A Travellerspoint blog

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Switzerland

DAY 23 WED Motorcycles and cars roaring beneath our window kept us awake last night, the price one pays for staying in a cheap hotel.

A very long drive along the A4 took us through northern Italy and into Switzerland. After miles of rather drab Italian scenery we drove through a long tunnel beneath a sepia-toned mountain and emerged on the other side to be greeted by a panorama of soaring green mountains swathed in a diaphanous white mist. It was as if the world had suddenly switched from black and white to colour.

The Swiss border guard waved us over to a parking space and told us that we would have to purchase a highway sticker which would entitle us to travel on Swiss highways as often as we liked. This would have been fairly good value had we done much driving in Helvetia and was certainly preferable to paying a toll every few miles as we had done in Italy, however the Swiss folk did most of the driving once we reached Basel. Nobody was interested in examining our passports so once we had bought a compulsory breakdown triangle in a nearby service station we sped off towards Bellinzona.

We were both in high spirits as we drove between towering mountains and through unbelievably long tunnels, though the latter were not well lit and required intense concentration from yours truly . Margaret thought it would be more of an experience to stay overnight in a small town rather than a city so we tried to find a place to stay in a village whose name I cannot now recall. The few villagers we met seemed surprised that anyone would want to stay in their home town and told us, in effect, that their hamlet was too uninteresting to warrant a hotel.

We had no idea of Bellinzona’s size and parked the Peugot in a sidestreet on the outskirts of town so that we could avoid being caught without a parking spot in the town centre. After walking a kilometre or so we arrived in Bellinzona proper and were immediately glad we had left the car where we had. The Swiss in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino appeared to speak even less English than their Italian-speaking Italian brothers and we had great difficulty in understanding the instructions of a policeman who patiently tried to direct us to the tourist office. Finding a cheap hotel was a lot easier than actually getting to it. A second policeman directed us with some difficulty to Rocca Street on a hill overlooking the town centre and, to our amazement and relief, we found it without getting hopelessly lost.

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Our home for the night was a mustard coloured hotel run by a Chinese family whose Italian was a lot more polished than their Chinese or, more to the point, their English. The man who led us to our room may have been an ethnic Chinese but responded more readily to Margaret’s halting Italian than he did to my fluent Mandarin. Our room was more like a dormitory and we were able to pick from a selection of five beds. Margaret quickly staked her claim on a bed which faced the balcony and provided a stunning view of the quaint old town below, a large castle on the right and an imposing green mountain in the background. We (or rather I) didn’t have time to admire the view as our car was still parked on the other side of town. After a quick beer I left Margaret staring at the mountain and set off to retrieve our auto.

Finding the car was easy, getting it back to the hotel was a lot harder. How was I to know that the main street closed in the late afternoon? A none-too-friendly policeman helped me do a ten point turn and gave me incomprehensible instructions on how to get to Rocca Street. After twenty minutes of driving I found myself at the end of an extremely narrow road at the top of an alp. I was so high I could make out the Eiffel Tower hundreds of miles to the northwest! Another ten point turn and I was on my way down the mountain.

I finally found the street and spotted Margaret waving from the balcony of the hotel. Unfortunately there was nowhere to park and I was forced to drive several times round the block in the hope that a vacancy would become available reasonably close by. Alas it was not to be and I was forced to park in a council car park in town.

Around 6pm we had dinner in a Migoria supermarket as suggested by Jono and Maryann. After weeks of pasta it was nice to have fast food for a change. Perhaps ‘slow’ food would be a more accurate description of the service as we had to stand at the counter for at least ten minutes while our weisswurst was cooked. I shovelled down my food at lightning speed and raced back to the carpark to feed the meter with another coin. Later in the evening a spot became available just down the road and Margaret planted herself in the empty slot and aggressively waved away would-be parkers while I raced back into town to get the car.

After dinner and after we had managed to find a place for the car we strolled around the city streets. This didn’t take long as Bellinzona is a very compact little city. Much to our disappointment we found that the various castles had closed so we had to make do with climbing a steep, cobbled lane to a point which overlooked the town. Margaret rang Christian in Basel from a booth at the railway station, a simple task made complicated by the fact that Swiss phones don’t take coins. Clouds darkened the sky without warning and hurled torrents of rain on our heads for exactly five minutes before clearing as abruptly as they had arrived.

As I write: Twilight has fallen and a heavy mist has turned the mountains into mere silhouettes. The castle on the horizon is illuminated in gold and all is quiet, apart from the nearby church whose bells are tolling. Margaret insists that they are playing “Figaro”, but it sounds like random clanging to me.

DAY 24 THU For the first time since our trip to Pisa Margaret drove and I navigated as we sped down the autobahn towards Basel. If only we had adopted this configuration from the start! Margaret behind the wheel is a totally different creature to Margaret the passenger. We drove through many tunnels, the longest of which was the sixteen kilometre St Gotthard. Tunnel driving is very unnerving as the lighting is dim and the lanes narrow. Fortunately there had been a major accident in a tunnel a few weeks ago and everybody kept to the speed limit.

We arrived at our rendezvous point (a large road-spanning shopping centre/service station like an Italian Auto-grill) on the outskirts of Basel after a very pleasant journey and wandered around looking for my cousin Christian. I recognized him immediately. He didn’t seem to have changed at all since I last saw him in 1986. After exchanging greetings we hopped in our car and followed him at high speed to his home in the city. It was virtually impossible to lose sight of his car, a flying saucer Citroen painted an almost psychedelic orange and maroon. We were jolly glad that we hadn’t tried to find the house on our own as the streets of Basel proved to be a maze.

Nelly and Christian live on the ground floor of a large apartment block, the other three floors being occupied by other members of the family. We were allocated part of the fourth floor with our own bedroom, bathroom and balcony. The same area had been occupied in previous years by Mum and Dad, Christopher, Jeremy and, I think, Jono and Maryann.

Nelly arrived home from work shortly after our arrival looking even younger than she had when we last saw her in the eighties. After a chat we set off on a tour of Basel. The buildings lining the narrow streets, though old, were well cared for, especially the Town Hall or Rathaus. From the area outside the cathedral we gazed for the first time on the Rhine as it flowed at great speed beneath us. Switzerland, we learned, had been suffering serious flooding which had turned the normally green water brown.

Back at the apartment we were introduced to Nelly’s brother Roberto and his wife Terry from the floor above. Terry is fluent in five languages and, befuddled by champagne, I chatted with her in all five . In the evening Christian, Nelly, Margaret and myself ate dinner in a local restaurant. My baby horse steak was most enjoyable.

Bruno called in at the apartment around 11pm and we sat up talking until midnight. We had only planned to stay in Switzerland for a few days but were forced to make drastic amendments to our itinerary when we learned that Nelly and Christian had worked out an itinerary of their own involving trips to most of the country’s more interesting attractions. Nelly had gone so far as to take a week off from work to be with us. Bruno had done the same but, due to the fact that I had sent him e-mail messages with different dates, had arranged his holidays for the wrong week. Was I ever embarrassed!

DAY 25 FRI The weather channel on the Fluri TV this morning showed live pictures of alps shrouded in mist and it was decided that it would not be a good day to go mountaineering. Nelly provided a very satisfying breakfast, even producing the Swiss version of our beloved Vegemite which we squeezed onto our toast out of a tube.

Christian suggested that we drive into Germany, a mere five minutes away. We bundled into the Citroen and sped of at high speed. Wherever we went in Switzerland we drew stares of amazement, admiration and/or amusement. Christian had customised the maroon and orange station wagon to the point where it had no door handles or locks It took me several days to work out how he opened the doors, a secret I will not divulge even under torture.

Our first stop was at the Rhine Museum where we examined photos and replicas depicting the history of commerce on the great river. Christian and I pressed many buttons activating some quite intricate exhibits and it was only with great reluctance that I was persuaded to step outside. The Rhine up close was an impressive sight. Due to the recent floods the river was flowing so swiftly that boats were forbidden to travel on it, thus bringing Basel’s river trade to a grinding halt. A short walk took us to a promontory where the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany met. We wouldn’t have known had it not been for a large and not terribly attractive sculpture emblazoned with the flags of the three countries.

A short drive took us through a border post and into Germany. No-one wanted to look at our documents, which surprised me as several cars had been pulled over by the Swiss border guards. A longer drive took us through the Black Forrest, fabled home of Hansel and Gretel and a rich chocolate cake of the same name. We could easily imagine the two kids getting lost amongst the close-packed trees, though it wasn’t anywhere near as creepy as the fairytale suggested.

Somewhere in the middle of the forest we stopped for lunch. Fortunately for us we were travelling during the latter stages of the artichoke season. Had we arrived a few days later we would have not had the pleasure of trying to decide between such delicacies as curried artichoke on toast, weiswurst with artichoke sauce, braised artichoke and chips, etc. All four of us elected to have some form of artichoke dish, which brought a sparkle to the eyes of the waitress who was, no doubt, anxious to exhaust the gasthaus’ stockpile of artichokes in preparation for the pumpkin season.

Crossing the road on the way back to the car we were startled to see a dozen chooks and a rooster running towards us in a state of high excitement. I assumed from their guttural squawks (they were German fowls) that they were irresistibly attracted by the odour of artichoke rising from our clothes. At the last moment they veered to the left, having seen the chef with their lunch of artichoke leftovers.

After driving for ages through Le Forêt Noir, otherwise known as Schwarzwald, we came to a small village containing an amazing cathedral. The church of St Blasien appeared rather nondescript from the outside but on the inside was like no other church we had ever seen. A dozen blindingly white pillars supported a white cupola which stretched over rounded white walls, giving an overwhelming impression of whiteness which, when juxtaposed with the blackness of the forest outside, served as a metaphor for the coexistence of good and evil within the confines of temporal existence. Or perhaps not.

Eventually we left the Black Forest and reached Laufenburg on the Swiss-German border. We drove across the narrow stone bridge between the two countries and parked on the Swiss side. Once again the border guards had failed to check us out, so Christian kindly walked us over to the German side again so that we could get our passports stamped. The German guard, Hans, seemed nonplussed that we would want him to see our passports, let alone stamp them. After rifling through his drawers for several minutes he produced a rubber stamp which he thumped with gusto on our pristine pages. The resulting imprint looked suspiciously like a clown juggling balls but we were happy. On the other side of the bridge the Swiss guard, Hans, was equally surprised. His stamp looked a bit like a choo-choo train. I think ours were the only passports seen on either side that day and certainly the only ones officially stamped.

Back in Basel we were joined by Roberto and Terry for a supper of assorted Swiss and German cold meats with artichoke sauce. Rubber faced Roberto had Margaret in stitches even when he wasn’t talking. Nelly persuaded me to have an espresso before I went to bed as a means of overcoming my insomnia. We were sceptical but it actually worked!

DAY 26 SAT We slept in later than usual today as we expected the weather to be really bad. While I was having my shower Christian knocked on the door and told us that the weather in the mountains was perfect. After a hurried breakfast we clambered aboard the Citroen and drove out of Basel towards the alps. After driving through the beautiful countryside for several hours we arrived at the foot of the Schilthorn. From way above our heads we heard the screams of someone in mortal terror. A cable car had been specially equipped to allow people of unsound mind to leap into space while bound by the ankles to an elastic rope. It had always been an ambition of mine to bungee jump in the Swiss Alps and I was most disappointed when Margaret refused to give me permission.

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To reach the top of the Schilthorn we had to catch a series of cable cars and it was with an increasing sense of excitement that we paid our $86 each and boarded the first car. The higher we rose the more breathtaking were the views of the valley below. Nelly found a post in the middle of the car and gripped it with a desperation born of an irrational fear of heights (what’s the scientific term?) And she calls herself Swiss! At each level a screen showed the outside temperature. By the time we reached the top it had fallen to 8o, which didn’t stop me from pulling off my jumper and shirt and bearing my hirsute though buxom chest to the icy wind.

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From the viewing platform at the peak we had a panoramic, 360o view of the alps. The snow on the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau to the east shone brilliantly under the sun while to the west the mountains were dark and covered in storm clouds slowly rolling from France into Switzerland. Christian had told us that the Jungfrau was not particularly spectacular (by Swiss standards) and that it was likely to be crowded with Japanese tourists which is why we found ourselves lunching in the revolving restaurant made famous in one of the lesser James Bond movies. As the alps slowly circled us hardy Swiss ravens hovered in the air around the platform, glancing covetously at our artichoke flambe and strudel.

After lunch we descended to Murren, a village straight out of a picture book or off the top of a tin of Swiss biscuits. We encountered very few tourists as we strolled along the village street. So picturesque and perfect was Murren that I began to suspect that it was purely for show. It wasn’t of course. The window boxes with their brightly coloured flowers and the gardens of multi-coloured tulips were very real; it was like being in heaven only without the hymns.

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From the Schilthorn we drove to Interlaken, a fair sized town full of tourists but lovely nonetheless. Christian and I resigned ourselves to visiting every souvenir shop in town while Margaret and Nelly sought suitable gifts for those back home. I let myself go and bought a Swiss pipe for a mere twenty dollars. Good value when you consider that it was still in use after six months. I also bought a solid beer mug with a transfer of Interlaken on the front for seven dollars. We hadn’t eaten for a couple of hours so Nelly suggested we try some of the local specialities. I can’t remember what the regional speciality of Interlaken was, but I’m sure it was excellent. I wandered aloud whether the restaurant would sell me one of it’s very covetable beer glasses and, to my pleasure, they produced one with a smile. Christian added a tip of unknown size as we left.

DAY 27 SUN Sunday is family day for the Fluri clan so at 10am Nelly, Christian, Bruno, Yvonne (Bruno’s lady friend), Georgette (Nelly’s charming mother), Andrea (Bruno’s equally charming mother), Margaret and myself joined Roberto and Terry on their balcony for their traditional brunch. A couple of hours later we walked to Yvonne’s apartment a few streets away for a sumptuous Chinese lunch. The conversation was conducted in English and German which was almost as confusing as the English/French/German conversation at brunch though somehow we never felt left out. Bruno played us a video of one of his trips to the Alps which included hilarious pictures of Japanese tourists walking on the Jungfrau in high heels while wearing plastic bags on their heads.

DAY 28 MON On the road again, destination St Gallen. Our first stop was at the Rheinfall which is one place we would have missed had we followed my original itinerary. As the name suggests, the Rheinfall is a waterfall on the Rhine which was more of a maelstrom than usual due to the recent heavy rain falls. Normally one could take a boat out to the little island in the middle, however the power of the river had turned the Rhine into a berserk washing machine and the boats weren’t operating. A fine mist of spray floated over the falls and dampened everything it touched, fogging my glasses and making me very angry.

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Several of the observation platforms had been closed and sandbagged, their wooden seats submerged beneath the torrent. The roar of the water made it hard to talk so we walked in silence grinning inanely at other tourists. Workmen hastily erected a fence along the path around the lake to deter half-witted foreigners who climbed down the bank to walk on the edge of the whirlpool. We all reckoned that the flow of water must at least equal the record set in 1965.

From Rheinfall we drove to Stein-Am-Rhein, a beautiful old town whose fifteenth century houses were decorated with colourful frescoes and the ubiquitous window boxes of red geraniums. Close to the river we had to walk on temporary wooden footpaths which had been built over the flooded streets.

A rather long drive took us to St Gallen, birthplace of my mother, Elsbeth Fluri (according to a plaque in the main square). We walked around the city centre and explored the ornate cathedral while Christian smoked his ever-present pipe outside. Christian was thrilled to find a shop which sold his favourite footwear, spring-heeled sandals! They might be an appropriate fashion statement for people who drive maroon and orange flying saucers but I could never see such a bizarre fashion catching on in Australia.

We had a general idea of the location of mum’s house but getting there involved some hair-raising driving from Christian. The house turned out to be much more attractive than its pictures had suggested and, after the obligatory snap of Margaret and myself standing out front, Margaret sneaked into the yard and onto the verandah to take a photo of the valley below.

From St Gallen we drove to Bern, the tiny nation’s tiny capital. We parked just outside town and walked across the bridge spanning the Aare River which nearly encircled the town. Earlier on Christian had told us rather cryptically that people didn’t need umbrellas in Bern. He was right, the pavements were arcaded (a bit like cloisters) just as they had been in Montagnana. Very colourful and often garish statues stood in the middle of the main street at hundred yard intervals, the most outlandish being that of the baby-eater of Basel (very, very sick). Nelly and Margaret examined every shop window along the street and I thanked my lucky stars that they were all closed. At Christian and Nelly’s suggestion we sampled the local cuisine at a little restaurant. I can’t remember what we ate but it was excellent, I’m sure. Boy, those Swiss can eat! I was beginning to look like a blimp and even the usually lean Margaret was beginning to swell (though barely noticeably, I hasten to add!).

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Once Christian had demonstrated the use of the open air urinal near the famous clock tower it was time to depart. We drove home on the autobahn at high speed with Nelly screaming what I took to be Swiss obscenities from the back seat. Christian’s retorts were short and to the point and delivered with the guttural harshness of a Zurichmann. Even I became a bit nervous as night fell and with it a heavy rain. Christian did not reduce speed and operated the wipers only when his vision became totally obscured. Needless to say we arrived back in Basel without incident, thanks to Margaret’s special crucifix.

Posted by kafka001 18:40 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Into France

Strasbourg, Baccarat, Nancy, Lay St.Christopher, Bois, Sens, Loire Valley, Chartres

DAY 29 TUE Goodbye Switzerland! Margaret slipped out for the first time by herself to buy some flowers for Georgette. I became a bit worried when she didn’t return after half an hour, the streets of Basel being as confusing as they are. Nelly insisted that we go looking for her so we made our way to the nearest supermarket. I should have known that Marg would not have bought flowers there because they were pretty unimpressive. As we were walking back we spotted Margaret striding up the street clutching a huge bouquet. She informed us, in a rather offended tone, that she had never been in danger of becoming lost and had had no difficulty in walking to the city centre and finding a florist.

Bidding adieu to Georgette and Andrea we hopped into our car for the first time since our arrival and followed Nelly and Christian out of the city. Our new driving arrangement, adopted in Bellinzona, proved to be ideal. Margaret was a much more relaxed and confident driver than she was a passenger and I knew the wisdom of keeping my fear to myself. To be honest, Margaret quickly became proficient at driving on European roads and within a short time I came to share her confidence.

Christian had told us that we could reach Strasbourg in a mere two hours if we took the autobahn, but he personally favoured taking minor roads through the countryside which would extend the journey to seven hours. That was fine by us as we were anxious to avoid those Swiss hot rodders who brabhammed down the ‘bahn. Not far outside Basel we drove down a road which ran alongside the border with Austria. Whilst the Swiss-German border had been wide open, Switzerland and Austria were separated by a high wire fence.

Entering France was a bit of an anti-climax as the border post was deserted. So much for Swiss bureaucracy! The Alsatian countryside was stunning, each village more picturesque than the last. Nature became our toilet as water closets were few and far between. In the town of Eguisheim we explored the narrow streets and admired the large flower boxes in the middle of the street, especially the one with the realistic statue of a crouching black cat. Colmar, exactly half way between Basel and Strasbourg, is the capital of the wine growing area of Alsace. I whined and grovelled until Margaret allowed me to buy a beer glass advertising the local Alsatian beer, L’Alsacienne - Sans Culotte bearing a cartoon picture of a fraulein without knickers. Nelly scornfully expressed the opinion that all men are the same, which wasn’t entirely fair as I only wanted the glass for its novelty value. Honest!

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We had made such poor time by the end of the day that we were forced start looking for accommodation well short of Strasbourg. In one town, the name of which I have forgotten, we found no room at the inn but imbibed alcoholic beverages in a small hotel alongside a group of old men who conversed loudly in a fascinating mixture of German and French. Eventually we found a small guest house, La Vignoble, down a side street in the tiny town of Dambach-la-Ville and parked in its courtyard. The manager made a great show of guiding Margaret into a rather tight parking spot. Margaret, a veteran of many trips to Westfield Parramatta, did not require the help of a French yokel to park and I was grateful that he couldn’t see the expression of ire on her face or hear her muttered curses.

Having deposited our baggage in our room we walked down the street in search of a restaurant. Outside the parish church we saw the youth of Dambach-la-Ville gathered around the town well. There were only about a dozen of them but they reminded us of their peers in Eastwood with their reversed baseball caps, loud chatter and the inevitable hotted up sedan. If being a youth in Eastwood was boring, being a youth in Dambach-la-Ville would be doubly so as there is nothing at all there for kids to do.

The restaurant we found was a very atmospheric establishment in the centre of town. Margaret and I told our companions that we weren’t at all hungry, so they suggested that we order a salad and the local speciality. The salad proved to be enormous and full of cheese, which made it very filling. The local speciality was a flambé of some sort which looked like a flat rectangular pancake. I had seen one on the table next to us and assumed that they had got a serving for four. I was wrong! The waitress came to our table carrying two enormous flambés, one for Margaret and one for me. I almost cried. Each wooden tray held a pancake big enough to feed a family of four (possibly twenty if the family was Biafran). We each ate about a quarter of the plate and when the girl returned her face contorted into that look of dismay and incredulity that only the French can produce. With an unusual presence of mind I exclaimed with great sincerity “C’est magnifique, mais beaucoup trop!” This seemed to satisfy her and we left the restaurant with honour maintained on both sides.

DAY 30 WED First thing in the morning, after coffee and another bloody croissant, it was time for us to part company with Nelly and Christian, who drove off after a touching goodbye scene involving much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. We were on our own for the first time in what seemed like ages. Before resuming our journey we decided to check out the Wednesday morning market in the middle of the main street. Dresses, fruit, watches, totally uninteresting stuff of the type one used to find at the Eastwood market on Sundays before it closed through lack of interest. In Dambach-la-Ville this was the big event of the week. Poor sods!

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Margaret resumed her driving duties and negotiated the unfamiliar country roads with both nonchalance and flair. Unfortunately the landscape beyond Alsace soon became rather uninteresting and the villages plain. We entered Strasbourg without any difficulty and parked in an enormous parking station just outside the old city. As we walked out of the station a lady told us that our parking ticket entitled us to a free bus ride into the city centre and directed us to the bus stop.

Strasbourg cathedral was quite beautiful on the outside with its detailed lace stonework and gruesome gargoyles. Later in the day we explored the inside but were less impressed than we had been with the exterior. Poor lighting tended to hide the beauty of most of the cathedrals we saw in Europe though I imagine that they were no less illuminated than they had been back in the dark ages.

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After so many weeks exploring cities we had become a little jaded, so rather than walk the streets we boarded a boat for a sixty-minute cruise down the canal. By this point I had begun to feel a bit ill and the boat ride hastened the onset of nausea. Margaret had also developed a headache and felt no more inclined than I to loiter in Strasbourg.

We drove through many villages, some at the end of long country lanes, but could find no auberge or hôtel. I was feeling extremely unwell and poor Margaret became increasingly desperate. We stopped at Lunéville, a large and unattractive town, but could find nowhere to stay despite walking from one end of town to the other.

Eventually we reached Baccarat. We arrived at the tourist office only to discover that it had closed half an hour previously. I staggered into a bar across the road and was directed to a hotel not far away. Our room in the La Renaissance was on the small side but rarely had a bed seemed so inviting. I swallowed a handful of pills and collapsed on le lit, leaving Margaret to amuse herself as best she could. A little later I had recovered sufficiently for us to share a salad in the hotel restaurant. Rather foolishly I attempted to drink the free cocktail (a garishly scarlet, sickeningly sweet concoction) and a glass of beer at the same time and was forced to retire to our room where I lay in bed watching Zorro in French.

DAY 31 THU By the next morning we were both feeling fine, though increasingly homesick. A short drive of forty five kilometres took us to Nancy. I’m sure glad I didn’t wear my Oscar Wilde t-shirt as the whole town was crawling with Nancy boys . We parked the car a long way from the centre of town and walked the length of Ave Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, past the hospital (at whose information desk Margaret persuaded me not to ask for a city map), onto the Rue Stanislas, over the train line at Quai Caude La Lorrain, across the Parc de la Pépinière, down the Rue Saint Dizier and into the Place Stanislas .

Place Stanislas was named after Stanislaw Leszczynski, the dethroned king of Poland who ruled Lorraine between 1704 and 1709. By rights the magnificent square should have been named Place Leszczynski, but who could pronounce it? Guilded wrought-iron gateways and highly decorated buildings surround the square and enclosed a couple of eighteenth century fountains. We were on the lookout for a tourist office and found it in one of the handsome buildings on the eastern side of the square. Employing my accent-less high school French I spoke to the owner of a bed and breakfast some way out of town. Although she had no vacancies, the lady commended me on my Français. Her exact words were, if I remember correctly, “Monsieur, votre voix, c’est très cultivée et sexy. Je rêvais partager un lit avec vous .... et avec votre femme, naturellement” . Luckily for us we were able to arrange accommodation in a farmhouse in the village of Lay St Christoph, just to the north of Nancy.

Margaret now expressed a need to feed, so we entered a McDonalds ® (or “Maccas”, as I believe it is called by the class of people who regularly sup beneath its arches). While she lingered over a Royal Cheese I took advantage of the unisex toilets secreted in the bowels of the building. We had given up any hope of travelling to Spain and reluctantly converted our pesos to francs at a nearby Credit Lyon before walking back to the car and resuming our journey.

Lay St Christoph was a typical Lorraine town with very narrow streets laid out in random fashion. The buildings were rather unattractive, specially when compared to those of nearby Alsace, and there were very few shops. We found our farmhouse high on a hill overlooking the town (the area was signposted as Lay St Christoph Heights, believe it or not). We parked on the edge of a small square beside a statue of the BVM and hauled our luggage over to the farmhouse where we were met by Madame Seigneur, a small, rather aloof old lady who spoke not a word of English. She asked us whether we would be staying one or two nights and, when we said two, she made a great show of wringing her hands and making strange running motions. We took this to mean that she was going to have to run around town getting supplies. Too bad, femme ancienne! Our room on the first floor was very spacious and filled with antique, rustic furniture. The bathroom was similarly outsized and we gazed in rapture at the enormous old bathtub in anticipation of the hours of soapy relaxation which lay ahead.

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As I write: It is 8.45pm and I am looking out the window at the green fields below and the bright blue sky above. We still haven’t got used to the fact that it is still broad daylight at 10pm.

Contrary to expectations we have found the people of France to be uniformly friendly and helpful (as they were in Italy, Switzerland and Germany). The people of Lay St Christoph are no exception. The young man behind the counter at the village’s only bar sold me a small bottle of beer on the proviso that I bring back the empty bottle, as it was not their practice to sell takeaway beer. He was very friendly and patient even though we had to communicate in sign language and pidgin French.

Back at the farmhouse Margaret and I sat in the backyard under a large tree and ate bread and cheese washed down with red wine and beer as we gazed, entranced, over the rolling fields beneath us. The bells of the village church tolled tunelessly every thirty minutes, twenty four hours a day, as they did in every town and village in Europe. We felt sorry for all those hundreds of bellringers who we could picture sitting by their bell ropes, rising from their newspapers every thirty minutes to perform their half-hourly duties.

DAY 32 FRI We had breakfast this morning in the very rustic kitchen of Madame Seigneur. As a result of our amicability she had become very friendly and anxious to talk. She spoke very little English at great length, which required us to nod and exclaim “oui” at what we hoped were appropriate moments. I interpreted one part of her discourse as a claim that her ancestors had invented pantyhose, an assertion which I discounted in the knowledge that that item of clothing had, in fact, been invented by Hans Fluri of Basel. Margaret interpreted the same passage as a claim that the Seigneur family had invented crystal making, which was a lot more believable.

I had, unbelievable as it may seem, misread my itinerary and assumed that we were a day ahead of where we actually were. It was quite possible that we could have reached Lourdes in the time available had I not made this terrible gaffe. It was too late to rectify my mistake and our revised plan, based on my misunderstanding, called for us to arrive in Paris a few days earlier. We both got rather excited about this but it came to nought when we learned that our hotel was booked out. As an alternative we decided to stay in Blois an extra night before driving to Chartres and then Paris.

A quiet drive this morning along almost deserted minor roads took us to Toul. Toul’s only claim to fame is a large cathedral which, to our disgust, was closed for renovation. We bought a single item in the local supermarket and found ourselves in the checkout queue behind two ladies with overflowing trolleys. Fuming and impatient we muttered to each other about the selfishness of the French who would not let a lightly laden person go through first. We were rather abashed when the ladies in front noticed us and insisted that we go to the front of the line.
Toul and all the other towns and villages through which we had passed since Alsace were predominantly bland and uninteresting. Even the countryside, flat and monochrome, was uninteresting except for a few patches of forest. Perhaps we had been spoiled by Alsace with its pretty scenery and Franco-German villages reminiscent of Switzerland.

Back in our house in Rue Patton I left Margaret reading in the garden while I walked down the street to buy some pain, vin and soft drink. The barman was thrilled to get his empty beer bottle back but I couldn’t be bothered going through another exhausting pantomime to procure another one. I returned to the house via a narrow lane bordered on one side by an eight-foot high stone fence and on the other by bramble bushes. We ate our bread and camembert on the balcony beneath our bedroom and sipped a very cheap but nice local wine. Madame Seigneur supplied us with a dish of large home grown strawberries and a plate of sugar. Magnifique!

DAY 33 SAT Breakfast once again with Madame Seigneur, who served us with marmalade and strawberry jam fresh from her garden which went down very well with our pain et café. In our fractured French we expressed great interest in the framed newspaper headlines on her walls, all of which related to pre-war French Indochina. We learned that her late husband, a military officer, had been captured and imprisoned by the Japanese at the beginning of the war whilst she had escaped back to France. At one point she produced one of the shackles which M Seigneur had worn on his ankle.

Margaret let me drive down the lane to the village before making me stop and resume my role as supportive passenger. We had decided to drive across the country to Blois, with an overnight stop at Sens. The tourist office in Sens was very helpful, not only finding us a hotel a block away from the centre of town but also giving us some tips on how to get to Charles de Gaulle Airport which spared us the fate of many other tourists whose skeletons we saw draped over their steering wheels on the neverending ringroad of death.

Leaving our luggage in a small but comfortable room in L’Esplanade we walked to the shops, most of which were closed for siesta. I’m sure the cathedral was beautiful, though I can’t even remember its name. A pleasant drive through the countryside took us through St Florian to Joigny via Looze, a village famous for its women. We walked all over Joigny in search of something interesting. In the fifteenth century church of St Thibault I spotted what appeared to be the miraculously preserved remains of a virgin saint (possibly those of the revered “Looze Woman”). Margaret insisted that it was only a marble statue dressed in the miraculously preserved clothes of a fifteenth century courtesan, however what she doesn’t know is that I have a finger from the “statue” in my souvenir box in the den.

In the evening we walked the length and breadth of the small town. All the shops had reopened and we were able to spend several fascinating hours looking at shoes and plates. After a beer at the “Cave of Beers” we strolled across the square to a restaurant where we ordered brichottes (toast with salmon, or in Margaret’s case, asparagus) and more beer. As we sat eating a convoy of wedding cars drove past. There was much tooting of horns from the cars and cries of merriment from pedestrians and diners. The youth sitting next to us made a pumping motion with his arm indicating, I think, his wish that the newlyweds would soon be blessed with les bébés.

My most pleasant duty of the day was to shave Margaret’s lower legs with my electric shaver. Hairy legs may have been fashionable in Italy (and Margaret was very fashionable in Sorrento) but they were less so in France.

DAY 34 SUN The drive from Sens to Blois was fairly long but the deserted country roads made driving a pleasure. We stopped at a convenient spot along the way to brew a cup of coffee in our little coffee-making jug. I decided to relieve myself at the side of the road in the European manner but lost my nerve each time a car appeared in the distance. It is sometimes a great handicap to be a naturally modest person.

We reached Blois in a much more relaxed state than usual and were lucky to find a parking space right outside the tourist office. For a small fee the young lady booked us a room in a bed and breakfast in Vineuil, a few kilometres out of town. Reaching the gite was not as easy as we expected as we had to drive through the centre of Blois, over a bridge and along a maze of roads before we stumbled upon the small town. From the front our temporary home was not the most attractive we had seen, though the vine-draped rear aspect more closely resembled the picture in the catalogue.

Madame X, the proprietor, greeted us in French and led us upstairs to our room. Small but comfortable and homey, our bedroom overlooked the backyard (and the backyard of the house in the next street). The bathroom and toilet were separated from the bedroom by a curtain, which did little to protect Margaret from the sounds of my ablutions and the accompanying loud crooning of bawdy footie songs.

After unpacking we somehow found our way back into Blois and parked near the post office. Blois is built on a hill and the steep, twisting medieval streets quickly exhausted us. Cathédrale Saint Louis, rebuilt in the Gothic style after a hurricane in 1678, was of interest mainly for its 10th century crypt. I took an atmospheric photograph of its claustrophobic confines which would have been very arty had it turned out. Margaret couldn’t stand the closeness of the room and fled to the surface almost immediately.

Immediately behind the cathedral we found the Hôtel de Ville. The Jardins de l’Évêcheé beside the town hall, perched as they are high on a hill, provided a panoramic view of Blois and of the Loire, which separates the old and new halves of the town. Margaret was particularly taken with a heroic statue of Jean d’Arc, her middlenamesake. The town itself was closed for the Sabbath, though we were able to find a restaurant in the plaza for our traditional afternoon beer.

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We strolled across the bridge to the other half of Blois, the best feature of which was its view back across the Loire to the old city. On our way back to the car we noticed people entering the massive Château de Blois, which we had thought closed. Further investigation revealed that it was open, so we paid our 66 francs and explored the place from top to bottom. The château, oozing with bloodstained history, was well worth the money.

Exiting through a different door we found ourselves in a plaza in front of the Maison de la Magie (House of Magic). Although we had eaten earlier in the afternoon we indulged once again, this time in a little open air restaurant under the towering walls of the château. I was not terribly hungry but found myself unable to resist the scent of duck gizzards as they cooked in the kitchen . As we drank and ate the square gradually filled with people, mainly families. Without warning a cacophonous clanging of bells began to ring from the House of Magic and, to our further amazement, a giant golden dragon’s head emerged from one of its many windows. Everyone watching was spellbound as further dragons appeared from the other windows. We never discovered whether there was a story behind the spectacle, which finished as abruptly as it had begun.

My map reading skills let us down once again and we had a great deal of difficulty finding the car. Margaret sought advice from a lady in a souvenir shop and was delighted to be told that she spoke excellent French. We had both become convinced that we were fluent in both Italian and French and looked forward to the day when we would be able to impress the family with our knowledge of everyday conversation such as “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” and “il conto, per favore”.

DAY 35 MON For some reason inexplicable even to Margaret she had told the lady of the house that we would be down for breakfast at 8am. This meant that we had to get up at 7am which was not easy to do as our bed was particularly warm and comfortable. We shared breakfast with a Canadian family who were bicycling around the Loire Valley. The teenage daughter suffered from a very unpleasant condition which barred her from eating anything containing wheat and they had constant difficulty in finding safe food. The husband seemed to speak French quite fluently and had detailed conversations with Madame and Monsieur X. I apologised for my halting pidgin, explaining that I had last studied the language in 1964. The Canadian replied, without any hint of boasting, that he had also completed his French studies in 1964. I never quite recovered my self esteem after that.

Margaret drove us through twenty miles of very green and pleasant countryside to our first château of the day. Chambord , the largest and most spectacular château in the Loire Valley, was a fascinating building from the outside with myriad towers, turrets, copulas, chimneys and lightning rods. On the inside the rooms were almost bare, and judging by the state of the walls, I was not the first visitor to inscribe his initials in the soft white stone. Chambord is particularly famed for its staircase which consists of two spiral staircases which wind around the same axis without ever meeting.

At a quarter to twelve we watched an equestrian exhibition in which people dressed in flamboyant medieval costume performed marvellous tricks on their horses. It would probably be more accurate to say that the horses performed marvellous tricks with their riders on them, but one shouldn’t be pedantic. We had never seen such magnificent animals. One of the stallions (for a stallion he undeniably was) pranced around in front of us, his white coat and perfectly manicured grey mane almost reducing Margaret to tears. Margaret has always had a weakness for horses, especially stallions . From the rapt look on the faces of the audience we deduced that there was a story being enacted, though we couldn’t work out what on earth it was. A dramatic voice reminiscent of the late Leonard Teale thundered the tale while the accompanying music became ever more stirring. The display ended with the noble horse shaking hands/hooves with a throng of excited children, at which point we left to resume our journey.

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From Chambord we drove through a particularly lush and restful forest to the nearby Château de Cheverny. The narrow streets of the small towns had Margaret driving on the footpath, however she still managed to get us to our second château without anything more serious than a few bruised ribs.

The approach to Cheverny was down a path bordered by tall poplars and it was here that we had one of our rare disagreements. Margaret took a picture of the path, then I did the same. Why did I have to take the same picture? Deep down I think that it was because I thought my photo would turn out to be better composed and artistic. Much to my chagrin it was Margaret’s picture that turned out to be the better of the two and which earned pride of place in the album.

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Cheverny was a lot smaller and less impressive on the outside than Chambord but was much more impressive inside. Each room was filled with period furniture, canopied beds, tapestries and walls covered with embossed leather. We didn’t meet Viscount Arnaud de Sigalas, whose family has owned the place since it was built back in 1519 and assumed that he was out the back feeding his eighty fox terriers. His loss!

On the way back to the car I rang Alex and spoke to her for a full thirty seconds before accidentally leaning on the hook and disconnecting her. She must have thought me a real Griswold!

Château de Chenonceau was a lot more difficult to find. Road signs ceased to exist without warning and we found ourselves driving in the opposite direction for a while. The château stands astride the Cher River amidst gardens designed by Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, and Henri’s wife, Catherine de Médici. The Galerie over the Cher served as a hospital during WWI and as the dividing line between Vichy-ruled France and the German-occupied zone. We were especially impressed by the kitchens in the bowels of the building, which may well serve as the model for our own refurbishment some time in the distant future.

On the way home we experienced ten minutes of heavy rain, the first since Nelly and Christian drove us to St Gallen. The sky brightened as abruptly as it had darkened and one might have suspected it to have been an illusion had the chairs back at the gite not been wet with raindrops.

My onion tart and Margaret’s giant omelette devoured at a small café outside Cheverny had erased our desire for a substantial dinner so we contented ourselves with a large packet of chips and a couple of pastries washed down with beer.

DAY 36 TUE We bade farewell to our hosts and the Canadians before setting off, with our room keys, for Chartres. The trip was fairly short and we soon found ourselves in the centre of the city. After posting the keys back to Vineuil we booked in at a nearby hotel and parked the car in an underground parking station down the road.

Map in hand we followed the official tourist trail around Chartres, only in reverse. Amongst the many items of interest which we probably saw were the stairs known as Tertre Saint Nicolas and the Rue Chantault with its quaint old houses. We crossed the Eure River via an ancient bridge before recrossing and making our weary way back into the heart of town. I left Margaret to explore the many jewellery shops along the Rue Noël while I searched, unsuccessfully, for music stores. A fiery tex-mex meal in one of the many outdoor restaurants, doused by a couple of Kronigsberg 1669s rejuvenated us for our next adventure, the critical examination of Chartres Cathedral.

Chartres Cathedral is France’s best preserved medieval cathedral, built in the fourteenth century in only twenty five years. The cavernous insides of the church were teeming with people, mainly in groups led by guides whose combined commentaries merged into a low pitched drone which made conversation difficult. This was perhaps the biggest church we had yet visited, over half a kilometre (half the distance between our house and West Ryde) long and with a ceiling so high we almost expected to see clouds floating above our heads.

Our guidebook suggested taking a tour led by a pukka sahib by the name of Malcolm Miller who had been leading tours of the cathedral nearly every day since 1958. What sort of person could lead three tours a day of the same building for forty one years? That works out at 44,895 tours (say 40,000 allowing for holidays and lecture tours). No wonder he seemed to know the history of each block of stone, the story behind each scratch on the wall. I had caught the end of his previous tour, a detailed description of each of the many panes on a large stained glass window, and resigned myself to a mind-numbingly boring few hours. We were both pleasantly surprised to find the experience extremely interesting and worthwhile. Were it not for his commentary I’m sure we would have left the cathedral thinking it just another dark, grim, not terribly interesting building notable mainly for its size and for Mary’s tattered and faded shawl occupying pride of place on one of the many altars along the walls.

Margaret decided to go to Mass in the evening, leaving me to tidy up the car in preparation for its dropping-off in Paris. The amount of foodstuffs (sugar, milk, etc.) I surreptitiously dropped in the bin in the underground carpark would have fed a family of four in Bangladesh for a month. I met Margaret some time later in the beer garden (The Dickens) next to our hotel after Mass for pre-dinner beer.

Our sleep that night was interrupted constantly by the noise of a faulty toilet on the floor below flushing automatically every couple of minutes. These were not just your garden variety conveniences but rather state-of-the-art, vacuum flush models which worked like those found on aeroplanes, with the added sophistication of an automatic toilet paper shredder. Two minutes of whoooooo followed by a loud phishhhh, and, finally a loud chuchuchu .

Posted by kafka001 18:40 Archived in France Comments (0)

Paris, Our Favourite City

Paris, Versailles

DAY 37 WED Paris, France, here we come! Driving to Paris was not as traumatic an experience as we had feared. The girl in the tourist office in Sens had told us that if we followed the signs to Lille we would be able to negotiate the complicated ring road system around Paris and find the airport with little difficulty. This was almost true, though we did get a little tense during the final stages when we were within kilometres of Aérogare 1 and had to stop at a service station and join a queue of worried-looking tourists all seeking the same advice. We reached our goal but missed the entry to the correct level. We couldn’t work out how one drove back down the spiral road and were forced to park the car where we could. Fortunately the Peugot people were very understanding and processed our documents without any fuss.

It was in the tourist office of Charles de Gaulle Airport that we encountered our first rude French person. The lady in the office seemed annoyed that Margaret would want a map of Paris and its attractions and treated her as if she was wasting her valuable rest period. I didn’t witness the exchange as I was minding our luggage outside and can therefore truthfully claim never to have met a rude frog.

It was a real pleasure to sit in comfort in a taxi and be driven in to the city. I had reached the stage in our travels where I was becoming jaded and when Margaret exclaimed excitedly “Mike, we’re in Paris!” I answered with a grunt. My interest was rekindled when the taxi dropped us outside the Hôtel des Mines on the Boulevard San Michel in the Latin Quarter. Boulevard San Michel; the words roll off the tongue like ... er, I dunno, but it sounds a lot more sensuous and romantic than Castlereagh Street and requires more movement of the mouth muscles.

The hotel was small and its lift, like that in La Giarda back in Rome, barely large enough for two people. As we left it for our room we encountered a young couple who had taken the stairs. By coincidence they were newly arrived Australians also, residents of Newtown. “See you around”, I said to the girl. We never saw them again.

We immediately set about exploring Paris. One block down, on the other side of the Boulevard San Michel, was the Jardin du Luxembourg which we were to visit a few days later. Two blocks towards the Seine we found the Panthéon, a building much larger than its namesake in Rome and also much newer. It was built in 1789 as an abbey church and then, two years later, turned into a mausoleum for the famous when the Revolution briefly killed God. The great space inside is broken up by towering white colonnades and from the centre of the dome hangs a long cord from which a large brass globe swings. Foucalt’s Pendulum. The crypt beneath the Panthéon contains the remains of many famous and once famous Frenchmen including both Curies, Rousseau, Voltaire, Braille, Zola and the hero of my youth, Victor Hugo.

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The Sorbonne, which we did not visit, was in the next block and, at the end of the street, across the Seine, the magnificent bulk of Notre Dame called to me like a siren. “Come climb my graceful towers” (“Viens, ascendez mes belles tours”). Oh, false temptress! Her well-shaped limbs of stone were cruelly closed for renovation and I could only gaze with impotent longing at those cloud-floating gargoyles and intricate curlicues .

It had been my ambition to visit Notre Dame since reading Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” back in 1963 ( I had also dreamt of wading through the sewers of Paris after reading “Les Miserables” the same year , but Margaret was cool to the idea). We made do with wandering about inside admiring the minor asymmetrical elements introduced, in accordance with Gothic practices, to avoid monotony (thanks, Lonely Planet) and gazing in awe at the three huge rose windows. From Square Jean XXIII, a pretty little park at the back of the cathedral, we had a splendid view of the flying buttresses which support the walls of the chancel. We could only remember seeing pictures of Notre Dame from the front and were taken by surprise by the beauty of its rear view.

The walk back to the hotel exhausted us but it was our first day in Paris and we had to keep going. We caught the Paris Métro for the first time from the Luxembourg Station nearby and reached the Champ de Mars without difficulty, despite the complexity of the Paris subway system. Margaret pronounced the Eiffel Tower ugly and I had to concede that it looked rather like a giant oil derrick. Although she was initially reluctant to climb the tower she didn’t take much persuading and we were soon rising slowly to the top level. The girders around us seemed awfully flimsy and I couldn’t help but wonder how often they were checked for rust. We disembarked carefully at the highest platform (276 metres) and clung to the handrail as we gazed over the city. The wind was quite powerful at this height and several small children were blown to oblivion by unexpected gusts. We joined the other elderly tourists in tut-tutting about the carelessness of their parents. In the enclosed viewing area we were excited to see that, according to the legend on the wall, we were 16,492 kilometres from Canberra.

It was very late by the time we returned to the hotel and even the constant rumbling of the trains in the subway beneath us couldn’t keep us awake.

DAY 38 THU This morning we took a minibus tour of the city which allowed us, in the words of the brochure, to “discover the monuments which have made Paris famous throughout the world”. Our companions were a not terribly friendly American family from North Carolina and a newly married couple from New York. Our driver, François, had his work cut out manoeuvring through the peak hour traffic whilst pointing out such points of interest as the Louvre, Place de Concorde, Arc de Triomphe, Invalides, etc. We stopped for half an hour at Sacré Coeur, on the hill above Montmartre and walked quickly around the Place du Tertre (once the main square of the village of Montmartre) looking at the cafés and indigent artists. We had already explored the insides of Notre Dame, so while the others wandered about the cathedral we took the opportunity to imbibe over-priced coffee in a little restaurant nearby.

We returned to our hotel at midday. Margaret had booked a haircut (une coupe) at Atelier Jean Launay down the road for 2pm, so to fill in time we decided to find one of the oldest streets in Paris, Rue Mouffetard. It was supposed to behind the Panthéon but we couldn’t find it using the map and walked several kilometres in the wrong direction before stumbling upon it by accident. Rue Mouffetard was a very narrow but lively street full of the sort of shops real Parisians visit. We bought a couple of typically French rolls at a small shop and strolled to the end of the street which, as it turned out, brought us to the back side of the Panthéon.

With time to spare we sat at a sidewalk café and sipped beer while watching life pass us by. We were snapped out of our reverie by a raucous cacophony of whistles and toots generated by a quartet of snazzily dressed motorcycle police. Pedestrians scattered as a cavalcade of dark-windowed limousines and sinister black vans full of men wearing sunglasses rolled down the road. With great excitement we realized that we had just witnessed President Clinton on his way to a meeting of world importance.

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At a quarter to two we parted, Margaret for her hair appointment with destiny and me for a tour of music shops. Marg had rather naively guessed that a hairdo in a Paris studio would take a mere hour and a half, so I strode at lighting speed through the streets with the intention of cruising as many shops as possible in the short time available. After ninety minutes I returned to the hotel expecting Margaret to be waiting in our room. She wasn’t. I wrote yesterday’s adventures in the diary, had a brief lie down then returned to the streets in search of peppermints. On my way back I noticed Margaret sitting inside the barber’s looking rather bedraggled. She told me that she would be at least another hour so I went looking for more music shops.

Five and a half hours after the first snip of the scissors a totally new, even more glamorous than usual Margaret emerged from the atelier. At first I took her for a sophisticated Parisienne, but after thirty years of marriage I couldn’t be fooled for long. She was extremely fortunate that the experiment turned out so successfully as she couldn’t speak French and Jean Launay didn’t speak a word of English.

As I write: Margaret has just discovered my book purchase, “1000 Record Covers”, which I had hoped she wouldn’t notice till we got home.

A very satisfying dinner at La Brasserie Luxembourg put us in the right mood for a romantic night on the Seine. We walked hand in hand along the banks of that rivière d’amour, sharing the evening with young lovers, pickpockets, destitutes asleep in their own urine and the occasional Japanese tourist. Rounding a bend in the river we were just in time to see the last boat of the day draw away from the wharf. “Nom d’une pipe!” we exclaimed in unison.

We sauntered back to the hotel via the tourist-infested streets around Place Saint Michel, pausing to watch a street artist do nothing much to great applause. Back at the hotel we treated ourselves to an over-priced tonic water (I specifically asked for a lemon drink) before returning to our tiny room. Tiny? The bathroom was so small that, unless a guest was less than five feet two he had to perform amazing contortions to use the water closet as anything other than a pissoir. At least the beds were comfortable.

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DAY 39 FRI For the first time in Europe we ordered breakfast in bed. What luxury! Fortified by luke warm coffee we took the tiny lift to the lobby and joined the colourful, exhilarating world that is the Latin Quarter. Thank God I didn’t have to lug around that cursed backpack as I had in Rome!

The morning was warm and sunny and we ambled through the terraces of the Jardin du Luxembourg amidst young lovers and old layabouts who rested beneath the chestnut trees and children who sailed their boats on the Grand Bassin under the imposing facade of the Palais du Luxembourg. Emerging on the other side of the park we found ourselves in the Place Saint Sulpice where a poetry fair was being held. A poetry fair! Numerous stalls manned by young beatniks sold books of verse to Parisians of all ages. I couldn’t imagine such a fair being held in any other city on earth, let alone it being patronised by throngs of people. Margaret sensibly pointed out that this was the Latin Quarter, once the haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Henry Miller and Harold Robbins. The Sorbonne was only a block away and the Boulevard Saint Michel was lined with book and art shops. Nerd heaven!

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We made a rapid circuit of the insides of St Sulpice and were not particularly impressed. Perhaps we had visited too many églises over the last five weeks. A walk down Rue Buonoparte, named after a famous French leader, took us to the Seine. On the other side stood the Louvre, a large building containing lots of paintings. The “courtyard” was enormous and marred, in my opinion, by the large glass pyramid which should be dismantled and transported to Glastonbury immediately. We vowed to come back and examine every inch of the art gallery (in another life) and set off on our quest to reach the Arc de Triomphe.

We had walked all the way through the Tuileries before I realised that we had walked through the Jardin des Tuileries. Despite the warmth of the morning sun my blood ran cold when I remembered that six hundred of the King Louis’ Swiss Guards had been massacred in these very gardens only two hundred years ago . Margaret led me to a café under the trees where, shaken by the horrors of republican violence and stirred by the bravery of my countrymen years ago, I shared a large bread roll stuffed with crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes with ma femme.
At the end of the Tuileries lay the broad, circular expanse of the Place de la Concorde. Crossing to the other side was a life-threatening experience. The traffic was fast and plentiful and we were not surprised to learn that many people, including Marie Antoinette and her husband, had lost their lives here. A little further on I called in at Paris’ cheapest belle époque attraction; the public toilet on the east side of Place de la Madeleine. This was a unisex convenience in the old style and I was forced to use urinals separated from the female attendants only by a waste-high wall. This arrangement had the advantage of permitting me to admire the ladies waiting for a cubicle while I did my business.

At long last we reached the beginning of the two kilometre long Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The first stretch of the avenue was that broad, tree-lined section you see in old newsreels. The remainder was lined with hotels, shops and restaurants. Not since Rome had we seen so many tourists in the one place at the same time. The Arc de Triomphe, which we could see in the centre of the horizon at the end of the Élysées from the time we left the Place de la Concorde, grew rapidly larger. I was afraid that it would prove to be smaller than I had anticipated (like the Colosseum and St Peters) but the pictures hadn’t lied.

Crossing the world’s largest roundabout to reach the monument required us to take the pedestrian subway. No-one in her right mind would have attempted to traverse the Place Charles de Gaulle above ground, though Hitler did in 1940. We climbed the 284 steps round and round the spiral staircase then almost collapsed at the top. The panoramic view from the pinnacle was even better than from the top of the Eiffel Tower and the sight of twelve long avenues converging at the roundabout far beneath us made me feel as though I was at the very centre of the world.

Back at the bottom we joined the throng of visitors around the eternal flambé. Margaret begged me to take a picture of her with her arm around one of the husky young soldiers on guard duty. “Margaret,” I scolded, “remember you’re English!” “Baisez-vous!” she replied crudely.

At the America Express office nearby Margaret changed some of her travellers’ cheques into cash. We were lucky we weren’t relying on them as the lady behind the counter told us that they had been signed in the wrong place. She was kind enough to change them anyway. By the time we found the metro Charles de Gaulle-Étoile we realised that we would never reach the Musée d’Orsay before it closed.

The Paris rail system is much more complicated than any other we have used. To get from the Arc de Triomphe to our station, Luxembourg, we had to catch the metro to Châtelet, change to another metro line, catch another metro to Saint Michel, walk down a long passage to a platform on Saint Michel-Notre Dame and catch an RER train to get to Luxembourg. At Châtelet we became hopelessly confused. Margaret approached an immaculately-uniformed policeman for directions. The good policier, a model of formality, actually threw her a parade ground salute before leading us to the correct platform.

Back at the Hotel des Mines we lay on our bed drinking beer and watching Melrose Place in French. What more could life offer?

More beer at La Brasserie Luxembourg, this time an expensive black Belgian brew boasting 9% alcohol content followed by escargot for me and something less adventurous for Margaret. As we ate and drank we watched the people of Paris pass by. Boulevard Saint Michel is a very busy street, but the in-line skaters and cyclists sped down the middle of the road as though it were deserted. In Sydney motorists would have been outraged. We are not terribly tolerant of cyclists travelling on the edge of the road, let alone in the middle! A pretty girl on a motor scooter stopped at the traffic lights. A police car drew up along side her and the young cops leaned out the windows and chatted to her until the lights changed. The police seem much more laid back than they do in any other country we have visited. Rather than being seen as powerful authority figures they appear to be regarded as ordinary people who happen to be policemen.

Having consumed rather a lot of bière during the day I was anxiously searching for a WC by the time we reached the Seine. The walk along the banks of the river was trés romantique if one ignored the derelicts and their pools of urine. We boarded one of the last cruise ships of the night just before it cast off and sailed smoothly down the centre of the river. A guide described the sights in French and fractured English as we passed them by. Each time we sailed under a bridge all the children would shout with delight and many of us waved happily at other boats as they passed. By the time we began the return journey the sky was dark and the city lit up. The Eiffel Tower looked grand in its nightgown of golden lights but we lacked the energy to pay a return visit.

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As is her custom, Margaret struck up a short-term friendship with a pair of elderly couples sitting next to us and, by the time we parted, had solved most of their marital problems and learned all there was to know about Carbondale, Illinois and Vancouver, Canada. They were on a coach tour of Europe and Paris was their thirteenth and last city in twenty six days. No wonder they described their vacation as a blur.

At the Place Saint Michel we drank expresso and watched the throngs of people of all ages milling about. It was 11pm but for many the night was just beginning.

DAY 40 SAT An early morning train took us to the Musée d’Orsay, a huge railway station which had been converted into an art gallery thirteen years ago. We started at the top with the impressionists and post-impressionists: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and their ilk. I have to admit to being something of a philistine where art is concerned. While I liked Sisley and Pissaro and some of Renoir’s stuff, most of the pictures left me fidgeting. We moved rather rapidly through the rest of the gallery though I did insist on spending five minutes looking at the Revolutionary Art section with its dramatic paintings of heroic revolutionaries.
Before leaving I attempted to ring Gulf Air to confirm our tickets to Bahrain, only to find that its offices were closed till 9am on Monday which just happened to bet the time at which our plane was due to leave. This failure to confirm was to cause me increasing stress over the next couple of days.

As mentioned earlier, the Paris rail system is very complicated and we were very grateful to find a computer which, if you indicated the station to which you wished to travel, would print a detailed set of instructions on what trains you should catch and from what platforms they would depart. With our page of instructions in hand we set out for Boulevard Haussmann, home of such mighty department stores as Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine and even Marks and Spencer.

This was to be a day of shopping frenzy (for Margaret, at least). I left her in Printemps and set off in search of presents for David and Tim and, with any luck, music for myself. What a terrible shopping area it was; no music shops and no gifts suitable for young men. Two hours later I met Margaret in front of Printemps. She was as demoralised as I was, having found little of interest either.

We returned to Place Saint Michel and lunched on salad and beer before visiting Sainte Chapelle which we found secreted inside the Palais de Justice. Sainte Chapelle was built in less than three years and consecrated in 1248, its purpose being to house Jesus’ crown of thorns which Louis IX had bought earlier in the thirteenth century. If St Louis were alive today I would attempt to sell him the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The small church must have been splendid in its heyday but on the day we visited it seemed faded and worn and any ambience it may have once possessed was submerged beneath the chatter of tourists and the strobic flickering of flashbulbs.

Venturing hesitantly into the subway system we braved the complexities of the Metro/RAR system and made our way to Montmartre. At the bottom of Montmartre’s south slope we boarded a funiculaire which would carry us up the steep hill to Sacré Coeur. A rude French lady attempted to insert herself and her child in front of us on the queue and would have succeeded in boarding the carriage before us had I not realised that we were on the wrong line. We quietly moved to the correct queue, leaving the pushy woman tapping her toes on a line to nowhere. The lesson for her, had she only known it, was that you don’t match wits with someone who catches the train at Parramatta every afternoon.

The plan for the evening called for us to explore Montmartre until Mass began at 10pm. We walked up and down the steep and winding cobbled streets before strolling through the Place du Tertre and examining the works of numerous artists, all of which were outrageously expensive. After a satisfying but pricey dinner in a very crowded outdoor restaurant we cruised the souvenir shops and bought several trashy gifts for the boys. Shortly before Mass we sat outside a café and drank the local tipple, a violet concoction which tasted like absinth and, according to a fat German sitting at the next table, had a kick to match.

Mass in Sacre Coeur was a bit of a let down as far as I was concerned, though Margaret found it inspiring. We left via the main door and found ourselves gazing down upon a breathtaking panorama of Paris by night. The sky was as violet as my drink had been, producing an unearthly effect the like of which we hadn’t experienced before. What could have been an atmosphere of great peace and beauty was transmogrified into one of revelry, dissolution and, in a couple of instances, debauchery by hundreds of young people who swigged wine, smoked strange substances and practiced for marriage on the steps in front of the church. Oh to be young again!

We picked our way carefully over the discarded bottles and intertwined couples and made our way back to the funiculaire, the metro and our hotel. Quel jour rempli!

DAY 41 SUN Our last full day in Paris. We rose late with the intention of having an undemanding day visiting Versailles followed by a long and expensive dinner at our favourite restaurant. We had almost reached the Luxembourg Metro before we realised that the weather was not as good as we were used to, in fact it was rather overcast and very cold. We decided against walking all the way back to the hotel for our umbrellas and jumpers which was a decision we would come to regret.

The RER map on the subway wall was not very clear but we eventually worked out the stations where we would need to change trains. It goes without saying that our map reading was faulty and we ended up reaching Versailles by the most circuitous route imaginable. The journey took around ninety minutes, including half an hour spent on a freezing platform at a large but obscure railway station out in the sticks.

We arrived at the wrong station (there were several) on the outskirts of Versailles around lunchtime and were forced to walk several kilometres to the palace. Along the way we stopped at a small pub and drank coffee standing at the bar (thereby saving a few francs). The hot, black brew momentarily warmed our freezing bodies and we enjoyed the company of real Frenchies as opposed to the usual mix of tourists we encountered in the cafés of Paris.

The Château de Versailles was rather large, not surprising when you consider that Louis XIV built it to house his entire court of six thousand public servants and hangers-on. The enormous courtyard swarmed with tourists who tripped and slipped on the bumpy cobblestones as they hurried to join the various queues which snaked from the gate to the various buildings. After a really long wait, during which we shuffled in fits and starts while shivering violently with the cold, we finally reached the ticket office for the Grand Apartments tour.

Margaret and I decided (oh all right, I decided) that we should hire only one electronic guide, thereby saving thirty francs or $7.50 in real money. This was one instance where frugality didn’t pay. We walked through lots of brightly furnished rooms of great historical significance, each with a fascinating story to tell. That they were more interesting than they appeared I could ascertain from the enrapt expression on my wife’s face as she listened to the electronic device pressed to her ear. Whilst I would zip through a set of rooms at great speed and wait impatiently for her at the other end of the corridor, Margaret would spend ten minutes in each room. I did overhear snippets of history by pretending to be a part of various tour groups but the guides would eventually spot me as a non-paying parasite and flash me the evil eye.

The tour of the Grand apartments ended with a stroll through the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Ice Cream), a strangely-named ballroom lined on one side with seventeen huge mirrors and on the other with windows looking out on the gardens. Apparently the lords and ladies of the Sun King’s court liked to watch themselves cavorting in, and sometimes out of their flamboyant finery whilst watching the sun set over their debauchery.

Margaret finally gave me the electronic device so that I could listen to the commentary as I walked slowly through the Hall of Great Battle Pictures. Returning the device to its owner proved a little difficult as we couldn’t find the place where we had started the tour. I would have left it on the nearest window sill except that we had left my Visa card as a deposit. Somehow we swapped device for card and went to look for the fabled gardens of Versailles. We didn’t see much of the flowerbeds, tree-lined paths and fountains for which the gardens are justly renowned as I wasn’t willing to pay the exorbitant entry fee. The French were punished by God for their avarice a few months later when he sent a storm to destroy the entire garden.

I know we looked for a restaurant along the almost deserted main street of Versailles, but for the life of me I can’t remember whether we found one to our taste. We caught the train at Versailles-Gauche, one of the town’s three railway stations, and managed to travel all the way back to Luxembourg Metro with only one change of train.

The chilly wind forced us to don our jackets for the first time since Switzerland so that we could go for our last walk around the Latin Quarter. With tears in our eyes (metaphorically speaking) we ate our last and most expensive dinner at the Brasserie Luxembourg and left our friendly waitress weeping over her fabulous tip. I guess I’ll never again sip a Pelforth Brown Ale or even a 1664 or Chamiy while sitting at a table on the footpath watching life go by on the Boulevard Saint Michel.

Our plan for the evening was to walk once again down Rue Mouffetard and imbibe the sights and sounds of the real Paris. Just past the Panthéon we noticed a church we had somehow missed on our previous strolls. As our goal was to visit every church in Paris we slipped through the front doors of St Étienne du Mont and found ourselves quite unexpectedly right in the middle of ..... Mass! I am not a religious person (quite the reverse, thank God) but this Mass was more interesting than most. Half a dozen priests concelebrated and the wildest organist in town played avant-garde music which filled the old église with religious jazz. While I swayed to the music I could not help but admire the beautiful rood screen (more like a marble balcony than a screen) which separated the chancel from the nave. Unfortunately a rather severe call of nature forced me to leave Margaret to her prayers and race back to the hotel .

Despite our busy day we both found it hard to get to sleep. Insomnia wasn’t the problem this time, rather the sandman was kept from our door by an American woman on the floor below who spoke in an extremely loud voice for several hours with barely a pause to draw breath.

Posted by kafka001 18:39 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back In Bahrain

DAY 42 MON Our taxi driver this morning was Vietnamese and had lived in France for twenty years. If it weren’t for his children’s futures, he told us, he would happily return to the land of his birth. He spoke continuously all the way to the airport, which wasn’t a bad thing as he was full of interesting information concerning the French tax system and Parisian road death statistics.

Our flight was delayed by an hour but any discomfort we may have experienced due to extreme boredom was more than compensated for by the lack of passengers travelling to Bahrain. Was this an omen? Yes. Margaret curled up across three seats and slept for most of the trip while I moved to a window seat not over the wing.

For the first time on Gulf Air we were offered alcoholic beverages. I opted for a scotch and dry which I spilt all over my jeans while trying to attach the earpieces to my headphones. I’m almost sure I heard one of the Muslim air hostesses mutter “drunken sot” under her breath as she poured me a replacement. Luckily the fierce air conditioning quickly dried out my bough and removed the Johnny Walker smell long before we reached Bahrain.

At Bahrain International Airport we almost had our bags loaded onto a bus to Saudi Arabia. “Where you go, sahib?” asked the swarthy Arab driver. “The Gulf Gate”, I replied. “OK, this bus for you”. Thank God we had second thoughts. I had no idea how much to tip the porter who had insisted on carrying our bags to the wrong bus so I gave him a coin which I calculated later to be the equivalent of forty cents. He didn’t smile. Serve him right.

Compared to our European hotels the Gulf Gate was enormous. Our room was as big as a concert hall, with two double beds, a generous bathroom and lots of space to put our bags and throw our dirty clothes. We had a double bed each, not through choice but because only half of each bed was free from broken springs and lumpy bits.

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DAY 43 TUE After an extremely light breakfast we prepared for our free tour. The temperature in the breakfast room was a little above zero so it was a bit of a shock to step out of the hotel into the searing 370 heat of a Bahrain morning.

Three other Australians joined us before we drove to our first destination, a genuine Islamic mosque (the only mosque in Manama open to infidels). Margaret and the other lady donned black robes which covered everything but their faces, while all five of us removed our shoes. We had never been in a mosque before and were intrigued to find that the large halls contained absolutely no pictures, statues or even a single holy water font.

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From the mosque we drove a short distance to the National Museum where we spent what seemed like several hours examining ancient artifacts before driving to a really big library. No Stephen King or Harold Robbins in this library; only about six hundred copies of a single book. A number of large rooms were filled with Korans ranging in size from too-big-to-be-carried-by-two-large-men to tiny, matchbox-sized volumes. The smallest item was a grain of rice on which was inscribed either all or a single page of the sacred book (the writing was too small for me to be sure).

Back at the hotel we ate a very nice (and free) lunch composed entirely of local delicacies. The waitresses were all Asian and bored silly. Usually we were the only people in the restaurant when we dined and the staff of fifty fought for the privilege of refilling our glasses or changing our ashtrays. As boring as the job of a waitress in Bahrain may be, the worst, most mind-destroying job of all belongs to the man who stands at the entrance to the hotel carpark in the broiling sun raising and lowering the barrier for visiting cars.

All the shops close between noon and four so we stayed in our room watching a delightful movie called “Pure Country”, which seemed to be about a cowboy singer who sold out to commercialism but realised the error of his ways and returned to his yodelling roots. The “in-house movies” showing at the Gulf Gate are repeated every few hours so that if you miss one badly-pirated show you can see it again later. By the time we flew out of Bahrain we had seen “Pure Country” three times.

Around four we walked down to the souk, which we thought would be an exotic Middle Eastern bazaar. In reality it was a large collection of bad jewellery shops selling gaudy gold rings and necklaces intermixed with shops selling extremely bland household goods. Margaret managed to clear several streets of pedestrians, shopkeepers and even patrolling policemen by taking my picture while I feigned interest in a spice shop. Even so I think we managed to capture several Muslim souls on celluloid. Our sole purchase was a head scarf which Margaret thought would give excellent service as a tablecloth. The bemused shopkeeper couldn’t comprehend the idea of a head covering as a kitchen decoration and persisted in trying to sell her the bands for head-attachment.

In the evening we used our dinner voucher in the restaurant and ate a very tasty selection of dishes from the buffet. Once again we supped alone and watched the bored waiters flit around the room straightening knives and forks. Before returning to our room we asked the disinterested girl behind the counter for the vouchers for tomorrow’s breakfast and dinner. She told us that we were only entitled to a single dinner voucher, which we had already used. Unfortunate woman, she didn’t realise that she was arguing with Margaret Cullis. The tide of battle turned when a large group of tourists burst through the front door and made for the reception desk. We returned to our room assured of free meals for another day. The irony of the situation was that, after examining our documents more closely, I realised that she had been right all along!

Sitting on our beds watching “Pure Country” for the fifth time we agreed that two days in Bahrain was one day too many. Even if there had been something to do, the heat kept us trapped in the hotel for most of the day and even “Mustapha ben Aboud in Concert” on the TV could not make this an attractive proposition.

DAY 44 WED Having exhausted the limited attractions of Manama yesterday we decided to lie around in our room reading, resting and catching a rerun of “Pure Country”. The hours passed slowly until lunchtime, when we ate in the coffee shop.

After lunch I left Margaret in our room and walked down the road and over a pedestrian bridge to the seaside. My intention was to plunge my hand into the warm blue waters of the exotic Gulf. I often set myself goals when travelling; to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, steal a piece of Tintern Abbey, stand naked at the top of the Schilthorn. Usually I’m successful (though I returned the brick to the abbey), but today the turgid waves lapping on the shore carried a soapy scum and unidentifiable bits of flotsam and jetsam which forced me to abandon my goal. I can tolerate flotsam, it’s the jetsam that make my stomach juices curdle.

I returned to the hotel to join Margaret in doing very little. With nothing to occupy her powerful mind, Margaret became rather incensed at the sight of a group of Arab women whose black, shroud-like clothing totally concealed them from the lustful stares of the local Arab men. I was more sympathetic, having been aroused several times by brief glimpses of brown almond eyes flashing beneath the almost opaque black veils. I was constantly amazed that these ladies didn’t walk into telegraph poles or fall into the gutter as they floated around the streets.

Later in the evening the hotel bus drove us to the airport. I tipped the driver lavishly then carried our bags to the departure area. I left Margaret to process our luggage while I queued behind a group of Arabs to pay my departure tax. The five oil sheiks insisted on paying their tax by Visa, which was not one of the available payment options. While they argued with the clerk a frantic American tourist tried desperately to get his ticket stamped before his plane departed. He eventually caught the attention of the clerk and paid his tax. The Arabs managed to come up with the necessary cash by pooling their resources and I was able to rejoin Margaret.

While I had been a mere onlooker in one of life’s little dramas, Margaret was right in the middle of a drama of her own. The Gulf Air officials had told her that we would not be sitting together on our flight to Sydney. Margaret is not one to take bureaucratic bungling lightly, especially at the hands of officious darkies. Her displeasure was so powerfully manifested that the hierarchy of Gulf Air, Manama branch, was convened to solve the problem. Many other passengers were not so lucky. Take-off was delayed for half an hour while the crew tried to find adjoining seats for a family of six.

Once we were in the air we all calmed down and settled into an oxygen-deprived stupor. The movies were forgettable, which didn’t matter as my headphones didn’t work (again) but the food was acceptable. By strange coincidence we encountered the young man we had sat next to on the flight from Sydney six weeks ago. A large group of boisterous sports persons at the front of the plane kept us entertained with songs and witty comments for the entire flight. When I first saw the beefy young men standing in the aisles brandishing cans of beer I assumed they were an Australian rugger team and was surprised to discover that they were, in fact, an English Hockey team on their way to play in Sydney. The unsolved mystery of the flight was why their passports were all newly issued in Singapore. Passengers on long, boring plane trips will grasp at anything out of the ordinary to break the tedium.

We landed in Sydney and passed through customs and immigration without incident to find our family waiting for us. The mixed pleasure and strain on their faces told us that they were both glad to have us back and resigned to many hours of travellers’ tales. On the following Sunday the entire family assembled at Jeremy and Anna’s house to hear the complete, day-by-day description of our six weeks overseas. This was an ordeal they would have to suffer a second time once our hundreds of photos were developed. Now they can relive the entire experience through this diary which will please them no end as I have probably added bits left out during my lectures. Perhaps I should gather everybody together again for an official reading. Perhaps not!

Posted by kafka001 18:39 Archived in Bahrain Comments (0)

A Three Day Tour To Sorrento

Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri

DAY 8 TUE Our alarm clock woke us at 6am so that we could make last minute preparations for our trip to Sorrento. The desk clerk told us that it was too early for coffee and that we should wait until 6.45 (the bus was due at 7am). At 6.45 we seated ourselves in the little breakfast room expecting a simple cup of espresso. The clerk told us that the bus was on its way and the waiter, to our dismay, brought over our usual breakfast of funny bread and croissants (not the sort of stuff you want to eat before a long bus ride). We had just started our coffee when the clerk strolled over and told us that we had better get a move on or the bus would leave without us. Apparently it had been waiting for us downstairs before we had even started!

Our coach was not one of those road liners, which we had been expecting and the comfort level was inferior to that of a 767. We (and by “we” I mean Margaret) quickly made friends with the American couple in front of us. Pat was the dominant partner who talked at length about anything while her husband Bill, a taciturn man if there ever was one, remained silent and expressionless for most of the trip. Margaret is really lucky to have such an outgoing, social person such as myself for a husband!

The first leg of our trip took us past Monte Cassino, seen for thirty seconds in the distance, and into the city of Naples where we picked up a local guide named Giovanni. Margaret and I agreed that Naples was very similar to Bangkok or possibly Hong Kong; lots of tall, drab apartment blocks festooned with washing. Giovanni informed us that the Mediterranean Sea on our right had only two openings, one at the top (the Suez Canal) and one at the bottom which meant, for some obscure scientific reason, that it was always clean.

As I write: Margaret has just interrupted me yet again with a very interesting observation about the church bells of Sorrento. Yes, I can hear them dear. I am expecting another interruption at any moment. Here it comes....should we buy a bottle of wine in Tuscany or wait till we reach Bordeaux?

Shortly before we reached Pompeii we stopped at a cameo factory to watch grizzled artisans at work. For the first time we became part of a tour group , just the sort of people we had eyed with contempt in Rome. We bought nothing.

Pompeii, though a famous tourist attraction, was largely unspoiled and with a little imagination one could almost see the bustling town before the ashes fell. My own imagination was sparked when Giovanni told us that we could identify ruins which had once been shops by the grooves cut into the ground in front of what had once been walls. These grooves allowed shutters to be drawn across the shopfront at the end of the day. Most of the town had been almost levelled, though a couple of houses were still standing and had been restored to show how the unfortunate citizens had lived before being turned into plaster casts.18a_Pompeii_-_Street.jpg

We were particularly impressed with the surviving frescoes, though the best preserved of these were on the walls of a small room in front of which a long queue had formed. The pictures which attracted so much attention were extremely explicit depictions of girls and boys playing doctors and I was in and out of that room within sixty seconds so that people wouldn’t think I was a pervert. If only those little old American ladies from Ohio knew what was in store for them at the front of the queue!

Speaking of old American ladies, we found ourselves mingling with a group of Americans on another tour, all of whom where rather elderly. One particularly objectionable old dame kept abusing her husband, a quietly suffering fellow who was obviously under her thumb and resigned to the fact. “Come here, Jerry!” “Keep up, Jerry!” “What are you doing, Jerry!” I decided that in future when Margaret adopted a peremptory tone with me I would mutter (under my breath, of course) “Just call me Jerry”. It hasn’t really caught on, though Tim kept it going for a while.

As I write: Margaret is just about to have a bath, which will spare me her incessant interruptions. Should we ring the kids? Should we have bought a ceramic plate? As we sit on the balcony overlooking beautiful Sorrento her little face is pinched in deep thought as she prepares her next interruption. Doesn’t she realise what a chore diary writing is?

After Pompeii we drove to Sorrento, stopping on the outskirts for a compulsory visit to a wood-inlaying factory. Very expensive and very uninteresting. Giovanni announced that he was leaving us at this point so we quickly concealed ourselves behind a bus so that we could avoid tipping him.

Our hotel, the Bristol, was fairly up-market and our room boasted a narrow balcony overlooking the beautiful but smoggy town of Sorrento. Across the bay we could just make out Vesuvius through the haze. We had a very nice dinner before ascending to the bar on the seventh floor where we sat on the terrace and gazed over the Sorrento nightscape while sipping a cup of cappuccino. Before retiring for the night I took a shower. A cord hung from the ceiling which I assumed one pulled to start the fan. I gave it several pulls but nothing happened and when I read the card attached to it I learned that it was the emergency cord for use when having a heart attack in the shower or when one’s toe was stuck in the drain hole. I leapt out of the cubicle with extreme haste and dressed at lightning speed, but the paramedics never arrived.

DAY 9 WED Sorrento at leisure! So said the tour brochure, though “leisurely” was not how I would describe our day. After breakfast we walked down the hill and into town with the intention of catching a bus to Amalfi. By the time we reached the bus stop I found that I needed to find a WC. Leaving Margaret at the head of the queue I set off in search of a convenience. I walked what seemed like several kilometres before returning to the bus stop and finding one in the nearby railway station. Unfortunately the bus had come and gone in my absence and we were forced to wait another hour for the next one. Margaret was amazingly restrained, considering that she had to stand around in the sweltering heat through no fault of her own.

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Somebody had suggested that we find seats on opposite side of the bus to the driver which ensured that we had a perfect view of the ocean as we drove down the Amalfi Coast. This was a mixed blessing however, as the driver drove at great speed down the sharply winding road with its sheer precipices and blind corners. Only my fear of attracting ridicule prevented me from screaming in terror as the bus hurtled around the bends and, on the few occasions when it slowed down, seemed to hang over thousand foot drops.

Amalfi was a picturesque town built on the side of a cliff. As with Sorrento, it was prettier viewed from the distance than up close. We walked its narrow streets and visited a nice old church before buying food and a hand painted bottle of lemon liqueur at a small shop. We decided that Positano would be more of the same and decided to retourno a Sorrento without getting off along the way. This time we sat on the driver’s side of the bus, which didn’t face the sea and were spared the ninety minutes of fear we had suffered on the forward journey.

While we had a truly spectacular view from our hotel balcony, the noise from the street below continued late into the night. The bells from the little church carved into the cliff way below sounded every thirty minutes, calling us to pay a visit, which we planned to do later in the evening.

DAY 10 THU We didn’t walk down to the little church last night because we were both too tired. It was probably a good thing, too, because we could hear gipsies carousing drunkenly in the darkened streets.

The boat trip to Capri took only twenty minutes. Other travellers had warned us that Capri had degenerated into a tourist trap, though it looked pretty good to us. Raffaello, our swarthy guide, led us straight to a small boat, which chugged slowly around the side of the island towards the much-vaunted Blue Grotto. I pointed to a small cave in the side of the cliff which I assumed to be our destination and the whole group began taking photos. I was not quite correct as the real cave was around one more bend.

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When we finally arrived at the real grotto we found ourselves encircled by a dozen opera-singing boatmen in small rowing boats, each of which could hold four passengers. With eyes tightly closed we leapt from our small boat to the even smaller row boat and lay flat so that Placido could steer us through the tiny hole in the wall. The grotto was dark and the water a fluorescent blue, but the atmosphere was spoiled a little by the cacophony of Neapolitan arias issuing from the wine-roughened throats of a dozen would-be Pavarottis. Once we were back in the open sea our boatman suggested “good song, good tip, good bottle of wine”. Rather naively I asked him what constituted a good tip. According to him the going rate was 10,000 lire, which I, gullible as always believed. I drew 11,000 lire from my pocket and he made to snatch it, though not quickly enough as I managed to hang onto a thousand lire note. A fellow tourist later expressed amazement at my generosity as the going rate was really a thousand lire.

Back on land Raffaello led us up the hill to look at the sights of Capri and Anacapri. We lunched at a fancy hotel where we were seated with an Argentinian couple who, inexplicably, spoke not a word of English. Margaret was not at all dismayed and invoked her gift of tongues to engage in a lively conversation, which continued without pause throughout the meal. After lunch we were left to our own devices. Margaret and I parted company so that she could examine the clothes and bag shops without me hovering in the background tutt- tutting and shaking my head. As in Rome and Sorrento, the only shops existing on Capri were those which sold souvenirs, clothes or shoes. There were no vendors of music of the sixties to be found and I spent my free time looking for a toilet, getting lost in side streets and looking for a toilet again. It was quite fun getting lost in streets, which were really no more than narrow walkways running between tall brick walls.

Back in Sorrento we had to wait for the bus to Rome which arrived an hour late. Two and a half hours later, around about 10pm, we were dropped off not far from our hotel. We almost missed our stop as we didn’t realise that the guide had called out “La Giarda”, it sounded more like “Lava” and we disembarked so hastily that we left our unfinished books on board. Margaret was upset because she was really enjoying her novel and I was even more upset because I was just about to learn the identity of the killer. Not only that, I had also lost my treasured bookmark made of departure tickets from our last trip!

Posted by kafka001 23:52 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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