Monday, December 28, 2015

Gwan's Year in Review - 2015

Can it really be time again for me to reflect on the year that's been? I think it's a fact of getting older that the year seems to fly by but simultaneously it must be going super slow since things we did back in spring seem like half a lifetime ago. Last year was another year of change - new job, new apartment, new country, so this year is...

2015: Finally a bit of stability

That's right, a whole year (and more) in the same job, same city, same apartment. That might not seem a huge achievement, but let's see, since the first time I moved to Europe in 2006, I've lived, at least briefly, in Prague, Moscow, London, Northern France, Chamonix, Wellington, Auckland, Nice, Tours, Metz and Brussels, and I think this is the first and only year since 2012 where I haven't moved at least once. Jules moved in here, and we're planning to move when my lease is up next June, but still. This year at least, I stayed put.

It was a busy year. Before Jules moved here, we aimed more or less to take turns, one weekend in Brussels and one in Luxembourg, so adding in quite a few holidays and long weekends meant that I was fairly frequently home only one weekend of the month or so. Which could be exhausting at times, but kept us out of mischief.

Last year I divided my travels into trips abroad, and "domestic" trips, in which category I included Belgium, France and Luxembourg. This year I can't really count France as a domestic trip any more, which leaves less to work with, so I'll divide it by longer trips and weekend breaks, with a little bonus section for the glories of Belgium.

PS I took literally hours writing this, putting the photos in, all the links etc. and then AFTER I published it I went back to tinker with some of the spacing and so on, and I managed to delete the. whole. thing. And there was no "undo/back", it just went blank, AND I managed to unpublish it as well. Thankfully I found online a tip to go into feedly and pull it off the RSS feed, which worked, but that's why the formatting is wonky. But thank Christ I at least got all the text back. This might be the final straw with me and Blogger though!

Onto the award portion of the review - 

Best proper holiday

  • I kicked off the year's travels early, with a trip to Marrakesh, Morroco with my friend Liz in January. My overall impressions of the place were, um, not great. The constant badgering and cat-calling got old pretty fast, and while we saw some nice museumsand palaces and enjoyed some winter sun, there wasn't really any "wow" moment that compensated for the general experience of harassment. It was just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but I didn't feel unsafe in anything except a gender-based way, but the sad events of the year might make me even less likely to want to visit in future (I know Morocco isn't Tunisia, but honestly there's nothing really coming up in the pro visiting column for me right now). Still, at least I've been there, done that, bought the lamp. 
  • We spent Easter at Lake Constance/Bodensee, Germany, via Freiburg and a three-star lunch at the Auberge de l'IllFreiburg was super charming, I was sorry we didn't have more time there, but the drive through the Black Forest via Titisee toUberlingen was stunning. While in the area, we saw some beautifully frescoed old churches on a very rainy day on the island of Reichenau and finally got a bit of sunshine in the chocolate-box-cute village of Meersburg

    And the winner is...

    Not much room for suspense here. Our French roadtrip was great, but we had an absolutely fabulous time in Albania and Ohrid, I really can't recommend it highly enough. Go before everyone else does! On second thoughts, maybe I should keep it as my little secret... Go to Morocco instead ;)

    Best short break

    • Our next long weekend wasn't until late May/early June, when we took our traditional annual pilgrimage back to Tours, France for the Vitiloire wine festival. On the way, we took our first trip to the stunning château Chambord, well worth a detour. I feel a bit nostalgic looking back on this trip. My sister has come over, often with friends, several times for the wine festival, and I know she won't be there next year as she's moving back to New Zealand (exciting!) With that and the fact that a lot of my good Tours friends have also moved away (Caro will also be gone in NZ), Vitiloire next year just won't be the same...
    • Still, there was some time to catch up with family this year, with not one but two trips to London. I've seen quite a bit of London over the years, but there's always more to explore and revisit - we saw an Escher exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, went to the British MuseumNatural History Museum and the National Gallery, and still had some time for shopping, and most importantly, eating and drinking with family and friends.
    • My Tours friends and I, now being scattered throughout Western Europe, try to find the time to catch up together a couple of times a year. This year, Liz, Mel and I met up in Bordeaux in October (how nice to have the convenience of a large airport on my doorstep). Relaxing was higher on the agenda than sight-seeing, but we highly recommend the Maison des Vins where you can taste great wines at a great price in a very salubrious atmosphere - just make sure you come early!

      And the winner is...

      This is a tough one! I do love a weekend break, maybe even more than a longer holiday since they can come around more often and bring a special little bit of sunshine to everyday life. I could really name any one of them, but perhaps because it's fresh in my mind I'm going to give the nod to Edinburgh.

      Belgian delights

      • Remember back when it was cold? I shouldn't jinx things, since the current winter temperatures are about what winter is like back home, and it suits me just fine. But on a very cold and snowy day last December (so, yes, 2014, but after last year's roundup), we visited the Reading Between the Lines church in Borgloon, which I have to mention here because it's such a beautiful spot, it doesn't deserve to fall between the cracks of 2014-15. 
      • Sticking close to home, I have to give another Belgian shout-out to the spring delights of the bluebells in the Bois de Halle/Hallerbos and also the famous Royal Greenhouses at Laeken. At Easter, we also stopped by Luxembourg to check out the traditional Easter fair at Nospelt which revolves around clay bird whistles.
      • In May, we took a daytrip to Bruges, where unfortunately my suggestion to take the train was unheeded and we got stuck in some awful traffic. We saw some pretty/interesting things at the Memling Museum but overall the impression was: Bruges on a holiday weekend, never again.

      • By contrast, somewhere I think is seriously underrated and I'm surprised I haven't been back to yet is Mechelen (Malines). There were so many interesting sights we didn't have time to see in our brief morning visit - the cathedral with its belltower you can climb up, the deportation museum and the De Wit tapestry workshop, to name a few. But the city is also great just to walk around, particularly its floating river walkway and grand place. It's so close to Brussels too - we really have to pick a sunny day sometime soon for a return visit.
      • I should have called this "Benelux Delights", as I'm going to sneak a bit ofLuxembourg in here. (Talking of Benelux, we haven't managed a trip to the Netherlands yet, will have to remedy that next year.) We visited the castle ofBourscheid on a beautiful June weekend and were wowed by the stunning views of the surrounding countryside, traveresed by the river Sauer
      • I'm a very lucky girl, and this year I got to go again to the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps. The unpredictable gods of Belgian weather really smiled on us this weekend, and we had the most perfect sunshine to finally see Lewis Hamilton win. Going General Admission was a different experience, one with added stress but also added fun finding different spots to take in all the action.

      What's next?

      I expect next year's travel will mostly consist of short trips, since Jules is in a new job and can't get a lot of time off. Short trips except, of course, our month+-long sojourn in New Zealand next February/March, which is really coming up right around the corner! I really want to go to Georgia and Armenia, but it's looking like it won't be next year, due to the difficulties in getting time off. I need to get them under the belt in case it goes all war-ry again though - I'm so pleased I went to Ukraine back in 2011, although not so happy that I didn't make it to Crimea. I think a compromise for a shorter-haul trip might turn out to be Iceland.

      I got promoted recently, and officially start my new job in January, so that's something to look forward to. And as mentioned, we will probably be apartment-hunting once we get back from New Zealand. My current apartment has been good to me, but it's a wee bit too small for two people, particularly the half-size fridge. Definitely not looking forward to a move, but kind of exciting to start dreaming about our new home.

      Hope 2015 has been good to all of you, and I wish everyone a very Happy New Year 2016!

      Wednesday, December 23, 2015

      A few loose ends

      My first day off work! Next year, I go straight into my new job for six weeks or so, and then a long break in New Zealand - seems just about perfect! First, a few words on stuff I haven't blogged about/follow-ups. Yesterday I actually looked at the stats page of my blog and the post with the most hits over the last week was the last day of my trip to Ukraine in 2011. I ended up looking back through my whole trip and really enjoyed the walk down memory lane. So it's a reminder to keep blogging even if it feels like I'm the only one reading it...
      • Edinburgh: One thing I forgot to say last time was how marked the differences were in security between Edinburgh and Brussels. How quickly one gets used to seeing armed police and soldiers everywhere you go! It seemed really strange to me to see the Christmas market, for example, without armed (wo)men standing guard outside. I don't know how I feel about that. As we saw in Paris, it doesn't have to be a big, well-publicised event for it to be targeted. The Sydney siege was in a Lindt chocolate shop of all places. But I suppose it's more about reassuring people they can still go places like the Christmas market and the Grand Place than anything else.
      I got a few more photos from other people's cameras - my birthday brownie
      I had to take a photo of a photo since I don't have a scanner, so this is not the best quality. I feel I was tricked here because Caro said "let's really go for it with the photo, none of this namby-pamby stuff" and then those two do incredibly photogenic cute little scared faces, and I'm the marauding hell demon next to them
      That wasn't my only cake of the weekend. I'm so excited!
      Pre-dinner silliness
      C&C and our indian feast

      • In "look how fancy I am" news, the other week I was invited to a party at an Ambassador's residence! I didn't exactly cover myself in glory while I was there. It was pretty crowded, so while trying to skirt around some people I managed to walk into a massive lampshade and then while trying to fix the shade I had knocked askew, I tipped my (first and undrunk) drink on the floor. That wasn't too bad, I think only the girl right behind me saw. But then the Ambassador came up to us, introduced himself by his first name and asked when the choir was going to perform. I totally didn't recognise him and (politely) said I didn't know, maybe he should ask that guy over there. Then he (nicely) said he was the Ambassador and wandered off. Oops. So this is more "why I shouldn't be invited fancy places". It was fun seeing everyone's party frocks though, and I talked to the Ambassador's wife later, who was very nice.
      In Grand Place after the Ambassador's party

      A fondue sandwich. What an age we live in!

      Jules at the Christmas market
      Light show in the Grand Place

      Panorama at the Grand Place
      • See how I'm not wearing a coat there? I do tend to run hot, but it's definitely unseasonably warm here. The coat has only come out on a couple of occasions, with most days getting into the low teens or at least double digits. It's like winter in Auckland! Way back in October, we even had a day in the beach at Ambleteuse in France. It was sunny and about 16 degrees, we couldn't believe it. I don't know if it's going to suddenly get cold next year, but so far it has been incredibly mild. I still can't believe the photos below are from October in northern France though!
      The beach at Ambleteuse

      People on the rocks looking for mussels

      A feast of wine and local cheese
      Catching shrimp and playing with the timelapse function on the iphone

      That's about it, just counting down to a few days in Luxembourg for Christmas and then a quiet new year to recharge the batteries. Merry Christmas all!

      Friday, December 11, 2015

      My Jesus Year

      Longer ago than I care to admit, I thought up the title "My Jesus Year" for a post about my 33rd birthday, as a joke probably only I would find funny. (I also came up with the idea of a "double sweet sixteen" party for my 32nd birthday, but I failed to actually realise at the time that I was in fact on the brink of turning 32, so it never happened and we just went out for a quiet dinner instead.) Anyway, 33 as in that's how old Jesus was when he died, har har. And then I found out it's actually a thing, as in the year people decide to "get serious about life", or try to dedicate the year to being more Jesus-y, depending on how religious they are. Technically, since he was crucified part-way through, I think it should be more like a Jesus four months. Anyway, as is probably apparent, I'm not actually going to be doing a Jesus Year, particularly in its more religious form. Possibly I could be like Jesus by drinking more wine though? What I am going to be doing is going to New Zealand for a month (in only two months' time!) and starting a semi-new job (as in, I got a promotion but am staying at my current place of work). Which totally sound like WJWD.

      I kicked off 33 (a third of a way to 99!) with a trip to Edinburgh to visit my good friend Caroline, who is incidentally moving to NZ herself soon, so it was the last chance to catch up in this hemisphere for the foreseeable :(

      This was the weekend Storm Desmond hit the UK. It wasn't nearly as bad in Edinburgh as it seemed it was in Northern England/Southern Scotland, but it was certainly cold and rainy enough for anyone's liking. There's definitely a charm to winter lights and traditions when it's miserable outside and dark from 4 pm which you don't get somewhere like NZ though, so it's not all bad.

      At like 5 pm

      We began my birthday with a solid morning of shopping, hurray! And I actually found like 5 dresses and a pair of shoes which fit and looked good, which is something that basically never happens on the Continent, where everything is always too small or unflattering on me or just not my style. Then lunch at Wagamama's and a trip to the Edinburgh Dungeon in the afternoon.

      To be honest, I was not expecting great things from the Dungeon. I thought either it would be a pretty dull display of old torture instruments which we've all seen before, or incredibly cheesy. It turned out it was cheesy, but it was done with such a spirit of fun and sort of a nudge and a wink that let you know it didn't take itself too seriously. And it wasn't just pitched at children - I'm not sure there even were any on our tour. It involved going through various rooms and meeting actors who told/reinacted either real stories from Edinburgh's past (think Burke and Hare the bodysnatchers/serial killers) or spooky tales (ghosts, cannibals etc.) mixed in with attempts to spook you (flickering lights, things popping out). There was plenty of audience interaction as well - they seemed particularly keen on picking on poor Jules.

      We had a Scottish dinner - I tried haggis, in the form of deep-fried haggis "bonbons". I don't know about the full-on served-in-a-sheep's-stomach version, but this was surprisingly good! It doesn't have the odd texture that turns me off things like boudin noir and just pretty much tastes like a richer kind of mincemeat. I actually ended up having it twice more - once on top of a meat pie (which was soooo good) and once with a "full Scottish" brunch.

      The next day, the storm had blown the clouds away and it was beautiful and sunny, although quite cold. We took advantage of this to go on a free walking tour, which again I recommend. Our guide was young and enthusiastic and did a good job of taking us through the history of Edinburgh and Scotland in general, and hitting the highlights around the old town, including the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, which I knew already, but still brought a shameful tear to my eye as he recounted it.

      A piper in front of a statue of David Hume and the beautiful St Giles Cathedral

      View of the city with the Christmas market Ferris Wheel

      Jules in Greyfriars churchyard

      More Greyfriars views

      At the height of the body snatching epidemic, some people had grates like this installed to protect their loved ones' graves

      Me and Greyfriars Bobby, sniff

      In the afternoon, we drove to nearby Rosslyn Chapel, of Da Vinci Code fame. I did see the film ages ago, but can't remember whether they show much of the main chapel, or just the crypt. Anyway, it is absolutely covered with amazing stone carvings on every inch. You don't need all the mythology about Templars and so on to marvel at it and enjoy finding the interesting little scenes, plants and beasts carved into the stone.

      Outside Rosslyn - it ends with this abrupt wall plus Victorian add-on because they only managed to build half of the original design in the Middle Ages and then just capped off what would have been the central axis with a wall

      I managed to sneak one photo inside

      It was dark by the time we came out, and lit up in a fetching shade of pink

      Sunday finished with an evening at the pub and an amazing Indian feast - and I amazed myself by loving everything we ordered (about 10 small dishes for sharing). I don't like curry, so tend to be somewhat wary when it comes to Indian, but evidently I should be more open-minded. Monday was a quiet day with the aforementioned brunch before getting our plane home.

      Well, that's the bare facts of what we did, but it was the company that really made it. It makes such a difference seeing a city with friends who live there, and it was really a wonderful birthday weekend.

      Remember those murdering, body-snatching guys? Yeah, they named a strip club after them. You couldn't make it up. 

      Thursday, November 26, 2015

      No such thing as a Bordeaux rosé

      Back in October, I was in France again to catch up with my Tours mates. We like to pick somewhere new and convenient for us all to get to, which is not super easy, but Bordeaux fit the bill perfectly. Just a short plane ride for me (Brussels is so much better in terms of air connections than Tours or Metz, unsurprisingly) and a train trip for Liz and Mel. I'd never been, so it seemed the perfect destination for a weekend away.

      (As a side note, this is the first blog I'm writing since the recent attacks and "lockdown", although not the first to be published obviously. Words fail me on that subject, so I'd rather just celebrate France the way it should be - full of wine and culture and good times.)

      The opera house
      Obviously, Bordeaux being Bordeaux, wine was pretty high on our list of priorities. I've got to confess something here, I don't like Bordeaux wines. Or I'm ignorant of and intimidated by Bordeaux wines, I don't know. I like my reds on the light and easy-drinking end of the scale, so shoot me. Bordeauxs always seemed too heavy and tannic for my tastes. But when in Bordeaux, do as the Bordelais do, or at least as the tourists do, so we fronted up to the Maison des Vins on Saturday after lunch, determined to learn some more.

      A wall of Bordeaux wine in the Maison des Vins
      And... turns out that there are Bordeaux wines I like! The friendly and helpful staff steered us towards Saint-Emilion wines - my favourite was the Puisseguin, which I'd never heard of before (I committed it to memory by calling it "pussy gone", which is the maturity level you'd expect after four hours of drinking). We were drinking "half glasses", which still seemed to be pretty much the size of a full glass if you ask me, plus the occasional full glass when we went off menu and asked for the secret wines. (Not so secret, our first waiter told us about them, but the guy we asked to bring us secret wines seemed impressed by our insider knowledge and daring.) We got through 5 glasses of wine each, so 15 glasses total. And the price came to... around 37€. Not 37€ each, 37€ all up. We nearly fell off our chairs in a combination of shock and having drunk about a bottle of wine each!

      By the way, it was a fabulous decision to arrive after lunch, around 4 pm or so. We stayed until we went to dinner around 8.30, and for at least half that time there was constantly a queue of people standing right behind us waiting to get a table. We felt maybe slightly bad to be sitting there laughing and talking and drinking wine under their baleful glare, but on the other hand, we were loving it.

      We were finally done with wine and ready for dinner, so we quickly made a phone reservation somewhere nearby, having more than once been in the situation of traipsing around a French city post-9 pm and finding everywhere full or stopped serving. We regretted having reserved, however, when we stepped into the restaurant lobby and discovered it smelled like poo. Not just smelled bad, smelled like actual human sewage. There was a moment of confusion - why was the waiter just standing there in the middle of this stink without a flicker of disgust? Why were there people inside the restaurant, eating? We would have walked out if we hadn't booked, but instead we asked to be moved to a table upstairs, where the poo smell was absent. Later, noticing a similar smell in the lobby of the apartment building where we were renting, we wondered whether this is just a typical Bordeaux smell and the locals don't even notice it (there is a town in New Zealand called Rotorua where this is the case, due to an abundance of sulphorous gases). Has anyone else found that Bordeaux smells like shit? I googled, and apparently it's a thing that the wine may smell that way, but nothing really for the city itself...

      Happy diners in our fancy poo-smell restaurant

      Service was also slow, by the way

      The opera house by night
      I dragged the girls home - Liz in particular wanted to keep partying, but I was coming down with a cold, and had to reluctantly turf myself out of bed the next morning for a full English breakfast in a nearby cafe. We were all pretty happy just to relax and walk around the city rather than trying to do much. It's a lovely place to wander around - a very harmonious, largely 18th-century style. Much less higgedly piggedly in its architecture than many old cities.

      We found the famous miroir d'eau - literally looks like nothing when you're standing in front of it - it's (not literally) miles away from the buildings it reflects and I've seen shinier puddles. We almost gave up and concluded that the dingy grey atmospheric conditions weren't right for it to reflect anything, but lo and behold, as soon as you look through a camera lens, the effect works a treat.

      We walked along the riverbank, where there was a huge food market, and found an antique-y area which was specially open (on Sunday) to celebrate the vin nouveau. Which, by the way, was not at all what I expected - I was thinking Beaujolais Nouveau, whereas this was the colour of cloudy apple juice and tasted pretty much like juice too.

      The monument aux Girondins (Revolutionary politicians)

      On the banks of the Garonne river

      "Do you think this might be a trademark infringement?" "No way, if we call it Mickey *Boy*, no-one will ever know"
      Oh, and as for the title of the blog? We went for one last drink at a big chi-chi place on the square by the opera house, and I asked for a rosé. He said there was Provence rosé on the menu, so, confused, I clarified that of course I wanted a Bordeaux rosé. The waiter said there was no such thing as a Bordeaux rosé. I said, "mais, si", since apart from having definitely seen and drunk Bordeaux rosés before, I had been in the bloody official Bordeaux Maison des Vins the day before and seen them on the menu. He snobbily maintained that Bordeaux made clairet (claret in English), not rosé, so I just said fine, I wouldn't have anything. My cold had definitely arrived by this stage and I didn't really want wine that much in any case. Lucky enough, because it turned out in this establishment, a glass of wine cost NINE euros! So for the price of 15 wines at the lovely Maison des Vins, you could have four there, and be patronised by the waiter into the bargain. I'll just leave this thing that definitely does exist here...