which also stops the fermentation process in its tracks, so the alcohol doesn't keep evaporating off (this is to be taken as a very loose explanation from memory please!) Normal port is then aged in barrels (steel for white, large wooden casks for red and smaller casks for tawny). The tawnies age longer than the reds and more air can get at them through the casks, which is why they end up lighter in character (and supposedly with flavours of spice and chocolate as opposed to red berries, although I can't say I can ever taste these sorts of things in wine, such a dunce...) Once they are put in the bottle, they are ready to drink and don't improve with age, except the vintages, which do age in the bottle. All port (I think except the vintages) is blended from different batches, the trick being to try and make the same stuff every time, working from different raw materials.

After the tour, we tasted a white and a tawny (I was disappointed we didn't get a red, that sounded the nicest to me). Carolyn and I were amused to see a woman on the next table had knocked both of her glasses back before the tour guide had even told us about the characteristics of the first glass, quelle lack of sophistication ;) I found the white a bit sweet, of course I don't usually drink whites, but made an exception for the tasting. The tawny was nicer, definitely a bit drier (not very dry though) and more complex - I can't do better than that on the flavours though!

After that, we headed across the river for a snack, neither of us having had lunch. We ordered what the menu claimed was a red port, but got another tawny, oh well, lost in translation I suppose. It was served VERY warm (they said at Sandeman's your tawnies ought to be served at 16 degrees, get your thermometers out), but it was okay. I never did wind up tasting a red, which was a bit disappointing, but I'm not about to rush out and start quaffing the whites or tawnies on a regular basis, so maybe I wouldn't have liked it too much anyway. We snacked on the flame-grilled chorizo pictured below - we had already started to divvy it up between us, not realising it was raw, before the waiter came back with the lighter, oops! Very fatty of course, but quite nice.

After that, we moved from the back alley café we were at to the waterfront for a couple of very pleasant hours drinking sangria and people-watching in the sunshine. This is the life! Once we felt it was time to move on, we headed inwards and upwards, trying to track down the bars in the area the hotel dude had circled on my map.

We must have walked around for at least an hour, I swear. Every little narrow back alley (and they were pretty much all narrow back alleys) was deserted - no people, no signs of any bars, screaming brats in every first-floor apartment, I swear to god. Someone had told me when he lived in Porto they would just go to 'secret' bars with no signs, that just looked like apartments, but surely they weren't the only option? *Finally* we came across an area where there were no real bars, but at least there were people, and had dinner (was probably about 9 pm by this time) at what seemed to be a very typical, untouristy Portuguese place, very cheap, long family-style tables etc. We ordered 'francesinha' even though we didn't know what it was, because it seemed to be a Portuguese speciality, and cod, and split the dishes. I think the menu described francesinha as something like 'meat and bread and special sauce'. Wikipedia describes it as 'a Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto, made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça (sausage), fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries'. On first bite, it was quite nice, but that's a lot of meat! Add in the cod, the fact that the waiter had earlier brought us some little pastries along with an apology for the wait (the spinach and cheese pastry was divine - but be warned, these turned up on the bill!), and the late lunch, and we most definitely could not finish our meals and probably left feeling more than a touch bloated. I'm glad we got to try some local specialities in a non-tourist neighbourhood place, though.

When we emerged from the restaurant, we found that there was now a crowd of people outside watching Sex and the City 2 on a big screen. I think we lasted about 5 minutes before concluding that yes, it probably is as bad as everyone says it is. A little bit of wandering later, we finally found a bar. A bit of an odd bar, since it was tiny and everyone was just hanging around outside the bar sitting on walls and standing about drinking from plastic cups, but a bar nonetheless. More sangrias.

We eventually decided to make our way in the general direction of the hotel, as we were quite far away, but on the way we stumbled across what I think is the street the internet had informed me was good for bars. We visited two, a fancy cocktail bars (with the chaise longue pictured below), where we had margaritas, and a bit of a club featuring cheesy 80s music (yay!) By the time we finally jumped in a taxi (and wow, taxis in Porto are CHEAP. So are drinks by the way, I think the most I paid was 5 euros for the margarita, the rest of the drinks, including cocktails, were 3-4 euros. The sangrias maybe even cheaper, for a whole cup! Yay for Portugal!) and got back to the hotel, it was about 4-4.30 am and we had been out partying it up (intermittently) for a good 12 hours.

Unfortunately, Carolyn had to catch her bus back to Spain the very next day, duty calling. The bus stop was way further away than anticipated, it took us a good 45 minutes to walk there, in a somewhat fragile state as far as I was concerned... After dropping her off and getting back to the hotel, it was probably about 2.30 and I went back to bed I'm afraid to say. Got up later and went and had dinner, but a bit of a waste of a day in Porto really! Well, never mind, I had planned to go to the beach, but I probably wouldn't have really been able to after taking C to the bus station anyway, and there wasn't really anything else I especially wanted to see in Porto.

Up early the next day to allow plenty of time to take the metro back to the airport. There was about a half an hour delay on the runway, they said something about strike action in France, which I hadn't heard anything about, but you know, you can never surprise people when you put 'strike' and 'France' in the same sentence... Other than that, things went smoothly. They played their little Ryan Air triumphal on-time fanfare when we landed, which can't have been right. I don't know what time we were meant to land, but we must have been late... Maybe they maintain their position as 'Europe's most on-time airline' by just straight up lying about it. People applauded both times when we landed, which I think is odd. Yeah, it's a damn sight better than I could do, but people don't die if I don't do my job right. I suppose maybe that's why they applaud, but I think not killing people should be its own reward.

Anyway, nothing else to report really. Am not looking forward to getting up for work tomorrow! Can't believe the three weeks have flown by and it's time for work again already! I hope some stuff will have built up in my absence and I can have a cruisy couple of first days back, because I know I will be tired and cranky...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Porto day 1

Okay, while I still don't really feel like blogging (have done nothing this week, tomorrow is the last proper day of holidays! Boo hoo!), I had better write up the Porto trip before I forget everything that happened.

The airport in Tours is not far from the city, but there is only one shuttle bus that makes the trip, which is supposedly timed to the few flights that go in and out every day. I was at the bus stop well in advance, along with a crowd of other people with suitcases and so on who definitely looked to be headed to the airport. After I'd been there about 50 minutes, with the bus by now around 20 minutes late, I decided I needed to get a drink or I'd die before getting to the airport. There was a vending machine just across the road, and it seemed safe enough to dash over and grab something. First problem, there was only Coke available in bottle form (bleh), but better than nothing. As I purchased the drink, I was keeping a watchful eye out for the bus - nothing. There was a beggar sitting right next to the machine, and it seemed churlish not to give her my 40 cents change. Unfortunately, loaded down with stuff, I couldn't bend over properly to stick the money in her cup, and so I kind of dropped it from a height and ended up knocking over her cup and sending the few coins in it rolling over the pavement. Basically, if I wanted to avoid going from "nice lady who gave me money" to "bitch who knocked over my cup for the pleasure of seeing me grovel in the gutter", I had to pick that money out of the gutter myself (the beggar looked pretty apologetic about this, I will say). By the time I straightened up and got back to the other side of the road, my worst nightmare had occurred - everyone was gone. Instant panic. I found it hard to imagine that the bus could have come and gone in that time, but where was everyone? I asked someone who was still sitting nearby, who told me that the bus hadn't come and she didn't know what happened, but that "everyone went over to the other side". So great, now I'm imagining that someone had come and told them that the bus was leaving from a different spot. Really getting stressy now - I could probably have taken a taxi, it's not *all* that far, but I am already a stress bunny when it comes to catching planes. I like to leave myself a really huge margin so that nothing goes awry, and I still stress even so. In the end, I tracked down someone who worked there, who told me the bus was coming, to the proper stop, thank god. I was so relieved when it finally showed up, about 30 minutes late. From there on, everything went smoothly - no problems with Ryanair, amazing! And I had to throw away half of the Coke anyway...

Took me a little while after landing to realise that Porto is on the same time as the UK - who knew? This was a nice surprise as it gave me an extra hour in the city - it was already late afternoon by the time I landed. I had no map of Porto, and basically no clue, except that you could take a metro from the airport into the city centre. They are nice enough to have people standing around at the machines helping tourists with directions and how to use the system, which was a godsend. However, may I suggest they have maps to hand out to tourists? The guy giving me directions waved his copy of the map in front of my face, told me what stop to get off at and provided the following directions: "when you come out of the metro, go up, don't go down. You will find a street for people. Follow that until a theatre rose, and then you will look down and see your street." Those are less directions than they are cryptic clues. I'm fairly sure one corner of his map was marked with 'here be dragons'. Still, I figured there'd be a location map at the metro station - there's always a location map at the metro station! A smart (though directionally-challenged) cookie like me will be able to figure it out!

Well, the map at the metro station was really poor, designed more to show bus routes than to actually allow someone to orient themselves in the area - small scale (I think, I always mix up small and large), not many street names, etc. I saw a theatre marked on the map, so decided to head for that, only to find that it could by no stretch of the imagination be described as 'rose'. I thought my best bet was to retrace my steps, except being a dunce, I totally failed to do so and ended up completely lost. From here on, my focus pretty much shifted to finding a taxi, but with no success. Eventually I wandered around in a circle and found myself back at the metro, but at a different exit. Aha! The 'street for people' (pedestrian street)! I followed my instinct on which way was 'down' and which way was 'up', and set out along the 'street for people'. Finally, I came to a square with a YELLOW theatre in it. Maaaaaybe this could be it? I checked each of the five or so streets radiating off the square, naturally the last one was the street I was looking for. Success, finally!

After checking into the hotel, and having the guy on the desk explain to me what was where on the map in Portuguese (discoteca, commerciale, plaia - nod, nod, nod - PS that probably bears no resemblance to Portuguese spelling), I headed back out to enjoy the last few hours of daylight. Basically, this consisted of heading over the Dom Luis I bridge (photos below), which I had heard offered great views. I was not disappointed, it was really stunning! It was also windy up there, which caused muchos problemas for my dress flying up. I was uncomfortably aware that there was an old man walking behind me as I struggled to hold my dress down at the back, feeling all the while that I might actually be pulling it awkwardly as I did so. Whenever I stopped to take photos, he would stop too. He said something to me in Portuguese, and I just did the "I don't understand you" shrug and continued on. I really wanted to enjoy the view and take photos, but old man winter was seriously spoiling things for me. Several stops further down the bridge, he said something to me again. Obviously, I didn't understand what it was, but judging from his gestures, it was an invitation to jump off the bridge. Thanks, dick.

After that, I went back across the river and checked out the cathedral - quite different from cathedrals elsewhere in Europe, all carvings and gilt (not to the same extent as the Sao Francisco monastery church I posted pictures of, but the same idea). Other than that, not exceptional.

I then decided to try and track down a 'Portuguese' charm for my charm bracelet. I went back to the 'street for people' and asked in every damn shop up and down the street, at least a dozen different places, and came up completely empty :( Lots of them didn't sell charms at all, let alone Portuguese-specific ones. Bummer. I really hated not being able to speak the language at all for this. I kept speaking French to people, unless they specifically spoke English to me, partly because I thought it would have more common vocabulary with Portuguese than English, but mostly because my brain was just hearing Portuguese and snapped into "this isn't English territory, we must speak French!" mode. I really felt like a dumb, nouveau imperialist, culturally insensitive tourist though. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, but if I judge people who come to France without knowing word one of French (and I do - not so much tourists, but the people I have known who live(d) in France and speak NO French should be ashamed), I deserve it. My Portuguese vocabulary is as follows: agua, bom dia, hola, obriegada, fala ingles?, pendente (pendant, charm) and ciao (again, spelling probably off, and I know ciao is Italian, but apparently it works in Portuguese - and pretty much everywhere else). On day one, however, it was pretty much restricted to 'obriegada', until I became ashamed of myself and listened to a couple of the 'learn Portuguese' podcasts I had downloaded.

After that disappointment, I chilled in the hotel room for a bit and then went out for a sad dinner by myself - hate having dinner alone. I went to a place near the hotel, which I thought was a pasta place, but it totally was not. Seems 'pasta' means something else in Portuguese. Anyway, it was a little bit more expensive than I expected from Portugal, but not too bad, and seemed to serve traditional Portuguese food. I'm guessing there - there was no English menu, and the waiter came and translated what like 4 of the dishes were and then I pretty much just went with what he said was good. Ended up having spinach soup to start, which was nice, although the whole spinach leaves were hard to eat elegantly, and then fish and salad primavera. It was pretty nice, the fish wasn't amazingly flavourful, but pretty good with lashings of lemon juice, and the salad was quite nice. Huge portion, I couldn't finish it all.

Anyway, these ramblings will have to do for tonight & I will finish the rest of the trip off later!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Porto photos

A TON of photos from Porto! Will blog about the trip later, have a serious case of the can't be bothereds. In other news, I took a half an hour bus ride today to get some photos developed (a selection from the past couple of years), realised that the stupid Carrefour didn't have stupid instant photo facilities (grrr), and since I was pissed off about the one-hour-for-nothing-round-trip, bought an ipod dock/clock radio. It is insanely difficult to operate as an alarm clock (and everything else really), but am excited to have something other than the crappy netbook speakers to listen to music on, and to be able to tune into French music again (if I can get out of my ipod ghetto habits). And it looks quite cute. Anyway, that's literally the only thing I've done since getting back to Tours yesterday afternoon! I could afford it because I budgeted 200 euros spending money for Porto and only spent 105 - awesome! Porto is cheap!

Me & Carolyn out on the town

Once again, I prove I have no shame when it comes to posing for and sharing ridiculous photos. Put a chaise longue in a classy bar (several cocktails into the evening)? I'm all over it! The strange expression on my face is me struggling not to burst out laughing - it was tough. I really should have just laughed, the other 4 photos in this series are all of me attempting to look sexy. The results are probably the reason I don't have a boyfriend :)

On The Waterfront

Various images taken of or from the Dom Luis bridge. I was muchos impressed by how beautiful the waterfront and the river was. Zero expectations coming to Porto (very little research done), so it was great to be very pleasantly surprised. I don't know that the photos really capture it, but it looked less like a river and more like the sea just continued on inland - gorgeous sparkling blue. The bridge itself was pretty cool too, the top layer had a 'metro' (it's mostly above ground) line going over it and no cars, so you could pretty much wander freely over the bridge taking photos. Cars go over on the bottom part.

In Portugal, chorizo comes to you raw and gets flame-grilled at your table. If you try to eat it in its raw state, the waiter thinks you're a bit of a dick (I'm guessing here, I certainly would have thought we were dicks)

The (apparently) famous rooster symbol of Portugal. I always think roosters = France

Houses in Porto

Inside one of the train stations in Porto

Barrels in the Sandeman port warehouse. Legend has it that if you say Sandeman three times in the mirror, the man in the cape will come and give you port...

It worked!

Porto is absolutely packed full of churches - a *small* selection of photos from them below:

This is a bit hard to see, but there was an awesome detailed nativity from I think the 18th century in the church of St Lawrence

Detail of the nativity scene - young naked kid in a window for some reason...

The church of St Nicholas

A ray of light shines from a cross in Porto Cathedral

Tiled wall of the church of St Catherine - evidently these tiles are a real Portuguese thing

Another pretty tiled church

Porto Cathedral

Altar, in the Cathedral I think

The Church of Sao Francisco (St Francis), now a state-owned museum, was absolutely amazing. Photos weren't allowed so... um, I took some secretly. Thus they are pretty poor! Way better photos here

A lot of the carvings of saints in Portugal just had these pathetic expressions, seriously, you just wanted to punch them in the face. Looks an awful lot like this dude:

Bone pit in the catacombs under the Sao Francisco monastery museum

The Sessions Room in the Sao Francisco monastery museum

Carving of the 'Moroccan martyrs' - Portuguese (I think) Franciscan friars who were martyred in Morocco in (I think) the 12th century. You can't really see, but the bottom ones are being scimitared and the top ones crucified

Carving of a Jesse tree (traditional representation of Jesus' genealogy)

Photos of the interior - secret flash-free photos really do not do it justice at all. EVERYTHING is carved to within an inch of its life and guilded - ceiling, walls, everything, it's magnificent.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nantes & St Nazaire photos

Setting out for Nantes

Me and R at the Cuban bar (rhymes!) *Everyone* stared while we had our photo taken... I sepia'd it because the flash was not doing my skin tone any favours...

At the creperie where we had dinner our first night in Nantes

Inside the church of St Nicholas at Nantes - we saw two big, fancy churches as well as the cathedral (didn't go inside one of them). Pious crowd in Nantes apparently

The former LU factory - they make biscuits

Passage Pommeraye, fancy shopping arcade in Nantes

Dragon-throttling statue on the tomb of Anne the Duchess of Bretagne

The cathedral

In front of the Chateau at Nantes

The one photo R and I *did* manage to get together at the chateau. I KNEW my dress was billowing, too - looking nice and preggers

Inside the museum - plate from the French Revolution depicting, for some reason, the Revolutionary Patriot wearing a nappy (?)

Pretty sure this guy has hijacked the bike and is offering the alarmed woman a pre-rape biscuit

Whereas this fellow is surely sitting down to feast on a baby

Doing my best pose by the banks of the Loire in Nantes

And again. This was what I was wearing for my encounter with the street kids (see yesterday's post) - don't think I could look less like a homeless punk if I tried...

Ol' pole-head at St Nazaire.

The beach at St Nazaire

The American monument, built after WWI, destroyed by the Nazis then rebuilt after WWII