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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.

Toulouse and Cahors

On Sunday, we travelled by train from Marseille to Toulouse, with just a one night stay planned in Toulouse.  Mike had not been there before, but he wanted to check out the street markets and the enclosed market during our short visit.  Alas, the markets do not operate on Sundays or Mondays.

However, we made the most our time there, visiting the Basilica, the city centre, the city hall art gallery, and a very fancy restaurant for dinner on Sunday night (see the pic below!).  We also wandered around what seemed like every street and square in the city.

The Place du Capitole (City Hall) in the centre of Toulouse.

I am indebted to Wikipedia for some details about the Basilica.  The Basilica of St. Sernin is the former abbey church of the Abbey of St. Sernin.  It was built in the Romanesque style between about 1080 and 1120.  It is located on the site of a previous basilica of the 4th century, which contained the body of Saint Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse in circa 250.

Interior of the Basilica.

The interior of the basilica measures 115 x 64 x 21 metres, making it vast for a Romanesque church.  The central nave is barrel vaulted; the four aisles have rib vaults and are supported by buttresses.  Directly under the tower and the transept is a marble altar, consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096.  The basilica also contains a large three-manual Cavaillé-Coll organ built in 1888.  Together with the Cavaillé-Coll instruments at Saint-Sulpice in Paris and the Church of St. Ouen, Rouen, it is considered to be one of the most important organs in France.

The bell tower of the Basilica.

On the exterior, the bell tower is the most visible feature.  It is divided into five tiers, of which the lower three, with Romanesque arches, date from the 12th century and the upper two from the 14th century. The spire was added in the 15th century.

I had suggested we should eat on Sunday evening at a pasta/pizza restaurant, attached to our hotel.  Mike and I have an arrangement where if we agree on something, we do what I want to do, and if we disagree, we do what he wants to do.  So we walked back to the city centre and dined instead at Le Bibent on the Place du Capitale.  It was a fine meal, and quite an experience.

Someone was very pleased to be dining at the very elaborate (and expensive) Le Bibant restaurant. We had a high table, beside the front windows, overlooking the Place.

Early Monday afternoon, we travelled by train to Cahors, about 115km north of Toulouse.  There was a bit of a scramble at Toulouse station as our original train was cancelled, but our tickets were validated for another superior train, and we arrived at Cahors only a few minutes late.

The Valentre bridge over the River Lot.

Settlement at Cahors dates back to pre-Roman times.  The population is now about 23,000 people.  The city is best known for the Valentré Bridge, the symbol of the town, built over the River Lot, commenced in 1308 and completed in 1378.  The bridge is still used for pedestrian and cycle movements across the river.

Inside the Cathedral, showing the altar and stained glass windows.

Exterior of the Cathedral and the Cloister.

The Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Cahors is a Roman Catholic cathedral and a national monument of France.  It was built by bishop Gerard de Cardaillac in the 11th century, over a church erected in the 7th century by St. Didier of Cahors.  It was consecrated by Pope Calixtus II on 10 September 1119, and completed around 1135.  The church, located in the city’s centre, has the sturdy appearance of a fortified edifice: at the time, the local bishops were in fact also powerful feudal lords in their role as counts and barons of Cahors.  There is currently extensive restoration work occurring in the church.

We are staying at the Terminus Hotel in Cahors, not far from the railway station.  I think it may be part of the Fawlty Towers chain of hotels, but our room is large and comfortable.  We will dine this evening (Tuesday) in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow, we depart very early in the morning for La Rochelle, and the Ile de Re, just off the west coast of France.  (There is a bridge!).

More about that in the next post.




Marseille and on to Toulouse

As I write this, we are on the train en route to Toulouse.  It’s a beautiful clear Mediterranean day as we speed along through the countryside of Provence.

We had a good stay in Marseille.  The hotel was clean, cool and quiet, and we got to meet up a few times with our friends Michael and Iulia, who used to live on the Gold Coast.  We also travelled the short distance yesterday (Saturday) to Aix-en-Provence, in the hills behind Marseille, for a day visit, and that was really very nice.  It’s a lovely city, with a very long history, and it’s a very popular tourist destination, market town and university town.  It’s also apparently a very wealthy area, and we could see this from the appearance of the city, the quality of the shops and the well-dressed locals in their fancy cars.

But most of all in Marseille, we ate.  And drank.  Thursday night, we went with Michael and Iulia to La Grotte (The Grotto) restaurant at Calanque de Collongue, about 20km east of Marseille, and right on the coast.  It’s in a very tiny village, but the restaurant was fabulous.  We dined in the courtyard under a trellis of grapevines, open to the cooler evening air.  The two Michaels ate steak tartare Italian-style, Iulia had duck, and I had lamb.  And we had a very nice bottle of red wine from the Luberon region.

The tiny village of Calanque de Collongue.

Dining under the grape vines.

On Friday, Mike and I discovered a restaurant for lunch near the Vieux Port (Old Port), called L’Oliveraie (The Olive Grove).  We were going to order just main courses, but the lunch special with three courses and wine was just a few Euros more.  We chose gazpacho and a cheese soufflé entree, pork and fish for the main course, and two desserts, all of which were excellent.  We thought the deal included 0.5 litres of wine, for two people, but it didn’t.  No, we got 0.5 litres of wine each!!!  All for Euro40 (about AU$47).

Dessert and the start of our second half litre of wine.

As our penance, we then walked to the top of the adjacent hill to see the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the city and surrounding countryside.  It was hard work climbing up those steep streets and paths, especially after a big lunch and almost half a litre of wine each.

Notre Dame de la Garde sits high over the Old Port of Marseille.

The view makes the climb worthwhile!

Friday night we had pizza and wine with Iulia, and on Saturday night, Michael joined us for a meal in the Vieux Port area.  It turned out to be not the best meal ever foodwise, let down further by the abysmal service.  The main courses arrived only after French Michael delivered the waiter a five minute ultimatum (food on the table or we walk!).

Which brings us now to Sunday morning, and our journey on the train to Toulouse.  More from Toulouse later.

More from Paris, then on to Marseille

Even on holidays, there are some domestic chores that still have to be done, so here I am at the Laundrette again.  It’s very convenient, being across the street from our hotel, and there never seems to be a queue for washers and dryers (unlike Heidelberg!).  Plus it gives me a quiet time to sit and compose the blog update.

Monday we went to Fontainebleau, a town about 50km south east of Paris, where there is a very famous royal hunting chateau.  It is also the place from which Napoleon went into exile.  It’s just a quick train trip out to Fontainebleau, then a couple of kilometres walk through the centre of the town to the chateau.

Mike outside the Fontainebleau Chateau

Some of the out-buildings of the Chateau, from the grounds.

The chateau was developed over many centuries, with various kings and emperors demolishing and adding to the building to suit their various whims.  Many of the rooms remain furnished in their original style, most of which I could only describe as overdone and uncomfortable.  I think the French royalty would have been more popular with the peasantry if they had occasionally lightened up a little, relaxed in tracksuit pants and hoodies, and chilled out with a few cold ones and a DVD or two.

I am always intrigued also in these palaces and chateaux to find no decent bathrooms and toilets etc for those who lived there.  We have much to be grateful for now.

While in Fontainebleau, we took the opportunity to shop at the local Carrefour Supermarche (which is probably where Napoleon and Josephine used to pop into for their weekly shop).  It’s a big place, with lots of choices, and some pretty good prices too, compared to what we are used to paying.  We used the ‘serve yourself’ check out (thanks for the English option on the screen), but Michael still had to call for assistance as it didn’t return the banknotes part of our change.  But we succeeded in the end.

Tuesday we went shopping for clothes for Michael (no surprises there), lunched at Galeries Lafayette, then to Au Bon Marché, a very upmarket department store and food store over on the left bank.  For us, it’s a shop for looking rather than buying.  From there we walked to Les Deux Magots bar and bistro at St Germain des Pres, for a very stylish late afternoon drink.  You can sit there as long as you wish, and watch the world go by, including the Australian woman and her friends at the next table, and the young French girl at the table in front of us who left without paying for her drink.

Mike enjoying an alfresco lunch in Galeries Lafayette in Paris

While there, we arranged to meet for dinner later that night with our ex-Gold Coast friend Michael from Marseille, who was about to board a train at Montpellier to come to Paris for business the next day.  About four hours later, we met up near the Opera Bastille and had a very pleasant dinner together.  In an Australian context, imagine trying to arrange dinner in Brisbane in four hours time with someone who was boarding a train in Rockhampton.  When/if they ever arrived, the restaurant kitchen would be closed….  We left the restaurant at midnight, as more diners were still arriving.

Michael and Michael at midnight, just after dinner near the Place de la Bastille

Now on Wednesday, I’m at the Laundrette, and Michael has gone shopping.  The summer weather has finally arrived – today there is clear blue sky, a gentle breeze, and people are on the streets in casual shirts, jeans and shorts and (just a few) in thongs.  After the washing is done, we will walk to the banks of the River Seine, where the Paris Plage (beach) has been established on a closed section of riverside expressway.

Paris Plage (beach), by the Seine, the day before it opened for 2012.

Now it’s Thursday, and we have just departed on the train from the Gare de Lyon, headed for Marseille, on the sunny and very warm Mediterranean coast.  It should be a very pleasant trip – we are in First Class (more cheap advance purchase tickets!), in the upper deck of the carriage, from where there are better views.  It’s non-stop to Marseille.

Yesterday, we finished our odds and ends of shopping in Paris.  Michael has a number of shops where he likes to visit to buy little expensive goodies.  But I can hardly talk about that – we went to a lovely little second-hand silverware shop near the Place des Vosges, and the lady there said she recognised me from my previous visit in February, earlier this year.  I believe her.  Her little dog gave me a real barking session last time I was there, and I haven’t forgotten the shop or the dog.  We bought some nice pieces of Christofle silverware as a souvenir of our stay in Paris.

“Killer”, the vicious dog, outside his owner’s silver shop. Waiting for his next victim??

Then to Paris Plage, which opens for the 2012 season on Friday this week.  Finally dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel.  As can happen, our meal was so-so.

More from Marseille this weekend.