Saturday, April 29, 2006

Business as Usual

more or less. As well as gathering together bits of the Warlukurlangu book which have rolled in during my absence, two new books turned up this week: a novella and a novel, both very intriguing. Also, while away, I was asked to be a judge in the Premier's non-fiction awards again, so in about a month's time, a truckload of finished books will turn up for reading. I won't be twiddling my thumbs. My prediction of being very busy late in the week came true.

P. downloaded his photographs onto the computer, as you can see below (a small sample), and I started making contact with people to see what they are up to.

Today should be really 'normal', shopping with Frank at Victoria Gardens, and watching The Bill on Saturday night.


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Alcazar, Seville, detail

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Grand Harbour, Malta from our hotel

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Peter at Pompeii: the temple of Isis

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The Alhambra from the Archaeological Museum

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Polly and Bruce at Venasque

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Polly and Bruce at Abbaye de Senanque

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Back to normal

Yesterday (Monday), P. went back to work in the salt mines, and I caught the train out to Montmorency to pick up my mother's old car (where it had been living while we were away). On the way home I did some shopping so we are now provisioned and the house is starting to look normal, with fruit, tomatoes and lemons in the bowls. No flowers yet!

Then into town to cash in my remaining traveller's cheques and restore the bank balance to pink rather than red. The travel agent in Malta emailed to say that the refund on the cancelled Sicily trip was on the way. And when P. came home from work he cooked a steak and chips dinner. Normality is restored.

My work is revving up, but not too quickly. The rush will probably be later in the week. Meanwhile, for Anzac Day, Lorraine E. is coming over for lunch (various antipasto) and a natter about travels, and Frank is coming for dinner (roast lamb).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Clicking the red shoes

This does look like Kansas again. Another day spent tidying up and washing. This morning my parents turned up with accounts all done ready to send off to the ATO and Centrelink, and, bless them, a brand-newstyle fuse which fitted into the fuse hole and restored lighting to the premises. All seems well with the world, and emails and blogs are all up to date.

But where are the churches, galleries, museums and sightseeing places? Why are the roads so wide and the pavements so capacious? Where are the thousands of thronging tourists?

Settling in

A very busy day unpacking the bags and doing the necessary washing of the dirty clothes. Both P. and I had an afternoon snooze to catch up on sleep missed on the planes, then it was off to Frank's for a very welcome and welcoming casserole. Our cupboard was bareish, of course. It was very good to catch up on Melbourne news (very little) and have a debriefing natter about our travels.

Before we left, the fuse for the lights blew and we had a comedy of trying to fix it in the dim light of early evening. We managed to lose one of the screws in the labyrinth of nooks and crannies in Maria's shop, where we had retreated for more light, so spent the rest of the night using powerpoints for light. One more little problem for today. Somehow, after all the problem-solving of the last few weeks, it doesn't seem too intimidating.

Gradually, life is coming back to its normal state of controlled chaos.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Small clarifications

Our homeward route was made simpler by Giancarlo, a very nice Alitalia man at Rome airport. He said, "You don't really want to go back to Melbourne via Sydney, do you?" So he altered our tickets to make our flight direct from Tokyo to Melbourne. It saved nearly four hours travelling time when we really needed it and we arrived slightly less wrecked than we might have.

On looking back over the blogging on tour, it seems a bit breathless. This is because either someone else was waiting to use the internet (if it was free in a hotel) or because I was racing against a time deadline (before a train or some other pressing need). In real life, the whole trip was much less frenetic than it sounds, especially in Spain, with its enforced siesta times before dinner.

Vagabond Shoes

After very smooth flights, one with Japan Airlines (Rome to Tokyo) and the other with Qantas (Tokyo to Melbourne), we're back in our nest. The last days in Rome turned into a culinary delight. P. found a good restaurant where the desserts were to die for (the baba with sour cherries and custard was scrumptious, as was the anchovy flan for main course) and the next day we had lunch at a trattoria which had a cheese platter with melt-in-the-mouth cheeses (mozarella, ricotta etc.)

Other sightseeing events included the Castel San Angelo (where Tosca hurled herself off) and, of course, the massively crowded Trevi Fountain, into which we hurled moderate amounts of money (cheapskates probably get to return to Rome, but only after a long time).

Now it's a matter of getting back into a normal routine, which won't be easy after six weeks of being a tourist.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Roman Ruins

By now we're both a bit like the Roman ruins we've been seeing a lot of. Rome is hard work: after five weeks of nothing but polite and courteous assistance and service everywhere, even in France, the Romans are mostly very rude, even the ones who are making a living from you being here.

The exception was Roberta, our multilingual tour guide to Naples and Pompeii. She managed to unflappably provide commentary in English, Spanish and German, and deal with a sticky situation late in the day, and remain in good humour, or apparently so. The problem was that Monday was the end of the Easter holiday, so all roads in Naples were jammed. The bus from Sorrento meeting us at Pompeii was stuck in traffic so our departure was delayed by two hours. We arrived back in Rome at about 11pm after a 7am start.

But it was worth it. Pompeii exceeded all expectations. The local guide was good (this one did Spanish and English) and it was much more intact and bigger than we expected. Of course, the Italians do BIG well. Churches, ruins, statues: all monstrous.

On Tuesday, we did the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, a museum of splendid mosaics, sculptures and frescoes ripped out of ruins all round Rome. They were stunning, and quite well labelled. Then we found the museum of modern art was closed on Tuesday, as Monday was a public holiday, when they normally close. Across the road was the Musee Villa Giulia, which houses Etruscan bric-a-brac, so we went there. We now know much more about Etruscans than we need to.

Unfortunately both Monday and Tuesday had a bit of drizzle and by night it was pouring, so we saw screeching girls on the soggy Spanish steps and retreated to a quite good trattoria for passable food. It is easier to get good Italian food in Carlton than it is in Rome.

Today (Wednesday) was our big Villa Borghese day. Like the Villa Giulia yesterday, the place almost outdoes the artworks. I'd like to say it was a knockout but a number of rooms were closed, and because of the nature of the building (painted ceilings, walls and lots of decorations), the paintings are not displayed to their best advantage. However, it was well worth the visit. I suspect their restrictions on entry are a marketing tool really. If they just gave you an entry time, most people wouldn't last longer than two hours anyway, so the limit is not really necessary, but makes it feel 'exclusive'.

We lunched at the nearby zoo cafe under the beady eye of a sulphur-crested cockatoo, then tried the Modern Art museum again. It is a beautiful gallery: large rooms with high ceilings, just the thing for abstract works. There are a very nice set of four de Chirico self portraits at different stages in his life which are intriguing.

Probably this is the last post from o/s as we're off on the plane tomorrow night, through Tokyo and on to Sydney then Melbourne on Saturday morning. Ciao.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter bunnies

The Easter procession in Malta was very impressive. Right outside the door of our hotel there were about 10 "floats" which were very heavy wooden tableaux of various items in the Passion carried on the shoulders of parishioners (all men). There was also a creditable band playing mournful tunes à la Fellini. We saw all of the floats emerge from the church with a huge cast of biblical characters and penitents, went off to dinner, and after dinner they were still staggering round the streets under their heavy loads.

Next morning (Saturday) we had a good flight to Rome with Air Malta and had no trouble finding our B & B which is very spacious and well appointed. Straight into the touristing, we went off to Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterno, both Barocca extavaganzas doing their best to do the Roman things: be huge. The Romans do big well.

After a good simple local dinner, today we did the Capitoline Hill Museums which are full of Roman goodies and paintings, though one of the Caravaggios was visiting Siena. Then off to Trastevere which was not as picturesque as the guidebooks say, then off to the Pantheon and Santa Luigi di Francesca which has not one, not two, but three Caravaggios to make up for the one missing in Siena.

In all of this, we can't say we have conquered the Roman bus system, but we've at least negotiated it. Tomorrow, Monday, we're off to Pompeii on a guided tour, so it's up for a 7am start. Hope this one is not cancelled, like Sicily.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Jolly boating weather

This morning, we remembered that our driver from the airport said that one the must-do things in Malta was the Harbour Cruise, so off we went. Finally, we went with a smaller company than the major cruise purveyor and it turned out to be much better: a smaller boat, live not canned commentary and a slightly longer trip up all the 'creeks' around the two harbours. It was a revelation seeing some of the sites we had already seen on land from the water, and we got to see a lot of the area we had not seen, including the docks and various power stations and desalination plants.

Of course it included a lot of history which we already knew, but there were some fresh titbits. There are more than a few very large developments going on, including a huge hotel, the Excelsior, in Valletta, on a site that must have involved a lot of palm greasing. It is financed by a Hong Kong consortium. The huge new dry dock (Malta has the largest and biggest in Europe) was also financed by Chinese interests. China - very large. Malta - very small.

In the early evening, we hope to see the Easter procession at the church just round the corner from the hotel. Last night, when we went to dinner, it seemed as if half of Valletta was doing a passagiata round the many churches of the capital for Maundy Thursday. The drift seemed to be to simply go to the church, go in for a bit, then move on to the next one.

Dinner turned out to be at a recommended Chinese restaurant which was very good: tasty food, very well decorated (unusual for Chinese eateries which tend to be rather garish) with very tasteful crockery etc. And it was not expensive. They had Australian and New Zealand wines on the menu but we tried some Sardinian rose which was fine and very reasonably priced.

Tonight we are booked into a rooftop restaurant around the corner for probably another try at Maltese cuisine. Don't hold your breath!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Disaster prone

Our first disasters for the trip happened overnight. First, on the way to Peter's birthday dinner, which turned out to be a delicious success, the Magicbank went out of action WHILE IT HAD MY CARD INSIDE. Because we were scheduled to go to Sicily today and the next day is Good Friday, there seemed no way of retrieving it from the bank, so I left a note under their door, and we went and enjoyed an excellent French dinner in a restaurant frequented by Maltese politicians (it is right opposite the parliament building).

We had to get up at 4am for the trip to Sicily to be ready for the pickup at 5.15, which didn't come till 5.45 to tell us the Sicily trip was cancelled. No good reason, and we haven't contacted the tour company today because we were on an alternative jaunt. A bit pissed off about getting up that early and getting nowhere.

However, it did have an upside: I was able to go to the bank when it opened and retrieve my card. I would have been able to manage without it (enough traveller's cheques remaining and P. has two cards) but it is nice to have it back and not have to go to the trouble of replacing it.

So after a bit more sleep, we went off to the old capital Mdina/Rabat, where we had an enjoyable day doing various things like a prison and torture museum, the St Paul's cathedral, some Roman remains and some catacombs (St Agatha of the breasts).

Tomorrow is Good Friday, and there is an Easter procession scheduled right outside our hotel, which will be very convenient. Then on Saturday morning, off to Rome.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Go, go Gozo

Yesterday (Tuesday) was our Gozo day, so we caught one of Malta's rickety old shaky buses and made for the ferry. After a pleasant halfhour crossing we were in Malta's sister island. It's quite small but has a lot of interest. We made the most of our day there, though we could have spent a lot more.

First up, we went to the Citadel in Victoria, the capital, where there is another very barocca Cathedral. However, owing to an earthquake and probably little cash, they never added the planned dome. Nothing daunted, they painted one on the flat roof above the altar. It's very convincing. Nearby is the archaeological museum with lots of prehistoric, Roman and Greek bric-a-brac, and old ramparts.

Then off to a fishing village, Marsalforn, for a lunch of whole grilled fish, which were delicious. The cat cadging bits from us thought so too. Nearby are some salt gathering pans by the sea carved into the rock which date back to Roman times and which are still being used, no doubt for the salt on our lunchtime chips. If I am fairly silent about Maltese cuisine, it's because it is fairly ordinary. The guidebook describes most menus as 'the usual suspects': pizzas, pasta, rabbit in various guises and fish, which is often the best choice. However, by judicious sniffing out of eating establishments, we haven't been eating too badly here, but it is a bit of a letdown after Provence.

Then to Xaghra where there is a temple from about 3000 BC called Gigantija, because at one stage it was thought to have been inhabited by giants. None were in evidence.

Today (Wednesday), we visited the Grand Master's Palace and Armoury museum, which was surprisingly interesting. Lots of details of the Great Siege of Malta. The building now houses the Maltese parliament, but is open most days for visitors.

The rest of the day was spent trudging around more old stone temples: the Tarxien temples, and those of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Amazingly huge blocks of stone moved for miles, then carved and put in place some 3000 years ago (more or less). What went on in them is anyone's guess.

Tomorrow we have to get up at 4.30 AM to go on an all day trip to Sicily. We get back, no doubt somewhat frazzled at 11.30pm. But tonight is a celebration dinner for Peter's birthday, that may not be mentioned.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Still so artistic we could be displayed

Marseille turned out to be much easier to negotiate than we imagined though it is a fairly big and dirty city with little of the charm of Paris. However, it has its compensations. There's the harbour, Vieux Port, which is glorious at sunset, and Peter finally had his bouillabaise which was huge and even he, who usually hoovers up food, could only finish half of it. Because I was a bit suspicious about receiving fish heads and eels and other things I might not like, decided to have homard instead, which is a kind of puny crayfish. It was delicious though, with yummy seafood sauce and rice laden with mussels and prawns. Usually I don't like mussels much, but these were little ones and the whole thing was very tasty.

Next morning we went off to one of those French entertainment/display/street theatre things called Le Grand Repertoire, which consisted of things like incredibly complicated machines to do things like peeling apples, clash giant cymbals and hurl pianos through the air. It was a lot of fun, and as they said for kiddies between 7 and 77.

Then we went to a very wierd Musee de la Mode, which included coats, capes and other outerwear from about 1930 up to the present. Haute couture has a lot to answer for, including a monkey fur coat.

Then off to the airport and a very easy Air Malta flight to Valletta. Our hotel has seen better days, but couldn't be better located or more welcoming. We've a room with a super view of the Grand Harbour. Today we just tackled the immediate vicinity, including the Cathedral with its Caravaggios, the Archaeology Musum and the Fine Arts Museum, all of which were interesting.

Best of all, we continued our theatre touring, begun in Barcelona, and went to the Theatre Manoel, the third oldest theatre in the world still running. A little jewel, one of those lovely horseshoe numbers which only seats 500, and does everything from opera to the annual panto (very popular the guide said).

Later in the week, we are scheduled to go to Gozo for the day, and to Sicily for the day. We've got archaeological ruins to suss out, and our driver from the airport told us that on Good Friday there are processions in a lot of villages, so our worry that there would be nothing to do on that day is unfounded.
Then on to Rome.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

More hilltop towns

We farewelled Polly sadly after a good morning walk around Avignon, then hopped in our little Renault and headed off again into Vaucluse. We had a glorious lunch in Isle-sur-Sorgue which has a river flowing through it with ducks dabbling gleefully, then got to the town of Oppede-le-Vieux which is semi-abandoned, but is being restored. It was left for about a century without any inhabitants so is an interesting remnant.

Because it is before the season in Vaucluse, even though the weather is superb and the spring almond blossom abounds, there was nowhere to stay at Menerbes and it looked a bit snooty anyway, so we made for Bonnieux, a very jolly hilltop town with boxes of pansies everywhere and, strange to find, a gay bar. Don't know if there's any connection between the two things. We had a room in a 'hotel' with only two rooms but a very busy restaurant that was quite creditable.
Next day, we headed into Haute Vaucluse through the pretty towns of Sault and Montbrun les Bains to a very isolated hilltop place called Brantes. There is no shop in Brantes, just the Auberge, where we were the only guests, so Madame the patron cooked dinner just for us. The terrine and the apple tarte were quite good, but the Provencal special stew was highly questionable, very rich and as Pierre observed full of parts of animals he didn't like to dwell on too much. But the view from the windows of the auberge was unbeatable, a panorama of Mont Ventoux, the highest snow covered peak in Vaucluse.

Yesterday, we drove on through the high country to Buis-le-Baronnies, a beautiful village high in the mountains, then, to make up for the mystery stew of the previous night had a gourmet lunch at a place called Malaucene. My confit de canard was matched by Pierre's chook stuffed with tapenade. P. had goat's cheese to start and I had creme caramel de lavande (we were on the route de lavande) to finish. We then drove on to the beautiful town of Venasque, where we'd been twice before and booked into the hotel and stuffed ourselves silly with their gourmet menu, which included rabbit in red wine sauce among other delights, and another go at the delicious cheese platter which we disgraced ourselves with last time by consuming nearly all of it. This time we were more restrained as we'd had so much for lunch.

This morning, we revisited the Abbaye de Senanque for a little walk in the nearby woods, then went for the first time to the Village de Boris, a collection of stone houses, barns and other farm type buildings, all built out of stone without mortar. They were inhabited up until the end of the nineteenth century and are very primitive, but a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Back to Avignon, said goodbye to the Renault, and hopped on the TGV. Tonight, we have to tackle the bouillabaise sellers of Marseilles, thence to Malta tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sur le pont

d'Avignon. Which is where we are now. Good train trip from Barcelona. No trouble getting tickets at the border taking us on here. Met up with Polly Malony okay and had a lovely day today revisiting the Abbaye de Senanque and Gordes and Venasque. It was like going back to old friends:

Tomorrow; it's off again in the car to various hilltop towns and other sights of the Luberon and Vaucluse for a few days. Basically, we'll just follow our noses and stop where we like. Polly is off back to Paris tomorrow after a walk around Avignon.

Good to read in a Spanish newspaper that little Johnny is selling uranium to China. Instead of pigiron Bob, we'll have yellowcake John.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Art, monasteries and theatres

We´ve had a very busy time in Barcelona, finally adjusting to the Spanish system of not eating dinner till nearly midnight, and having an overdose of art and modernista architecture. On arrival (was it only Thursday) we were fortunate in being able to check into the hotel straight away from the overnight train, even though it was early. Then, showered after all night on the train, we hiked off to the Cathedral, which was very big and gaudy, not Gaudi. Then to a weird museum called Frederic Mares, which had a fascinating collection of toy theatres. Unfortunately, his collections of nearly anything else were much less interesting, so we repaired to the Picasso Museum, which was very good indeed. I still think he was a bit of a copycat, in spite of forgiving everything for Guernica, but this collection was very impressive.

Next day (Friday) was our first on the bus turistico so we went all out with first the Monastery at Pedralbes, which was good because as well as the treasures and religious bric a brac which is usual for monasteries, this one let you see the old kitchens and storehouses and the practical bits.
Thence to the immensely impressive Sagrada Familia, the only cathedral in the world still under construction (Peter said that they forgot about St John´s Anglican in Brisbane! no comparison) We went up one of the towers, down to the museum and marvelled at what will be a wonderful building in twenty-five years or so.

In the evening, we went to St Mary of Pi church for a concert of opera favourites and zarzuela arias by the usual combination of SATB. They were all beginning singers and very good, especially in a very good acoustic. They sang in the audience, from the organ, from the balconies and it was a bit kitsch but very enjoyable.

On Saturday, we spent nearly all day at the Museum National Art Catalunya, which has lots of Catalan painting, but its strength is in Romanesque, with reconstructions of many churches containing their ripped-off art. It is a beautiful museum, very comfortable, but huge. The old Thyssens have some of their old masters here as well, because the baroness has a fondness for Catalonia.

Today, we busted the tourist bank, with two theatres. The Opera House which had an interesting tour, including of an exclusive club adjoining with modernista decorations. The unfortunate opera house has burned down twice and been bombed once (by anarchists in 1893, those terrorists aren´t new), The other theatre was the Palau Musical Catalana, which is a modernista masterpiece, and after a tour, we were lucky enough to score two tickets to a concert put on by the group for which the theatre was built, the choir Orfeo Catalunya who were doing Mozart´s mass in D. It is one of the few theatres in the world built of glass and ceramic tiles, lit by natural light, and of course the materials are very good for choral acoustic. The concert was well worth the mere ten euros each we paid for it.

In between times, we went to the City museum which takes you underground to roman ruins of early Barcelona, and up top has the room (very large and impressive, as you would expect) where Ferdinanad and Isabella welcomed home Chris Columbus, and a very nice royal chapel.

Not to be slack, we jammed in a visit to Gaudi´s Casa Batllo, which is a real knockout inside, not a square edge to be seen in the place.

Tomorrow, off to France. At least, we have a ticket as far as France.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Where ya going?

Barcelona! It´s a heavy duty tourist city. We had a good train trip overnight from Granada, in spite of a grumpy Spanish man in our four-berth couchette who seemed to resent having to travel with foreigners. He behaved as if we were all autistic.

More details later as we are off for a tour of the Teatre Liceu almost immediately, but saw a concert of opera and Zarzuela pops in a lovely church on Friday night. Enough zarzuela to last a lifetime.

We´ve done all the Barcelona sights and a lot of shoe leather, plus hours on the bus turistico going round to the various venues.