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We had only a short two-night stay in Hong Kong this time, but it gave us the opportunity to do some shopping and recover from the Europe to Asia flight and the time zone change.

The Hong Kong weather was variable, being affected by a passing typhoon out in the South China Sea.  There was some rain and some wind, but the summer heat and humidity was quite debilitating.  We tried to stay inside shopping and eating etc, rather than roaming the streets.

We left Hong Kong early on Saturday afternoon, and the flight to Brisbane was really very good.  The Cathay Pacific cabin crew were very attentive, the food was excellent, and the business class seats were very comfortable.  We had strong tailwinds and we landed about half an hour ahead of our scheduled arrival time.

Now we are home, with loads of memories, thousands of photos (great potential for some long boring photo nights for our friends) and lots of slightly grubby clothes to put through the washing machine.

Whenever we travel, we realise there is far more that we want to see and do.  Stay tuned for our future travel plans.


From Cork to Dublin and London, then on to Hong Kong

I’m going to try in this blog update to bring us up to the current time.

From Cork, we drove eastwards to Waterford (famous as the home of Waterford crystal ware) then north to Kilkenny (famous for a brand of beer, and a castle).  We were running short of time, so we had just a quick circuit of the centre of Waterford, then up the motorway to Kilkenny.

Kilkenny is quite small (population about 25,000) but it was bustling with tourists last Friday.  We had lunch at a small café, then walked the short distance to Kilkenny Castle, which was the home of the Earls of Pembroke, and then the Butler family, who were the Earls of Ormonde.  The Castle, which dates from 1195, passed into the ownership of the Irish state in 1935, empty and derelict, but has been restored to its current glory by the Irish government.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside, but I have some pictures of the outside.

Kilkenny Castle, exterior view.

…and some of the Castle’s formal gardens.

Then to Dublin on the motorway.  We eventually found our hotel, after taking the scenic route around the suburbs and city centre.  I had been wary of trying to access accommodation in a very inner area (Temple Bar, the centre of the city’s night life), but its proximity to the centre, the river and restaurants, made up for its difficult access.

We walked around the city centre, then eventually found a good place to eat right in the centre of Temple Bar.  Dublin’s centre has not suffered from urban renewal and redevelopment, so it remains mostly low-rise, mixed use, with lots of small shops, pubs and restaurants.  The Liffey River cuts through the centre of the city, but there are many bridges, including pedestrian bridges to get across it.

The famous Halfpenny (pedestrian) Bridge across the Liffey, named for the toll originally charged for its users.

On the street in Temple Bar on Saturday night.

It is well known that Ireland has one of the weakest economies in Europe, mostly due to the government bailing out the banks after a property crash, and the lack of tax revenues to support the government’s expenditures.  Unemployment is 20%+.  Amidst this, there are clear signs of wealth – large houses and expensive cars are everywhere.  The airport in Cork  (pop 120,000) would make the Gold Coast Airport terminal look like an old shed, and Dublin Airport would make Brisbane Airport look small and dated.  Maybe that’s part of how Ireland got into its current difficulties.

But Ireland’s most famous export is its people, with both Mike and I having Irish ancestry (among various other Swedish, Scottish, English and Danish ancestors also).  Had it not been for past difficulties in Ireland, we might not be in our current fortunate circumstances.

On Sunday morning, we flew to Heathrow and made our way to our hotel near Paddington Station.  It was the final day of the Olympics, and much of central London’s traffic had been disrupted by that afternoon’s marathon, but the city was calm and friendly.  We watched the Olympic Closing Ceremony on TV in a local pub, until about half-way through when the management decided to close for the night (to the dismay of a full-house of eaters and drinkers).  We retreated to our hotel to watch the remainder of the show.  No comments on some of the content….

On Monday, we were tourists for a day.  We managed to arrive at Westminster Abbey as it closed at 3.30pm, then at Buckingham Palace as the tours of some of the public rooms closed at 4.00pm.  With adult visitors being charged £16 ($24) to enter the Abbey, I’m surprised it is not kept open 24 hours a day!

