Friday 26 March 2010

Hints to Lady Train Travellers

I am quite certain that anticipation in travelling, though it may not be by any means its chief pleasure, is the surest means of securing enjoyment and comfort in its realisation.

Hint to Lady Travellers.

I planned to post this this morning (in anticipation, you might say) before I embarked on my journey. But between one thing and another it didn’t happen and I am now in a position to tell you that wifi does not appear to be widely available on the French/Swiss train network.

Anyway. How do you get from Aix-en-Provence, France to Innsbruck, Austria? Well, if you’re me, you jump at the chance to take the train and have an adventure worthy of the Lady Travellers of old. There’s no direct route, but then, there was no direct flight either, and the train is much funner than flying.

So, first of all I took a train from Aix to Lyon. There wasn’t much to see except the high bridge over the Rhone just outside Avignon and the rain streaming down the windows. At Lyon, I bought a magazine and a coffee and got on a train to Geneva. Which sat in the station for twenty minutes and then crawled its way to Switzerland. This section of the trip was a bit disappointing – though it did give me cause for philosophising. Was it just the greyness of the weather? Or the fact that we passed through one shithole town after another (sorry towns between Lyon and Geneva, but it’s true)? Or the fact that the train was losing time as it went and I was increasingly worried about missing my connection?

We all secretly (or not so secretly) long for a time when travel was romantic and glamorous. I dream of plush seats, porters, proper dining cars with linen tablecloths … but the reality is much more utilitarian. Faced with this, on the train from Geneva to Zurich I thought about my own hints for today’s lady-train-travellers.

1. Get a window seat

2. Sit facing the back of the train. I know there’s some ancient belief that it’s better to face the front - something about reducing motion sickness or avoiding smoke from the train. But I find that facing the other way is much better for admiring the view – and taking photos.

3. Bring provisions. I was at the mercy of Swiss railways who, to be fair, turned up a decent salami sandwich and a bottle of wine. But even the best train food would be beaten by any halfway good picnic.

4. Have a good book. Admiring the scenery (specially with a plastic glass of wine in your hand) is very enjoyable but if the scenery fails or it gets dark, you will need something to pass the time. I like to have something that fits the theme of my journey. Today it was The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. He agrees with me about the provisions, by the way.

5. Have a comfortable bed waiting for you at the end of your trip. I read once that Elizabeth Taylor always took two identical suits when she flew. One to wear when she got on board, the other to wear when she disembarked, so she always looked immaculate for the cameras. But the fact that she had to go to such lengths proves that the idea we can finish our journey unruffled is an ILLUSION. My three-train-journey today has made me very tired. But luckily, I am spending the night in the – and how perfectly named is this? – Lady’s First Design Hotel. This deserves, and will get, a post of its own. But just let me tell you it is everything I hoped it would be AND they have provided me with slippers, chocolates and free wifi.

Tomorrow morning I take a train from Zurich to Feldkirch, on the border between Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria. And then one more train to Innsbruck.

So: five trains, four countries, two days. And then skiing, kaffee und kuchen and beer. Yay!

Thursday 25 March 2010

A Busy Day

Yesterday was a busy day. We played lego. We played with bricks. We got ready to go out with the pram. We went for a hot chocolate at Book in Bar. We bought bread. We ran errands. We had lunch. One of us had a nap. One of us tidied up. We made banana bread. One of us filled a dump truck from the soil in the window boxes and poured it all over him. One of us tidied up. We watched a movie. We made yummies for dinner. By half past six, I wanted to crawl into bed with a bottle of wine.

Parents of the world, I salute you!

Anyway, with all the busyness, there was no photo taking, so I leave you with these pretty pictures from last week of the flower market on the Ile de la Cité in Paris, just round the corner from Notre Dame. Think serene thoughts:

TOMORROW I’m going on an exciting train adventure to Switzerland. Tune in same bat time, same bat place for details!

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ecomusée de la Foret

Yesterday was a red-letter day: the first time I took Gregory to a museum. Ever since I heard I was going to get a nephew, I imagined the time when Auntie E would have a small person to go to the museum with. To start what I hope will be a beautiful tradition, we visited the Ecomuseum of the Forest.

This outdoor ‘museum’, between Aix-en-Provence and Gardanne, consists of a trail through the forest with different activities at intervals, plus an exhibition inside. The trail is pretty long for someone only just two, but Gregory was great company. He skipped through the forest, for all the world like Christopher Robin. (Does that make me the bear of little brain?)

He carefully considered the artworks,

And the little cabin in the woods.

He checked out the yurt, and the stripes made by the shadows.

And – oh, I love this photograph – every now and then he looked up at the metal slats of the roof and just laughed.

He assembled – against all the rules – a collection of sticks. (I had to dispose of it in secret later.)

When he got tired, I carried him on my shoulders. And every now and then he would lean down and give me an unsolicited kiss on the cheek. It’s enough to make an aunt’s heart grow three sizes inside her chest.

Then we went back to the information centre and the permanent exhibition. This wall was great: different stations where you could touch specimens, smell smells (good and bad) and hear the sounds of birds and animals. Though some of these were a bit too real for Gregory who wasn’t at all sure that a big animal wasn’t hiding behind the wall to come and get him.

Sadly the café was closed for renovation and we were both thirsty so we left shortly afterwards. The forest was beautiful but I wouldn’t rate the Museum that highly … but that didn’t stop us having a great time together.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

La Calanque - Cassis

After all, it is the landlady and her ménage which have quite as much to do with one’s well-being and enjoyment as the mere externals of one’s surroundings.

Hints to Lady Travellers, Lillias Campbell Davidson.

I’m spending a week in Aix, looking after my adorable nephew Gregory (Le Nevue Adorable) while his nounou takes her holiday.

With a view to my inner well-being AND my external surroundings, I was taken on Sunday to the calanque just outside Cassis – which is BEAUTIFUL.

The calanques are a stretch of coves along the coast between Marseille and Cassis – Wikipedia helpfully tells me they’re like Mediterranean fjords. Pine trees hang over the deep blue water and often pretty little yachts are moored along the sides.

(My landlady and her ménage.)

First of all, Róisín booked a table for lunch. Then we walked the path going down to the calanque and I took photos of the trompe l'oeil pines.

Gregory sat on George’s shoulders and we admired the bateau-bateau-bateau!

Ró took a photo of me beside the calanque: she told me I looked Italian. I said 'ciao!'

And then we went back to the restaurant – the kind you only find in warm climates: a shed with an awning over some plastic tables serving incredible-looking seafood (sea urchins, anyone?) and excellent chips.

Gregory is sitting beside me as I write this, pointing at the photos and saying 'Neh neh!' (that's me) and 'bateau!'. I promise it’s not just an auntie’s bias when I say he’s adorable. Now we need to go and play. Au revoir!

Monday 22 March 2010

Rose Bakery

At one of the yoga retreats that the divine Mrs W and I cooked for, she brought along the Rose Bakery cookbook (I recommend) full of delicious teatime treats.

Later I sought out the Rose Bakery outpost in Dover St Market in London (so cool it makes your teeth hurt, the café is part of the Comme des Garcons concession – but the staff are actually very friendly.) In fact it was there that I had one of the bizarrest encounters of my life, when an American lady turned to look at me sharply, then asked me ‘are those your real eyes?’

Anyway, there are two branches of the Rose Bakery in Paris. One on the Rue des Martyres, the other on the Rue Debelleyme in the Marais. I can see why people in Paris love these places – they’re what French people think of as quintessentially English.

But, the coffee (I ordered a Piggy Latte, such a good idea for a coffeeholic like myself, you get a big jug full of café au lait) and a slice of pistachio cake. This was, I’m pretty sure, a lemon madeira cake recipe to which had been added pistachios. Not that I’m complaining: it was thick with pistachios and absolutely delicious.

(Do you know, I’ve just realised I left the star on the plate. That’s really not like me. I must have been distracted by my view of the kitchen.)

In conclusion, smells like heaven, serves you tap water without you having to ask, vaut le détour.

Rose Bakery, 30 Rue Debelleyme, Paris 3ème.

Friday 19 March 2010

Pushing Buttons

This is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a cautionary reminiscence.

At some point when I was seven or eight, I learned about nuclear weapons. (I think it was probably from watching War Games with my brother. I also learned about modems and Matthew Broderick being cute from that film, so all in all a very educational experience.) I became obsessed with the idea of a man in a bunker somewhere with his hand hovering over a BIG RED BUTTON. One touch of the button and the world would end. This caused me no end of sleepless nights because of my own, personal mania for pressing buttons. I never saw a button I didn’t want to press – so how would the man in charge of the nuclear arsenal be able to resist? I could see it so clearly: one night he just wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation any more and – almost of its own volition – his hand would reach out and … BAM! Nuclear winter.

But if they were recruiting for the nuclear-button-pusher’s job, I would now be in a position to volunteer. Because I am cured.

As advertised on Wednesday morning, I paid a visit to the Musee de la Magie et des Automates. I thought this would be an interesting, whimsical, very Parisian experience. A museum full of automatons – what’s not to like? (Automatons, by the way, are any kind of machine that moves without electricity – from cuckoo clocks to clockwork toys.) The idea is that you move through different rooms showing different types of automata: in front of each one is a button to press to make it go. So I pressed buttons, and pressed buttons, and pressed buttons … and got really bored of pressing buttons. The machines essentially do two things: move up and down or move from side to side. There’s a special sub-genre where things move up and down and from side to side to reveal women’s bottoms.

I suspect part of my issue with the museum is that seeing so many takes away from the novelty: I remember loving the (single) automaton at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, where you put in money and some strange looking creatures flashed their eyes and moved.

So was there any redeeming feature? Well, there was a magic show, which was fun. And the room of optical illusions was pretty cool. Oh, and I liked the zoo machine where you put your hands in two holes and then you feel something furry brushing them and a lion jumps out and roars at you. (All very innocent, I assure you.) However, a combined ticket for the two museums is €12 and I can’t honestly say that it was worth it. (Oh, and they wouldn't let me take photos.) But then, I go to these museums so you don’t have to.

So, the moral of the story is – be careful of over-indulging childhood passions or you may go TOO FAR.

And instead of going to the Musee de la Magie, go the carousel along the street, beside the Hotel de Ville. Carousels are a passion I haven’t killed, and this is a particularly good specimen.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Paris in the Springtime Part Deux

Just to show I wasn't the only one enjoying my book in the sunshine - this was the Tuileries at lunchtime today:

I Love Paris in the Springtime

I must have had a premonition yesterday, for why else would I have posted a picture of a vintage poster advertising a concert in Montmartre? I did do all the other things I planned to do, but in the morning, I found myself turning right on Rue Montorgueil and walking north to Montmartre.

I passed one of the few remaining Art Nouveau metro entrances on my way:

I was only ever in Montmartre once before, in December, and a thick mist obscured the view. Yesterday, by contrast, was warm and there were wonderful views.

By the time I got to the top of Montmartre, I had to take off two layers. It was so nice in the sunshine that I found a little park by the Sacre-Coeur and just sat there for half an hour, remembering what it feels like to have warm sun on your face.

You can see the beginnings of green on the trees and everything looks pretty and fresh. I can see why people get carried away about Paris in the Spring.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Making a Plan

Good morning from Paris! The sun is shining and the only decision I have to make is where to have my first croissant of the day.

Once that's done, I'm planning to spend the morning wandering through the Marais and the afternoon in the Musée de la Magie et des Automates. I will report back with pictures.

A bientot!

Tuesday 16 March 2010


Oh là là mes petits choux, this is my last Irish post for a while because tomorrow I will be celebrating La Saint Patrick in Paris!

But before I go to pack, let me tell you about the pilgrimage Máire Áine and I made on Saturday to see the best of Dublin’s most recent starchitecture. (This is my new favourite word – MA taught it to me. That’s what friends are for.)

We went down to the Docklands (doesn’t that sound like the beginning of a song?) to see all of the new building that was done before the Celtic Tiger suffered death and was buried.

The first starchitect featured is Santiago Calatrava. This is his second bridge over the Liffey. It’s meant to look like an Irish harp, but I saw a photo of a similar bridge in Rotterdam recently so I’m not sure I believe that Santiago had Irish harps in mind.

It is a pretty bridge, though.

The second piece of starchitecture is Daniel Liebeskind's theatre at the Grand Canal basin. This has actually grown on me a lot. The first view we had of it wasn’t promising:

But just walk round the other side and look!

These sparkling new creations definitely help to relieve the gloom of the post-boom. But I'm thinking it'll be a while before we get any more starchitecture for Dublin.

Monday 15 March 2010

The Dead Centre of Dublin

Lately I have taken to haunting (oh, I’m so funny) the graveyard across the road.
Glasnevin Cemetery is a bona fide national monument. We had to learn about it in History class – how its establishment in 1832 was a huge coup for the Emancipation movement (Catholic emancipation, not female). In a gesture of respect to the leader of the movement, Daniel O’Connell, a Rapunzel-style tower was built above his grave.

In O’Connell’s case, death rehabilitated his reputation following a sex scandal. This is a bit of a theme: the cemetery also has the grave of Charles Stewart Parnell, see above re. death, rehabilitation, sex, scandal.

The cemetery is huge. Parts of it are very shiny and new, other parts are like country fields where the grass grows ankle high, obscuring the names on the stones. The memorials range from the simplest wooden crosses to ornate stone mausoleums.

The whole place is being restored at the moment, but I don’t think they’ll ever be able to take from its haphazard charm. I like to wander along paths at random, stumbling across the odd half-hidden stone – and the odd national heroic figure. For it is here that many of Ireland’s national heroes are buried. Some of them have very simple epitaphs, others very over-the-top, like this one:

Michael Collins (by virtue of being A Very Special Revolutionary Hero and Cut Down in His Prime) has his own plot removed from the riff raff,

though, strangely, Eamon de Valera doesn’t:

De Valera’s grave is just off what I call Revolutionary Row, which has the greatest concentration of revolutionary figures. This is just a small selection:

I like the intimacy of this and the irony of the fact that many of these people couldn’t stand each other in life, but are forever associated in death.

Way at the other side of the cemetery, is the much less well-tended, grass-growing-high, stones-falling-over part (my favourite). This is what I’ve dubbed Rich People’s Circle:

The moat (for want of a better word) has doors with names above them. I assume these are family crypts. Rich People’s Circle features some of the most insane grave ornamentation in the whole graveyard.

No mention of Glasnevin Cemetery would be complete without reference to Kavanagh's Pub, also known as the Gravediggers.

This is a jewel of a pub - timeless, immortal, a great place for a pint (and now, I'm told, they serve tapas. ?!?!)

I love the peace of the cemetery. On a sunny day, it’s a beautiful place to walk and sit and listen.

Friday 12 March 2010

Revolutionary Hero, Unlikely Lookalike

This has nothing to do with travel, but I wanted to share with you the amazing discovery I made yesterday. (And this blog is very much about the sharing of amazing discoveries.)

In the course of my research, I was watching documentary footage of Michael Collins (Irish revolutionary hero) and I thought, 'hey - he really reminds me of someone there. WHO? Who can it be?'

And then it came to me. Matthew Perry - better known as Chander Bing from Friends.

Almost twins.

Excitedly, I asked my little sister if I could forge a career by matching Irish revolutionary heroes with unlikely lookalikes. 'No', she answered, 'but there's definitely a website in it'.

Thursday 11 March 2010

KC Peaches

Yesterday I went into the city centre to do some research.
The research was a bust, because despite going through boxes and boxes of papers, I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

HowEVER, the day was redeemed by two things.

1. My mode of transport. My love affair with Dublin Bikes continues and now I am the proud holder of an annual card. So yesterday morning, I walked 15 minutes to the Mater hospital, picked up a bike and cycled all the way to Pearse St. The sun shone, the sky was blue (and so was my bike), I rang my little bell and generally felt very pleased with life.

2. My lunch. I persuaded my lunch companion to meet me at KC Peaches which is in the Trinity Enterprise Centre on Pearse St, more or less at the edge of the known universe. Not very prepossessing from the outside (horrible red brick - the enterprise centre look, I suppose) but charming inside. We were a bit on the late side for lunch and there wasn’t much in the way of sandwiches left, but the salads looked great. The coffee was excellent,

as was the green-iced pecan-shortbread shamrock we shared.

So things could have been a lot worse, really.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

A Sad Palm Tree

My Greek brother-in-law refused to move to Ireland on the grounds that he could only live somewhere with palm trees.

‘There are palm trees in Ireland’, his wife declared, indignantly.

Happy palm trees.’

Perhaps he was right. This is definitely not a happy palm tree:

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Ode on a Turf Fire

I love a turf fire.
The smell, the red heat … and, why, if you have a glass of whiskey in your hand at the same time, the overall experience is the epitome of warmth on a long, cold winter’s night.

My mother – who likes nothing better than playing with fire – has been giving me lessons in fire-lighting.

This is one of my efforts (note superior turf to foreground):

And the appreciative audience: