Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Tour de France: Dijon area

The Hotel Dieu (God's Hotel), a convent hospital for the poor... on TwitpicConvent hospital interior with inbuilt chapel. Check out thos... on TwitpicTraditional glazed ceramic rooftile pattern, Dijon area on TwitpicNougat cakes, shop window, Dijon on Twitpic
We drove for about three hours to Beaune, and visited the Hotel Dieu (God's Hotel), a convent hospital for the poor, dating from the 17th century. Then we arrived in Dijon, where it was time to stay put for a while!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Tour de France: Marseilles, Avignon, Orange

The Chateau D'If, which we visited - location of both The Cou... on TwitpicIle d'If, Marseilles harbour - you can see the city in the di... on Twitpic
Pics: Île d'If, and the view from its top tower which includes Marseilles town
On Saturday we visited the Arles market and bought a few things. At noon we headed for Marseilles where we took a ferry to the Chateau d'If, famous for its role in The Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. Back in Arles we went to a different restaurant where a man with a guitar serenaded the guests. I ate lamb followed by a crème caramel.

Sunday: packed up and drove to Nimes, where we briefly viewed the amphitheatre (same as the one in Arles) and the Roman temple dating from the year 2-4 AD. Then at the Pont du Gard, a 2000 year old aqueduct standing high above a river gorge to carry water to Nimes. I climbed partway up the hill on the other side, after which my feet were screeching at me to quit playing tourist already - not from blisters, but pressure fatigue all over the soles, like walking on bruises.

The popes' palace in Avignon, like something out of a fairytale! on TwitpicCycle racing day in Avignon - pipsqueak class!  on Twitpic
Pics: The pope's palace and a pipsqueak cycle race, Avignon

On to Avignon, where we checked into a rather quaint hotel and set off to search out the famous bridge. We ate sandwiches and ice cream and rode a tourist train to the garden on top of the rock, far above the riverside road and the encircling medieval wall - completely intact around the old town area. In the evening the whole group went down the street to a restaurant where we ate soup, chicken with beans, and Ile Flottante. The hotel rooms being air conditioned, I slept very well for over nine hours.

Breakfast was a bit rushed on Monday morning, but we got away at eight and soon visited Orange, with its huge Roman theatre.

Roman theatre in Orange. That thing is BIG! on Twitpic

Friday, 25 September 2009

Tour de France: Carcassonne/Arles

We drove through to Carcassonne just in time for yet another three course dinner, including a delicious lasagne. In the morning I set to work on the translations for Germany, which left just enough time to grab a bite and meet the bus. In the old town I encountered a small green lizard in a narrow street, and a couple of comfy cats in courtyards. We went down into the main town and took a boat trip on the canal. Then I stayed in town to seek out an internet café in the form of an Irish pub. Mum came too, but the rest of the group were keen to get back and do their washing.

That night the hostel put on a dinner of local specialties for us - a salad with jezier, which is duck guts. The main course was cassoulet - duck with beans and pork sausages - and another apple tart.

The next morning after breakfast I went for a walk and enjoyed the relative quietness of the streets, which was a surprise after seeing it so busy all the rest of the time. Then I went into the castle with eight of the girls and spent some time wandering around alone after they all raced through. From the courtyard a window showed a basement below, with a cat sleeping on a cardboard box.

For lunch we went just around the corner - well, everything's round the corner here - and ordered the gizzard salad again and lasagne followed by chocolate mousse. The remainder of the day was spent walking around and around the Cité inside and out and on the ramparts. In one of the little shops in a narrow winding street I had the unusual experience of discovering a red chair exactly like the ones I owned in Germany. Sitting on it for a moment was quite singular. That evening we ate omelettes in the square.

The morning after that we left at eight to head for Arles, where we arrived around noon. First we ate salads at the Place du Forum near Van Gogh's Le Café La Nuit, then visited the amphitheatre, the church and cloister, and the underground crypt with most of a Roman forum intact under several streets. That night we went with the ladies to a restaurant recommended by the hotelier, and ate the most artistic meal I have ever seen - three petite but filling courses of delicately designed platters. I ate ratatouille with egg followed by salmon and veges, then a creation of gingerbread and ice cream.

Salad in Arles

Arles: the Roman amphitheathre

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Tour de France: Mont St Michel, Tours, Châteaux de la Loire, Rocamadour

Bright and early we packed up on Sunday morning and left after another lovely breakfast put on by our hosts. We drove on tiny back roads through to Mont St Michel, which loomed up out of the mist as we approached through cornfields and hamlets.

How do you describe the experience of a place like that? Built sheer from its base on a rock in the sea, it is a functional town, even if overpopulated with tourists. Soaring halls stacked atop one another culminate in a high church with an angel on its tall spire - Michael, for whom the place is named. We ate Galette Normande (crepe with ham and potato) for lunch in a glassed restaurant overlooking the tidal flats and returned to the bus via the ramparts. A bit more time could have been spent here as there were museums and gardens to see.

Pics: Cloister garden high atop the Mont, with tidal flats and salt plains beyond; and me on the ramparts

< View from the ballroom of Château Chenonceau, which spans the river Cher

We then commenced the four hour trip to Tours, again mostly on back roads which made some of the girls feel sick, but we did see a lot of pretty little villages, each with their church in the middle. Once in Tours we took a brief walk at the riverbank before eating at a little restaurant around the corner, in the heart of the old part of town. Feta quiche, steak with stuffed baked potato, and apple and rhubarb tart. Back at the hostel everyone was complaining about the sanitary facilities and overnight the locale did prove to be quite noisy.

In the morning a very tired bunch drizzled in to breakfast and we set off afterwards for Azay le Rideau, the first of our castles for today. It is a country manor set in a lake, complete with fairytale turrets and loggias. The second castle was Chambord, which we only looked at from outside - the best view apparently. We didn't get to see very much as we only stopped for a few minutes and everyone was hungry and keen to get to the next stop where we were to eat - Clos Luce, where Maestro Leonardo lived. This proved to be one of the best visits of the day, as the house and gardens gave many insights into the character of Leonardo. All around the rooms were framed quotes from him in French, and the girls went around dechiphering them with great gusto. Prior to the visit we ate on the terrace overlooking the city and chateau of Amboise: mushroom omelettes and then I ate my first French crepe of this trip: with almonds and chocolate.

Amboise and Blois both looked like pleasant towns worth a visit on another day, but we could only pass through this time. Along the road we passed a tractor with a deep trailer full of ripe grapes, losing red grapejuice through the cracks at a rate of litres per second. The sun grew hot as we drove on to Chenonceau, the palace that spans the river Cher with its ballroom. As we prepared to leave, a hot air balloon with a huge basket took off from behind one of the buildings belonging to the castle. The drive back to Tours included a short stop at a supermarket so everyone could buy munchies for the long bus trip tomorrow. In the countryside we spied several different carloads of people enjoying a roadside picnic, complete with tablecloths and wine.

Next day from the bus we viewed hazy horizons as they became first rolling hills, then sharp inclines and valleys and cliffs. Here and there, tantalising glimpses: a thatched shed tucked into a tree-line, baby goats in a field, a stone wall covered in moss, and high viaducts over forested valleys. Interestingly, these valleys mostly have flat grass at the bottom rather than streams as I would expect.

On the approach to Rocamadour we had to take a narrow road in the side of the cliff because it seemed the only way in. Part of it was even a tunnel, hewn in rock and only just big enough for the bus to get through.

In Rocamadour we went up as far as the churches and grabbed a sandwich and ice cream, but not in that order. Peering straight up or straight down for such heights is pretty amazing, especially from the church terrace where the cliff hangs over above you and the birds are always circling.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Tour de France: Rouen and Bayeux

We landed in Paris at around 7 in the morning and waited a rather long time for the baggage, normal I suppose for a huge plane like that. I photographed the terminal's interior escalators until finally everything was gathered and we were able to head for our bus. It was much bigger than we had been told, so that we could spread out as we wanted.

The drive to Rouen began with excitement as we caught glimpses of La Grande Arche while leaving Paris. In Rouen, after some initial disorientation, we wandered through typical tiny streets and huge cathedrals. We ate fresh bread with lettuce and cheese, then had to head back to the bus.

Pics: Café in Rouen; Rouen cathedral; old houses in Rouen

Two hours later a very tired group disembarked in Bayeux to view the famed medieval tapestry. Despite its great age, the vivid colours and huge length are worth a close look. Then we checked into our gorgeous little hotel on the Place du Marché and visited the establishment next door for a three course meal - the first of many culinary challenges for our new travellers. We ate paté, grilled turkey with chips, and apple tart. And early to bed in lovely timbered rooms.

On Saturday morning we awoke early from jetlag and observed the vendors setting up their stalls for market day. A visit to the bakery provided an early snack, followed by a cup of tea in the café and finally breakfast in the hotel at nine.

We spent a good deal of time in the market, buying local cheese and fruit for lunch as well as some very French clothes. Time then for a wander through old Bayeux, with its coloured shop-fronts and yet another cathedral that seemed to glow yellow in the noonday sun. We lunched in a tree-shaded park and rejoined the group for a trip to the coast.

Haunting relics litter the cliffs far above those fateful beaches - mangled concrete bunkers and huge potholes, pocked with twisted rods and rolls of rusty barbed wire. Farther along at the military cemetary, we looked on as all the Americans present froze on the spot to sing their anthem. Along the road I noticed many houses bore metal decorations, some shaped like an S. Back at the local restaurant we ate crudités salad, roast ham, potato gratin, and pear custard tart.

Pics: café in Bayeux, hotel room ceiling, dogs viewed from hotel window, at the cemetary

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Review: The Familiar Stranger by Christina Berry

A highway accident, a man with amnesia, a supportive wife wanting to save an ailing marriage. Ingredients for a good story in the first place. But there's far more to it than that. The "new" Craig, who remembers nothing of his prior life, is suddenly more loving than the man Denise thought she knew - and more committed to the family than she would have believed just days ago.

So what is going on here? Clues begin to appear, solid evidence that Craig had been a man with two lives before losing his memory. Denise battles to forgive him, this familiar stranger with no recall of the betrayals he orchestrated himself.

As more and more of the truth is discovered, there are more and more surprises waiting for Denise and the boys, and for young Samantha, a leukemia patient they met in the hospital. I tell you, just when you think you've figured it out - wham! Another astonishing layer is uncovered, culminating in one of fiction's most cunning plot twists to date. Nothing is as it seems, yet when all is revealed my reaction is "of course!" So a canny reader might figure it out earlier with some effort!

The tale is told in a sympathetic back-and-forth banter between His and Hers chapters. It resonates within me for a couple of reasons. First, I had the opportunity to meet the author last year, and I can say that her personality shines from every page. What a wonderful story she has constructed from disparate slices of real life. Secondly, I recently spent a lot of time visiting a critical care ward, and this book describes its atmosphere perfectly. And I suppose thirdly, because when I got to the end and discovered the truth of the matter, I realised this story has more in common with my own life than I ever imagined. But I can't say any more in that regard or I'll spoil it for you.

In brief? This is an author to watch out for in future. Get ahold of this book and let it wrap you up in its reality, clear as a knife-edge and never retreating in the face of truth.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Sacred Cipher by Terry Brennan

Zero to 100 is one way to describe the pace of this novel. It starts out harmlessly enough with the discovery of a stash of old scrolls in a New York mission. Then odd and frightening things begin to happen to those involved in reading one scroll in particular. Near misses and almost-fatal accidents point the men to the significance of the find. Much time is spent on filling in the background history - of which there is plenty - mostly by way of dialogue and questions batted back and forth. Finally our scholars, amateur and otherwise, crack the near-impossible code in the scroll and realise what they have on their hands.

An expedition is mounted to Jerusalem to attempt the daunting task of proving or disproving the scroll's hidden message. At this point the story becomes a big boys' lark as our city slickers prepare to become archaeologists. This element of wide-eyed discovery and good plain fun in the face of danger continues to be a large part of the story's appeal.

The action and adventure mounts in leaps and bounds as our intrepid and largely clueless explorers determine to reach their goal in the face of overwhelming odds. But not only that: the magnitude of the matter at hand soon looms larger than any personal struggles as astonishment and wonder take the place of grit and fear. A couple of amazing saves out of left field are required to get our boys out of the massive international unrest they've gotten themselves into the middle of.

Recommended for guys in particular, and also anyone who likes breath-snatching action and plenty of supernatural intervention at just the right moments.