Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oh the places I've been: Europe

The whole of Europe (or at least the bits I've been to) obviously offers a lot more scope than my list of French highlights, so inevitably I'm probably going to miss out all kinds of cool places I've visited. But here's a few of, if not la crème de la crème, at least the most memorable right now (in no particular order):

Rodina Mat, Kiev, Ukraine

How often do you get the opportunity to climb 91 metres up a giant Ukrainian woman and pop out a porthole, your legs straddling a void beneath you, with only a tiny safety harness clipped on to a wire around your waist? And then get rewarded with uninterrupted 360° views of a major city? Well, that's what you get at the Rodina Mat (which can be translated as "Mother Homeland) in Kiev, where I was in August 2011

I haven't been following the current events in Kiev especially closely, but of course I'm saddened at the violence and hopeful that there will soon be positive results for the country. I remember when planning my trip (I spent almost two weeks there alone, including 4 overnight train trips), my guidebook was full of doom and gloom about how "intrepid" it was to go there as an independent traveller, let alone as a woman travelling alone. Luckily I wasn't put off, and I really never felt unsafe there (as I recounted in the linked post, even the tramps were polite when I accidentally wandered into their hut looking for water). While Kiev wasn't quite the ancient Slavic wonderland I'd enthusiastically imagined, I enjoyed my time in Ukraine and one day I'd love to go back to see places like the Crimea, Chernihiv (which I tried and failed to get to from Kiev) and maybe even Chernobyl. I hope things settle down & Kiev is open to tourists again soon.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

The Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, is one of those places that actually does live up to all the hype. From the façades covered with a mind-boggling array of symbolic carvings, to the inside, which is like a fantastical stone enchanted forest, it's like nothing I've ever seen anywhere else. 

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

I'll admit to a slight fascination for the macabre: I love a good cemetery, so a good ossuary? Even better. The Sedlec Ossuary, in Kutna Hora, not far from Prague, is decorated with the bones of around 40,000 medieval plague victims, arranged in intricate designs such as the coat of arms above and even a chandelier. I spent two and a half months living in Prague in 2006, so I got to know the city very well. Highlights included the Spanish Synagogue, St. Nicholas' Church and the terraced gardens below Prague Castle, but the ossuary has got to take the biscuit for the sheer unusualness of it all. 

Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna, Austria

I visited Vienna as a side trip from Prague in October 2006, and generally really loved the way the formal, monumental beauty of the imperial capital contrasted with Prague's crooked, understated charm. I had a great time at the Schoenbrunn Palace, but as I'm a museum-lover, I'll nominate the Kunsthistorischesmusum as my Vienna must-see. I managed to spend 5 hours in there soaking up a great collection of Old Masters. I think I had more stamina for museums back in the day!

Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia

From Prague, I moved to Moscow, where I lived for 2 months. I saw lots of great things in Russia, from the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, the Tretyakov in Moscow to Tsarskoe Selo in St. Petersburg. Regrets: not going inside St. Basil's (stupid) and not going to the Russian Museum in St. P or Peterhof Palace (the "Russian Versailles") near St. Petersburg, although that was more of a calculated decision, as I wanted to see it in summer with the fountains going, and I was there in mid-winter. 

I can't say I approve of the current climate in Russia - when I lived there, it was during Putin's first stint as President, and even then we were duly warned about racism, xenophobia and homophobia, and I'm sure it's only got worse. I would still like to go back and see more of Russia one day, though. I studied Russian for two years at university and always wish I could brush up my woeful command of the language, and I've studied quite a bit of the history and culture. It really is fascinating, and while one can - and should - absolutely oppose a lot of the current policies and attitudes, even a cursory knowledge of the country's turbulent past goes a long way to explaining some of why Russia is like it is. 

Anyway, as I said, I love a museum, and the Hermitage, which I visited in January 2007, is one of the best, in one of, if not *the* most beautiful city I've ever been to. It's bloody massive, and overwhelming, and would still be gorgeous and amazing even if it were empty, but it is of course packed with priceless works of art. Definitely one for the bucket list.

Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey

This is probably one of my all-time favourite places, and somewhere I enthusiastically recommend anytime anyone mentions Turkey in my presence. It's a beautiful 11th C church filled with spectacular 14th C mosaics and frescoes, and because it's a bit off the beaten track, if you're lucky you won't have to share it with too many other visitors, especially if you go in winter, as I did back in 2008). My photos don't do it the justice it deserves, just wonderful.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Okay, everyone raves about the Cinque Terre, which I visited in September 2009, but with good reason. These five towns on the Ligurian coast are linked by walking trails which range from very easy to moderately strenuous (and also by train and boat, if you get tired). It's a real treat to walk for a couple of hours and then stop for a foccacia or a gelato and a bit of a sunbathe or a wander around a charming little Italian town. What could be better than that?

Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy

I studied Art History in my last year of high school, and amongst other things, we covered Masaccio's Life of Saint Peter fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel and Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo (known to me respectively for exam purposes as Marlon Brando - Masaccio Brancacci - and PA system - Piero Arezzo). I haven't been to see PA system yet, but Marlon Brando was definitely on my list when I visited Florence. You only get 15 minutes inside the chapel to see it, but it's well worth it if you ever get the chance.

San Clemente Church, Rome, Italy


I found it a bit hard to get online while travelling around Italy on my way to Nice in September 2009, so some of my blog posts are rather rushed and I don't seem to have put any photos up of San Clemente, unfortunately. Still, while I saw a lot of fabulous sights in Rome, such as the Vatican, San Clemente has always stood out for me. It's a 12th century church on top of a 4th century church on top of an ancient Temple of Mithras and a Roman villa. Descending through the layers, you really feel the weight of history, which is increased by the dark and silent, mysterious atmosphere of the lower levels, permeated by the sound of running water echoing through the darkness.

Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

I posted like a million billion photos of St. Mark's after my trip there in October 2010, because it is amazing. Do make sure you go when they turn the lights on (between 11.30 and 12.30, at least when I went), it makes such a difference to all the glimmering gold mosaics. It bears a lot of similarities to the Byzantine churches I saw in Istanbul, unsurprisingly since it was a Byzantine territory and retained strong trading links to that part of the world. It's worth paying to check out the treasury and to go upstairs as well. 

York, England

As a Lancashire lass (by descent), I feel bad nominating York as one of my favourite UK places, but it is really pretty and just stuffed with history. I've been twice, once around Christmas 2004 I think, and once in January 2012. Highlights include the Shambles, a narrow medieval street with original buildings, the city walls, the ruined St. Mary's Abbey, the Minster and the museum. 

Driving in Norway

Impossible to name just one place - Norway is amazing, and I'd love to go back and see more of the fjords and Bergen. The absolute highlight was our drive between Sunndalsora and Trollstigen, in August 2012. It's so beautiful that I took most of those amazing photos out the window of a moving car, including the one above. Sure, there's luck and a ton jettisoned due to inconvenient trees getting in the way, but it's so stunning you basically just can't fail to capture some gorgeous images.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

As with the Brancacci, you only get a short amount of time inside to savour the beautiful frescoes (this time, courtesy of Giotto). I was lucky enough to get a double stint and to briefly have the place to myself, thanks to winter travelling. The frescoes may look a little crude in the photos - it's worth remembering that Giotto (and Masaccio) are rather early Renaissance figures (Giotto died almost a century before Masaccio, but Masaccio died about a century before Raphael and about 135 years before Michaelangelo), so you can't really expect that same sort of smooth photo-realism of Raphael, or the exaggerated mannerism of Michaelangelo. Anyway, they are a real treat to behold. 

Capri, Italy

I'm not really sure if I would say Capri was my favourite place I visited in the Sorrento area, but it sticks in my mind as the most beautiful, thus earning it its place on the list. The view of the Faraglioni rocks from the Krupp path and the gardens above was just breathtaking. Well worth a sweaty walk back up in high-20s weather! And I must say, the lemon granita my Dad had waiting for me at the top was all the tastier because I earned it! By the way, it definitely seems I could have a post just on the delights of Italy.

So, looking back, I've definitely been to some awesome places, and there's soooo many more still to visit! What are your favourites?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oh the places I've been: France

I've now lived in France for a total of 5 years (I announced this last year as well, but my maths was wrong). So I think I know the place fairly well. And yet, other than a day in Avignon, I've never visited Provence (if we don't count the Côte d'Azur as Provence); out of the entire South-West, I've only spent a weekend in Toulouse; I thought I'd just squeaked into seeing a tiny bit of Brittany with an overnight trip to Saint-Nazaire, but turns out it's not in Brittany after all, and I've never set foot in Normandy. Geez, when you put it like that, I really barely know the place at all!

So I suppose I'm the last person that should be writing a little listicle about places to visit in France, but hey. The places I have been, I tend to know pretty well, so here are some perhaps lesser-known destinations I've enjoyed over the years.


Let's start out with one that's probably unfamiliar to most. Long, long ago, when I first lived in France, I used to work as a tour guide of sorts, accompanying British school children around northern France. Amongst many cemeteries, memorials, farms and chocolate shops, one of the places we visited was the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in the Somme. This is a little piece of Canada in France (it actually, legally is) where friendly and knowledgeable Canadian guides (if you know any young Canadians, you can actually apply to do this) take you through the terrible battles that happened here.

I've never been big on military history, but this place really brought it alive and helped me to understand a tiny bit of what it must have been like and why so many people died. On July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British (including the Newfoundland troops) lost almost 20,000 men, with nearly 40,000 more casualties. Absolutely mind-blowing, and with the WWI centenaries coming up, a good place to visit if you want to get some perspective on the war. There are other good WWI sites to visit in the region (Thiepval, Ypres, Vimy Ridge etc.) but this one stood out for the quality of the guided tour, which is probably free (I'm not sure, being there as part of a school group, but I would guess so).

Musée National du Moyen Age


Home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, but probably not top of people's Paris lists regardless. I am big on the Middle Ages, however, so I loved it when I visited back in 2010. Apparently the exhibition space for the tapestries has recently been given a "relooking", as the French would say, so if you haven't been yet, now is the time to check it out!


While we're on the subject of tapestries, I've got to give a shout-out to the Apocalypse Tapestry in the Château of Angers, which I checked out back in 2012. This is amazingly old, amazingly complete (there are missing bits, but 71 huge tapestries still survive) and just all-around amazing, actually. They're packed with interesting symbolism, reflecting not only the Biblical accounts of the Apocalypse, but also the troubled times they were made in (war, famine, pestilence, etc. not being exactly uncommon at the time).


As we all know, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to châteaux in the Loire Valley, and I've been to a fair few of them. Chenonceau is probably the most spectacular, and the gardens at Villandry definitely deserve a mention, but I thought I'd give a shout-out to the château of Blois, which probably gets my vote as the most underrated of the Loire châteaux. I visited with my parents in early 2011 and it gets points for not only being pretty, but also making an effort to have things to see on the inside, as opposed to some which are basically empty shells.


Home to my favourite rosé wine, it's a charming little town in its own right, and my favourite of the small Loire Valley towns I've visited (I've been there maybe 5 or 6 times). It has an old-school castle; a nice main square, good for noshing and people-watching; a hilariously kitch wine museum; lovely river views; tons of old buildings, and did I mention the wine?

Walking the Côte d'Azur

Cap d'Ail - if this looks familiar, it's the background image of the blog

Okay, this is more of an activity than a place, but while thousands flock to the Côte d'Azur every year, I think not so many walk along the coastline, and I can tell you they are missing out! I lived in Nice for 7 months in 2009-10, and my favourite activity became walking along the coast whenever it was nice weather and I had free time (which was a lot, since it's Nice and I only worked 12 hours max a week). I walked the whole coast from Nice to Ventimiglia in Italy, and quite a lot in the other direction towards Cannes. And wow, is it beautiful! If you'd like to try, it's easy to do as well - just follow the coast (the only tricky part was Monaco, too many damn private beaches) and the buses are so frequent that whenever you get tired there'll be one along within the next 20 minutes or so. Makes me miss living in Nice, I'm glad I got out and made the most of it though, in spite of (or because of) being terminally poor (see: worked max. 12 hours a week).

