Toulouse - Carcassonne
We only spent a couple of days here but it's technically not Provence which will be the next post so it's going up on its own.
Toulouse was really just a point of entry to the south coast so we only stayed one night. We found a deli while wandering around the city and bought the makings of a picnic which we had down by the river.
Carcassonne was our first stop, recommended by several people, and it was well worth heading a little off our path for. The main attraction is the ancient city - a narrow maze of streets and alleyways contained within formidable 12th-century walls.
Neil with the ancient city behind him
The region is the home of the Cathars and we visited a couple of museums covering the history of the people and the inquisitors who chased them down.
From Carcassonne we headed east to Arles and then Aix-en-Provence. Next post!
Out and About
Having decided not to go away for the Easter weekend we took advantage of the beautiful weather to explore a bit locally. We spent quite a bit of time down in the park (photos to come) and on Sunday went to the Tower Of London.
Inside the Tower grounds
Originally built as a city residence for the Royal Family it was later expanded and fortified by different kings over several centuries. It houses the Crown Jewels which we had to queue quite a while for, and a very comprehensive armouries collection.
The Tower seen from the Ferry
After the Tower we took a ferry along the river to Westminster and then walked home. Yes, walked. Please note the distance on the map below! Although there's no scale so that's not much use - I would guess it was around 4-5km.
Houses of Parliament - Westminster
Where we live in Bayswater is kind of the equivalent to East Melbourne in demographic, price and distance from the city. We can walk in and occasionally do for Sunday lunch, but more often take a tube or a bus if it's evening or we're heading for the other side of the city. Bayswater is a very touristy area, advantages of that are that the shops are always open and there's always people out on the streets no matter what time of evening - makes it a bit safer for walking around at night.
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London Wall
Neil travels into the city for work, right near the Tower of London, it takes him about 20min plus 25min walking. I get a tube direct from Bayswater station to East Putney, 20mins with a 10min walk at each end. We generally go everywhere by tube, buses are much harder to work out and usually slower. The most annoying thing about the tube is that there's no mobile cover anywhere underground so it can be tricky if you're trying to meet up with people. It is somewhat unreliable on weekends but we are lucky in that we have a choice of five different lines within walking distance so you can always work out a route even if some are closed.
Where we went
Well, I've mostly just been rabbiting on today but I know there's some readers who like to know the little details.
New York, New York!
And what a fabulous time we had. It was a bit of a last-minute decision (booked through last-minute even) when we were deciding on somewhere to go for Neil's birthday, but it turned out to be awesome.
My first impression was not so great - there was a lot of dirty snow around and there were few pretty buildings, just construction sites and scaffolding everywhere. New York grew on me however and I discovered there can be more to a city than 500 year-old buildings (like great yarn shops ;-) sorry, that slipped in accidentally)
Things New York does well:
- Steak. mmmmmmmm. We had one big 'splash out' meal and managed to spend over $300. Not so bad when converted back to pounds though.
- Street names. It may sound boring to number everything, but trust me it makes a big difference if you're a visitor. Not only do you know where you are and where you're going but even addresses make more sense as usually the cross street is given (there were, however, no signs in Central Park and we spent 20mins looking for Strawberry Fields.)
- Service. After becoming accustomed to the mediocre what-they-call service in London it was refreshing to have people actually trying to do a good job for you.
- Shopping. Was awesome - from the Louis Vuitton bags at Bloomingdales right down to $2 a pair socks at Century 21. We came home considerably heavier of suitcase and lighter of pocket.
- Clean air. No smoking in any clubs, bars or restaurants. Can't wait for it to come in here.
Things I wasn't that fussed about:
- The food. If you're not spending a week's salary on the meal then the food is kind of meh. I had a 'salad' which consisted mostly of dressing and cheese - the ingredients were good quality but just very rich. It was hard to get anything healthy. We found great beer-battered fish (and the cricket) at an Australian bar though :-D
- Traffic. Scary!
- Queues. Seemed like every tourist in NY was trying to get up the Empire State Building at the same time as us. Airport security meant it took us 2 hours to get through customs on arrival at JFK compared to about 20mins back at Heathrow. Security on the Statue of Liberty was stricter than at the airport! At times I wished very much I'd had my knitting ;-)
We did lots more New Yorky things, including visiting Brooklyn Bridge, a Broadway show - Stomp, comedy on Broadway, Ground Zero, Museum of Natural History, Wall Street, yellow cabs and cheescake. I forgot to have a bagel.
See all the photos, with descriptions, in the flickr gallery in the sidebar.
Last week I didn't get work on Monday so I trotted down to Bath to visit Julie, who was staying there for a while. Even though it poured rain all day (of course) we still managed to get around and see quite a lot in a few hours.
We started with a good long catch-up over Bath Buns at the Sally Lunn bakery. Apparantly the famous recipe is now handed on as part of the property deeds for the business.
We wandered around the streets for quite a while. Most of Bath is heritage listed - hundreds of buildings - and it is just beautiful. I spotted a lot of streets I recognised from books, Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen in particular set a lot of their writing here.
