The last hurrah – the three Bs

The clock is ticking as the road trip must eventually come to an end. We have two nights left. Where to go? Pete spots Putty Road linking Singleton and Windsor, bisecting the Wollemi National Park and Yengo National Park. How about we drive down that he says. So, off we go.

The start is less than promising as we battle the traffic beyond Maitland. Rather than veer off to the motorway bypass I had been lured by the romantic sounding townships of  Lochnivar and Greta. Mistake. Then we are confronted by the Rio Tinto open cut mines at Mt Thorley, which stretch either side of Putty Rd as far as the eye can see. Happily, it is not too long before we are engulfed by beautiful eucalyptus and native pine forests. Putty Road is very popular with motorbike riders as it winds its way through the forests, but it is obvious that several did not make it through the bends as attested to by the roadside floral memorials.

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We make it to Windsor unscathed, then have to battle the traffic to link up to the Hume Freeway. We have decided to spend the night at Berrima, a decision based on restaurant choice. Our first B.

I remember when the highway used to go through the centre of Berrima, but now it is bypassed, so we turn off the Hume and head into this historic hamlet. I have booked us into the Berrima Bakehouse Motel which turns out to be a delightful, renovated Motel a short walk from our dining destination for the night, Eschalot.

There is almost no one to be seen on the street of Berrima, and it is freezing cold. In fact, during the night the inverter heater has to go into defrost mode as it freezes on the external part (so ends up sounding something akin to a lorry going past on the highway!).

But, Eschalot is toasty warm, both in temperature and welcome, and we have a delightful evening in this one hat restaurant.

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We breakfast in the General Store Café, a new venture opened by a young Italian couple. We are only the second table there, so I wish them luck as they are very charming, and eager to please.

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After a walk round the township admiring the beautiful sandstone buildings, we hop into the car, heading towards our second B, Beechworth, for our last night of the trip. Lunch is taken at the rustic but excellent Long Track Pantry in Jugiong. I used to love the drive down into the valley surrounding Jugiong on our drives from Canberra to Melbourne, and it is still lovely.

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Onward to Beechworth, through the beautiful countryside, including wind farms, standing proud on the hill side.

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Our arrival into Beechworth got off to a slightly shaky start when I presented myself at the Motel reception. The genial owner could find no record of our booking. No wonder, wrong Motel – we should have been at the other end of  Camp Street. Whoopsies. But, he was very gracious! Our Motel, the Carriageworks, was yet another example of 1970s motel decor – wood panelling galore, but a very effective heater, which was needed as Beechworth was seriously cold.

We had a short walk to 2 hat Provenance. I had booked online and had originally requested 7pm. That time is not available was the automated response – 7.30? So, I booked for 7.30, only to find only one other couple sitting lonely in an empty dining room. Go figure. In the end only 4 couples came to dine that night. The restaurant is in an old bank building, with soaring ceilings, which proves very difficult to heat. I was frozen as we were seated by a window, which didn’t help the enjoyment of the evening. The waiter was pleasant but a bit Lurch like, and each dish was brought to the table by the chef himself, and very seriously introduced, with no other engagement. The food was okay, but the overall experience was stilted, and cold. And our dessert was, to our palate, inedible. We ate only a portion of it and gave our feedback to the waiter, but it was still included on the bill. Not a restaurant I would return to.

The next morning we had to scrape the ice off the windscreen before we could leave. As our neighbour in the next room said: It would freeze the balls off a bull.

We drive on to our third, and final B, Benalla. For the past 3 years, this Victorian township has invited world renowned, and local, street artists to do their best with walls in the township over a three day street art festival. The charming lady at the Tourist Information office arms us with a map of the locations of the art works and off we set, via an excellent brunch at Rustik Café. All and all, a great end to our road trip. Do go and see the Benalla Street Art for yourself.

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And now, it is back to wintery Melbourne. I wonder where to next?

 

Dark Mofo 2017

We all know about The Guggenheim Effect, and how an outstanding piece of architecture, housing an amazing array of art, managed to transform a once struggling industrial town in the Basque Country into an international tourist destination. Here in Australia we have the MONA Effect. The vision of David Walsh and his team of curators has managed to put Hobart front and centre on the cultural tourist map of every Mainlander. 

To spread the joy across the Year, we also have MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art:Festival of Music and Art), held in summer – which has become more fondly known as MOFO – and Dark Mofo, which is the reason I find myself in Hobart this June.

Dark Mofo is Hobart and MONA’s celebration of the winter solstice and all things dark, and light. This is its fifth year, and its growing popularity is evident in the packed flight heading out of Melbourne, as why else would you be going to chilly Hobart in the middle of Winter?!

We are eight, eager to experience as much as we can over our 3 days. Our Airbnb house is perfectly located within easy walking distance to all the action. The only drawback being the fact that it sits right on Davey Street, the main drag in town – and even though this is a small city it would seem that the total population of Hobart likes to spend their time driving up Davey Street. The constant sound of traffic roaring past is not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.  But, this is only a small dampener on our enjoyment of the festivities.


We ease into our stay with a delicious dinner at Peacock & Jones, admiring the Dark Mofo red light theme as we walk along the harbourside.


Friday morning we wander down to Salamanca Place in search of breakfast, and settle on Tricycle Cafe in the Salamanca Arts Centre, blending in with the locals who favour this quaint little spot. Browsing in the shops and galleries that line the precinct finishes off the morning.

Come afternoon we toy with the idea of walking up Mt Wellington, but quickly banish the thought when we actually look at the mountain, and hop into the car instead. And wouldn’t you know it, the cloud descends just as we reach the top. We linger in the chill long enough for a brief parting, enough to get an idea of how magnificent the view could be.


We have a date that night with Paul Kelly and the very sexy Camille O’Sullivan in their show Ancient Rain, but first we must eat, so walk down to Princes Wharf, which has been transformed into the Winter Feast site. Shooting flames and a light forest beckon you into a wharf shed packed with food and drink stalls, and lots of very jolly people enjoying a veritable cornucopia of choice.



In fact, the people you encounter are one of the joys of Dark Mofo. Tasmanians are an extremely friendly bunch anyway.  Add into the mix visitors all there for the same reason, determined to enjoy themselves, and you have the right ingredients for goodwill to all. Strangers happily sit cheek by jowl, striking up conversations about all manner of things (next day we meet one young Sydneysider who had us in hysterics with her dating stories). It is at the Winter Feast that we meet a couple (who we find out met 7 years ago at the Melbourne Cup) who tell us about a fab little cafe, Small Fry,  that we visit later in our stay. The mood at Winter Feast is upbeat despite, and perhaps because of, the crowds. And the food on offer is terrific. 

The Federation Concert Hall is heaving with people. Ancient Rain does not appeal to all. Given it is based on Irish poems and letters, it is hardly surprising that the overall mood is fairly dour (let’s face it, they are not the cheeriest bunch), but Camille O’Sullivan sings like an angel and she draws me into her world – I emerge blinking in the light, slightly in love.

We devote Saturday to MONA, and the opening of its latest exhibition by the Museum of Everything but first a visit to the Salamanca Market, held every Saturday morning. We have great fun browsing the stalls, chatting to stall holders and shoppers alike. 


Catching the ferry to MONA is a great way to start an amazing visit – excitement and anticipation builds as you travel up the beautiful Derwent River.


To quote the MONA brochure: From June 2017, MONA will be crammed to the hilt with an astonishing assortment of artworks from The Museum of Everything: the world’s first and only wandering institution for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It certainly was crammed – we spent about 2 hours just in the Museum of Everything, some of it wonderful, some of it not. But, it was fascinating, and I am intrigued as to how and where they discovered this stuff.



We were on the 11am ferry there and the 5pm ferry back – it is so easy to spend a whole day at MONA, particularly on opening day when there is a passing parade of entertainment thrown into the mix. We need a hot whisky punch to revive us before climbing aboard the Mona Roamer ferry back to Constitution Dock.



Straight off the ferry and into the Winter Feast shed, along with everyone else. Food, drink and a singalong round the fire. 


We could have lingered longer, but Dark Park beckons, so off we trot to admire the laser light show, and enjoy a whisky tasting in the shed.


Sunday morning we head off to the Farm Gate Market in Bathurst Street, via an excellent take away coffee at Small Fry – where we drooled over the menu, and admired the focus and care of the chef in the tiny kitchen.

The market was full of very yummy things – so, we bought most of our evening meal requirements: veggies, fruit pies, cheeses, cream.


Then, down to Consitution Dock to buy the fish:


And, a quick admire of the sculptures at the Dock:


before dumping our bounty to undertake a brisk walk, under grey skies, through Battery Point to the Wrest Point Casino and back. At the Casino we are delighted to see a seal doing a solo swim, just for us.


A quick change and off to the Theatre Royal to see Sleeping Beauty, a collaboration between Victoria Opera and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I am definitely not an opera fan, but this production is lots of fun – telling the story of Sleeping Beauty via puppets, and singing of course. 


Home then, red wine and our wonderful home cooked meal of local Tassie produce. A very fitting way to end our Dark Mofo experience, as we fly home tomorrow (an experience marred by the Jetstar flight being delayed by 2 hours).

Thank you Hobart, Dark Mofo and MONA for a terrific long weekend. A bientôt.

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Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.

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The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.

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We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.

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Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.

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The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.

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We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.

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After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.

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Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.


After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.

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Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.

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The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.

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Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.

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Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.

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Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!

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As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.

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When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.

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We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.

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Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.

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It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.


Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.

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Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).

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The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.

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We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.

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After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.

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The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.


Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.

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The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.


Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.

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And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

Four Days in Madrid

Madrid is a first for both of us. We arrive around midday, and quickly and easily negotiate the transfer from Renfe to the metro at Atocha station. We are only 2 stops away from Gran Via, on the blue line. Travelling makes us once more envious of the public transport systems overseas – frequent; networked with interstate trains and airports; easy to use ticket machines in multiple languages selling single tickets and providing change; clear signage; and accurate notification of upcoming stations (how often have I seen incorrect station information on the Sandringham line? Lots. Why can’t we get it right?!). The only thing I don’t like is that there are always stairs that you have to lug your case up, or down. I usually end up in a slather. But, enough grumpy old lady whinging.

We pop up like moles into the pedestrian mall of Calle de la Montera, where it intersects with Gran Via. Our hotel, Praktik Metropol, is just there. Not very encouragingly, just above McDonalds. However, it turns out to be a perfect location and we can easily walk to everything, and get to and from our train station. Also turns out to be an interesting location, as working girls (and I don’t mean the secretarial kind) throng the street. Pete, bless him, comments on how many girls with tight clothing are clustered around the street. 


First impressions – a little bit grubby, at least where we are. Lots of street vendors of jet black skin. An array of different architectural styles, with many grand buildings. A more organic street layout – we miss the grid pattern of Barcelona. Harder to get a handle on where you are, and the different neighbours. After 4 days however we start to get the hang of it, and the different identity of the various neighbourhoods. Only feel uncomfortable once, in the area around the Lavapiés metro station – I think some deals might go down there.

As in all the cities, we walk and walk. The only time we actually use the metro is to and from the train station. Walking allows us to get more of a feel for a city, and we can appreciate the different architecture. Over our few days in Madrid we see beautiful examples of Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque, and modern.


After checking in we put my cafe research to good use and head off to the Malasaña district, and the Federal Café. You could easily think you were in Melbourne, and we probably tripled the average age of customer, but didn’t let that deter us. 


Lunch done, we continue to the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. The sun is blazing forth and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature hovers around 28 C. Hot. Not surprisingly, the gardens around the Temple are littered with people, some soaking up the rays, others seeking shade and relief from the heat. The park affords views across the city, and we realise that there is a massive green wedge right in the middle of the city, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our map tells us this is the Casa de Campo – 1.7 hectares of greenery, named for the fact that it was once the Royal hunting estate.


They are changing the guard at the Royal Palace and we just catch the horses trotting off for their off duty time.


I, of course, go into the Cathedral. Himself abstains. The interior is quite a surprise as the decorations are very bright, and modern. Not at all what I was expecting. Almost tribal.


We have booked into an Urban Adventures Tapas Walking tour that evening, starting at 7pm. Our meeting spot is the statue in the centre of the Plaza de la Villa. We are a group of 7- a family of 3 from Armadale, NSW and an elderly European couple who are residents of Calgary, Canada. Our tour guide is the lovely Andrea, a resident of Madrid who is enthusiastic about both her city and its food. We learn a lot about the history of Madrid in between eating and drinking. 


I thoroughly enjoyed the tour for what we learnt, but I have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about much of the food, and drink, although felt it was very authentic. It is no wonder we have seen a lot of overweight Spaniards – bread, fried food, salty food, sweet food. I wonder what their diabetes and cholesterol rates are. Pete and I dumped several of our samples surreptitiously into nearby bins, whilst I shuffled my drink along the bar.

We start off  in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is full of people, although it is apparently relatively quiet as it is a Monday. This is not a produce market, rather small food outlets. You buy food, and drink, to have here – if you can find a spot to perch in the central seating area – or to take away. Andrea says it is more likely to be a tourist haunt than a locals spot, although she was here with a group of friends on Saturday night. Here we sample olives, and cheese. And vermouth (akin to drinking cough medicine is my verdict) with the olives and a rather nice vino blanco with the cheese. One of the olive Tapas is a skewer of olives, pickled pepper and salted anchovy – it is called The Gilda (but pronounced Hilda), named after the character Rita Hayworth played in the film Gilda. Apparently she asked a bartender for some olives with a bit of spice to go with her drink. He created this Tapas in response and it was christened The Gilda/Hilda. 


Walking the streets we learn that the street signs will usually have a picture of what the street name means, and that dotted throughout the town are plaques embedded into the pavements in front of significant buildings. Andrea tells us to look out for both as we walk around the city.


We pass by the famous Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world and famous for its suckling pig. Unfortunately it is not on our itinerary as we are partial to pig in all its forms. There is a queue of tourists outside, waiting patiently to be granted entrance. Botin has its own plaque in the pavement. 


We move into the La Latina district, an area that is frequented by locals, as well as tourists. 


Our destination is Casa Lucas, where we have 3 Tapas – a local ‘salami’ on bread;  a kind of ratatouille, topped with a fried quail egg, on bread, with matchstick chips; and oxtail meatballs on a bed of mashed potato. All of which were yummy, and washed down with a vino tinto.


Next up is the Cerveceria La Campana, which is famous for its bocadillo calamares, a speciality of Madrid. The place is packed, but we manage to squeeze in down the back. Pete & I elect to share one between us. Good thing we did as it turns out to be a soft, unappetising bun filled with overcrumbed and slightly chewy calamari. We eat the calamari and leave the bun. I gamely try the local wine mixed with lemonade that is a common accompaniment to the calamares. One sip is all I manage. There is no accounting for taste as this restaurant goes through 7,000 kilos of calamares every 15 days!!!


Our walk takes us through Plaza Mayor, which is full of people enjoying  their evening meal al fresco. 


Andrea points out Chocoleteria San Gine, which she insists makes the best chocolate and churros in town, and makes us promise to return and try them. We end up breaking our promise (Alex would be very disappointed in us).


Our next stop is Casa Labra, famous for its cod croquettes and fried pieces of cod. There are other items on the menu but Andrea says that people rarely order anything else but cod – rather wonder why they bother then if that is the case. Casa Labra is an institution in the city, and was the spot where the Socialist Party was founded in 1860. But it is here that Pete & I sidle up to the bin and dump our croquettes, which are full of  gluggy bechamel sauce and sparse with lumps of cod. Quite awful really. 


Our last stop for the night is La Casa de las Torrejas, via bustling Puerto del Sol. Andrea points out the plaque in the pavement marking Kilometre Zero. From this point all roads leading out of Madrid are measured.


At Casa de las Torrejas we are to have the Spanish version of French toast. Pete and I err on the side of caution and say we will share one between us. I also opt for a glass of vino blanco rather than the traditional glass of sweet wine. A mistake on two counts, as the postre (dessert) is delicious – like a custardy , vanilla, French toast – and the sweet wine comes in shot glasses and is a bit like a light fortified wine, and goes nicely with the dessert. I could easily have scoffed the whole serve, and drunk the glass of wine rather than the sip from a fellow guest that I actually experienced.


Andrea escorts us back to Puerto del Sol and bids us farewell, after checking we all know how to get back to our respective hotels. It has been a delightful 3 and a half hours, despite some of the tapas, as we have learnt about Madrid and its inhabitants from a charming and knowledgeable guide. It takes us no time to walk back to the Praktik, and our bed.


Day 2 has been earmarked as our cultural day, but first coffee and breakfast at Hola Cafe, where we are served by a set of charming and funky young men. 


Then, on to the Prado. Luckily I had purchased a Paseo del Arte ticket (a 3 museum pass) online and a Reduced Price ticket for Pete. This lets us skip the long line queuing for tickets and into the short queue for prebought tickets. The Prado is huge – 2 full floors of works, plus a small section on Level 2 and another in the basement. Not to mention the Temporary Exhibit, which in this case is paintings from Old Budapest. I have to admit that we skipped the few rooms on Floor 2 and the basement, and the Temporary Exhibition. But, we went into every other room, of which there are at least 100. Towards the end I started to get the same panicked feeling I get at Ikea- would I ever get out of there alive. After about 3 hours we emerged, staggering into the light and never wanting to see a religious painting again. Food and drink was desperately required.

La Sanabresa, one of Madrid’s dying breed of casa de comidas (basic restaurants) provided the solution. We were extremely lucky to snare a table as soon as we arrived at this bustling local restaurant, and I would say we were the only English speakers, although not the first. There is a menu in English, although none of the staff speak it. The tables are covered with paper that is replaced with each new customer. 3 courses, bread and a bottle of wine for 11.50 €. The food is simple home cooking, and the wine a very drinkable house red, and we loved it. 


Fortified, we were ready to tackle Museum 2, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which turns out to be the case of duelling collections. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and his Dad, had amassed a huge collection of paintings spanning from the late 13th century to the 1980’s. HH’s Spanish wife persuaded him to establish the collection in Madrid, plus, she too got bitten by the collecting bug and started to build her own collection of paintings. Thus, the Museo contains two collections – His and Hers, often with overlapping artists. Overall it is considered to be one of the world’s foremost private art collections and certainly gives one a look at art through the ages.

Our day spent in galleries, together with Thursday’s visit to the Regina Sofia Museo, leaves me pondering the question of who decides what is great art?  How is it decided that a particular artist is worth collecting, and displaying to the public? How is it decided that an artist is a genius, or a particular work is a masterpiece?  How does the art world work? Over 3 galleries I have seen some work I loved, but more that left me cold, even so-called masterpieces. Interesting isn’t it.

After all that culture we needed to retire to our hotel and gather our strength i.e. have an exhausted tourist nap, before heading out one block to Al Trapo restaurant in the Iberostar hotel. I was a bit anxious about the choice as it is in a hotel, and was almost empty when we arrived at 8.45pm. But, it is mentioned in the Guide Michelin, and the food was terrific, and reasonably priced for this level of quality. Small serves, but that suited us perfectly given our big lunch. Even the butter was beautifully presented, and the bread was delicious. We shared 2 of the starters – scallops in a passionfruit vinaigrette and the green vegetable salad with ricotta cream. Then shared 2 ‘mains’ – the wood pigeon Rice and the grilled skatefish. Everything looked wonderful and tasted even better. I could not resist a dessert, and chose the Forest fruits, Greek yoghurt, frozen herbs which was sublime (luckily Pete did not want any as he may have had to wrestle the spoon from me).  So, so good. 



Day 3 was a day of walking. We decided to use the numerous city markets as our navigation points, and worked out a route that took in 5 of them, each in different neighbourhoods so we could get a better feel of the city.

We started at Mercado San Anton, our local market in the trendy Chueca district. At this hour (10am) the stalls were just getting started, but we followed the locals and ended up at a bar serving a small bocadillo and a coffee for 2€.  Jamon for me, calamares for him (and a much better one than we had on the walking tour). A good start. 

On to Mercado de Barceló, situated in a very modern piece of architecture (I suspect the building might glow with light at night), but opposite a glorious old Deco theatre.


Next one was the Mercado de la Paz, in the very upmarket Salamanca district. We had a coffee in a very authentico bar before heading back into Chueco for lunch – nothing to write home about. 


On then to Mercado de San Fernando, in the more seedy and downmarket area of Lavapies. Unfortunately, the stalls were all closed up by the time we got there. I say unfortunately as it looked slightly different, with perhaps more of an African influence. Never mind.

Back then to Mercado de San Miguel, that we had visited on the food tour. At 4pm it was heaving with tourists. We did a circuit then got the hell out of there. Back to Hotel Praktik Metropol and some quiet time, and a cup of tea, in their lovely lounge area.


Dinner tonight is at Celso y Manolo, recommended by Madrid Food Tours as her current favourite spot. Obviously very hip and happening, with young, groovy waiters and tiny tables. But, our booking isn’t until 9pm, so we fill in time at the Angelita wine bar. Propped up at the bar, with a glass of cava followed by a vino blanco, and complimentary Tapas, we feel very Spanish.

At dinner we order a bottle of red that turns out to be de-lic-ious. So despite the fact I have had 2 glasses of wine at the wine bar I proceed to demolish half the bottle of red. Subsequently I thought the food was fantastic, but I may be an unreliable judge!


Oh, bed did look good that night. Our final day was grey and cold, with rain predicted later in the day. We packed up and left our bags in reception, then headed off to Pum Pum Cafe, not far from our destination of the Reina Sofia museum. Again, we could have been in Australia – a funky cafe, serving avo on toast, and a Canberra salad!! Lovely smiling staff to boot. Breakfast and coffee done, we head to the Museum.


Our main goal was the Picasso Path to Guernica exhibition, which was commemorating the 80th anniversary of Guernica’s first showing. The exhibition focuses on the roots of Guernica’s imagery, and Picasso’s immediate post Guernica work. For those who don’t know, on April 26th 1937, the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain was totally destroyed by German bombers at the request of Franco. For the first time in military history an attack was aimed specifically at the civilian population. Market day was chosen in order to ensure the most casualties. More than 1,600 people were killed, and another 1,000 injured. Picasso had been asked in early 1937 to produce a painting for the Spanish Pavilion but he had struggled to find a subject. The destruction of Guernica became his inspiration to produce a painting about suffering and war.



It was a fascinating exhibition, marred somewhat by the crowds, particularly of school children as young as 5 or 6. Not really what I would have thought was a suitable exhibition for littlies. 

A quick lunch at the museum’s restaurant and a brisk walk back to the hotel to collect our luggage.  Metro it to Chamartin and catch our train to San Sebastián – a 5 and a half hour trip. And unlike the train from Valencia to Madrid, no free beverages or food. Very poor Renfe! We had to buy our own vino Tinto and crisps.


We have enjoyed our time in Madrid, but feel we have ticked that box and feel no need to make a return visit. San Sebastián here we come.

Canberra Revisited

Late last year one of our Library Club gals had the bright idea of a group excursion to Canberra to see the Versailles exhibition. I joined in the affirmative chorus, whilst inwardly quaking. Canberra is the home of my youth – a place I fled from the minute I finished my Arts degree at the wonderful ANU. Canberra represented to me a boring, monochromatic township, full of public servants and absolutely nothing resembling a beating heart. But, in the interests of group solidarity I girded my loins and found myself boarding an early morning flight to our nation’s capital last Friday.

We had decided to stay at the renovated, and heritage listed, Hotel Kurrajong – walking distance to the lake, the Gallery and Parliament House (old & new). Given its proximity to Old Parliament House, it was not surprising to hear that in its heyday the hotel had a strong political association. Most notable being that it was the residence of Ben Chifley – in fact, he suffered his fatal heart attack in Room 205. The only thing that died during our visit was the wedding band on Saturday night, who for some reason thought that “I will Survive” was a suitable song with which to end the night! 




All eight finally assembled, our first act for the day was coffee and brunch. Local knowledge was thoroughly tapped as part of the pre trip research, so it was with confidence that we set off to the Kingston Foreshore development. This was my first hint that my Canberra of old might have changed, as here was something more akin to Melbourne’s Docklands – fancy apartments overlooking the lake; boat moorings; and a whole array of cafes and restaurants facing the water. Oh la la, very fancy, Canberra.


Our inside knowledge directed us to Local Press, a funky, waterside cafe serving good coffee and very yummy food. We settled into an outside table and enjoyed what remained of the morning. 


Refreshed and refuelled, we ambled beside the lake to the Australian National Gallery, admiring the views and trees along the way. There is certainly an abundance of greenery in Canberra, even if the roads are relatively deserted.



Whilst the Versailles exhibition was the trigger for our visit, it proved to be but a small part of our overall Canberra experience. All credit to the Gallery in trying to create some of the mood and feel of the palace, with the highlight being the recreation of the famous Latona fountain, complete with water sounds and cascading water imagery. So peaceful that one of our party actually fell asleep momentarily in the room. But, overall I am not a huge fan of Baroque art  – too fussy for me. In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition was the story of the engineering feats involved in getting water to the grounds to make all the fountains work. 


Emerging from the exhibition we did a quick tour around the rest of the Gallery, admiring the eclectic range of art on display.


Sensory overload and fatigue was taking its toll, so the vote was for a wander back to the hotel for some R & R, before heading out for drinks and dinner. Our original plan had been to wander around the Night Market near Hotel Realm before dinner, but to our dismay, we discovered the market had been cancelled – lack of interest maybe? No matter. We grabbed a table and a bottle of bubbles from the bar and toasted a successful first day in Canberra. And finished off the evening with a meal at the famous Ottoman Cuisine restaurant – all within easy walking distance of Hotel Kurrajong. It was a happy and tired group of women whose heads hit the pillow that night.


Day 2 arrived with overcast skies and the threat of rain. Our day started with a walk around the lake (or run for two of our hardier members). Even I, the great Canberra detractor, have to admit that the natural setting for our capital is beautiful – trees and parkland abound; and the varying blue hues of the surrounding Brindabella mountains make a glorious backdrop. The 6km walk around the water’s edge, looping over King’s Ave bridge and across to Commonwealth Ave bridge, provides a visual check list of Canberra’s major institutions: the Carillon, Captain Cook’s Memorial jet, the National Museum of Australia, the National Library, the High Court, Old & New Parliament House, and the National Gallery. Not to mention a sighting of Robert Menzies along the way.


Our walk had worked up an appetite, so we headed to another terrific café, Maple and Clove (http://www.mapleandclove.com.au), for a delicious brunch and truly excellent coffee. Happy ladies.


To give those unfamiliar with Canberra more of an understanding of the layout of the city we headed off to the National Arboretum, which was planted in 2005 after the devastating bushfires of 2001 and 2003 burnt out much of the forest and  radiata pine plantations in the area. The idea for an arboretum dates back to Walter Burley Griffin’s plans for Canberra – the fires provided the catalyst for turning the idea into a reality. The site covers some 250 hectares and the idea is to plant 100 forests and 100 gardens featuring endangered, rare and symbolic trees from around the world. Plus, it provides beautiful views across Canberra (well, it would have if the rain had not arrived just as we did).

Next stop was the ANU Drill Hall Gallery (http://dhg.anu.edu.au) , a gorgeous and little known space tucked away on campus beside Toad Hall. The building itself is beautiful, with its polished boards and sinuous curved brick walls.


The Gallery was showing a retrospective of Elisabeth Cummings, a graduate of the National Art School in Sydney in the 1950s and founding member of the Wedderburn, NSW group of artists. Now, this is more my sort of art – the colours are glorious, and make the heart sing.


The Drill Hall is also the permanent home of Sidney Nolan’s magnificent Riverbend series – a 9 panel work (1.5 x 10m overall) depicting the banks of a river in the Victorian bush, complete with outlaws and bushrangers. Beautiful.


It was then on to Art of a different nature – the art works and cocktails at the newish, and very funky, Hotel Hotel in New Acton (http://www.hotel-hotel.com.au/). A reviving drink was enjoyed whilst we admired the ambiance and tried to blend in with the hip and happening younger things of Canberra.


Exhausted yet? We almost were, but had one more stop to make before heading back to our hotel – the National Portrait Gallery. Boy, is that one impressive building, but the collection on display was smaller than the Gallery size suggests. However, an extra treat was in store for us as we stumbled into a recital by Clarion, a local vocal quartet. So calming and uplifting.


Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed rest, a cup of tea and a read of the Saturday paper before heading out into the night for dinner. We headed back to the Kingston Foreshore, and discovered where all the Canberrans were hiding. The place was teeming with people, and it was hand to hand combat in the parking lot. Luckily we had the foresight to have booked a table at Morks, a popular (and therefore noisy) Modern Thai restaurant. Day 2 was then done & dusted.


Our final morning we woke to clear blue skies and a predicted high of 28 degrees. We check out and leave the bags in the hotel’s care before walking across to the Kingston shops and breakfast at another recommended café (thank you Virginia), Penny University.

Again, an interesting and different menu. Boy, has the food scene in Canberra made a drastic change from my Uni days in the mid 70s – I still recall the dancing in the streets when Gus’ Cafe in Garema Place put tables outside! Now, Canberra is worth a visit just to eat.


Food and coffee needs satisfied, we amble down to the Foreshore yet again, but this time to wander through the Old Bus Depot market, which is largely a lot of tat if truth be known, but some cash was exchanged by our party of 8. Spotted this lovely old factory on the way:


Back to the hotel to collect the cars and a drive to the Botanic Gardens, where the rainforest gully provides a welcome respite from the heat before we venture into the Red Centre garden.


We drive to the airport via a stop off to visit groovy Lonsdale Street, Braddon where boutiques jostle with cafes, all in a street that used to be home to mechanics and car repair shops in my day. We discover Frugii Dessert Laboratory (  http://www.frugii.com ), selling some of the yummiest ice cream I’ve had in a long while. That took care of the heat exhaustion.


Our 3 days in Canberra have come to an end. Thank you to my lovely travelling companions who provided many a laugh.  I have been forced to reappraise my image of my old home town. I still wouldn’t want to live there, but would be happy to visit again. So, I’ll be seeing ya Canberra.

The Art of Banksy

Who would have thought that an English street artist would become a household name? A guerrilla artist with the intriguing allure of anonymity – the Elena Ferrante of the art world. An artist whose subversive wit drives his appeal. So, it was with great excitement that we awaited the arrival of The Art of Banksy exhibition in Melbourne.

Actually finding it is your first challenge as it is tucked away in a circus tent behind the car park at Federation Square. Walk along the Yarra until you get to the back of the car park and then follow the signs.

Once there you are greeted by a phalanx of t-shirted security guards, somewhat disconcerting. The works on display are mainly from the private collection of Steve Lazarides, Banky’s former agent and a pioneering champion of street art and street artists.  Lazarides and Banksy have famously fallen out, and this exhibition is brought to us without the artist’s sanction. Not that he is above displaying his works in galleries, nor is this the first time his “indoor” work has been exhibited gallery style. I guess it is just the blatant commercialism of this exhibition that sits uncomfortably with me.

From the security guards to the large indoor outdoor bar, this is obviously an ‘event’, where they are hoping you will linger longer, and spend more money. This may well appeal to the young people who were attending the exhibition at the same time as we Seniors (drastically skewing the average demographic I must admit), but leaves somewhat of a funny taste for us. And, is it irony on display that you exit via the (heavily stocked) gift shop?? Mind you, it is pretty good merch. Combine all this with the hefty entrance price of $30 (plus booking fee – don’t get me started on booking fees, bane of my life) and you can but look at Banksy’s images skewering commercialism and laugh.



Is it worth the price? Hmm, the jury is out on that one. There is no doubt that this is a seriously talented man with a ferocious sense of humour – some of the work makes you laugh out loud. And, it is good to be able to see so many of them on display. But, who is exploiting who here? 

Every Quilt Tells a Story

There are many ways to tell a story but one of the more beautiful, to my mind, is through a hand made quilt. The pattern, the fabrics, the stitches and most importantly, the stitcher, all combine to weave together a story of life as it was then. The current exhibition at the NGVAustralia, Making the Australian Quilt: 1800-1950 , is a beautiful example of the stories quilts hold within them.

We can see how fashion changed from rather dour colours to a greater vibrancy as we move further away from the days of Queen Victoria; from serviceable cottons to flouncy chintz and sultry silk. 


The shift away from the home country to a burgeoning pride in the new country is charted through the quilts. As is the increasing influence of American culture as our womenfolk became exposed, through travel and magazines, to the more intricate patterning used by American quilters.

The effects of deprivation, either through the War years or the Great Depression, are made tangible by the materials used in the quilts, especially the waggas – utilitarian rugs or quilts, made from the likes of suiting samples, or scraps from old clothes, and often lined with remnants from hessian bags.

Using whatever materials are at hand is gloriously shown in the quilt made from the golden slips of fabric that were used to wrap cigars, how ingenious was this sewer:


Quilts can show us snapshots of daily life, or a family’s personal story. Quilts often give a physical presence to a mother’s, grandmother’s or sister’s love. We can chart the trajectory of a life by reading the stories embroidered onto a quilt.


Nor is the art of quilting confined to women – the exhibition contains two stunning quilts made with care and skill by men, one a POW who used the quilt to tell the story of his war, the other a sailor with plenty of time on his hands and the skill of sailmaking as his launchpad into quilting.

One of the centrepieces of the exhibition is the beautiful Rajah Quilt, created in 1841 by the 180 female prisoners on board the Rajah. The quilt comes out of the initiatives undertaken by Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker who was concerned about the plight of female prisoners. She formed the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, which in turn provided sewing supplies to female prisoners, both incarcerated and being transported to the colonies. The sewing talents of the 180 prisoners varied but the outcome is beautiful.


There are more than 80 quilts in the exhibition, all of them asking you to stop and ponder their story. The exhibition finishes on Sunday, so hurry in to make sure you listen to what they have to tell us. 

Train Whistle Blowing

Up, up and away at 6.00 am from Costa Malabari in order to catch the train from Kannur to Kochi. Rajesh shepards us onto the platform and into the carriage like an anxious mother taking her child to school for the first time. Do we have enough water? Do we have our packed breakfast? Do we know which stop to get off? He repeats the instructions once more, and gives Pete his personal mobile phone so we can call him in case we run into trouble. He will bring our luggage in the car and meet us later in the day at the hotel. Bless him.


We are on the Express Train, but by express I don’t mean the non stop train. I mean the train that doesn’t stop at every station. We depart Kannur at 7.15 am and arrive at Ernakulam Town station at 1.45 pm. We have travelled about 260 kms. But, the time goes relatively quickly. And, hurrah, hurrah, by abstaining from liquids of any sort and skipping the packed breakfast (lucky Rajesh doesn’t know this), Kitta and I manage to avoid having to use the train loo. A feat we were determined to achieve, and reinforced when we saw the station cleaners hosing the toilets out at the midway point in the journey!



The Indian Government obviously hasn’t been spending any money on new rolling stock as the train appears to be very vintage shall we say, but it runs on time so can’t complain. We were kept entertained by the constant stream of food, coffee and chai wallahs plying their trade up and down the carriages.


A representative from the travel agency was there to meet us and we were whisked off to the beautiful Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Cochin. Kitta and I breathe a sigh of relief; acknowledging that we are in truth boutique hotel kinda gals more than homestay kinda gals. Oh the sheet count, and the plush towels and the comfy, comfy bed. Oh happy happy days.




We are dying of thirst and very hungry, so hightail it around the corner to the Kashi Art Gallery & Cafe for a much needed coffee and lunch. And, both the coffee and food are excellent, in lovely surroundings (turns out the cafe/gallery has the same owner as our hotel). 

Revived, we wander the streets of charming Fort Cochin, admiring the remnants of the Portuguese, Dutch and British influenced architecture. The Portuguese have left a wonderful legacy in avenues of magnificent trees, which the locals call Rain trees as the leaves close up in the rain, and the ferns that have colonised each of the trees retain the rainwater, creating a waterfall effect underneath.


The old houses are slowly being restored, and almost every one is being turned into a boutique hotel or homestay. The hotch potch of colours, the shutters, the patina of mould, the fret work, all make for a wonderful ambience. And, the streets are largely rubbish free. It is a delightful spot to wander.


In some ways the area reminds me of Georgetown Penang, but it also incorporates the trees and wider streets of Pondicherry. The Georgetown connection is reinforced by some of the excellent street art I spot – one or two I am sure are by an artist we saw in Georgetown.


There are also plenty of shops, so a bit of retail therapy is undertaken, whilst beating off the tuk tuk drivers who plead with you to ride with them to a shop as they are given commissions by the bigger retailers. One driver gives us a sad tale about receiving a rice coupon which allows him to feed his family; all we have to do is ride with him and go into the shop. We decline, and that evening bump into him playing some sort of marble game with his mates – so much for feeding his family. He roars with laughter when he recognises us.

Next morning we tour the main highlights of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, starting with the beach near the Dutch Cemetery. Workers are in the process of repairing the pathway along the beachfront, damaged during the monsoon. The beach is in pristine condition, and the guide tells us that there is a big push from the tourist industry to get Kochi, especially Fort Cochin as the main tourist area, clean of rubbish. So, the beach has been swept clean – problem is that there is obviously then a delay in disposing of the rubbish, and a huge mound of rubbish waiting to be cleared away (to who knows where) sits nearby. He also tells us that they are starting to teach kids in the schools about the importance of not littering, so hopefully cultural change will slowly infiltrate the community.

From here we move on to St Francis Church, which has in turn been a Portuguese, then a Dutch and finally a British place of worship. On one side are Portuguese gravestones, on the other Dutch. But the British won in the end, turning it from a Catholic Church into high Anglican. Talk about confused deities. Vasco de Gama was buried here after his death in Cochin from malaria, but his remains were then dug up and taken back to Lisbon.


We particularly like the British introduction of fans into the church, which were operated by local serfs pulling on the ropes to swing the fabric and wood structures back and forth. Ingenious and decorative.


On then to the famous Chinese fishing nets – huge nets that are operated by a cantilever device using multiple blocks of granite, like a stone mobile. A lone porpoise is spotted loitering around the nets in the hope of snaffling some fish for himself. I gather the nets are more a tourist attraction these days than a serious fishing enterprise. 


We then cross to the east side of the peninsula to visit Jew Town and Mattancherry. Side by side sit an old palace, a Hindu temple and a synagogue. The acceptance of religious diversity has been on show in Kerala, particularly between Muslims and Hindus – if only this could be said forthe rest of the world, what a different world it would be.


The Mattancherry, or Dutch, Palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 for the Maharaja of Cochin, but was later renovated by the Dutch so has become known as the Dutch Palace. Photography is not allowed inside alas as there are absolutely stunning murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana.

Abutting the Palace is Jew Town. India’s Jewish population dates back to the 900s, when they arrived seeking refuge from purges in Europe.  In the 14th Century they moved into the Cochin area and were known as Paradesi (Foreign) Jews. By the 1950s they had reached their peak number of some 250 in the area known as Jew Town but then the population declined as most migrated to the newly founded Israel. Today only 5 Paradesi Jews remain in Cochin, and one of them, Sarah, is in her 90’s. But, this doesn’t stop Jew Town from being a tourist attraction, despite the fact it is now wall to wall shops, selling identical items, run by Hindus and Muslims!



The heart of Jew Town is the Synagogue, which was built in 1568, and still functions as a synagogue today, albeit one without a rabbi. Apparently it is the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth.  The interior is beautiful but again no photographs are allowed, however thanks to Mr Google I’m able to give you a little look at what it is like. The floor is covered in 5 different patterns of hand painted blue & white tiles made in China, and the ceiling is festooned with elaborate 19th century chandeliers from Belgium and Italy. It really is a lovely and eclectic space.


The synagogue’s distinctive clock tower stands as a beacon marking what was once a thriving community:


But the wiring in the area leaves a lot to be desired, with its spaghetti like tangle of wires surely being cause for concern:


We imbibe in a reviving ginger lassi in the approriately named Ginger House Restaurant, snuggled behind a massive antiques warehouse beside the estuary, before returning to the hotel, and more of our own wandering of the streets.


I manage to find a tailor, the lovely Thomas, who can rescue the outfits I bought in Madurai without trying on. Note to self, always try on, even though that means over the top of what you are wearing , in the sweltering heat. What I had bought was made for tiny young Indian arms, not senior citizen Australian arms! Thomas says no problem, he’ll make one sleeveless and enlarge the arm holes on the already sleeveless one. Come back in 2 hours. So, they end up not quite the bargain they were originally but at least they no longer resemble a straight jacket .

There is no doubt that the Fort Cochin enclave is a charming and quaint spot to while away your time:


but, the hotel pool calls, so needs must:


We have enjoyed our time immensely, admittedly cocooned in only a tiny portion of what is a thriving and bustling metropolis – I can’t say we have experienced Kochi, but we have definitely given Fort Cochin our best shot. We end our stay with a bottle of Indian Chenin Blanc (drinkable), followed by an excellent meal in the hotel’s gardens. Only 3 more days before we must face the reality of home.


More Ancient Rituals

Today is a car day – a 7 hour trip, to cover 180 kms! By the end we are all ready to strangle Rajesh, who has kept up a constant stream of talk about anything and everything (and all jokes or funny stories must be told 3 times) except for the one hour reprieve we were given when he discovered his wallet was missing. But, when he found his driver’s licence tucked into another wallet, he was all smiles and talk again – in fact, even more so, fuelled as he was by relief, as it was only the licence that was really worrying him. Ah well, we have to keep reminding ourselves of his good points, which are many – excellent driver, with an amazing knowledge and memory of the roads; kind and considerate; extremely concerned about our welfare; keen to show off his country; knowledgeable about his country.

I am yet to discover the charms of Kerala though, well at least Northern Kerala. The small size combined with the density of population means that the trip is through constant ‘urbanisation’ – houses, shops, townships line the road. We see no rural area the whole way, but at least there are plenty of trees to frame the buildings. It certainly is lush and green.

Kitta and I are already pining for the jewel box colours worn by the Tamil Nadu women. The saris here are more functional – browns, maroons, mustard, olive green, cream with only occasional flashes of peacock pink, red, yellow. There are also many more Muslim women, so that introduces a lot more black into the equation. Even the tuk tuks are black instead of the Tamil Nadu yellow.

And the traffic! We spend a lot of time at a standstill, with cars, buses, trucks and tuk tuks all jostling for position. There seem to be many more cars and a lot less motorbikes, all crammed onto narrow roads. And, as we discovered in Sri Lanka, the private buses reign supreme; the bullies of the road, with load horns and a heavy foot on the accelerator, they will always get their way.

To relieve the boredom, stretch our legs and have a toilet break we make several stops. The first is by an estuary in Kozhikode to see the range of working boats gathered side by side.

Next is to look at a “beautiful” beach. Well, it might have been if it wasn’t covered in litter. 


Lovely old lighthouse though.


Next stop was to wander through a Crafts Village. That was a hoot as we had to pay 100 rupee to be allowed to take photos, but all of the craft shops had signs banning photos. Not that there was anything to photo as none of the craftsmen were actually working. And, the crafts on display left a lot to be desired. But, the toilets were relatively clean, as opposed to the last toilet stop, which had been an experience.

In Mahe, part of the independent territory of Pondicherry, we did a drive by several of the liquor shops in a vain search for tonic water to go with our duty free Bombay Sapphire. Alcohol is an interesting product in Kerala. The sale of alcohol is tightly controlled by the State Government and is the state’s major source of revenue as it is highly taxed. There are literally hundreds of alcohol shops throughout the country, all pouring money into the state’s coffers as alcohol consumption appears very popular – we saw long queues outside liquor shops on our drive. As Mahe is part of the old French territory it falls outside the Keralan Government restrictions and taxes. Hence, the town is wall to wall alcohol shops, selling very cheap booze. But, what is bought in Mahe must be consumed in Mahe so it is not unusual to see very drunk men, who have made the most of Mahe’s cheap alcohol. However, obviously no one drinks their gin with tonic, and we continue on empty handed. No G & T’s on the verandah for us this evening.

Our last stop is a wander around the old fort at Tellicherry, where we cause quite a stir and have to pose for numerous photos with groups of young women.

We finally reach Kannur around 4.30. It takes a while to find our accommodation, Costa Malabari 2 on Thottada Beach, as it is tucked away down small winding laneways with absolutely no signage. But we bump into the Manager, Kurian, near Costa Malabari 1 and he hops onto his scooter and leads the way. We had been warned that the guesthouse was simple, but it was a bit more than simple. Basic might be a better descriptor. Costa Malabari is one of the original guest houses in the area, and I don’t think much has changed since they started. Brings back memories of my back packing days through India in my youth. But, it has cooling sea breezes, an unrestricted view of the Arabian Sea, the sound of the waves to lull you to sleep and a very genial host in Mr Kurian.



We are here on the lure of a semi private beach and the possibility of seeing a Theyyam ceremony. The semi private beach turns out to be a small patch of very muddy unenticing water. It would seem the rains have caused the water to become a bit of a mud bath.  And the Theyyam ceremony is due to start in 10 minutes, so we fling ourselves back in the car and follow Kurian, a Theyyam expert, to a tiny local temple. 


Theyyam is a very ancient ritual that is only performed in the Malabari area of Kerala. The one we see is relatively simple, with one ‘performer’, 3 drummers and a horn player, and only takes a couple of hours. Apparently they can have up to 10 characters and a much larger orchestra and can go for 24 hours! Thank God we got the abridged version as our interest did wane once we had seen the intricately painted and beautifully decorated performer, as we had no idea really what was going on. Although the drumming was mesmerising – how they keep up that tempo for that period time is mind boggling – and explains the buff bodies of the drummers!  We escape after an hour and a half, whilst the locals are lined up for yet another blessing from the performer, who is now an incarnation of the temple’s deity. But, it was fascinating to see the decorations on the performer, which Kurian later, quite rightly, describes as a beautiful art form.




 Theyyam done we have the next day completely free, and are determined not to set foot in the car, despite Rajesh’s attempts to lure us in. We set off on foot to explore some of the surrounding area, but don’t get very far due to the heat. The main beach is long, and empty.


And we run into some lads catching small crabs in the estuary. 


The area is certainly becoming more developed, and there are some new and palatial private homes, plus a growing number of accommodation options. We end up taking refuge in one, Blue Mermaid, as the young owner sees us trying to work out a way to walk back to Costa Malabari through the network of small paths and grasses, and gestures us in to his beautifully maintained gardens, where we rest and take respite from the heat before walking back to Costa Malabari for our lunch (which is delicious by the way).

The afternoon is spent on the deck chairs on the front verandah. Plans to take another walk in the cooler late afternoon are scuppered by the deluge that arrives, and stays through dinner.  Then it is early to bed, as we are leaving at 6.15 am so we can catch the 7.15 train from Kannur to Cochin.

Frida and Diego, Kitta and Deb.

The new Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW was our excuse to fly up to Sydney for a few days this week, but of course we had to do some shopping, eating and sightseeing as well to justify the trip.


The “we” in this instance is my good friend Kitta. We organise to meet at T4 (we were travelling Jetstar) on Monday morning, which we duly do. Chat, chat, chat until we hear the Gate announcement, at which point we wander off to the loo and then head towards the gate. I happened to glance up, only to see to my shock and horror that we had 7 minutes until Boarding closed!  Our speed picked up as we careened down what seemed like an endless empty concourse. I swear it must have been over a kilometre until we reached the gate, watching the minutes tick down on the boarding announcement. All I could think of was, how to explain to Pete I missed the flight despite having been at the airport for 1 hour and 40 minutes before departure (I caught the airport bus you see)! However, we arrived with 2 minutes to spare, out of breath and slightly embarrassed.

Our arrival at Sydney airport was much more civilised as our B&B, Tara Guesthouse (http://www.taraguesthouse.com.au), offers a free pick up service, and sure enough, there was the immaculately attired Julian to collect us and drive us the short distance to their charming guesthouse in Enmore.


Our hosts, Julian and Brom – and the gorgeous Oscar, a very cheeky and indulged border collie – welcome guests into their eclectically decorated home, and you are part of their daily life (so, this is not accommodation for shy and reclusive types).  Julian is an avid art collector, and delights in showing off his pieces – and, is determined to feed you an amazing breakfast that will leave you bursting at the seams. He considers he has failed at his task if you need to eat lunch.


The rooms are huge. Mine is at the front, looking into the jacaranda tree, with an extremely comfortable 4 poster bed that invites reclining – and on this occasion, snuggling, as it was freezing cold in Sydney for our arrival.


But, I resisted, and we hit Enmore Street for an explore. And, what a funky street it is, with an array of different architectural styles, places to eat and interesting shops. The Marie-Louise salon is in fact a restaurant, called stanbuli, but the facade is protected – fabulous. The next picture shows a hair salon – retro is definitely in in Enmore. And of course the deco Enmore Theatre (where the Rolling Stones once performed).


 However, a word of advice – do not visit on a Monday (or before 11 on any other day) as just about everything is closed. Quite a surprise for us Melburnites. So, all my Googling about where to eat and where to have coffee was all in vain – every single one of them was closed. You can imagine my sad face.

We eventually found the Shenkin Kitchen, which turned out to be a great little Israeli cafe. Yummy food, and warm greetings on a chilly day.


After lunch we kept walking, turning right down King Street. More interesting shops (some open, some not), like the fabulous button shop and the spectacles made from recycled plastic.


And, lots and lots of vibrant street art:


Back up King Street, heading into the Newtown part, we spot a huddle of people outside


So we wander over to investigate. In the interests of research we share a slice of Strawberry Watermelon cake, for which they are apparently famous. And rightly so as we discover.


Darkness is beginning to descend and the wind chill is increasing, so we grab a bottle of red and retire to the warmth  of the Guesthouse for refreshment before heading out for a bowl of pasta in one of the only places open on Monday (with me still looking mournfully at the tightly shut Stanbuli, Hartsyard, Osteria Di Russo and Russo, and The Stinking Bishop, all of which sound fabulous – we will have to come again).

Next morning the sun is shining, hurrah, although still quite chilly. We have a ticket for the 11.30 entrance into the exhibition, and there is a long queue waiting to enter when we get there (Frida is a very popular lass). I have to admit however to being somewhat disappointed, as we almost spent as long queuing as we did looking at the exhibition – it is smaller than either of us expected. Only 2 rooms, with 33 artworks done by both Frida and Diego, many of them drawings, plus photographs of the pair and some letters (which are not overly interesting). But, her self portraits are the highlights for me:


We spent some time checking out the rest of the exhibition spaces of the Gallery (which seems a lot smaller than NGVI or NGVA) before wandering out into the sunshine for a walk through the Botanic Gardens and heading around, past the Opera House, to Circular Quay. We decide to hop on a ferry, so choose the soon to depart ferry to Watsons Bay – staying on for the almost hour long round trip. It is a beautiful harbour.


Upon our return to Circular Quay we continue our cultural enlightenment with a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art – mainly to use the loo, but we become captivated by a exhibition entitled “Telling Tales – Excursions in Narrative Form”, especially a piece that consists of maps projected onto a screen and a hand drawing the journey taken by the refugee, accompanied by their sub titled story. So very poignant. The museum closes before we are finished.

It is now 5pm, cold and darkening, so off we go to one of the bars in The Establishment hotel for a glass of bubbles to restore our tired spirits, before meeting Kitta’s nephew for dinner  at nearby Mr Wong.
Mr Wong is hopping, even at 6pm on a Tuesday night. It takes time to read through the impressive wine list before I even start on the food menu. Our selections finally made, and praised by the waiter!, we settle back to take in the venue. Very cool.


And duck is obviously a very popular menu item as their plucked carcasses are lined up in their dozens waiting for the treatment.


We are done and dusted and on the bus back ‘home’ by 8.30. Excellent!

Wednesday morning we again work our way through the formidable array of breakfast goodies before mooching down Enmore Road for an excellent coffee, in a beautiful cup, at Black Market Roasters, sitting soaking up the sun.


Julian then drives us to the airport, regaling us with stories on the way. It has been a delightful sojourn. Until next time.