Wine and Karri trees

The last time I travelled almost 300kms by road* I ended up in the capital city of another country, exchanging one language, monetary system and culture for another. This time I swapped the dramatic cliffs, pine forests, snowy fields and deep fjords for endless sweeping fields, flame coloured native christmas trees and towering forests. Rather than north we went south, stopping in at places known by the locals as ‘Bunners’, ‘Busso’, ‘Cow Town’ and ‘Margs’, proving that even within the same country, a language can change.

Margaret River, or Margs, is WA’s best known wine region, full of vines, big wineries, boutiques, chocolate stores and restaurants. Within minutes of sampling a local Cab Sav** you can be swimming on white sandy beaches or surfing in legendary beaches, or descending into ancient caves to see towering forms and fossils. If this sounds like I’m writing copy for a tourist magazine, keep in mind that when describing this area, it’s hard not to wax lyrical. Plus for a WA woman who has been to other, more famous regions, I maintain the right to be proud of the work of my fellow WA folk, from a state where we are not usually known for creating fine wine, art and culture. As we tasted Shiraz and Petit Verdot, chatted with the owners of the little, boutique wineries and drove along the tree lined, rural roads, it felt like another land where the days of indulgence and sun would meld into each other, and where we forgot about the days to come after the holiday. It was not this way for the whole of the holiday however.

We arrived in Busso with rain clouds dragging behind us, fat and sleepy from the food and relaxation of christmas, ready to drop our stuff and get started on the holiday mood. On our first and only stroll to the beach, just behind our accommodation, the clouds opened up and wind howled, sending us back to our rooms questioning our plan for an afternoon swim. Heading into town for groceries and dinner we went to have a walk on the jetty, which at almost 2kms long is the longest wooden jetty in the world.

Clouds approaching the jetty

Clouds approaching the jetty

Despite the intention to trek the whole length, the weather again conspired against us and with sheets of rain drove us back to our car, laughing and dripping. We dried out over dinner at a pub, and fell asleep almost before our heads hit the pillows, barely noticing the raucous chatter of our new neighbours.

The first full day had been planned sometime before, and so we headed off fairly early to our appointment at a jeweller, where we got a reality check and a day to think things over. After which we scoured the Margaret River breweries for a free table and eventually fed ourselves, lining our bellies for the wine to come. A chocolatier and a few boutique wineries followed in a haze of deliciousness and an edge of tipsiness, ending at a brewery that had just the right mix of casual and quality, and brought about a heart to heart and a happy glow to the end of the day. The glow extended as we happily contemplated our haul of wines that evening, and enjoyed a few glasses over our picnic dinner.

How do you know that a decision you make while on holiday, when your tastes run a certain way, and when you know that they could change, is the right one? Especially when it’s something that you will, quite literally, carry with you for the rest of your life? This is what we did on the next morning, confirming the order and walking out feeling simultaneously buoyed and flummoxed. It was done and there was no going back. From the forests of Yallingup, which translates as ‘The place of love’ in the Indigenous language, we followed winding roads to the Wardan Cultural Centre, where we were able to meet someone wonderful. We took a tour with her and her daughter, where we were shown the trees, flowers and fruits that her people have survived off for tens of thousands of years. We tasted the balga and the snakebush berries, and chewed peppermint tree leaves, and learnt of the sheoak and how to make a moi moi. Most of all we got to spend time with an elder who knew herself and her land, and was as much a natural leader as anyone else I have ever met. It was a privilege to hear her speak about survival, joke about people she’d met and watch her daughter learn, the girl’s eyes following everything and completely comfortable in her place.
I hope to be able to go on one of the survival camps she runs one day, so I can learn how to survive on the land that I call home. Even after most of my life lived in it, I couldn’t live on it.

From the life and tranquility of the bush we continued to sample wines, lunch in Margaret River and make our way further down south. The landscape changed from Marri and Jarrah forest, to Jarrah with absurdly tall, Dr Seuss-like balgas, paperbark swamps and recently burnt scrublands. In time we began to spot the trees that I love most of all, tall, white trunks sticking out among the old marri trees. They are the tallest trees I have ever seen, and when they fill the forest in looks like a haphazard temple, the columns and green canopy unmoving as we pass underneath.

Panorama from our cabin

Panorama from our cabin

We stayed at a well known resort just before Pemberton, where we had also enjoyed our first ever getaway holiday years before. In a cabin overlooking the artificial lake, with the rushing of the waterfall and the stately karri forest reflected in the water, it was another world.

Beedelup falls

Beedelup falls

It was a world that we shared with the wildlife, including ring necked parrots that didn’t take any encouragement to gobble the seeds that I put out for them. The resort provided them as an alternative to the bread and snacks and would otherwise make the birds sick, and they clearly knew the drill, warbling to bring in the whole gang as soon as the seeds appeared.

The local gang

The local gang

They also knew where the seed was coming from, and had a go at opening the plastic container with the seeds before I hid it, then watching me with eyes that were a bit too knowing. When no more seeds appeared, they moved on to the next sucker with a final squawk and beady stare.

Can I have another?

Can I have another?

Our own dinner was a more civilized affair with less mess, and without wifi or internet connection we were able to relax and enjoy the scenery and peace of the lake. All too soon we had to leave, with a hot, filling breakfast in our bellies and a few hundred kms of road ahead of us.

Morning view

Morning view

Before turning north, however, we couldn’t leave without properly seeing the karri trees and so I had my first go at proper off-road driving, albeit in an old Volvo.

Old growth by the river

Old growth by the river

A karri valley

A karri valley

Going off-road among the karri

Going off-road among the karri

The track wound down to a river, and through magnificent old growth forest, ending at the 75 metre tall Bicentennial Tree. It can be climbed with metal spikes covered by a net, which I didn’t attempt, despite what must have been an amazing view.

The Bicentennial Tree

The Bicentennial Tree

Leaving the beautiful trees and ancient forest behind, we went north, stopping for lunch, and an ice-cream at a lavender farm. We of course visited one final winery, an old favourite that didn’t disappoint, and so it was that we arrived home satisfied, laden with wine and chocolate and dreaming of the forest that awaits the next holiday.

* By strange coincidence, the distance between Göteborg and Oslo, and my home and Margaret River is exactly 293 kms.
** Cabernet Sauvignon, for non-Australians

Places visited:
House of Cards Wines
Gabriel’s Chocolate
John Miller Design
Ashbrook Wines
Cape Grace Wines
The Beer Farm
The Cheeky Monkey Brewery
Wardan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Thompson Brook Wines
Balingup Lavender farm

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A love letter to Lucca

Back in 2008 I visited Europe for the first time. I joined a tour from Rome to Paris, and along the way I saw sights that I remember fondly and some that I have been lucky enough to return to and see with new eyes. There is one place that has haunted me the most, and which was always on the tip of my tongue when asked about my favourite place in the world to travel to. The danger with having a favourite place and returning to it is that over the time that you’ve been away you will have changed. Time never stands still, and there is no one out there keeping your memories of a place in pristine museum condition for your return. Once towering trees are shrubby, beautiful old temples blackened with soot. This is what I feared when I insisted that we visit a particular town, that my loving memories would pale in the face of its mediocracy.

We boarded the first of 3 trains in Nice, bade France farewell and crossed over into Italy. The first stop was Genoa, where we had a few hours wait till the second train. We spent it exploring and eating overpriced icecream, and dodging pushy trinket sellers. After they grabbed my arm and started to corner us we stayed away from the tourist centres, and were very careful about our valuables. Genoa is a city still tied to trade, as it has been for so long, and with the streets that still lead to the harbour and old tenement buildings, seems to look to its past, though our stay was too short for me to get a nicer impression.

At a small town that I’ve forgotten the name of we changed to our final train, a local 30 minute one, and descended into the lush valleys of Tuscany. I was glued to the train window, watching out for familiar silhouettes, my pulse rising as I imagined the town plastered with tourists, worn down and without any charm left. Would my partner be disappointed that we’d decided to go here, rather than Ravenna or Venice?

The train pulled in and we dragged our luggage out onto the small platform, orienting ourselves with the partial view of a tower in the distance. Before long we were facing the walls, as tall as I remembered, encircling a town of peeking terracotta roofs and elegant towers, with the hills around the valley in the distance. The path lead through the walls, doubling back with the defensive structures intended to trap invading armies, and then we were in. The old cobbled streets, marble churches, gardens and little shops were just as I remembered them. I had returned to Lucca, and still found it wonderful.

A Lucchese canal

A Lucchese canal

We stayed in an old apartment, decked out with antique furniture and with a window overlooking gardens. From our bedroom window we could look down into the street where locals and tourists mingled and hear the chiming of church bells.

View from the kitchen

View from the kitchen

Within 2 minutes of leaving our apartment we were on the main street in town, where cafes, craft stores, fashion boutiques and fancy beer shops jostle for attention, and tourists jostle for gelato. If you take a detour at the café selling mascarpone gelato, and follow the alley for a while you’ll notice that the wall to your right is curving outwards. There will be an opening in the stone and bricks, and above it the outline of an ancient stone archway. Stepping through you’ll be in a large, circular area rimmed with restaurants, the walls covered with flower filled balconies. This used to be the town amphitheatre when this was a Roman town, but rather than cheer on animal hunts, locals and visitors sip wine and tuck into pasta, watching the sun go down over the rooftops.

The amphitheatre in Lucca

The amphitheatre in Lucca

It’s the first place we visited, and I hope that if I ever get to return to Lucca I can go during the spring festival when it’s filled with flowers.
Roman trivia #1: Lucca is the site of the second meeting of the triumvirate, the ‘secret’ political alliance between Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. 200 senators also came, which would have made it less secret and I’d guess a bit of a burden on the little town.

We spent a few nights in Lucca, only leaving the bounds of the Renaissance era walls to get groceries. On one day we walked the circumference of the town on the walls, which overlook the city and hills around the town and gave us a peep into the gardens backing onto it inside. Most of the path on the walls is lined with trees, with grassy parks and cafes on the bastions, and cyclists and other tourists passing by. It took a couple of hours of strolling, including a short nap in the sun, to complete the circle.

Tree lined walls

Tree lined walls

Then more strolling down the main street and climbing up one of the towers. Guinigi tower was built in the 1300s as a status symbol, along with many others in Lucca and other Italian towns, though few now remain. As well as offering an amazing view from all sides, the tower has a garden of oak trees on the rooftop terrace, where I can imagine hours could be spent with a good book and a glass of local red wine.

Panorama from Guinigi tower

Panorama from Guinigi tower

On one of the evenings we attended the nightly Puccini concert, part of a series celebrating the composer and others from Lucca, that is held every night of the year. It was in Chiesa di San Giovanni, and featured 3 opera singers and a pianist enchanting the audience of tourists with their soaring voices and music. Followed by dinner at a restaurant I’d visited in 2008, which employs people with disability, it was a perfect day. Including the karate class in the old square as we ate dinner.

Chiesa di San Giovanni

Chiesa di San Giovanni

The fine weather couldn’t last forever, so on the day that we visited the botanical gardens we had to dash into the shade of trees and tunnels, coming out to watch fish and turtles swimming in a tranquil pond that, according to legend, an adulterous woman was dragged into by the devil. There were even rare trees from Australia, that felt like old friends after a long time away.

In the botanical gardens

In the botanical gardens

Without plans on most days we wandered around, taking in the charm and flavours of the ancient streets that someone manage not to become stuck in the tackiness of tourism, though there are many tourists. Perhaps because Lucca is so small, bounded in as it is by the old walls, that there is little chance for the expendable, cheap shops and cafes that you can’t get away from in so many touristy places. Walking down alleys with craft stores and old restaurants selling local food on rickety tables, craning your neck to see the towers as you pass by and coming across the amphitheatre that still continues to shape the town after thousands of years, Lucca is unlike anywhere else.

Lucca

Lucca

We left Lucca wishing we could stay longer but looking forward to our next destination, and now as I remember dragging our suitcases along the cobbled streets and through the twisting passages through the walls, I wonder when I’ll go there again. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Ancient caves, a whiff of lavender

In the valleys and hills of Ardèche, about an hours drive from Avignon, lies a cave. The entrance to the cave has been blocked by many years of erosion and rockslides, and the road roped off, but once it was full of life. Cave bears, cave lions and other animals that we don’t know the names of rested and bred there, and in time people moved in, leaving behind foot and hand prints, and images of the animals around them that seemed to climb off the walls. The bears left traces behind too, deep gouges from their claws as they stretched after a long hibernation, paw prints and bones. The cave was untouched for thousands of years, silently holding its secrets, until careful candles in the dark brought the images of long dead and extinct creatures back to life.

It wasn’t this cave that we saw.

Driving up from Avignon, fresh bread and cheese in our bags, we saw farms, mountains, villages and lavender fields. Though I stuck my head out of the window as we passed, I only caught the barest whiff. Reaching Ardèche we followed the GPS directions to a rope off road, around the corner from the majestic Pont d’Arc. Some stressing and confusion later, we zigzagged our way up sparse hills to a large car park and tourist area. Tickets in hand we wandered around the site, then waited with our assigned group, taking the English translation headsets and after being told that photography was not allowed, we walked into cool, humid darkness.

What they have done is create a complete replica of the Chauvet cave system, right down to the human and animal footprints still preserved in the soft sand. If this sounds at all tacky (and the thought did cross my mind) go and prepare to have your breath taken away. We were lead through by a guide, talking in French, and shown handprints, claw marks high up on the walls, soft craters that held sleeping bears, a lion skull on a rock pedestal and seemingly endless paintings. They have been recreated by artists and are as stunning now as they would have been 35-20 000 years ago when first painted. Woolly rhinos butt horns, cave bears tower, horses prance and gallop and cave lions prowl. An owl even sits upright, staring at us across the millennia. We twisted our way around the cave, along the raised platforms, losing our bearings amidst the shadows and rippling cave structures. It did feel a little dissonant sometimes, when I was staring at a row of horses tossing their heads, to imagine the people painting these thousands of years ago and then remember that it was only completed in 2015. It was a matter of intentionally forgetting when it was made, and instead seeing it as a recreation, and enjoying the experience of being as close to art from pre-history as I’m ever going to get.

A dreadlocked mammoth

A dreadlocked mammoth

Out in the blinding sunlight and spring heat we went to the museum, which had a video showing the history of the cave, and then a room full of interactive displays (I utterly failed at cave painting) and recreations of a mammoth with realistic dreadlocks, lions, deer and humans. The detail on the small family of pre-historic people was amazing, and I could imagine how they must have lived, constantly on the move across the tundra and grasslands, returning to sacred places to carry out rituals that we’ll never know about.

Our next stop was to have been a lavender farm, where I could skip around and breath deeply, then stock up on soap for the rest of the holiday. It was not to be. As we passed through a quiet village one of the tyres on our hire car went flat. Long story short, we were able to get back to Avignon on side streets and slowly on freeways, which I suppose meant we got a more scenic trip.

An imposing tollgate

An imposing tollgate

The next day we said goodbye to Avignon, swapped our car and headed along the coast. We passed through immense toll gates, saw stunning hills and cliffs in the distance and listened to many podcasts. Finally we reached Nice. Continuing the trend in Paris, there was a train strike, plus the Euro Cup was coming up soon, so parking was a bit scarce in town, including where we were staying. We then had some difficulty returning the car (in the sense that understatements mean the opposite), so by the time we were out and strolling the streets, I was feeling a little bruised and not entirely impressed with the city.

A beachside in Nice

A beachside in Nice

Reaching the waterside and taking in the view lifted our spirits though, and so it was with relief and relaxation that we shared a bottle of wine on the balcony that night, and cheered for our final night in France. The glasses were the only ones we could find.

Celebratory wine

Celebratory wine

Writing this I can’t help thinking of the sight along that palm lined and broad boulevard not many weeks later. It’s hard to imagine the lively, cheerful and bustling city that we saw so torn by hatred.

Provence, part 1

It’s hard to play favourites with places that you visit on holiday; each one stands out in its own way, bringing you find memories and tastes that keep calling you back. One such place is Provence, a region in the south east of France. It was once the first area taken over by the Romans outside of Italy, their first province, thus its name. They no doubt had to bash through hordes of Celts and Gauls to establish their neat little towns, and on our journey we were faced with similarly obstreperous natives; the French rail network.

A quick search to confirm the name shows that there is another strike underway, though I imagine that the many people who are staring at timetables in stations and angrily calling helplines won’t be as lucky as we turned out to be. We found out our pre-booked tickets had been refunded on the morning of our departure, and as she had to rush off for work and say her goodbyes, our host advised us to just turn up at the station and see if another train turns up, or in the worst case hire a car and drive down. So off we went, and lo and behold there was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so a sprint and a scramble around later and we were in first class, on seats left open by friends of travellers who had not turned up. We left a few hours earlier than intended on a faster train, for free, so in all, the strike worked out pretty well for us.

Avignon in the evening

Avignon in the evening

Upon our arrival in Avignon, the temperature rose from the foggy, jumper-needing 15 in Paris to shorts and t-shirt weather. Driving through the twisting streets, past the warm coloured walls and wide river, it felt almost like another country. Our accommodation itself was also very different. For a bit of a difference, we’d rented a gypsy caravan for our stay, which sat in someone’s chicken-ful yard and was bright yellow and purple. It had everything we needed, though in a reduced size and was definitely the most unique Airbnb place we’ve stayed in so far.

That afternoon we wandered around Avignon, admiring the Papal palace and views of the hills and valleys in the distance, as the sun set. For dinner we went to a restaurant that had been recommended online, which should serve as an example to not always believe what you read. After being told they were booked out, we were grudgingly taken to one of the empty tables almost on the street, left for ages, given different menus to the rest of the guests who gradually arrived, not offered anything to drink other than water and generally ignored. I’d have been less annoyed if the food had been decent, but I wasn’t, and on top of that felt disappointed that the stereotype for rudeness was true in at least one occasion.

The bridge of Avignon

The bridge of Avignon

So how do you follow such a day of ups and downs? You have a Roman holiday.

Our first stop was the well deservedly famous Pont du Gard. Since my partner’s last visit years ago, tourism around it had taken off, so it was only after crossing a huge carpark, paying a fee, getting through the shops and a walk through paths and gardens that we got our first glimpse of the aqueduct. It was awe inspiring, both in the size and craftsmanship, and purpose.

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

The Romans built menuments such as this to work, for a functional purpose, but also to impose themselves on the landscape so that wherever you were in the Empire, you knew that Rome was there. It was impressive from every angle, and dwarfed all of the tourists and staff and little shops built nearby, as it had no doubt dwarfed the slaves who built it, the legions who marched past it and the people centuries later who wondered if it had been built by giants.

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Next we visited Nîmes, which is a gorgeous town that I think puts Avignon in the shade in regards to elegance. Walking along its tree lined boulevards and past fountains, we saw the arena, which seemed almost entirely intact. Inside we saw that it was being set up to host a concert, the original seating, walkways and arena floor still serving the purpose they had been built for.

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

From a vantage point in the top tier, there was a wonderful view over the city, with pigeons soaring and cathedrals and ancient towers rising up and beyond them the hills.

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Not imagining this could be topped, we next found the Maison Carrée. Though long since stripped of the bright paint and gold, it looked almost intact, a beautiful temple that glowed in the afternoon light. It has been a house, a church, a stable and a granary, and still stands as if it had never been touched. Exquisite is a good word for it. If you think I’m waxing a bit too lyrical, I urge you to visit it, and then say I’m wrong.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

It also made me wonder what else had been lost to history, what other beauty had been torn down and the sorts of people and situations that bring that about.

The ceiling of the outer collonade

The ceiling of the outer collonade

Out next stop was Arles, but as we drove I noticed something on the map that had inexplicably escaped my notice before. With a slight change of direction we went off the main road, and arrived at our destination as thunder began to roll on the horizon. Our destination was a replica Roman winery, built on and around an ancient winery, and which was still in production. We were left to explore the centre ourselves, taking in the info about amphorae, wine production and the history of the site. We then found the pressing room, which has a massive tree beam hung above a press, with winches and pulleys, basins for the wine and grape mush and huge amphorae buried in the ground. Every year there is a harvest on the site, with workers and volunteers in costume, who then press the grapes by foot, operate the equipment and create wine following ancient recipes.

The press at Mas des Tourelles

The press at Mas des Tourelles

It was all fascinating and I was giddy with the reality of it, even more so when we were offered tasting, which were included in all visits. Obviously tastes have changed over the millenia, but the herbs, spices, sweetness and saltiness were marvelous to experience, and we left with smiles and bottles of our own, glad we had the opportunity to try this completely unique experience.

Then to finish off our day, we had dinner in Arles, which for my was a plate full of crustacea. Though my partner’s face went white as I offered him meaty lumps of sea snail, I got through the whole thing – and the whole experience far exceeded our first night in Provence.

Seafood extravaganza

Seafood extravaganza

Walking through the town we saw another arena, a bit smaller but still imposing and many cobbled streets and a busker. What overlaid everything was the scent of jasmine, which hung heavily in the evening air, the flowers themselves growing around and into houses and walls.

Jasmine in Arles

Jasmine in Arles

Paris

I have lost track of the weeks we’ve been back in Australia, at some point I stopped counting. It was probably the point at which our life here hit its rhythm, and we started to feel as though this was normal, as though we hadn’t lived anywhere else. Hearing a Swedish accent, seeing birch trees, even the nonsensical names at IKEA, all bring the last few years back with a jolt. I remember that routine, those people I saw everyday, the changes faces of the lake and when that life was the normal one.

It’s sinking in. Until it does completely, here’s the next part of our trip across Europe.

***

What can you say about Paris? Glamour, selfies at the Eiffel Tower, fashion, monuments, cafes chairs on the sunny pavements, rarefied sense of culture. All true, and you’d think enough to make it cringey, but Paris can really pull being Paris off. With aplomb.

Paris in clouds

Paris in clouds

We had both been to Paris before, though not together, so there was no rush from either of us to head to the main sites. I had spent 9 hours in the Louvre, which was enough for this decade, so instead we caught the subway to the Opera stop and let our feet lead us from there. At Gallery Lafayette I bought a beautiful jar of salt, mixed with rose petals and herbs, and soaked in the luxurious smells of chocolate, pastry, tea and other delicacies.

Salt in Gallery Lafayette

Salt in Gallery Lafayette

Then the Madeleine, the gold tip of the obelisk on Place de la Concorde, a glimpse of the Tower over the river and a traipse up Champs-Élysées. There were still tourists overloaded with shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, and Parisians buying everyday clothes from H&M, and the mad chaos of the Arc du Triomphe roundabout.

The high level of the streams and multitude of puddles we’d seen on the train through France came back to us as we crossed the Seine. The river had overflowed the lower embankments, straining the ropes tying boats to shore and climbing steadily up the shins of the bridges. The next day it would pass the knees, and after we left our host was evacuated from her workplace as the water continued to rise. For us it was a novelty of a sort, something to remark on and worry about on behalf of our friend, but for those who didn’t know if tomorrow would wash away their livelihoods, it was a very different reality. On the news were families whose houses were flooded, but here in Paris the shops were selling little Eiffel Towers and the outward face of the city was unchanged, if dampened.

The Seine rising

The Seine rising

Leaving the rising river behind us, we made our way to the tower, where we found that the queues were much too long. In particular, the queue for the lift. Well then, we thought, we’re in decent condition and have all four of our legs working, so what’s stopping us from joining the much shorter queue for the stairs? We found out about halfway up, as my vertigo peaked and our knees liquefied. We did make it though, and were rewarded with the spectacle of Paris spread out around us. Somehow we made it back to our host’s apartment after that, knees a’knockin’, and enjoyed a wonderful Parisian picnic and at least one glass of wine each.

On the second day I finally fulfilled my wish to visit Cafe des Deux Moulins, which will be instantly recognisable to those who have seen the 2001 film Amélie. It was pretty much like in the film, and the owners weren’t shy about capitalising on that, so among the locals were tourists taking subtle or not so subtle selfies with the film poster or the familiar bar. I restrained myself out of shyness, and instead took a parting shot as we left, trying to avoid the crowds.

Sacré-Cœur from the Eiffel Tower

Sacré-Cœur from the Eiffel Tower

While in Montmartre we climbed up to Sacré-Cœur, and were accosted by intimidating groups of men trying to scam tourists. We had to be pushy to avoid them, and even then were frightened. Hakuna matata: not so much. I worry about those who weren’t able to get away. It put a stain on the morning, which was added to by a meeting with an eccentric man in the Marais. He was no doubt trying to help, but his directions and help were so insistent that when we did finally escape, we backtracked down a side street so he didn’t see we’d gone the opposite way, and so run after us.

After the extreme tourism of Montmartre, with the endless knick-knack stores, fake luxury handbags, overpriced cafes and packs of tour groups, the relative quiet and polish of the Marais was a relief. We had a meal at a New York style diner (truffled mac and cheese, mmmm) and very pleasant looking French waiters. Then the rain started to set in, and with dashes from cover to cover, a peek at Notre Dame and ducking around puddles, we got to the stonily serene building that houses the Musée national du Moyen Âge, that used to be known as Musée de Cluny.

A medieval saint, being wistful

A medieval saint, being wistful

I’m not a big fan of medieval history, but the collection here was lovely, from the Roman bath house, ancient stain glass windows with saints and exquisitely carved ornaments.

Stained glass

Stained glass

The highlight was the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Despite their age, they are alight with colour and movement, each detail so beautifully done that you could get lost in each tapestry for hours. Each one represents a sense, from touch to sight, and one that is still a mystery. Who made them, why and what were they trying to tell us?

The Lady and the Unicorn: Taste

The Lady and the Unicorn: Taste

After a brief visit to Shakespeare and Co we went home, and then out again for dinner at a huge hall, which had formerly been a diner for workers wanting something quick and filling. It still served simple food well done, but now fed crowds of locals and tourists who lined up for hours for a seat. We only just made it in, and after the hearty food, company and warmth and vibrancy of the setting, we raised our glasses to our Parisian holiday. Until next time.

Paris rooftops

Paris rooftops

A few days in a Swiss valley

The second country on our little European jaunt is a neighbour to Germany, and one that people sometimes have trouble distinguishing from Sweden: Switzerland. Rather than check out the big cities and big name places, we were headed for the little town of Boppelsen, with a population just over 1000.

The vineyard next door

The vineyard next door

We were staying there because we were lucky enough to have a family friend who had very enthusiastically welcomed us to his home, which sits on the upper edge of a valley next to a vineyard. From the verandah you have a view over the town, with the village to the left and fields to the right, with forests sweeping up behind the house. It was extremely picturesque, and I never got sick of staring out of the windows at the rolling hills beyond and the glimpses of the alps in the distance.

Boppelsen

The night of our arrival coincided with an annual village party, which we trooped along to, following the sound of the music all across town. Long tables had been set up and a little bar was serving cheap beers and cocktails, so we mingled and smiled, being introduced to locals and taking in the close-knit party goers and the strange feeling of a foreign language that we couldn’t understand. Exhausted from our hours on the trains that day, we called it a night and left our hosts to have fun into the wee hours.

For the next two days, we caught up with friends who had moved to Switzerland or were passing through, having lunch at their houses and walks around a lake as well as a roadtrip to another country. This other country is not the largest or most impressive, but it does have the distinction of being the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, which is something.

A bit of Lichtenstein

A bit of Lichtenstein

Upon our arrival in Vaduz, the capital of Lichtenstein, we were a little but underwhelmed but charmed. As it was a sunday there was very little open, and even fewer places with food, but before we got too far into our search we went for a walk up a hill. Along the way we saw the legendary Blue Sheep, gave our legs a workout and in the end were treated to a close view of the residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein. Originally a castle, then a tavern and then renovated for the Prince and his family, it’s very nice, and has a lovely view over the town and the rest of the valley.

The residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein

The residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein

From there we went back down the hill and explored with food in mind, eventually settling on a supermarket for snackfood. After a final glance around and mentally ticking it off our lists, we left for a Swiss brewery.
The brewery sadly had no tastings, but it did have an educational video every half an hour about the history of the place. It featured a sickly queen and two dwarves who set out to find her cure, inevitably finding their way to the brewery, and salvation in the form of one of the beers. There was even a joke about Germans. It was ridiculous and I loved it. Then as rain fell we navigated the steep mountain sides and forest paths to our village and had dinner at a mostly vegan restaurant, which was one of the best meals we had during our holiday. Spinach strudel. Strawberries, Pernod and pepper.

After all the time we’d spent on our own adventures and seeing friends, we spent our last full day in Switzerland with our hosts. The day started with a walk in the forest, our host pushing the off-road pram up 45 degree slopes at times, and demonstrating how it is he’s done so many triathlons. The trail swung back and forth up the hill, among trees of all different kinds and the murmurings of birds.

In the forest

In the forest

Once at the top we had a view across the top of the other side of the valley, away to the alps. Using a diagram, I think I was even able to spot Jungfrau among the other points, a mountain that I’d visited during my first visit to Europe in 2008. In the foreground we could see the grey shapes around a lake that was Zurich and here and there villages and towns among the fields and forests. If not for the thick trees, turning around we could have seen Germany.

Zurich and the alps

Zurich and the alps

On the way down, the 3 year old son of our host, who had been very shy around us, raced along a side path, popping in and out of view and testing how far he could go from his dad. Once he’d pushed far enough, he joined us again, a little bit of energy worn away, and we were lucky enough to get to hold his hand as we walked down tricky paths. Even though we couldn’t understand each other, and that he probably thought we were rather stupid, we were able to speak a language of avoiding roots and slippery patches, and playing chasey.

That night we shared a lovely dinner, and the next morning we had a final walk in the forest before we caught a train away from the vineyards, oaks and summer flowers and towards our next destination.

The faces of Berlin

In between leaving Sweden and arriving in Australia, we spent 3 weeks crossing Europe. Our journey lead us through familiar places like Paris, stunningly beautiful areas in Switzerland and Provence and a last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. Before sinking into the sun and warmth of southern France and Northern Italy however, we visiting a city more marked by history than most others we’ve seen, and absolutely unlike any other: Berlin.

What do you think of when you picture Berlin? The Wall? Checkpoint Charlie? The alternative scene? The crumbling Reichstag with a flag waving from the ruins? These aspects can all be found, in fact it can be difficult to avoid the ambulance chaser view of history, gawking at the scars and horrors that are left on show, for the benefit of locals and visitors. At least that was the impression I got as we spent our days on the streets, and I’ll get into some of those literal scars later.
Much of our first impression was formed by the place we stayed, and the neighbourhood we were based. The lovely, high ceilinged and artistically decorated apartment in Neukölln (breakfast included!) was an example of the two-faced feeling of Berlin. The creaky stairs, moulded cornices and antique furniture seemed to be from a pre-War world, but the graffiti, hipsters and constant feeling of newness and change told a different story. We didn’t spend much time in Neukölln, but it seemed as though gentrifiction was well under way, the formerly lawless borough sheddding gangs for hipster cafes and bars.

From the trendy outskirts of the city, it was an easy metro ride to the centre, and a short walk down Unter den Linden to one of the symbols of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, sitting between banks and embassies, is the only remnant of the old monuments in the square that it dominates. Under the eyes of the foreign embassies and behind the endless selfying crowds it’s still tall and imposing, the quadriga with the goddess of Peace posing defiantly on top. Displays showed the wreckage after the War, with only the Gate standing and in photos from later years it peeped over the top of the Wall, part of a no man’s land. Either because of what it is or what it symbolises, it’s become enmeshed in the history of the city. Which also makes it a great place to start free tours.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

We joined one of these on our second day, following a former tourist turned local like ducklings around the city. After a history of the Gate, we were taken to the Michael Jackson Baby Dangling Hotel (do a quick google if you’ve forgotten this sadly historic moment), and then continued the theme of tragedy, triumph and contemplation. We went to the carpark that now stands over the bunker where Hitler died, past a former Third Reich ministry building turned Gestapo headquarters and now tax office, graffiti strewn remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a large area full of concrete pylons, the ground sloping down as they grow taller, and you feel as though you are lost in a forest of concrete, while at the same time able to see a way out.

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The guide prompted a surprisingly serious discussion for a free tour, which seemed to me a part of the weight that Germany has carried for all these years. The tour ended at Bebelplatz, somewhere that I have had in my mind to visit for as long as I’ve known about it. It was where 20,000 books were burned in May 1933, and for me is always associated with the Heinrich Heine quote,

“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

Under the square is a memorial, a room of empty bookshelves to symbolise those destroyed that day, as fitting a memorial to the death of ideas as I can think of.

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

The tour also opened our eyes to signs of history that had been before us the whole time. At every street crossing, the shape of the green/amber/red men differed depending on what side of the wall the crossing had been on while the Wall had stood. Politics aside, I think the one of the East side looked more fun. The dividing line and occasionally remnants of the Wall also became more obvious, appearing as a brick line running across streets and through pavements, so easy to miss that it was hard to imagine the size and disruption it caused.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

No doubt there were other signs, but these were the only ones I saw that showed where the city had been divided not so many years ago.

As so much of the city had been destroyed in the War, there are many areas that have an almost sterile feeling, a newness that seemed strange in such an old place where people were trying to look ahead rather than backwards. One place where this was not the case was the Museum island, where we went as soon as possible. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Pergamon Altar for a while, but due to renovations it was closed. As we walked around the island we saw why renovations might be needed. Along one column lined walkway, round holes had been chipped out of the stone, and on the wall behind, similar holes dotted the wall, with clear spaces in the shadows of the columns. Elsewhere holes covered entire huge walls and columns had been replaced with new stone. Even in this place war had come, perhaps not surprising when you think of the buildings in terms of survival and defense rather than refuges for antiques and history.

Inside I noticed that plaster and paint had given way to brick and stone in patches, and frescoes were partly destroyed. I asked a guard why this was, and he matter of factly told me that the museum had stood open to the elements for many years, without a roof, so snow and rain had cracked and peeled at the beautiful paintings and fine decorations.

What's left of Baldur

What’s left of Baldur

Rather than replicate how it had looked, the museum now stands as its own exhibit, an example of the destruction of war.

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

While the bombs had been falling and the War was drawing closer, many of the most treasured artifacts were hidden away while others were taken by the victors. Some of those that haven’t returned are the pieces found by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of Troy, and are apparently still being held in Russia. What does remain includes the famous jewelry modeled by his wife, which is just as stunning as the old photos showed. There was some irony in the fact that the pieces now listed as stolen by Soviets were originally stolen from Turkey, but maybe not that the people at the museum enjoy.

The big diadem

The big diadem

Elsewhere there were mysterious Celtic golden hats, an exhibition about beards, heaps of wonderful ancient Greek and Roman stuff and one particular item from Egypt. You will have seen her, even if you don’t know her name. There is no picture here because photography was not allowed in her private room where, apart from a model for the vision impaired that you can touch, she stands alone. Even after more than 3000 years, Nefertiti is serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with only one eye, she seems supremely confident to stare down the millennia to come as she has stared down the last 3, hopefully without losing a single perfect line or blemish that gives her so much personality.
It’s fair to say I’m a little bit in love with her, but who can blame me.

We visited another museum the next day, this one looking forward rather than back at the losses of the past. The Berlin Technology Museum is wonderful, and we spent hours poking and exploring, and being far too amused by the section about jewelry production (Schmuckproduktion).
On our last day, rather than spend time in museums and galleries, we went for a long walk in Tiergarten, a huge area of forest just outside the Brandenburg gate. It was filled with joggers, picnickers, people walking their dogs and intricate gardens, following a maze of paths that twist around the forest.

Peace in Tiergarten

Peace in Tiergarten

In the centre, in the middle of a roundabout that lines up with the Gate, is the Victory Column, built to commemorate a Prussian victory in the 1860s.

The Victory Column

The Victory Column

The gold statue of Victory still stands, and the bronze reliefs that had been removed in 1945 have been restored. They are riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, the horseback soldiers missing arms, heads and legs, and the grieving or celebrating women with holes in their heads, in a sort of parody of war. It was comical, if it was not for the deaths that would have taken place there.

A war damaged soldier

A war damaged soldier

Elsewhere in Tiergarten is a statue of a queen, standing on a platform amid well tended gardens. Nearby is a photo of the same place in the 1940s. The statue is there, looking down, but the ground around her is a morass of mud and scraps of trees, a wasteland that standing amid the trees and peace of today seems impossible. Only 60 or so years stand between us, but if not for the shrapnel pits in the base of the statue, it would seem a different world.

A queen in Tiergarten

A queen in Tiergarten

This was the impression that I left Berlin with, a city that acknowledges and bears its history, both awful and proud and is looking to the future. Which seems to be a good way to live.

Hill towns and orange blossoms

For the last few weeks I’ve been sitting down to finish the second part of the posts from our Mallorca trip. I’ll look at the dot points and the photos I’ve collated, and a wave of indifference will wash over me. It’s not from a lack of things to say, but the energy to put towards anything that isn’t related to the move. Or The Move, as it’s written in my mind.

So rather than a longer, more usual post about our trip, I’m going to have a shorter set of snapshots, to conjure up the moments that stuck with me.

The train from Palma to Soller, winds over and through small farms and mountains with glimpses of pine-clad mountain sides and groves of ancient olive trees. Rolling along on the old wooden train it felt as though we were travelling through time. Soller itself is a small town sitting in a valley surrounded by mountains. At the end of every street we could see them looming above us, blocking all views except to the sea. It was orange season, so as we walked along the old streets we caught gusts of orange blossom perfume, which almost knocked out all my other senses. In the market, just prior to enjoying a delicious lemon and cinnamon icecream, I bought a pearl necklace hung on a thin string of woven flax, which looked as though it had been strung on a beach.

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Soller

Deia is also in a valley, though sitting on the top and sides of a hill rising from the centre of the valley. Restaurants, tourist offices, craft stores and delis, mostly closed for the Easter holiday, wind around the base of the hill, and then houses line the street that climbs to the top, where a small church and cemetery have pride of place.

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Deia on the hill

A famous resident of the cemetery is Robert Graves, whose grave has a little collection of flowers from visitors. Other graves, locals I guess, are marked by names and dates scratched into cement on the ground. There was no reason given for this that I could see, perhaps there wasn’t enough stone or money.

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Robert Graves' grave

The next day we devoted to Alcudia, which we reached by a bus that crossed the island, passing through one town that we were glad we had decided not to visit. Here’s a recommendation for possible visitors: don’t bother with Inca. Our destination was much more enjoyable, and even included Roman ruins. The ruins were the foundations of houses, the remnants of the forum and a theatre, spread out across fields of grass and flowers. It was hard to imagine the scale, but I could at least see what their view would have been, of the thickly green hills and wide blue sky.

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Polentia

From the ruins we wandered through the old town of Alcudia, which reminded us of Victoria on Malta. There were limestone houses and cobbled streets, with narrow windows and a feeling of the residents shutting themselves in from the world of the streets. Down one street we found a restaurant and there enjoyed the best meal of our holiday, local food and absolutely delicious.

On the bus back to Palma we both fell asleep, and though we had an early wake up for the flight the next morning, we got a chance for one final walk around Palma, to see the cathedral and feel the warm, spring air. Then we left, the sights, tastes and sounds coming with us to cloudy Gothenburg.

Carpe diem in Palma

Months ago, it seems now to have been very many months ago, my partner and I noticed that there was a long weekend coming up. This raised exciting possibilities and as any sensible travel-fancying folk is wont to do, we hopped onto the net for cheap flights. After winnowing away Rome (been there), Berlin (too expensive) and Edinburgh (we could get the same weather here) we settled on Mallorca. I was a bit hesitant, images of Magaluf and incessant club music lurking in my mind, but the more we investigated, the larger we found the island was, and the larger the distance between us and them.

Mallorca, for those who have not been or have only been to the hotels, bars and beaches around Palma, is an island full of stunning scenery. Mountain ranges split the island, their steep sides covered in pines and ancient olive terraces and wildernesses crowding on cliffs overlooking the sea. Considering the thousands of years that humans have been living on the island, it’s surprising how tracts of wilderness still exist, whether because it’s too beautiful to inhabit or too difficult to reach.

An ancient olive tree

An ancient olive tree

Our journey began in Palma, and a little Airbnb apartment that we rented for our stay. To have a home in the old town, with the tourist carriage horses clopping past in the afternoons and twisting cobbled streets almost leaving us lost more than once, was exactly how we like to experience a new place. The bottle of wonderful home-made wine was a nice bonus.

Palma Cathedral close up

Palma Cathedral close up

Our first stop was the cathedral, which we would return to again and again, drawn to it’s towers and changeable, squatting silhuette. You can’t view the cathedral only from it’s feet; it has to been seen from afar. Only then do the pillars and buttresses that look so blockish and clumsy up close soar upwards, and the curves and arches can be seen. It’s fair to say that we both fell a little in love with the cathedral, or at least developed a crush.

Palma Cathedral at night

Palma Cathedral at night

It would take till the 3rd day before we made our way inside, but it was certainly worth the wait and the ticket. Much seems at first to be a typical European cathedral, with pillars, buttresses, windows etc… On a closer look the colours and cacophony of shapes in the windows gave a hint that they had been designed by Gaudi, as was the gigantic canopy that loomed above the altar. Plate sized iron leaves held candles, sheaves of wheat seemed to sway above them, and above that was a dove in a splash of colour. This and the wall behind, palms on a gold background, could have been a chaotic frenzy but instead spoke of, or rather shouted about, life and nature. Live! Wander in the fields! Sleep between the roots of an old olive tree! Don’t wait for tomorrow!

Gaudi's canopy

Gaudi’s canopy

An even more urgent display spread up the walls of a chapel to the right, intended to celebrate aspects of Jesus with a marine theme. In impression of Jesus was there, pressing through the clay on the wall, surrounded by symbols of his life, all in painted clay hung on the walls. Loaves of bread overflowed on amphorae of wine, and on either side wall racing down from froth topped waves were hundreds of fish. There were sharks, jellies, salmon, at least one ray and other un-namables seeming to skim just under the surface of the clay, with a fin or a fisherman’s hook occasionally poking through. Again, chaos and life.

A wall of fish

A wall of fish

Other days spent in the capital revealed shopping districts and a restaurant area full of tourists, and beyond that the sprawl of everyday life. Though apparently prettified within the last few decades, the new sheen on the elegant boulevards being a bit of a giveaway, Palma gave the impression of being once a centre of commerce and movement, but having in more recent centuries faded a little. One of the finest signs of this, and vying with the cathedral as my favourite building, was the 15th century hall of the merchant guilds or Llotja de la Seda.

A pillar in Llotja de la Seda

A pillar in Llotja de la Seda

Very rarely are there secular buildings that seem built with the same care and thought for a long future as this hall was, even now bare of the banners, paintings and colours that must once have filled its bare walls and floor. It does still have the 6 pillars holding up the vaulted ceiling, and large lattice worked windows letting in the afternoon sun. It felt, somehow, comfortable and peaceful, though I can imagine that hundreds of years ago it would have been full of shouts, chatter and the crash and shuffle of goods for all hours of the day and probably the night as well.

Hall of pillars

Hall of pillars

This then is my memories of the city, snatched from the few days we were there. The next post will tell about our journeys further away, to hill towns and Roman ruins beside Medieval walls, plus wonderful the scenery in between.

A window in the merchant's hall

A window in the merchant’s hall

Flowers, alleys and Turner

Following our historical trip to Dubris, sorry, Dover, we spent our final full day in London exploring the heaving, bustling cosmopolis of the old city.

A friend of our host told us that the most scenic way to reach Brick Lane, where we planned to fossick among the stalls, was via the Columbia flower market. Which sounded perfect, though he did tell is to listen out for the Cockney accents for some extra local colour. As it turned out, we needn’t have listened out for the accents, as from the moment we started down Columbia lane we were engulfed in the sights, smells and above all sounds of the market. Stall owners were calling out to each other over the crowds in exactly the sort of Cockney accents that the streets are full of in Dickensian dramas. Under that was the chatter of locals and tourists, admiring the overflowing buckets and trays of flowers of all kinds, the rattle of bicycles and tooting of cars on the next street.
We briefly escaped the commotion in a little cafe behind the stalls, enjoying pies (actual pies!) and the relative peace of the room, before returning to the world outside.
Though there were many beautiful bouquets, it didn’t seem like a good idea to get flowers the day before an International flight, so we continued along the canals to Brick Lane.

Columbia Flower market

Columbia Flower market

Brick Lane seems from the end that we started on to be a series of jumble sale stalls, with collections of old books and shoes that anyone could dig out of their spare rooms. As we went on though, we saw the little specialty shops, boutique second hand stores and underground markets. They were the sorts of places where you could buy expensive candles and designer jewelry, vintage fur coats, bomber jackets and a green velvet cloak. Record stores, selling actual records, were doing a booming trade and mostly young people were striding around in groups, retro sunglasses on against the sun shining down the lane. Passing a placard with a mention of Jack the Ripper, and walls covered in the most artistic of graffiti, we found the food vans and regretting having already eaten.

Food stalls on Bricklane

Food stalls on Bricklane

After some difficulties in Whitechapel Station (it would be that one), we made our way to the centre of town and the National Gallery. We had only a limited amount of time to spend, so tried to find the eras we were most interested in. Very soon we had found the collection of Van Gogh paintings, including the famous sunflowers and nearby a huge painting from Monet. It was part of a series, but even alone was mesmerising. Pulling myself away I continued my search for a particular painting and soon found it, smaller than I’d thought. I don’t know what it is about The Fighting Temeraire, but something pulls me back to it over and over.
What’s it like seeing your favourite painting in person? Satisfying and a tiny bit disappointing, for the wait to be over.

By Turner

By Turner

There were other Turner paintings as well, which were also entrancing in their own way, not to mention an astounding horse from Constable and endless halls full of art.
Running out of time, we then had to leave, though by the time we got outside the sun had disappeared behind the clouds.

The National Gallery

The National Gallery

Now what was it we were in such a rush about? Well, when one is in London, one must go to the West End, don’t you know?

The show that we’d bought last minute tickets for was a production partly created by a fellow from our own home town, Tim Minchin. It was also based on a book that I had loved as a little girl. It was of course Matilda.
Due to having last minute tickets, we ended up right at the back, though we still had a great view of the stage and the audience. I was a little bit unsure of how it would go for my partner, as he’s well known to be averse to musicals, but we were both pleasantly surprised and in his own words, he got quite into it.

View from the back

View from the back

It was a show that was full of wonderful songs, sadness, great performances, spiritedness and a message to take away. It often seems that everything these days has some sort of moral, repeated in children’s theatre and movies so that even the least in touch can’t avoid it. The message this time, however, was not quite so Disneyfied. In short, sometimes life is terrible, but putting on a brave face isn’t good enough. If you just grin and bear it, to quote Minchin, you might as well be saying you think that it’s alright. If you want change you have to do it yourself. And friendship and intelligence are powerful. How’s that for inspiring the young?

Matilda!

Matilda!

We left the show, at least in my case, a tiny bit damp around the eyes, buoyed up by the music, songs and fantasy of theatre. Thus lightened, we decided to explore the city at night, taking in Waterstones (biggest bookstore in Europe, seriously, it was massive. And yes, of course I bought a book), Buckingham Palace (less impressive than I’d imagined), the WWII Bomber Memorial (very Greek), dinner at an Indian restaurant (we were in London after all) and finally the couple of drinks (mulled wine with rum!) at a cozy pub. After which we grabbed a ride on a double decker, seated right up the front on the top, for a final tour of the streets of London.

Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus