Saturday, 1 August 2009

How we spent the last six weeks ...


We went travelling in Europe, and had a damn good time doing so. Basically we went to France and Spain for a holiday, Scotland and London to see family, and had a few days in Singapore on the way back to unwind.

Getting there

We flew Singapore Air. Due to the GFC they changed our flights. Our original plan had been to fly to Singapore on the evening, catch some sleep in the transit hotel at the airport, and then get the midday flight to Paris, stay in a hotel at the airport and then go to our rented apartment the next day. Didn't quite work like that.

Singapore Air cancelled the midday flight and put us on the evening flight in an A380 super jumbo. This meant we ended up having most of the day in Singapore and then arriving in Paris at around six in the morning the day we were supposed to check in to our apartment.

Making a virtue of the event, we bought Singapore transit system EZlink cards - basically rechargeable smart cards similar to London's OysterCards - and went into the city, window shopped, ate lunch in a food court on the top of the Raffles Plaza shopping centre where we were both amused by a stall offering 'Pig Organ Soup', ie Asian style noodle soups featuring pig innards in various guises, and then out to Pasir Ris to look at the mangrove forest park and paddle in the ocean before going back to the airport to check in, eat possibly one of the best beef rendangs ever and fly to Paris.


We stayed in an apartment on the Rue Maitre Albert, between Place Maubert and the Seine within a stone's throw of both the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. The apartment might have generously been described as cramped but for eight days it was fun. Great location in a sixteenth century building, free internet, cable tv and local phone calls, dishwasher and washing machine. What more could you want?

Add the great bakery on Place Maubert with baguettes made from organic stone ground flour, the Place Maubert market three times a week, metro, mini markets and a cash machine on the corner opposite a really good vietnamese restaurant and we were in heaven.

What did we do?

Relaxed, ate, shopped and visited museums. We'd bought a deal from la conceirgerie for a five day museum card and five days metro travel. We probably just about broke even on the museum card, and being able to side step the queues of the fat and waddling, was a plus worth paying for but I wouldn't bother with the metro cards again. For the use we made of them, a couple of carnets would have been more use and more flexible, not to mention cheaper.


The Louvre - first time for J, first time for me in 30 years. We'd tried to visit in 2001 and been stymied by a museum workers strike and in 2006 where we stuffed up and tried to visit on a Tuesday when it was closed. This time we got there ten minutes after it opened and had the place (almost) to ourselves. The tour groups didn't arive until after 10.00 and this gave us a chance to admire the Italian Renaissance painters in peace. I especially liked the secular portaits of the various hard men who goverened the city states, and the edgy harried look of some of the bankers, and was irresistibly reminded of some of Berlusconi's henchmen.

Also the Roman and Greek sculpture. What we should have spent more time on, and we meant to go back to do this and never did was the material from Syria, Palmyra and Parthia.

Quai Branly - since I once worked for AIATSIS doing digital preservation I really wanted to see this, and was disappointed. An incoherent collection based seemingly on the notion that less developed cultures liked producing figurative art with large penises.

Musee d'Orsay - personally I'm not one for art nouveau, but J as an ex fine art student loves the stuff, and even I have to reluctantly admit the collection was pretty stunning. Was partuclarly amused at the gaggle of elderly male Japanese tourists fascinatedly photographing Courbert's 'Origine du monde'.

Versailles - overblown, overcrowded, stuffy and smelly. Glad we've been but I wouldn't go again. If what you want is overblown architecture the Opera house is even more vulgar and over the top.

Musee du Moyen age - nice little collection and worth it for the original Roman bath house - better than any I've seen in Turkey and Greece and gives a wonderful sensation of what a bath house might have been like inside.

Things we might have done but didn't - Musee d'archaeologie nationale at St Germain en Laye - we'd planned to go and look at the Merovingian stuff but never quite got organised, and the Musee Pablo Picasso. Next time perhaps.

Then we were done - off to Monpazier a journey that ws not without its dramas but hey, that's the fun of travelling


One of the bastide towns originally founded by the English in the 1200's when they were in Gascony to provide a fortified settlement to secure the land against incursions of the French. Not unlike some of the villages in Scotland and England, and other settlements through the ages, with a fortified settlement built round a market square.