Villas Ephrussi and Kerylos

While we're on the Côte d'Azur, there's actually a ton to see in terms of museums and so on, which again people perhaps don't automatically think of when they think of the French Riviera. The ones that stick most in my head are two lavish and beautiful 19th-20th C villas on Cap Ferrat, the villas Ephrussi and Kerylos. Ephrussi was home to one of the Rothschilds, and Kerylos was built as a reconstruction of a classical Greek villa by a rich guy (who, in my opinion, squandered its amazing location, but that's by the bye). 


So, Strasbourg hardly counts as off the beaten track, but it definitely earns a spot as one of my favourite places I've visited in France. From the awe-inspiring cathedral to the cute canals of Petite France, it really is a lovely place. And the food - miam miam! If you go, don't miss the painted St Pierre le Jeune church, I'm a real sucker for a polychrome church. 


I was going to finish there, but "polychrome church" reminded me how much I enjoyed Poitiers (which also has one). And a 5th century Baptistry, imagine that! I didn't really have any preconceptions of Poitiers, but it seemed like there was some historical treasure around every corner, I'd gladly go back for a longer visit. 

So that's definitely not all the cool places I've been in France (Reims, Dijon, Chartres, Chamonix, to name a few), but they're some that stick in my mind. Those of you who've lived and travelled here, where are your favourite places? We're hitting up Rouen at the end of the month, and I'd love to get to Bordeaux, Brittany, Lyon, Mont St. Michel, amongst others, but I know there's so much out there to see!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Exploring the Royal Collections in Brussels

I was recently in Brussels for a bit of business, making it my third trip in a calendar year or so, oddly enough. Since I had just been back in August, I didn't really look around that much. I didn't go to the Grand Place or to see what Mannekin Pis might be wearing, I didn't eat any French fries or waffles or buy any chocolate other than at the supermarket, but I did go to visit the Royal Museums.

I visited on my first trip back in 2007, and while a lot has changed with the museum (notably the development of separate museums-within-the-museum such as the Magritte Museum and the Fin-de-Siècle museum, which weren't open when I last went), there was definitely a sense of déjà vu. Or indeed, not so much déjà vu as déjà blogged. I walked around remembering many of the paintings I'd seen before, not from my original experience, but remembering having blogged about them and the little jokes I made in this post.

Blogfriend Canedolia recently blogged about how blogging has changed and whether or not anyone's still interested in the old-school "personal experiences" type blogs anyway. While my blogging output tends to vary wildly according to a self-assessment of how interesting my life is likely to be to other people (read: if I've travelled anywhere fun or sat around all weekend catching up on the BBC's Fake or Fortune and, less respectedly, The Undateables - which is brilliant - and Take Me Out - which is silly but fun), the basic goal is probably always the same. It's great to read other people's comments and think that they might, for some reason, enjoy reading my blog, but I think it's even better to know I'm creating a permanent (?) record for myself. So even if repeated trips to Brussels create a blurry palimpsest of impressions, I can always agree with Past Me that armpit fart Jesus never gets old:

I managed to get some better close-ups of the crazy world of Bosch this time. You could look at this for an hour and still find new stuff going on. No wonder they ended up with Surrealists hundreds of years later if they grew up seeing the likes of this:

Jesus after a hard night on the tiles

The saint in this is very pointedly not looking up Mary Magdalene's crotch

This guy, on the other hand... I do love this little detail though, of course you'd be pretty "woah!" if there were a giant floating saint and angels in the sky
So, everyone's pretty bummed about the temple collapsing...

Except this guy, who thinks it's FABULOUS, darling! (I actually lolled at my own joke there. That just shows where the bar is set when you principally aim to please yourself)
What's your favourite Brueghel?

Pretty Brueghel?

Disturbing slices of social history Brueghel?

Creepy Goblin Market Brueghel?

Or just the one with the nun's bum?
The Fin-de-Siècle museum hasn't been open for very long, I don't think. There's some nice stuff in there, but seriously, there's also some of the most god-awful tack I've ever seen inside a museum. Tell me some of this wouldn't be out of place spraypainted on a Harley Davidson or on a hair band's album cover:

Dear God, this is the worst thing I've ever seen. If you don't agree, however, you can buy a reproduction starting from $219 here

And it just keeps going...

I'm sorry to have done this to you all, but after looking at this, we have all been added to a list.

Oh great, add bestiality to the mix, that'll make it better
Terribly sorry about that, I'll leave you with my favourite painting in the museum, Magritte's Empire des Lumières:
This is from my last trip, as you're not allowed to take photos in the Magritte bit any more. The photo doesn't do it justice
And a nice snap of Brussels as a palate-cleanser to leave you with

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Holiday hijinks in Bath and London

Hello neglecterinos, yes I've been slack again lately and fallen a bit behind with blogging. So, quick wrap-up of what I got up to over the festive period.

First off, it was a three-train trip across to South-West England: train to Paris, Eurostar (for the first time in many years - very pleasant and it was surprisingly half-empty on Christmas Eve), then train to Bath. I had planned a lot of time between trains, mostly expecting chaos on the Eurostar, since it seems every Christmas brings its share of pictures of unhappy crowds at Gare du Nord or St Pancras, unable to get home for Christmas due to 'fluffy snow' or something. This part, however, went off without a hitch. It was only at Liverpool Street where it was confirmed that things were going quite wrong due to the floods that had hit England. I was *so* early (about three hours) for my train that it wasn't even showing up yet, but the raft of cancellations were not a good sign. Basically, there were trains every half an hour, and all the trains on the hour (of which mine was one) were cancelled. So when, two hours before, my train popped up as cancelled as well, it was no big surprise. I was at that time enjoying my first pint of cider on English soil (drinking vast quantities of cider being one of my very favourite activities on the other side of the Channel) but I decided to take a snap decision, abandon three-quarters of my poor pint and rush down to take the next train going, figuring that a train on the tracks were worth two hypothetical trains in the sidings.

With the trains either side cancelled, everyone toting suitcases and backpacks, and possibly other chancers like me hopping on far in advance, the train was predictably rammed. I spent the first hour standing in the corridor by the toilets, very uncomfortably jammed in alongside dozens of other passengers. Despite this, everyone seemed in pretty good spirits. The only slight sign of bad-temperedness I saw was one woman trying to board the already-packed train at Liverpool Street, pleading "please let me on, I'm desperate to get home for Christmas", which earned the obvious riposte of "what do you think everyone else is doing?" Other than that, not too bad and I even got to Bath early!

Christmas was quiet, just me, Liz and her parents. We started out with church at a lovely old Anglican village church. It's been a long time since I've been to church and I'd forgotten quite how much standing up is required, so I spent most of the service regretting wearing heels and wondering when we would get to sit down again. It was conducted by a Lady Priest, which was a bit of a novelty for this former Catholic girl (she was quite good, as priests go), and of course I was pleased to get some carol singing in!

Liz and me at church on Christmas Day
By about 3 pm, after lunch, the champagne and red wine were taking their effect and I was pretty sleepy! Safe to say there were no ragers for the whole trip: I basically stayed on France time, and since I go to bed every night at 10, thus 9 pm in the UK, most evenings were spent with Liz and I fighting to stay awake to a decent hour.

This was all for the good though, as it meant the next day we were up bright and early for the Boxing Day sales. Ahhhhh, England, how I love your sales! We spent about 3 hours just in Debenhams, and I think by the end of the trip I'd spent up to the tune of around 500€, oh dear. Good things were bought though! Along with my usual pretty dress fetish, I managed to pick up sensible flat boots (the first I've had in my life, but I must say I'm now a convert! Comfortable Boots Are Comfortable: hold the front page), a new trench coat, a black triangle skirt (so versatile), and the one I'm proudest of: a suit for £30! Bargain!

The suit in question
If I'm honest, the following days were also largely spent shopping & having pints of cider in pubs, but we did manage a little bit of sight-seeing too. I dragged Liz into Bath Abbey for the first time ever, if you can believe it. Her parents have lived nearby since she was a teenager, but she's not really big on that sort of thing and spent quite a bit of time sitting quietly waiting for me to finish looking around. It's gorgeous though! (I've been to Bath before but I don't think I went in the Abbey - it was just a daytrip and we saw the Roman Baths and Jane Austen's house.)

The outside of Bath Abbey

Inside Bath Abbey

The gorgeous fan-vaulted ceiling

A pretty chapel inside the Abbey

Best name ever! The Abbey was full of memorial plaques, with a high number of military men and people with connections to the West Indies (slave trade I suppose)
I found this interesting: the English calendar was reformed in 1750, changing to the Gregorian calendar and changing the beginning of the year from 25 March to January. Hence this lady's birth year needed adjustment!

An unspectacular picture of the Royal Crescent

The Bath weir
We also made a trip to the village of Bradford-on-Avon, not to be confused with Bradford not on Avon. The pub behind Liz in the photo below may be old and pretty but featured such incompetent service that we ended up leaving. I think we waited about half an hour and enquired three times, no pints were served. By the way, the South-West is cider country, and I found my new favourite, Thatchers Dry cider! Unfortunately, the supermarket we visited had none in stock, so I came back to France hauling the medium-dry variety with me, which is not the same at all :( 

It wouldn't be England without a little bit of rain
We also visited Bristol, to have dinner with Liz's brother, but not much to report from there. We saw a pretty church but we had to leave to buy Liz some phone credit after she received a text from her Dad reading "At hospital. Your mum had an accident. Getting plastered". Turned out she just broke her arm (well, that's bad enough) but the plastering involved was of the arts-and-craft variety, not the "something awful has happened, I'm getting blind drunk to cope" kind, which is a bit better! And then we went to a pub and had some more cider and checked out a lovely indoor market, where as luck would have it, there was an entire stall selling about 50 different masks, perfect for our New Years masked ball!

So that was the South-West, next stop was London for a few days. I stayed with my uni friend Amber, caught up with Rick and Kiwi Liz, visited Borough and Camden markets, popped into Tate Modern (so nice that it's free), got my hair cut and paid my respects to my main man John Gower in Southwark Cathedral. I like to think he was pleased to have a visitor who's read (some of) his stuff.

Scary church in East London. Have these people not heard of Heaven's Gate?

Gower's fancypants tomb

And then it was time to get our glad rags on for NYE. We were going, as mentioned, to a Masked Ball at the Paradise, somewhere around Kensal Green I think. I don't have particularly high hopes for NYE, but I must say it was a fun night. Not amazing or particularly different from any other night out, but fun for my first London NYE. I've got to say the highlight of the evening was probably the greasy, greasy delicious fried chicken we got on the way back (only something ridiculous like £3 or something like that). Amber and Jen were busy getting chatted up by some drunken lads and I was there just like "omnomnom CHICKEN you guys!" It made me realise that I don't think there are any fried chicken joints in France (probably Paris) other than the odd KFC. Oh my god, you are missing a trick, it was the best thing ever!

Anyway, here are a few snaps from the evening to close out the holiday report. I struggled back to France on the 2nd with an insanely heavy suitcase AND a giant sports bag I had to borrow from Liz's parents because of all the shopping! Worth it though!

Me, Amber and Jen before heading out for the evening (I don't have my shoes on yet if you're wondering)
And a little NYE selfie

Drinking cider on the tube on the way out. Pure class

Group shot at the Paradise, once the other girls finally arrived (and Charlie on the left made it over from France too!)

I have my eyes closed, but it's not quiiiiite so bad with a mask on. My mask spent most of the night on top of my head, but Amber loved hers! I think she'd wear it full-time if she could

Me, Liz and Charlie. Horrible photo, but the only one I got!

Liz loves the old "finger in the mouth" pose when she's had a few