The Upper Assembly Rooms are still preserved for visitors and house the Museum of Costume. Once again, it was strange to see in real life the kind of gowns I have seen described many times in period novels. We also visited the Jane Austen centre and had tea in the cafe there, but were too late to tour the musem.
The centre of Bath is dominated by the Abbey which towers over everything around it. It is equally stunning inside and absolutely crammed with memorial stones and, presumably, dead bones! The Roman Baths and the Pump Room are right next door but I left those for when I go back for a longer visit with Neil - we just did the girly stuff :-)
White Cliffs Country
It was our anniversary on Friday - 4 years - and we booked ourselves a retreat weekend in White Cliffs Country, Dover.
Sadly, when I pulled the camera out of the bag I discovered the batteries were flat so no pretty pictures except what I pinched from other websites.
We stayed at Wallet's Court Spa Hotel
. Not far from Dover and about a two-hour drive from London (train connections weren't great and we thought we might want a car for day-tripping) It is a fabulous 17th century farmhouse - all uneven floors and low doorways.
Our stay included dinner in the (very posh) restaurant. We sampled local game; I had highly authentic pheasant complete with buckshot. Neil had steak and declared it the only decent steak he's eaten in Britain so far. This all came on top of high tea in the lounge which had included salmon and cucumber sandwiches, cake and scones with cream. Breakfast was also included in our package but we, like Leon*, turned up our noses at the black pudding.
We followed hotel directions to a local walk taking us along the cliffs from the little village we stayed in to another little seaside village. The very pleasant, rambling downhill walk took about an hour and we failed to spot any indications of the vicious head-winds and steep climbs we would encounter on our return. We battled bravely on however (not like we had a choice) and made it back to the car. Great views of the famous white cliffs and the channel abounded. Also had a laugh at the locals attempting to play golf into the driving wind.
We had planned to visit Dover Castle, but after a leisurely lunch in the village we turned up to discover it closes at four during winter, not five as we'd been told, so we left it for another time.
We will definitely return to Dover, it was our first view of the English countryside and was lovely even in winter. We would like to do some more walking and want to have enough time to do justice to the castle.
NB: Driving around the city tonight (we thought we'd come home via Putney so I could pick up something from work- famous last words) has cemented my belief that we will NEVER own a car in London.
* See Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades
Home of Hercule Poirot
"I am not French, I am Belgian" AC managed to work into every one of her books. Old HP was very particular about not being taken for a frenchman, a bit like New Zillanders not liking to be called Aussies :-D I have to admit though - the culture was very different to Parisian - there were similarities, but Belgium definitely has an individual character in its own right.
Brussels is the home of chocolate,
fine beer, mussels, waffles and antiques. All of which we managed to squeeze into our first half-day in the country ;-) We arrived late Friday night on Eurostar and spent Saturday exploring the city.
A collector would need a week - there are countless antique shops in Brussels and a fabulous daily flea-market - but it's not really our thing so we were happy just wandering past the shops and ducking into the occasional Biscuiterie.
We chose to go in December mainly for the Christmas markets. After much wandering about we did manage to find them but I was a little disappointed. They were not as good as I remembered them being in Germany, but that's perhaps just my faulty, nostalgic memory. We did buy a few things but found that a lot of the stalls had the same things we'd already seen elsewhere. Hot
wine was FAR cheaper than they're flogging it for here in London though so we relieved the vendors of some!
On Sunday we took a day trip to Bruges - in the Flemish north. After becoming complacent about everything being dual language (French and Dutch) in Brussels it was a bit of a shock to find everything written only in Dutch. Luckily most people spoke English and I found that I could figure out menus etc based on my knowledge of German.
Bruges is a lovely medieval canal town and we wandered around for ages just looking at the beautiful buildings and testing the quality of the local chocolate. So far, we had been very lucky in the weather as you can see from the photos. It was cold (about 7-8) but not windy and very pleasant walking around.
On Monday we took a trip down to Waterloo which is now a suburb of Brussels, about 30mins
by train. The weather was foul but we braved the rain and wind and climbed the Butte de Lion
- a monument to the Prince of Orange built on the battlefield.
The area was almost deserted but there were some interesting displays and a wax museum with very informative voice-over. In Waterloo itself we found the old inn which Wellington stayed in the night before the battle - it has been converted to a museum and has great displays, and once again very informative audio commentary.
Three days was enough for Belgium for us, there wasn't a great deal more that we would have done if we'd had more time. Probably just eat far too many waffles :-) It's a perfect weekend destination though and we had a great time.
Nice Weather We're Having
It's the fashion in Britain to talk about the weather, and today London's grey skies were international news as freak storms lashed suburban areas. Locals and tourists alike dashed for cover as thunderstorms and hail swept across the city, driven by strong winds.
Hehe, I should be a news reporter :-)
Here's some pics, culled from a website:
We had some pretty cool hail storms in Putney, the window-cleaners were working at the shop just as it was coming over. The poor guys had to work in all the thunder and lightning hail :-D
We're off to Brussels tomorrow so will have a juicy update for you soon, full of beer and mussels ;-)