On Tuesday, we travelled to the village of Bray, west of Windsor, to dine at Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck.  If you’ve seen any of his TV shows, you will know how elaborate and inventive his dishes can be.  We had the full array, including Snail Porridge, Sounds of the Sea, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party the Kid in a Sweet Shop.  It’s not for the feint-hearted or those without an adventurous palate.  I have to admit that Mike had to help me with some of the dishes, but others were an absolute delight for me.

The adjacent table, about to devour the contents of the Cheese Trolley.

It was an afternoon of theatre and surprises, as everyone wonders what’s in each dish and how is it all put together.  The service was impeccable, the staff were so knowledgeable, the setting was faultless.  Before we left, Mike paid the bill, which I fear resembled a telephone number in terms of the number of digits it contained.

The restaurant was full, as it is twice each day, six days each week, and it’s always booked out three months in advance.  Who said there was recession in the UK?

On Wednesday morning, we returned to Heathrow for our near 12-hour flight to Hong Kong, on British Airways.  We were in Business Class, thanks to our Frequent Flyer points, and the flight was relatively bearable.  We both slept lightly for a few hours during the flight, but we were grateful to get into bed for a few hours sleep after breakfast at our hotel in Hong Kong.

On the BA flight, I’m in the window seat facing backwards, and Mike is in the aisle seat facing forwards (and drinking champagne!)

Hong Kong is as busy, crowded, hot and humid as ever – maybe even more so this time, as a typhoon skirts around a couple of hundred kilometres away out to sea.  There have been strong winds and rain showers in Hong Kong itself, but mostly we have escaped the danger.

Low clouds, wind and rain showers in Hong Kong on Friday. From our hotel.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we fly back to Brisbane on Cathay Pacific, arriving there just before midnight, then the transfer to the Gold Coast.  Our big holiday adventure will be over, but we will have so many memories of it all.  I think we achieved everything we initially set out wanting to do, and we had no real troubles along the way.  I won’t mention Mike’s lost items, or his accumulation of hotel soaps, tea bags, lollies, biscuits and the like.  (Customs take note.)

As the older of our travelling duo, I managed to get through it all without suffering any tummy upsets, sleepless nights (OK, one night excepted), hangovers or aches and pains.  Not bad for someone who gets a Seniors’ discount in most places.

We didn’t miss any flights or trains, didn’t get lost on the roads in Ireland, and we got no parking tickets or speeding tickets.  But we had a fantastic time away!!!

Thanks to our blog readers for persevering with us, and thanks for all your wonderful comments.  And thanks to Mike for putting up with me!



Galway, Killarney and Cork

I’m sorry for the delays in updating the blog, but I will try to catch up the past week of travel over the next couple of days.  Here’s the first instalment, getting us from Derry to Cork.

It’s Friday afternoon and we have just arrived in Cork.  I’m minding the car and writing the blog while Mike goes exploring an indoor market in the City Centre.  Since we left the end of the Motorway on the outskirts of Cork, we seem to have been in a continuous traffic jam.  It’s fast travelling on the motorways in Ireland, but on any other road, travel is very slow.  At least the day is warm and sunny, and everything is lush and green.

On Tuesday, we drove from Derry to Galway, via Donegal and Sligo.  The weather was variable, but the route took us through numerous small towns and villages, and much of the scenery was just so beautiful.

Dunguaire Castle, built 1520, on the shores of Galway Bay, just south of Galway.

A lush rural scene. Even the cattle take it easy.

We stopped near Drumcliffe in County Sligo to see the grave of the famous poet W B Yeats.  It was a very busy place, because there was an actual burial happening in the cemetery adjacent to the churchyard where Yeats is buried.  The epitaph on his headstone is taken from the last lines of ‘Under Ben Bulben’, one of his final poems.

Galway has discovered tourists and tourists have discovered Galway.  The town centre was packed at night, and the air was filled with the sounds of buskers and Irish music coming from the pubs.  We ate at a rather swanky (semi-French) restaurant, and stayed at a B&B fairly close to the centre.

After Galway, we drove to Killarney via the Cliffs of Moher.  It’s a route that gives a wide range of rural country scenes, as well as sandy beaches, quiet bays and the rugged Cliffs of Moher, on the south-west Atlantic coast of Ireland.  We had warm sunny weather all day.


The Cliffs of Moher, looking south…

…and north. Luckily, it was a fine, clear day.

We stayed two nights in Killarney, in order that we might have a whole day to explore the Ring of Kerry around the Iveragh Peninsula.  It’s not a journey you can do quickly – it took us all day to travel only about 200km (back to where we started from!).

Killarney National Park, on the Ring of Kerry.

We stayed in a small B&B also not far from the town centre, and we saw several of the other groups from our B&B at various times and places during the day.  Maybe it’s a small world, or maybe tourists go to the same places.

We ate at a pub in Killarney on Wednesday night, as an Irish boxer was taking on his Indian opponent in the Olympics boxing, live on the TV.  The Irishman won, much to the delight of the highly partisan crowd in the pub.  On Thursday night, we dined in a lovely restaurant, where we endured a large table of large and noisy American tourists, and an Italian family with kids.  It was so peaceful after both those groups left.

On Friday we drove to Cork, via Fermoy, which was the home of some of Mike’s ancestors in the mid nineteenth century.  We had hoped to look for some of their details in the Parish Records, but the priest was not available to give us access to them.  We will have to search via the internet instead.

A plentiful supply, and free!! Mike outside his family’s Catholic church in Fermoy.

We spent Friday night at a hotel at Cork Airport.  It makes a change to stay in a modern hotel after a series of B&Bs.  It was a really strange hotel, with an aviation theme to most of the public areas.  The restaurant has aircraft seats, overhead lockers and bits of plane fuselage.  The photo tells the story….(but the food was OK).

In the hotel restaurant. (There are some standard chairs and tables too.)

More to come soon.

To Londonderry (Derry)

We set out from Belfast along the slow but picturesque coastal route, intending to visit the Giant’s Causeway, which is located on the very northern coast of Northern Ireland (the British part, not the southern Republic of Ireland).  We stopped at various refreshment places and eventually made it to our destination.  We took a guided tour at the Giant’s Causeway, but I thought it was slow and boring.  Despite what the guide said, there was no giant, no camel, no dog etc involved; it’s all about geology.

Hexagonal pipes of basalt at the Giant’s Causeway,

Some of the crowd climb over the ’causeway’.

To our hotel in Derry.  The booking was eventually found and we settled in to a nice ‘superior’ room overlooking the Lough Foyle waterway.  In the foyer, the hotel is advertising a forthcoming concert show by a very youthful looking Brendan Bowyer (see pic).  I remember Brendan Bowyer from the 1960s.  He’s now 74.  Concertgoers can expect to see a much older Brendan Bowyer than the advert indicates.  Truth in advertising?

Do you remember his song ‘The Hucklebuck’?

One of the things that I wanted to do while in Ireland was to carry out some further research into my family tree, specifically in relation to my grandmother, Annie Pollock Foster Grose, who was born at Killennan near Derry in 1890.  I had arranged to meet the Derry City Council’s genealogist, Brian Mitchell, at his office near the city centre.

We met him on Monday morning and had a discussion about the information I had found already about Annie, and the prospects of finding any more.  He advised us to visit the local library in Coleraine (about 30 miles away to the east), to view some Parish Records held there in microfilm format.  We had already planned to visit Killennan, which was on the way to Coleraine.

We arrived at Killennan, and there was not much to see, but we took some photos and then ventured along a small laneway, which I thought was a public road, but it turned out to be a farm access.  Lo and behold, we got to the farm buildings, to see a sign “W J Pollock, Killennan”.  The farmer (John Pollock) was there and I told him who I was and my connection to the area.  He welcomed us into his house and we met his wife Rita, and dog Lizzie (who took a real liking to us).  The farm has been in the Pollock family for many generations.  I’m not sure what our family relationship might be, but I guess we may be distant cousins.  They are elderly and retired, and told us there are even more Pollocks from their family who still live in the nearby area.

W J Pollock was the father of the current owner, John Pollock.

Me with my Pollock cousins.

We drove on to Coleraine, to the local library, where the staff were incredibly helpful with their time and advice.  Some more luck too – I found the microfilmed baptism record of my great-grandmother, Isabella, who was Annie’s mother.  Another piece in the jigsaw.

We returned to Derry and walked the old medieval city walls, which remain mostly intact.  More interesting, and more chilling, were the remnants of the more recent years of sectarian violence and bigotry – the high wire-mesh fences, the flags, the slogans, the murals, which litter the area.  We retired to the sanctuary of our hotel.

High fences separate some of the areas.

The troubles date from the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Memories are long lived here.

On Tuesday morning, we left for Galway.  More about that in the next post.




To Belgium and Ireland

I have had a couple of lazy non-blogging days in Belgium, but I need to get something written NOW!  It’s Friday, and we fly out from Brussels to Dublin on Saturday morning.

By happy chance, we are at a laundrette in Brussels, washing for the last time in continental Europe, in preparation for our week in Ireland.  (Secretly, I can hardly wait to have a car again, and not have to do so much walking…)

Let’s recap on the past few days.  It was a cool and rainy morning on Monday in Tours when we left, but the weather slowly changed as we went further north.  We were lucky with the train we were on, because it skirts around the edge of Paris and terminates in Lille, without the inconvenience of stopping in Paris to change trains at different stations.

In Lille, we were to have a couple of hours between trains, before travelling on the Belgian Railways to Kortryk and then on to Brugges.  The best laid plans oft come adrift, as ours did.  Two trains were cancelled on us (and on hundreds of others), and it looked like we might not arrive in Brugges until very late at night.  But Mike sweet-talked the lady at the French Railways info desk, and she authorised out tickets so we could travel on a TGV to Brussels, and then on a Belgian train to Brugges.  No more to pay, and an almost immediate departure.  We got to Brugges OK at about 8.00pm, late, but much sooner than many others travelling that day.

Brugges was terrific, for our slightly shorter stay.  We walked the town, we explored the alleys and squares, we sampled the beers and local foods, and had a good time there.

Madonna and Child, by Michaelangelo, in the Church of Our Lady at Brugges.

The Madonna and Child is of note, because it is one of few sculptures by Michaelangelo outside of Italy.  The sculpture has been twice recovered after being looted by foreign occupiers – French revolutionaries circa 1794 and the Nazis in 1944.

The Belfry (83m) from 1240, at the main Market Square in Brugges.

On Wednesday, we travelled the half hour or so on the train to Ghent, another medieval city in southern Belgium.  Again we walked and explored, we saw the sights, and we ate at a variety of places.  Choosing restaurants can be a hit or miss affair, and we had a couple of misses in Ghent.  We ate (it wasn’t dining) at one place on Wednesday night.  I had spaghetti bolognaise, Mike had a Flemish chicken stew.  Mine was dreadful, Mike’s was big, but ordinary.  The female manager of the place sat outside with friends, eating, drinking and blowing their cigarette smoke back into the restaurant where we were seated.  When I went to pay as we were leaving, the waiter made the mistake of asking me how was the meal.

I’m a kindly person, I don’t like to be too direct, if I don’t like some place, I just decide I will never return there.  How was the meal, he said.  Um, it was… it was, um, well it was…average, I said.  And he seemed pleased with that.  We will never go back there.

Ghent, from St-Michael’s Bridge.

On Thursday, we climbed by stairs and elevator to the top of the 91m high Belfry in Ghent.  It’s a bell tower and observation tower, dating from 1313 – the elevator is a welcome modern addition.  It has a history of timekeeping for the local community, a place of observation and battle, storage for the community’s treasured historic records, a musical bell carillon and even a Nazi post during the 1939-44 period.  (Note to Zung, I mentioned the War again (twice), but think I got away with it).

The Belfry in Ghent, at night.

View from the Belfry, showing St-Baaf’s Catherdal and our Ibis hotel, immediately to the right of St-Baaf’s.

Thursday night, we chanced upon a great little restaurant not far away from the shocker of the previous night.  Good service, good food, pleasant smoke-free surroundings.  We found out later it has been operating for more than a hundred years.  When we return to Ghent, we will go back to the ‘Brasserie Du Progress’.

Friday, by train to Brussels.  Explore the city for a few hours, then to the laundrette (blog writing time!).  An early night, prior to our flight to Dublin.  We are flying with Aer Lingus, rather than the dreaded Irish budget airline, Ryannair.

Now a Saturday night update.  We are in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after an OK flight to Dublin, and the slowest rental car delivery I’ve ever experienced.  Then the 120km drive to Belfast, which was fine.  We had no trouble finding the hotel (Thanks Google Maps and Streetview!).

Some drama for us when we were queued to check-in at Brussels Airport.  Mike told me he had left his iphone in the hotel room back in the city.  We called the Hotel and asked them to check in the room.  We called back soon after, but no phone had been found in the room.  Mmmmmmmm……   Are you sure you haven’t got it?   I’m sure.  Check in your bag.  It’s not there.  (Hands delve into the bag).  Oh, here it is.  The drama ended happily.  As penance, Mike got to sit beside a very smelly German man on the plane.

We had planned to visit the Titanic Museum in Belfast this afternoon, but it is booked out until Wednesday.  Disappointment.  But we know what happened to it anyhow.

More tomorrow from Northern Ireland, as we head to Derry (Londonderry).

Île de Ré and Tours

I shall try to be as correct as possible when writing the words Île de Ré in this post.  I’m sure most of my readers would have noticed there was a circumflex missing from above the I in my previous post.

Our train arrived on time at La Rochelle station, but the bus arrangements to the island from the station were fairly chaotic.  We left there about 40 minutes late, for the island.  Things then went smoothly and we were deposited in the Port area of St-Martin de Ré.  Then a short walk to the Maison Douce (the Gentle or Sweet Home) hotel.  We were allowed access to our room before the normal 4.00pm check in time (although the girl who greeted us originally said ‘no’).

La Maison Douce is situated in this charming little street.

Part of the port at St-Martin

St-Martin is quite charming, very relaxed, very laid back, and very traditional old-style French.  In fact, as much of the island as we saw seems to be the same.  I’m not being racist, but there were few coloured people, we saw no women wearing headscarves and robes, no beggars, no public drunks, no homeless people.  It’s almost as if in addition to imposing a toll on the bridge, they keep some parts of modern France away too.

The weather was sunny and warm, and we were not really dressed for the temperature and humidity.  Neither of us had any shorts with us, and we were not going to burden ourselves with shorts for a two night stay.  I’m sure we stood out in our jeans.

On our second night (Thursday), we caught a bus to La Flotte (another village about 5km away) for dinner at a very fancy restaurant Michael had found on the Rich Persons Guide to Spending a Lot of Money on Holidays in France website.  The meal was OK (mostly fishy things on the menu), the service was good, the price was as expected.

After dinner we returned to the bus stop about 1km out of town, to wait for our bus back home.  And we waited.  We walked back in to try to find a taxi.  No taxis.  So we walked home.  Luckily there was a cyclepath all the way, some of it was lit, and there were lots of cars and cyclists and other pedestrians around.  We got home safe and sound, at about 1.00am.

On Friday, around noon, we caught a bus back to La Rochelle and spent the afternoon sleeping and at a Laundrette.  The highlight of the time in La Rochelle for me was the Friday night buskers around the old port area.  Years ago I had seen a terrific Inca group playing El Condor Pasa type music in La Rochelle, and on Friday night, they or a close copy, were there doing the same thing, and selling copies of their CDs.  No hard sell.  Great music.  The crowds loved it.

The Inca group busking at La Rochelle.

La Rochelle, late at night during twilight, with market stalls and buskers about.

And there were other buskers too, on unicycles, juggling flaming torches, doing human acrobatics and so on.  Again in the crowd, no drunks, no yahooing, no one doing stupid or dangerous things (all of which would probably happen at home).

We had only one night in La Rochelle, then to Tours in the Loire River valley.  We had decided that we should visit another of the Chateaux along the Loire, and we would do it by riding bicycles out there.  Only 21km each way, pretty flat country, cyclepaths all the way.  About two hours to get there.

Villandry and some of the gardens.

Part of the gardens at Villandry.

We hired some bikes and made our way to Villandry.  Beautiful gardens, not much trouble getting there, good weather, no bike problems.  We had to be back before 7.00pm to return the bikes, but our 21km return journey was probably more like 30km, on account of some navigation errors (Mike missed one of the guide signs for the cycle route).  But we made it, with minutes to spare.

I’m sitting here typing this late on Saturday night, not sure if my legs will ever move again, my knees have had it, and my backside feels like it is not there.  I may never sit again.  To avoid any embarrassment for Mike and myself, there are no pictures of our cycling efforts.  The worst bit when we were coming back was to have a mum, dad and a five year old little boy, each on their own bicycles, including the kid on a tiny bike, and they all overtook us.

And everyone at home thinks we are over here just having a good time.

We travel by train on Sunday morning to Belgium.  If my fingers still work then, I’ll write a further update to the blog.

Cahors to Ile de Ré

On our second night in Cahors, we dined at the restaurant within the hotel.  I think the restaurant is operated separate from the hotel; there were two separate accounts to pay this morning before we departed.  This is probably a good thing, given the somewhat ‘Fawlty Towers’ nature of the hotel operation.

The two dining rooms were tastefully decorated, the cutlery and dinnerware were of good quality, and the staff were very helpful and attentive.  The wine list ran to 48 pages, but there was a short list of wines available by the glass, and we both kept to that part of the list.

As is usual, I had only a modest meal of Cassoulet, followed by two scoops of vanilla and strawberry ice cream.  I had never eaten Cassoulet before, and I won’t be rushing to have it again.  It was OK, but very heavy on the tummy.

Michael contributed to the demise of more French ducks and pigeons, with his choices of a Paté de Foie Gras entrée, and a Roast Pigeon main course, followed by a Rhum Baba for dessert, and washed down with several glasses of white and red wine.  Overall, it was a lovely meal for both of us.

My Cassoulet

Michael’s Roast Pigeon.

I won’t be too critical of the hotel itself, because you have to accept that there will be some deficiencies in an older building.  However, it is questionable whether these should include internet services that worked about half the time only, gurgling plumbing, rickety furniture, a hand-held shower only, and windows that were jammed shut.

We had a very early start this morning to catch our first train at 7.13am.  We were concerned also that it would be a small local train, packed with other travellers, especially when a group of about thirty Girl Guides arrived to travel on the same train.  But it turned out to be a much larger train, and we travelled in comfort for the 40 minute journey to Montauban.  A short time later, we were on the next train to La Rochelle, in first class, for about a four-hour trip via Bordeaux.  From La Rochelle, it’s supposed to be a quick change at the railway station to a local bus service, for the ride to the Ile de Ré.

More from Ile de Ré once we get settled there.