Monpazier is just one of many in the area, Molieres is quieter and a less tidied up example and just up the road from Monpazier.

Getting there

We drove. Picked up a hire car from Europcar in Orly where a singularly stupid girl buggered up and then lost our booking. When she eventually managed to recover things I was so exasperated with the whole process that when she offered us a Renault BeBop - basically a rather upmarket van with seats, sort of a fancy funky Kangoo, with only 72km on the clock I said yes despite having previously booked a rather more sensible Clio.

Anyway, bags in the back and then we were off, only to discover when we stopped for lunch that the locks didn't work - neither with the bipper or the key. Called Europcar to complain, and after waiting for someone from the service department to call me back, agreed that we would drive it to Chinon where we were staying that night and take it to the Europcar concession where they would swap it.

Duly drove to Chinon and asked the hotel to find us the number of Europcar in Chinon. The guy behind the desk was the proprietor and was really helpful. He couldn't find Europcar in the phone book, but called the local tourism office who told him the number. Called them, only to find that they didn't do Europcar anymore and had given up the franchise at the start of the year. The nearest one was in Saumur. The guy called the Saumur people, confirmed that they were open and when they opened for business the next day.

After that I called Europcar again, explained that we were taking the car to Saumur as there was no franchise in Chinon anymore. This met with incredulity and then the suggestion that we backtrack to Tours that evening as it was a bigger branch. At this point I nearly lost it, but told them firmly that they had caused the problem and I was not spending my evening driving back down a tollway to find a Europcar branch.

Later, I got a call from someone more senior in Europcar agreeing we could go to Saumur and of course they would replace the car.

Chinon was a lovely beautiful tawny limestone town sprawled down the hill from the castle. Dinner in the square and all was right again with the world.

The next day we drove to Saumur, and apart from driving round an industrial estate three time till we found the franchise everything was fine. The people knew about it, they had a Clio waiting, a couple of signatures and we were away.

We stopped off at Fontevraud to see the tombs of the Plantagent kings. I'd remembered the abbey from 15 years ago as charming and slightly tatty, but they'd had the restorers in and had somehow lost the atmospherics with the church and tombs seeming a bit sterile. History is better with a bit of grime.

And then we were off zipping across the countryside past stalls selling melons to Bergerac where we stopped off at Carrefour to top up with supplies for dinner and resisted the 'produits anglaises' stocked for tourists - basically marmite and worcester sauce.

Then on to Monpazier.

Beaumont, the town before Monpazier was working up to being en fete for their annual festival, with the entire town centre covered with strings of different coloured plastic bags tied into rosettes - we nicknamed Febrile, the Beaumont fete, 'la fete des sacs plastiques'.

And what did we do in Monpazier?

Relaxed. Read books, took photographs. Ate well and enjoyed ourselves. Monpazier itself was working itself up to Bastille day and its own festival and offered pleasures such as listening to the choir practicing in the evening and the weekly market.

Truly relaxing. Stayed in a house in the middle of the town. So relaxing one could imagine staying in Monpazier for a very long time and not doing very much.


However we were only in Monpazier for a week and then off, via an overnight stop in Hendaye to Luarca in Asturias. To this day I don't know why we chose Luarca, but we did. And didn't regret it.

Luarca is basically where the freeway to A Corunna gives up and is a pleasant dishevelled town at the bottom of steep cliffs based round a bay with a fishing port. Getting there involved a drive along the freeway through the Basque country (confusing bilingual signs that sometimes missed out one language) and Cantabria where we managed to miss a freeway exit and ended up having an informal tour of the promenade in Santander - and damned nice it looked, if we could have found somewhere to park we'd have had a coffee - before finding our way back to the freeway.

Parking in Luarca was anarchic, the town had a faded grandeur, and was very much unreconstructed Spain, most definitely the Principado de Asturias. That said the tourist office were incredibly helpful about recommending good walks, including one on the coast at Playa Barryo which brought us unexpectedly out on a beach full of jolly naked Spaniards sunbaking and chucking frisbees around.

The other walks were in the Picos, somewhere I've been meaning to go for years. To be honest we only sampled the Picos by doing some of the tourist walks into the Picos. Now that we've seen them we want to go back and walk more seriously.

Food was unreconstructed as well - Fabada de Asturias - Asturian bean stew with sausage, black pudding and pork, tuna to die for, and bacalao made with fresh melt in the mouth cod. Interestingly a lot of the locals were drinking local cloudy Asturian cider which was sold by the bottle and meant to be shared over an afternoon, or beer - very little wine.

Asturias and Luarca reminded me of the west of Cornwall in England, unreconstructed and ever so slightly feral.

Sometime we'll go back and explore the west of Asturias and perhaps Galicia properly. Should've bought an Asturian flag t-shirt to add to the collection.

(Incidentally a few days later in England we opened the Guardian to find an article praising Luarca as a place to go).

Then it was back to Biarritz to hand the car back and get a Ryanair flight to London. Ryanair must be the world's least loved airline, with their hidden charges, odd rules and quite frankly dirty aircraft, but somehow they've persuaded people they're cheap, but I have a suspicion that if we totted up what it cost us we'd have been cheaper flying with someone else or taking the train. Our other two short haul flights on the trip were with EasyJet and they were just so much better and much more transparent on costs.


We flew to London to drive to York to go to dinner at Melton's as it was almost our wedding anniversary and had been J's birthday a couple of days previously, and when we lived in York we always went to Melton's for J's birthday. Completely mad but a fun thing to do even if it meant lugging posh clothes around for this single event.

On the way there we stayed in Stamford at a country style hotel that was definitely a bit Charles and Jeremy but nice all the same. As we got there it began to rain and for a moment I felt nostalgic for the wet damp greeness of summer in England. (The next day on our way to York the weather decided to emulate Ragnorok and banished any such thoughts)

York was wierd. Lived there for seventeen years, knew it really well and came back to a place that had changed subtly.But then that's life. Had a drink with Arthur, went to Melton's, and then the next day we were off to Scotland to see my dad, 92 and still going strong.

Then it was back to London for more family things, J's family this time, and a side trip to the V&A which I found frankly disappointing, even though the ironwork collection was fascinating.

Singapore (take2)

And then we were off to Singapore for a few days as a stop over on our way home to beat the worst of the jet lag.

I've always found Singapore fascinating, partly because it looms fairly large in our family history with both my dad and his brother having worked there during colonial times. Slightly odd, but you go to a place you've only ever heard about and there you see the street names people have talked about and road signs to places that you remembered people telling stories about.

So we stayed at the Copthorne King's, walked about, rode the MRT, ate in hawker's markets as well as some excellent if expensive restaurants on Clarke Quay (one night we tried eating on Boat Quay and the people tried to rip us off - we complained to the Singapore Tourist Board about that. I'd avoid Boat Quay unless you're feeling assertive) and one day went out to Bukit Timah - the only bit of near wilderness in Singapore - for a hot buggering sweaty sticky walk to the top - take a spare t-shirt if you don't want to smell like a rancid baboon on the bus back, and another day we went to the Asian Civilisations Museumat the Empress Building. (The ACM is in two buildings a couple of blocks apart, with the Empress Building in the government district at the end of Cavenagh Bridge and just round the corner from Raffles' statue.)

And it's fascinating. Explains the history of south east asia really well with material from Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Vietnam, the role of the monsoons, the trade routes, and the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and why you got coastal trading settlements but tribal peoples in the interior because the terrain was so inhospitable. (And incidentally why you would expect Roman pottery in Bali, traded on down the trade routes from Pondicherry)

And other little things, like how they had used western rescue archaeology techniques to uncover the remains of Chinese trading settlements and that Singapore had had a history before it was known as Singapore. All in all a salutary reminder that there is more to the last 2,000 years than Rome, Byzantium, the Medieval period, the Reformation and the age of Exploration. Other places have had an equally complex history, and one that should perhaps be better known.

And that was that. Back to Sydney, back to Canberra.

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