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.

Beautiful San Sebastián 

What a beautiful town this is. The curves of its bays. The laid back atmosphere. The beaches. The food, oh the food. This is my kinda place. It’s great to be back here, and even better that we are staying with friends who have decided to decamp here for a good chunk of this year. Their apartment is in the Gros district – a block from the beach (in fact you can see the water from their apartment) and easy walking distance to the Old Town and the train station, but removed enough from the tourist madness of the Old Town. It’s a proper, local community.


We have devoted our time here to mooching, eating and drinking. So, pretty much the same as anywhere really! We have been blessed by gorgeous weather. Lucky, as this area is verdant for a reason – it does rain a lot. But, so far so good. Mind you, we start hiking on Tuesday, so I’m sure things will change given our track record.

Our first morning was spent buying supplies at the mercado. As usual buying more than we needed but not being able to resist. Pete is on dinner duty for two nights so that we can boost our vegetable intake. After shopping it was time to take to the hill and climb up to our luncheon spot, Mirador del Ulia. The hike up the hill was worth it – spectacular food and an amazing view.





Of course this was a complete indulgence, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Each little course that came out was greeted with an Oh, Ah. We listened closely to the explanation of each dish, then resorted to the menu to try and work out exactly what we were eating, but that often wasn’t much help either. We just had to give ourselves over to the taste. Each morsel was a work of art, for both the eye and the mouth. Each bite was savoured and discussed. We easily wile away the afternoon, making the most of the experience, and that glorious view. 




Going back down the hill was much easier than the going up, helped of course by the bottles of wine consumed. Needless to say, no dinner was required that night!

Needing to feel more virtuous the next day, we set off for a 7km hike along the coastline to the next village, Pasai Donibane,  which is part of the first leg of the Camino del Norte (if starting from Irun). What a stunning walk, when blessed by sunshine as we were. It has its ups and downs, and I quickly realised I have become hill unfit since my last serious walk. The Picos de Europa walks next week are going to be a bit of a challenge.


There is a steep ascent, followed by a steep descent into Pasaia but the view from the top looking down into the entry to the harbour is breathtaking.


Pasaia is split into two by the inlet. On one side is the new town, on the other the Old Town, or Pasaia Donibane, where Victor Hugo once spent some time. The path takes you down into the harbour on the new side. From there you hop on a boat to ferry you across to the Old Town (.70 euro per person).


We joined the throng and chose a table at one of the several restaurants dotted around the square. A glass of wine each, and 3 plates to share – prawns, calamari and a mixed salad. That did the job. Back on the ferry to new town, and a short walk to the bus for the journey back to San Sebastián. 

The evening ended in much hilarity as we watched the Eurovision final in real time, live. Of course we cheered on the Australian entrant, but the Belarus duo rather stole my heart with their bouncy little tune, and bride and groom costumes. Portugal turned out to be the clear winner. An interesting choice, but it is a beautiful song. And of course, a wonderful spot for the Eurovision contest in 2018. 

We started Sunday with an excellent coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters, a cafe that would not be out of place in Melbourne. They obviously take their coffee seriously, but serve it with a big hearted smile. And they are not just coffee roasters – the breakfast plates that went past us had us thinking we must come back for breakfast as well as coffee.


We join the crowds of tourists and locals promenading around the waterfront, admiring the views across the bay.


It is then pintxos time. We pick a bar that is crowded, nab a small table outside, then battle the customers gathered around the bar inside, groaning with a mouth watering pintxos display. We restrain ourselves and select only a few, as we know the thing to do is a pintxos hop – have a drink and one or two pintxos at a number of different bars. In fact, acting like a local comes way too easily. I swear if I lived in Spain I would become an alcoholic – it always seems to be the right time for a drink!


We move on to another bar and repeat the process. Muy buen. Muy muy buen. Our final stop is La Vina, which is rightly famous for its incredible cheesecake, which is just as delicious as I remember from our last visit. I am a happy woman.


Our stay in San Sebastián has been short, but very very sweet. I look forward to returning after a week of hiking in the mountains. There are still so many bars to sample! 

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.

Barcelona Once More

Here we are in Barcelona – again. Our fourth trip to this wonderful city. It seems you can’t keep us away from Spain. This time Barcelona is our start and end point for a trip that will take in Valencia, Madrid, San Sebastián and the Picos de Europa. 

Given our multiple visits in just a few years, we are saved from the need to be energetic tourists. Instead, our time will be dedicated to mooching around, with some specific sights thrown in. And of course, surprise, surprise, lots of eating. 

We arrived late at night on Monday, after some 21 hours of flying and 4 hours of hanging around airports. And then we had to stand in the Customs line for 45 minutes (that will teach us to arrive on a Bank Holiday). To say we were tired and longing to be horizontal would be an understatement. It was with great relief that we found Danny from Casa Consell still waiting for us at 10.45pm. A quick tour of the property and we flung ourselves into bed and beautiful oblivion.

We take more notice of our lodgings in the morning. The room is compact, but spotlessly clean. Warm and cosy. Hot water in the shower, just don’t try and move around too much as space is rather restricted. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the location is excellent as we can walk everywhere, or jump on the Metro around the corner. After a basic but adequate breakfast we hit the streets. Our agenda today is simple – find a coffee, organise our train tickets, lunch, visit the Sant Pau Hospital site, dinner.

So, first the coffee – Nomad Coffee Lab in El Born. A café latte for me, and double espresso for him, whilst we admire the barista at work.


Before heading to the train station we have a wander round the El Born market – which isn’t actually a market anymore. Once upon a time it was the largest undercover market, but the grand size proved to be its undoing as the area ultimately could not sustain a produce market of this size. It eventually closed down and fell into disrepair. Plans to restore the space and turn part of it into a Library were halted in 2002 when excavations discovered extensive remains of the medieval city that once occupied the area. It was decided to protect the ruins, and display them to the public. So now the massive iron market roof provides protection for the original city that sat on this spot.

We then head to Estació de França, as we know from experience that it is usually pretty empty and thus easier to get tickets. We decide to use the machines rather than struggle with our inept Spanish through a small hole in the window. Probably the wrong decision as the machine seems to understand that we are ignorant tourists and sets out to make the transaction as difficult as possible – it lurches between being very touch sensitive to not responding to touch at all; instructions are hidden from immediate view; make a mistake and you have to start all over again; put the debit card in the wrong way and it cancels the transaction altogether. Suffice it to say it took us well over 40 minutes, and one very sore finger from screen poking, to buy 3 train tickets! Even now I’m not sure we have the correct ones, but we shall find out.

So shattered were we that we had to immediately repair to Casa Delfín for lunch, and it did not disappoint – grilled sardines, meatballs with peas & wild mushrooms and a spinach, pear, Stilton & pinenut salad. Washed down with a glass or two of wine. Buena, muy buena.


We then head off to the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista, or, the Old Sant Pau hospital, via the Arc de Triomf and Sagrada Familia.


We try and recall what has been added to the Sagrada since our last visit. Maybe the frilly arches on the front? Whatever it is, it continues to be an awe inspiring piece of architecture. But today we are only passing by.


Our goal is at the end of Av.de Gaudí – the very beautiful Art Noveau Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, also known as Sant Pau Recinte Modernista. The hospital was built between 1902 and 1930, and was the brainchild of the Catalan Modernista architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (who also designed the glorious Palau de Musica Catalana). In its day, the hospital was cutting edge and was designed by Montaner to provide light, beauty and open space to the patients. It operated as a hospital up until 2009. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is still undergoing restoration. It is just beautiful – if only modern hospitals followed the same design aesthetic.



By the time we get back to the vicinity of our hotel we have probably walked well over 10kms, and I’m tired, hungry and thirsty and therefore, slightly testy. I spy a haunt from earlier trips – Reserva Iberica. Pete takes no persuading for a sit down, a glass of cava and a tasting plate of jamon. That is just what I needed! Spirits restored.


Now we can hold out until the Spanish meal time of 9pm – well almost. We arrive at Tapas 24 at 8.45, but still have to queue. The customers all appear to be tourists like us, but when we finally get a stool I get chatting to the young Spanish man sitting next to me. He is from Salamanca, and tells me he always comes to Tapas 24 when he is in town for business. He says that the locals stay away until around 10pm, when they know the tourists will have departed. 

Our tapas is a mixed bag, some great, some not so great. The highlight is the tomato salad, followed by the char grilled Iberian pork loin:

The squid roll and smoked mackerel are okay, but the Crab & Avocado salad – the most expensive dish of the lot – is bland and uninspiring. Disappointing.


I am now well and truly ready for bed, so we relinquish our stools to the next customers and walk around the block back to Casa Consell and much needed sleep. All in all, a terrific day in this gracious city.

Wednesday morning the sky is grey and rain is predicted – not a good prediction as we are booked to do a 3 hour walking tour with Barcelona Architecture Walks, however the rain holds off until the end of the walk, and even then is just a light drizzle. The theme of our walk is Barcelona & Urbanism, and we learn all about Ildefons Cerdà, the inventor of the science of urbanism and master planning. Cerdà was responsible for the grid design of Barcelona, which he envisaged as an egalitarian city dominated by open spaces. Unfortunately, the final city design was compromised by developers, by the desire of the wealthy to have visible and tangible evidence of their wealth and by the Catalan disdain for anything that was imposed on them by the central Government of Madrid. But, enough of Cerdà’s design was maintained to make Barcelona the very liveable city it is today. 


After 3 hours on our feet we need a coffee and a sit down. So when the walk ends we hightail it back to the Mercat del Ninot that we had walked through to get to the meeting point for our tour. A coffee at one stall was followed by lunch at another, Perellá – specialists in cod, but it was the dazzling array of olives that originally attracted our attention:


We were served by a charming young man with excellent English. Turns out he was from Mexico – came here to study cinema, fell in love, married and is now working in hospitality to make a living. Also got chatting about Spanish wines with a couple of local ladies, who were enjoying a glass of cava, or two! They agreed I knew enough Spanish if I could order the alcohol. A thoroughly enjoyable luncheon break – good food, good wine, pleasant ambiance – only locals, and not very many of them.

Ambled back to the hotel, through different streets and laneways. Pete is getting to know this city very well. I think he has walked most of it. Idled the remainder of the afternoon away at the hotel, escaping the light drizzle and cool breeze, which cleared up in time for us to emerge for dinner.

Our choice tonight was Santa Gula, in the Gràcia district, thanks to blogger Foodie in Barcelona. And what a great choice it was – a small space (if you go, you must book – we saw several parties turned away), with friendly wait staff and interesting, well executed food. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Would happily go again to try out other dishes on the menu.



Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny for our last (half) day in Barcelona. This afternoon we are catching a train to Valencia. How should we spend the morning? Hmm, I know – let’s have a coffee and then brunch to sustain us for the 3 and a half hour train trip. I warned you that this visit would involve lots of eating!

So, we wandered down into the Gòtic district to Satan’s Corner, a coffee shop we had discovered last year. We lingered over the coffee, studying the map of Barcelona and applying our new knowledge about the urban planning that created the city. Quite fascinating really.  


It was still too early for brunch (wouldn’t want to peak too early), so ambled at random through the laneways of the Gòtic area before emerging into the throngs promenading along La Rambla. A street we prefer to avoid however was necessary today as our brunch destination was Kiosko Universal at Mercat de la Boqueria, recommended by the Barcelona Architecture Walks people and Foodie in Barcelona.


Their speciality is seafood, but we started with grilled vegetables and assorted mushrooms before launching into a plate of baby sardines, followed by garlic prawns – both as fresh as can be, and simply cooked, in lashings of olive oil (perfect for dunking the delicious bread into). All washed down with a glass of cava. 


That should sustain us for the train journey. Adios Barcelona – we continue to love you, but Valencia 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.

A Dip into Adelaide’s Festival Frenzy

It has been years since I visited The City of Churches, and I have been saying for just as long “I must go to the Adelaide Festival one day”.  That day finally arrived last Sunday as I boarded a Jetstar flight bright & early, with a ticket to see The Secret River clutched in my hot little hand. The return flight cost a mere $10 more than the theatre ticket!


We arrived in sunny Adelaide around 10am, which meant that most of the city was shut tight. Apparently, Adelaidians are late risers on a Sunday. After a couple of false starts (not only are they late sleepers, we discover that quite a lot of them must also be vegans and/or health nuts as we exit yet another cafe after the lass tried to persuade us of the merits of a coconut milk latté). But thanks to the Hustle pop up on King William Rd we finally get the good coffee fix we needed. Thank you Hustle, you are a life saver.


It is also at Hustle that we discover not only is Adelaide hosting the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe Festival AND Adelaide Writers Week all at once, it is also catering to petrol heads with the running of Clipsall 500 – which turns out to be a motor race. Who knew?  We don’t actually see any cars, but suffer from the Clipsall effect via roads blocked off and jet flyovers during the course of the day.

Suitably caffeinated we head further up King William Rd in search of brunch. Pollen 185 is where we settle, and even though it too is a mecca for vegetarians and vegans, we do manage to get fetta rather than some nut based “cheese”! 

We are now ready to hit Adelaide Writers Week, a week long celebration of books, authors and readers, nestled beside the Torrens River under the shade of overhanging trees. There are two stages (East and West), and a massive book selling tent. Eager book lovers shuffle between these three points, revelling in the talks by a diverse range of authors. And, wonder of wonders, it is all FREE (even down to the free water station for thirsty fans). What a gift from the city to the public.


After working out the geography (which way is east?), we settle down to listen to Krys Lee and AS Patric (a Melbourne boy) talk about their work under the title of The Sadness of History. We follow this up with Just Wicked, where I am introduced to two overseas writers – Amy Stewart, who has written a crime series based on real life sisters, the Kopps, and Kate Summerscale, talking about her book A Wicked Boy, a true crime account of two London children who murdered their mother in 1895. They both go onto my must read list.


It is with some reluctance that we tear ourselves away, but promise to return tomorrow. We have a date with a winery and a quarry. Firstly, the winery – Glen Ewin Estate (http://glenewinestate.com.au) is offering patrons of The Secret River a $55 pre theatre meal, so we head out to the Adelaide Hills to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays on the deck of the bistro.


There is a bit of a fig theme happening, from the illustrated placemats to the menu, thanks to the large fig orchard on the estate. Although be warned – no figs appear with the fig and saffron cured ocean trout. The fig juice was used in the curing of the trout, not in the plating up. But, the chocolate dipped figs to end the meal are beautiful to behold.


Now on to the quarry, and what an inspired venue for this moving piece of theatre it proves to be. The play, written by Andrew Bovell from the novel by Kate Grenville, has garnered rave reviews in both Sydney and Melbourne, but watching it unfold in the natural amphitheater of the abandoned quarry, with attendant gum trees, lifts this wonderful play into another dimension. Despite the cold gully wind, the audience was entranced for the whole 2 hours 50 minutes. This play deserves to take its place within the classics of Australian theatre.


Our second day in Festival City starts with a late breakfast at Argo on the Square. Thank heavens we decided to share the dish:


before making a visit to an Adelaide icon – the Haigh’s factory shop! Interesting that Adelaide is home to two famous and well loved family owned businesses, Coopers Brewery and Haigh’s chocolates. 


All food groups now covered it is time to nourish the mind, so we head back to Writers Week. Spoiled for choice we finally settle on The Critics;  Jessa Crispin and Sebastian Smee talking the art of criticism, and their respective books, under the guidance of our very own Wheeler Centre CEO, Michael Williams. Sebastian is an Australian art critic who won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2011 for his work on the Boston Globe. Jessa is the founder of the blog and webzine, Bookslut, and is one of those frighteningly intelligent, articulate and acerbic young women that I quake before. She takes no prisoners – Sebastian Smee included. Invigorating.

Then we move on to crime, again. First up is a Melbourne (or more accurately, Torquay) local author – Jock Serong – talking about his books, Quota and the latest, The Rules of Backyard Cricket, under the excellent questioning of New Zealand author, Kate de Goldi. Both books sound intriguing, and are added to the must read list (this Writers Festival might be free but it is going to cost me a fortune in book purchases!). Our last session is with the Booker shortlisted Graeme Macrae Burnett, talking about his novel His Bloody Project and its predecessor, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. My list grows.

Time to leave the world of books to head off to The Garden of Earthly Delights for much needed alcoholic refreshment, and food. The Garden is an assortment of food trucks, carnival rides & games, and Fringe Festival venues. The vibe is relaxed and fun – a perfect spot to refuel and refresh between gigs.



Our last engagement for the night is a seat in Studio 7 to see Mother’s Ruin: a cabaret about Gin, which proves to be a hilarious musical romp through the history of gin. The only downside was the absence of said gin for patrons to imbibe while enjoying the show. Lots of fun, and those two ladies sure can belt out a tune.



I have thoroughly enjoyed my brief dip into the Adelaide festival waters. So much to see and do; an excess of cultural riches. I have but scratched the surface of what this exhilarating two weeks has to offer. Next time I’ll come for longer.

Marvellous Mr Tuppy

I probably shouldn’t write about Mr Tuppy as currently I can just wander up and be assured of getting a seat. This little café has been flying under the radar, tucked away as it is in a nonedescript strip of shops in Tennyson Street, Elwood, but it is slowly gaining attention – and rightly so. Mr Tuppy bucks the trend of both super foods (enough with the kale, please) and smashed avocado with or without corn fritters, by offering full frontal, mouth tingling Asian flavours. You’ll not be sharing any of this as you’ll want it all for yourself.

The owners have converted what was once a dingy newsagency into a grungy, funky, exposed brick place of welcome. Up front are buckets of flowers for sale and the coffee machine, which cranks out a seriously good coffee (it was in fact the queue for coffee one Saturday morning that alerted me to Mr Tuppy’s existence). You then pass by the cakes and packs of Pocky and Hello Panda for sale, before spying the delicious looking and ever changing range of ice cream flavours. 


 Beyond the tiny kitchen space is the small seating area. The food preparation area may be small, and overflow into the seating area can and does occur, but they are churning out some great bites from it.



Choosing what to order takes time as it all sounds seriously delicious:



Today I opt for the L.F.C burger, and Lordy, Lordy I am very glad I did as a soft bun stuffed full of green papaya salad and a juicy soft shell crab lands in front of me. I am a very happy girl.


So, sshh, don’t tell anyone else about Mr Tuppy as I want to make sure I get my seat, but do yourself a favour and get on down.

New Kid on the Corner

There is one thing we are not short of in Elwood and that’s cafés. I have 7 within easy walking distance of home, in fact they are all in the one street. So, when another one opens it is usually a case of “Oh no, not another café”. And that has been my response so far to Junction, which is the reincarnation of what was previously Tonic, on the corner of Glenhuntly and Ormond Roads.

But, the new owners’ smiles are so welcoming, tinged with a fair degree of anxiety, that I felt compelled to give them a try. And, I am very glad I did. For a start, they are churning out seriously good coffee. In the case of the long black it comes with the nice touch of a small glass of a cleansing soda water on the side. The soy milk is Bonsoy, and the latté arrives with a smooth, creamy foam on top.


They have completely renovated the space, which is now a calm sea of white and baby blue – and have opened up the back courtyard, which hasn’t seen the light of day since this was a plant nursery back in the 1980’s (yes, we have been in Elwood that long). 


The menu includes the usual suspects from a broad church of influences, with the occasional twist (and we would encourage them to make greater leverage of their Asian heritage to differentiate themselves further from the pack – Asian breakfasts have so much to offer).


Pete had already tried, and enjoyed, the Chilli Scrambled eggs so opted for My Mexican Uncle this time round. Very tasty was the verdict.


I went for the Doughnut Burger. Have no idea why it is called this as no hole was in sight, but it was very yummy regardless. And very healthy as sweet potato is the new super food you know! Although, I think the cucumber & pineapple jam might have been MIA.


Another nice touch was the small white tablet and little dish of water that was presented to me with the direction to wet the tablet to wash my hands. Lo and behold, with the addition of a little water what appears to be a small white pill morphs into a fine, soft cloth. Ingenious.


I’m already planning to return to try Papa’s curry chicken with roti. If you’re in the area why don’t you give them a try and help reduce the new business anxiety of the very eager to please owners.

Pondicherry or Puducherry or Pondy

Which ever name you choose to call this bustling little territory some three hours south of Chennai, all of them add up to the same thing – a fascinating town, with distinct pockets of individual character. The Dutch, the Portuguese, the British and the French have all laid claim to ownership at some stage, but it is only the French who really left their mark.

The town is set up on a grid system (thank you to the French designers and the Dutch builders) which makes negotiation simple. And it is divided into distinct quarters. There is the French Quarter, known in days gone by as the White Quarter, which in my naivety I thought might refer to the predominant white trim on the buildings. Non. A quiet, tree lined precinct with wide streets, adjoining the beachfront. 


Over the canal is the Tamil Quarter, which in the past was also called the Black Quarter – and definitely not because of its architectural style! This area is teeming with life, and commerce.


 Then there is the Muslim enclave, with its own distinctive and colourful architecture, centred around their pristine white mosque.


All three quarters sit within a small area that was once ringed by the fort walls. We are staying in the calm oasis of the French Quarter; full of gracious buildings in various states of repair. Many have been or are currently in the hands of the restorers and renovators, which is heartening but some are still crying out for love, attention and a lot of money (reminds me a bit of Georgetown in that respect). 


The French owned buildings are all painted yellow (with white trim), but the predominant building colour is grey (with white trim). Turns out that all the grey buildings are owned by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, as are many of the cottage industries in town. It would seem there is great economic prescience to be found in spirituality.


We start the morning with a walk down to Beach Road, where we see large clusters of people gathered. Turns out that it was Ganesha’s birthday on the weekend, and today is the day that every household comes to the waterfront with a small clay statue of Ganesha, which they cover in decorations, light a flame in front of him, pray to him to bestow good luck upon their family and then heave him into the ocean.



 But, due to both the rough, rocky descent into the water, and the unsafe water conditions, most families pay children and young men from the poor families to do the heaving for them. The youngsters vie for business, scampering back and forth from water to sand, dripping wet, eager to get their next customer. This will go on all day and into early evening. We are fascinated by the variety in each and every iteration of Ganesha, and the rituals undertaken by each family group.


From here we walk inland, and drop in briefly to the Institut Français de Pondicherry, where the obliging police officer, wearing the distinctive Pondicherry red hat, poses for a photograph.


Next stop is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where shoes must come off and no photos are permitted. The faithful come to genuflect at the graves of Sri Aurobindo and his ‘companion’ known as The Mother (who also founded Auroville on the outskirts of Pondicherry). We also briefly visit the Ashram’s paper making factory to see paper being made by hand from recycled white Tshirts. To get there we drive through the fishing village  sitting like a barnacle on the side of the French Quarter. The narrow lanes and tightly pressed together houses are fascinating, as is the fact that they are currently putting in a sewerage system in order to stop the effluence running straight into the sea. 


Ensuring we cover all religious bases we also cover off the Manakkula Vinayagar Temple, the Sacred Heart Basilica and the Mosque. The ManakkulaVinayagar Temple is devoted to Ganesha, so is particularly busy at the moment. The resident temple elephant, Lakshmi, will head pat supplicants in exchange for food or cash – and is quite prepared to give you the evil eye if a snack is not forthcoming (but, will hand any monies given promptly over to her handler).



The Basilica may be Catholic but this is India, so Mary wears a sari and the decorations are suitably gaudy and the stained glass bright. In fact, I think this may have been where Dalí got inspiration for some of his jewellery designs.



The mosque when we visit is all quiet. The guide tells us that it featured in the Life of Pi film (as did other locations around town).


We end our tour of the City with a visit to our kind of temple – the Grand Bazaar. A teeming temple of worship to food and household goods. The colours of the saris on women shoppers, and sellers, as well as the flowers to be used for temple offerings are intoxicating. It is bustling and fascinating.




 But the heat and crowds are ultimately overwhelming and it is time to retreat back to the oasis of calm that is the French Quarter. We go in search of a recommended cafe for lunch – Maison Rose – only to find it gutted for renovations. So land up in Hotel Dupleix instead, where we are virtually lassoed into the restaurant by the charming young Frenchman who spies us loitering at the door. After lunch we take a short walk around the nearby park, once the Fort, and then admire the crumbling lighthouse, the Mahatma Gandhi statue and the war memorial on our way back to the beautiful Palais de Mahe for a much needed swim and rest. 




We venture out again in the early evening and join the throngs along the beach promenade. Traffic is banned from the Beach Road from about 5pm, so people are free to wander at their leisure. Gathering there to socialise, court, enjoy the sea breeze, or simply rest is obviously common practice for Pondicherrians. What a lovely practice. I think we Elwoodians should embrace it.


We dine in the courtyard of the L’Orient hotel, but this is not a success. Despite there being very few customers the food takes forever to arrive – we have almost passed out with exhaustion by the time it finally turns up. And then it proves to be definitely not worth the wait. Oh dear. 

Next day has been deemed at leisure, but Rajesh, our driver, is having none of that. He is keen to take us somewhere, anywhere – slightly incredulous that we would prefer to walk around the city ourselves. After some wrangling we agree that he can come and collect us at 3.00 and take us for a short drive. But first, free time! Which we do indeed spend on foot, through the French Quarter and into the Tamil Quarter, with shopping and well as looking as our goal. Funnily enough, Rajesh spies us on our wanders as he is sitting having tea – he thinks this is hilarious when he tells us of this later.


After a couple of hours roaming, the heat is starting to get to us so we head back into the French Quarter and seek Cafe des Arts for a spot of lunch. We probably increase the average age significantly, but what the heck. It is a very funky spot, and I enjoy a cucumber and tomato salad (they make special mention that all their food is washed in treated water so I plunge into a salad with confidence).


I’m being virtuous with a salad only because an hour earlier we had popped into the French patisserie/bakery called Baker Street for a reviving coffee, and I had been unable to resist the temptation of a vanilla millefeuille.

 

Over the road from Cafe des Arts is a lovely little clothes shop and we all indulge in a bit of retail therapy before heading back to the hotel for our 3pm rendezvous with Rajesh. He takes us for a drive out into the countryside to Auroville. On the way we pass a beautifully decorated Ganesha statue. It is these big Ganesha that will be hauled into Pondicherry on Saturday and with the help of a crane they too will be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. We are sorry we will not be here to see that sight.


We decline the invitation to park the car and walk into Auroville itself, and instead head back into Pondicherry to enjoy a G&T poolside before dining once more in the very pleasant rooftop restaurant of the hotel.

Next morning the staff continue to be amused by our insistence on having a local breakfast and turning down their offers of toast, croissants and eggs. Over the three mornings we have had two different styles of dosa (or perhaps one that failed and one that didn’t!):


Sandwiched in between these was the morning of the uttapam (a rice pancake with onion, green chillies and coriander in it) which was served with upma (a semolina dish). 


Kitta and Pete at least are getting reasonably dexterous at pulling the dosa (or uttapam or roti or chapati) apart using only their right hand. Me not so much – I usually resort to cutting it up with my knife before embarking on the eating with one’s right hand only.

We have enjoyed our days and nights in lovely Pondicherry. Now it is on to Kumbakonam for temples and pure vegetarian food. Bring it on.

A Temple Day

Our destination today is Kumbakonam, one of Tamil Nadu’s temple towns (Pete is thrilled to hear this!), some 4 hours drive from Pondicherry. As you can imagine the time taken to reach your destination does not reflect the distance. Rather, you have to factor in the fact that the roads are often very narrow; with lots of speed humps in towns and villages, and an enormous range of obstacles – vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road; bikes and tuk tuks suddenly veering across in front of you ; vehicles deciding to stop not quite off the road; cows and goats wandering across the road and so it goes on. Our admiration for Rajesh’s driving skill is growing as he has to be constantly aware of what is happening behind, beside and in front of him – a skill he manages whilst keeping up a fairly constant stream of (often one sided!) conversation. And, his knowledge of the roads and the countryside we are passing through is formidable.


We were highly chagrined to discover that he sleeps in the car each night. Apparently this is what all the drivers do. It makes us feel even more like rich pampered Westeners traveling through the colonies. I must confess I have found myself  occasionally nodding and bestowing the Royal wave upon villagers as we travel past. Mortifying. Anyhow, back to the road.

The drive is fascinating as we travel through increasingly rural areas. Apart from crops – sugar cane, rice – we see plantations of eucalyptus and casuarina trees ( the later being used for scaffolding among other things). The farmers rely heavily on irrigation as Tamil Nadu is a very dry state (in more ways than one, at least in ‘temple towns’). Fighting over water supply from other states takes up a lot of political time and angst according to Rajesh.

 As we move further into small rural villages we see that the homes are tiny – both in size (often one room affairs) and height (with very low entrances). These houses are usually clustered in a line right up against the roadway so as not to take up any arable land. Some are made from mud, some are concrete, some are thatched.



We stop for a much needed loo break at a petrol station, and feel obliged to buy a coffee, which turns out to be instant. Ah well, at least the loo was a Western toilet, and clean.


Rajesh is taking us to see an ancient Chola temple some 35 kms from Kumbakonam. This is called colloquially  the Little Temple as it was built by the son of the man who built the Big Temple at Tanjavur that we will see tomorrow. Apparently the son couldn’t make his tower bigger than his Dad’s temple – but Kitta and I think he did a much better job on the inside than Dad.

It is our first Chola temple made from simple stonework, and it is beautiful. Intricately ochre coloured carved stone that was probably once painted but is now just plain stone, as despite much restoration they have wisely left the new, or cleaned, stonework pristine. The only problem is that we arrive about 12.30 and one must remove one’s shoes upon entering a temple precinct. By this time the surrounding stone paving and stone steps into the inner sanctum of the temple have been exposed to the glaring sun all morning. The result being we suffer something akin to 3rd degree burns on the soles of our feet. However, seeing us hopping from foot to foot and bleeting in pain provides a group of young rascals a great deal of amusement as they loiter in the shade of a nearby tree.




We are spending the night at a resort called Mantra Veppathur, which takes us a few false starts to find as it is a new place for Rajesh. It is not surprising that he has some difficulty initially as it is situated on the outside of town, tucked away down a rural road and over a one car bridge, hidden amongst acres of coconut palms. 



We are assigned our own villa, complete with outdoor shower, and a rocking chair on the verandah (however, it proves far too muggy, and a bit too mosquitoey, to actually enjoy spending time in the chair).


We hightailed it to the dining hall as it was now 2.00pm, and had been promised excellent vegetarian food here. We were not disappointed. Revived and fortified we were ready for our tour of the town’s temples with a local guide. We start at the sacred water tank, the waters of which emulate the sacred Ganges River – people come to bathe in the tank for purification and blessing.


I have to confess that I tend to glaze over as soon as any of the guides launch into the history of the temples – the names are all so long and complicated, the gods all seem to be inter-related that it is just too confusing. So sorry, I can’t recall what the names of the temples were but they were very garish, and tall. And, two of them had erotic carvings on their lower levels (ancient marketing perhaps?). The mind boggles at the work that has a) gone into the temple’s construction and b) into the repainting of the towers.


Kitta gets quite excited at this temple as it turns out that Ramanujan, the famous Indian mathematician, was born and raised in the street leading to the temple – which will probably only mean anything to another mathematician or those of you who, like Kitta, saw the recent film The Man Who Knew Infinity.



Meanwhile, my eye is drawn to the local snack maker on the corner, so we go to investigate. The first one is making paratha, a sort of ‘bread’, where the dough is kneaded, rolled and stretched and then placed on the hot grill. It initially puffs up before flattening down and becoming all flaky and toasty.



Next to him is India’s version of the scotch egg maker. A boiled egg is placed inside a shell of chick pea batter and then deep fried – it is delicious.


Then on to our last temple, this time another stone Chola temple that has been given UNESCO classification. The carvings on the pillars are intricate and each and everyone tells a story (unfortunately the guide tries to tell us far too many of them – it is enough for us just to wander and marvel). Much to Pete’s annoyance we are blessed by the priest and leave wearing the white dot on our forehead (mind you, you have to hand over 10 rupee for the blessing as it turns out, which makes him even crosser!).


I love that the temples are so integrated into the people’s lives. They come to worship of course, but also to socialise, to have a picnic, and to court. This young lady looks as if she is deep in spiritual thought when in fact she is gazing, and giggling, into the eyes of a rather handsome young man. I wonder if her Mum knows.


Our last stop is into a traditional Southern India coffee shop for a cup of coffee that is made from a mixture of coffee and chicory, which in turn is mixed with milk and of course sugar, and served in a little brass cup. To both mix and cool the drink you pour it from saucer to cup a couple of times before drinking it. It is actually quite delicious.


By this time the heavens have opened and the short sharp rain has made it almost impossible to get out of the coffee shop without wading through knee deep water, but Rajesh manages to manoeuvre the car so we are able to leap from the stoop into the car, not gracefully but at least with dry feet.

Dinner that night at Mantra Veppathur is both delicious, and entertaining. As one of only a tiny handful of guests staying, and the only whities, we are a major source of interest and fascination for the serving staff – so, we enjoy the delicious food while in turn we provide a floor show for the gaggle of staff who loiter around our table watching our every move. Now I know how the animals feel at the Zoo! This interest escalates when they discover we are not English but Australian, as the head waiter, the very charming Rajarajan, has a brother living in Melbourne. 

Another fascinating day. I go to sleep under the watchful gaze of the nodding head of this lady – I love her. Pity she won’t fit in my suitcase.