Friday, 20 September 2013


Unavoidable Delay

 I will be away from wifi for a fortnight.

Apologies in advance for the silence.

Book Review: NeverWhere by Neil Gaiman

Book Review.

This is a wonderful story, told as an old-fashioned fairy-tale yarn: Multiple points of view, a sometimes omniscient narrator and a touch of irony.

Richard Mayhew is heading to London - but which London? There are two types of London:  the London Above, the world of everyday, where the most dangerous thing you do is running to catch a taxi; and the London Below, the realm of the dispossessed and dangerous, where there is a Earl at Earl's Court and a circus at Oxford Circus. Where time is trapped and bubbles up, displacing the present. Richard tumbles into the Below, and wishes he hadn't...

It's a great book to read on the tube.

Charity and Privilege

The Royal Charity

Today I went somewhere I've been longing to go for many, many years....Buckingham Palace. The State Rooms are open for visits over the summer months, until the end of September. I went alone - my family are not interested in the Palace or its inhabitants.

So along with several hundred other tourists, I entered the Staterooms. Impression?: Gold. Gold with blue, gold with white, gold with red. And carvings. Lots of carvings. The Royal families, or their architects, believe in embellishment. A roof? Carve it, with thistles or roses or shamrocks. Balustrades are carved, then gilded. Walls are either papered in damask (don't want plain wallpaper) or have carved details. The carvings are gilded.

The whole tour is done on audio headset so the crowd is completely silent, drifting like sleepwalkers through enormous rooms, and all you can hear is a faint hissing when someone has the sound turned up.

There's a special exhibition on at the moment of the 1953 Coronation of QE2. Not being alive at the time of this event, the photographs and film footage leaves me rather unmoved (the hushed voice of the commentator 'now, an event so old that even its origins are lost in the depths of time') but the coronation dresses, on display in the ballroom (which has its own pipe organ), are truly splendid - the hand embroidered dresses, the velvet-and-ermine trains and oh yes, the tiara, necklace and earrings worn by the Queen on the way to her coronation. These are made from diamonds, each diamond being at least the size of a fingernail.

It's then that I remember: the visit to the Palace was actually a visit to a Charity. The Charity being the Royal Collection (of artwork, purchased by the Crown - Charles the First etc - over many years with what was, presumably, public money).

It's the first charity I've ever seen that has diamonds on display.

At the end of the tour, there's a coffee shop and a gift shop, which has lots of photos of a smiling Queen and small toiletries, biscuits, towels and other memorabilia, all for purchase. So I succumbed, purchasing an expensive cappuccino, with the Queen's crest tastefully picked out in chocolate, and several exorbitantly-priced towels with 'Buckingham Palace' embroidered on them in gold, so I could loan them to guests.

After all, I thought, it's for charity.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Immortal Prose

Layers of Time

There are layers of time within London. The street names, the tube stops, the accents; even the laws reflect the city's age.

But, not being time travellers, the past is gone. Except in our imagination, and in our literature, which peels back the years and makes the past alive.

Yesterday I went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play that's over 500 years old. It was raining but the audience didn't seem to mind. The actors wore Elizabethan costume and spoke in archiac English, but the jokes were still funny; the message of the play still current.

All this in a theatre that was famous once, 500 years ago, before it burnt down. It's been rebuilt and is now so popular that there's standing room only.

Or maybe Shakespeare's right, and this whole world is but a dream...including this post.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Snapshots of Time

Time Changes Everything

I'm in London now. I haven't been here for nearly twenty years.  Twenty years is nothing in the life of a city like this; yet so much has changed.

The skyline has altered: there's a giant ferris wheel beside the Thames and skyscrapers made of curved steel and glass. Hybrid buses, still double decker, but now they actually stop. There's an easy-to-use oyster card for the underground and these nifty little bikes you can ride for next to nothing. And where has all the litter gone?

Every city has its own vibe: Amsterdam has energy, Paris has aggression. And London? London has funk. 

We're here for a week. I wish I had longer...

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Wine: Cheaper than Water

Reasons to visit Provence

  1. The wine is cheaper than water. (2 Euros for a glass of wine, 2.50 Euros for a small bottle of mineral water at the Papal Palace in Avignon today).
  2. The wine is really good. And the tasting at a vineyard - a cave - is free!
  3. Food is taken extremely seriously; a lunch break lasts for two hours. So although this means that all the tourist information centres are closed from 12 - 2 for lunch, the markets are excellent, and most shops are open until 6.30 pm.
  4. The weather is amazing - in September, its warm, almost hot, in the middle of the day, but pleasant and comfortable by 4 pm.
  5. Although English is spoken infrequently, pidgin Franglais is common. So if you speak 'un peu Francais' and your communicator speaks 'a little English', it seems to work okay.
  6. There's plenty of hiking and cycling, but as no village is more than around 10 km from another, you are never too far from excellent food and wine.
The Papal Palace, Avignon.  Image from Wikipedia - unable to post my own image due to technical issues with wifi and camera!

Book Review: A Year in Provence

A Year in Provence

Well I'd put off reading this as I thought, travelling to Provence, and reading A Year in Provence? What a cliche! 

But, I loved it - it was a lot of fun, and extremely useful, prior to travelling... For example, there's a phrase 'payments noir'.  We bought some sandwiches at a small cafe on Sunday. And we paid in cash for them, they were excellent (half a baguette, split lengthwise) - jambon avec crudites (ham with vegetables) - the kids had just jambon sans crudites (the thought of vegetables on a Sunday was a bit too much).  The woman wanted to be paid in cash (pas de Visa, Madame) because it was 'dans la noir'. We had an interesting discussion of 'under the table' which means,  I think, roughly the same: a way to evade the tax man.

The only problem with this book is that it leaves you feeling immensely hungry. So don't read it with an empty stomach!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Paris for Teenagers

Teenager's Recommendations for Paris

These recommendations are from my travelling teens:

  1. Climbing the Eiffel Tower (NOT the lift).
  2. Crepes - they thought the creperie at the base of the Eiffel Tower was the best.
  3. Eiffel Tower at night.
  4. The modern art at the Pompidou Centre.
  5. Seeing the 'famous stuff' at the Louvre.
  6. Chocolaterie on the road to Montmartre (between the funicular and the metro station).
  7. Window shopping on the Champs-Elysee - especially the Toyota store, you can go inside and see the prototypes.
Bon journee

Book Review - Phantom

The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux

This is an oldie but a goodie and would make ...a great musical.

According to Wikipedia, the novel was first published as a serial, which explains the many, sometimes unnecessary twists and turns of plot. The story opens with the narrator recounting the mysterious death of a Comte, the disappearance, presumed death, of the Vicomte and the disappearance of opera singer, Christine Daae from the Paris Opera House. The pace of the novel is maintained by the drama of the Opera Ghost (is he a man? Or a phantom?) and the tension of the inevitably doomed couple.

While a product of its time, the attraction of the novel is really the descriptions of the Opera House, of the city-within-a-city. It was a great book to read when travelling through Paris, with its stratified society still present today.

And now I want to see the musical.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013



This is not what you read in the guidebooks but - everywhere you go in Paris, there are beggars.

I kept a list today: one man on his knees in the subway with a sign saying 'J'ai Faim'. A woman crouched near the entrance to the Arc de Triomphe, huddled as if in prayer. 2 young men asleep: one in the metro, with a dog and a loud woman, one in the Champs Elysee, also with a dog. A young woman with old eyes, and in a beggar archetype, a man with no legs. The city feels like something out of a Dickens novel.

The most concerning...three young women (sometimes with a boy) who've approached me three times: at the Eiffel Tower; at Notre Dame; at the Pompideau Museum. They speak excellent English and carry a poorly photocopied 'petition' which, they say, is for the children.  They were charm itself until I gave them 50 cents. 50 cents, it appeared, was insufficient.

Who runs these teenagers? There are too many and too organised to be a spontaneous group. One woman at the youth hostel said they were Romanian. They didn't mind having their photo taken.

Whoever they are, I pity them. Because instead of asking for money today, they asked for my left-over grapes, huddling into a group in a corner of the square to eat them. When I gave them a sandwich also, they were all smiles.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Inevitability of Queues

Queues...A Necessary Evil?

There's no way out of them, not in Paris at the end of summer.  Here's the line at the catacombs:

However, there are some queues you can avoid:
  • Visit the Louvre on the first Sunday of the month. It's free and there's no one queuing for tickets. However, its very busy because everyone goes there .. because it's free.
  • Access the Louvre through the Louvre Carousel (metro: Palais Royale). This way you don't have to wait in the hot sun.
  • To go up the Eiffel Tower, take the stairs (escalier) This queue was only 5 minutes long! - the queue for the lift snaked all the way under the tower.
  • Arrive early at the Catacombs. You'll still hit the queue, but it won't be as hot as later in the day. And take water and a sun-hat for your wait.
Entrance to the Catacombs

  • And remember... you'll never see these attractions anywhere else. So its worth the wait!

Monday, 2 September 2013


Epiphany Means 'A Sudden Realisation of Great Truth'

Yesterday's epiphany was - don't overwhelm the kids. 

Yesterday we travelled from Amsterdam to Paris. Got out of the Gare du Nord and stepped...straight into Mumbai. There was a festival to Ganesh and the streets were closed and awash with women in brightly coloured saris, helium balloons and loud, cracklingly loud, Indian music.  

It was a relief to get to the youth hostel.

Whereupon we went straight out again and went to the Louvre.  It's free on the first Sunday of the month, and yesterday was...the first Sunday. The Louvre was even more crowded than the streets.

We decided early on that we were not going to try to see everything at the Louvre. It's impossible. So along with everyone else, we just went to the famous things!

Crowd at the Mona Lisa (it's the small black rectangle in the distance)
By 5 pm we were exhausted and had to resort to Starbucks for therapy. And Starbucks in Paris is hideously expensive.

Moral of the story: We should have paid to go to the Louvre. And not done anything in the afternoon.

Guards ushering visitors from the Louvre
Today we're just chilling. Here's the Paris Pajol youth hostel. It's brand new and much more comfortable than any other accommodation I've ever had in Paris.