West Coast, NZ

As we leave Nelson the grey clouds are gathering – we are moving further south just at the right time. For the first hour the scenery is pretty ordinary as we travel through large swathes of pine forests, and pass trucks hauling the timber away. Things change when we get to Big Bush Pass and finally enter areas of native forest.

Apparently both the Maori and the Europeans had a field day felling the native forests, until finally even the Government became alarmed. After 15 months of negotiation, the Tasman Accord was signed in 1989, whereby the forestry companies agreed to no more logging of native timber on Crown land and the preservation of some 30,000 hectares of native forest. Thank heavens, as the native forests are a delight with their wide variety of trees, hence colours and textures. Now the drive gets more interesting.

Not native but lovely nonetheless are the wild foxgloves that can be seen everywhere, mainly purple, occasionally white. Must be a very strong plant as it is literally everywhere, probably technically a weed, but a very decorative one.

We arrive in Murchison, hanging out for a coffee. At first glance it appears a township we could easily dismiss but there is a quirky humour on display, starting with the pie van and its sign (mind you, the owner and baker is a Yorkshireman). We can’t resist the sign, so settle on the picnic table with a bacon & egg pie.

Then the sign in the award winning butcher shop takes my fancy. Convenient, and timely given the new law just passed in Victoria!

Then there is the plaque commemorating the irate farmer who blew himself up:

And, the ladies loo sign:

We will be back in Murchison on our return to Picton so shall check out more of the town’s delights then but now it is on towards the coast. Just out of Murchison we come to the Buller Gorge Suspension Bridge – apparently the longest swing bridge in New Zealand – so in we go. Lord knows why, as I’m terrified of heights, even more so when the surface is moving back and forth. But, I bravely go forth. I do decline however the invitation to return by zip line!

After this excitement we travel towards the coast, turning south just before Westport, however the No Fuel for 90kms sign has us turning back to Westport to stock up, given we only had enough fuel in the tank for 90kms.

Our next stop is Punakaiki to see the famous ‘pancake rocks’ – rock formations that resemble layer upon layer of crepes. Geologists are unsure how the formations were made, but they certainly draw the crowds, and we must admit they are pretty impressive. As is the subtropical forest lining the coast.

The day is marching on so we scamper past the outskirts of Greymouth, heading for our home for the next two nights, Hokitika. Not a lot is happening in Hokitika when we arrive around 6pm. It’s like any quiet country town – wide, empty streets, with nondescript houses neatly lined up on either side of the road.

Our Airbnb cottage, Fantail Cottage – full of fantail bird decorations, but no sign of the actual bird – is cosy albeit a bit twee, sitting on the outskirts of town but still an easy 3 blocks from the centre.

We dump our gear and walk into town in search of food. After a quick look at the beach we order a pizza at Fat Pipi Pizza, which we take to the West Coast Wine Bar which allows, in fact encourages, BYO food. We are the only customers, apart from one other couple who leave before we do.

We get off to a slow start next morning. A late breakfast in the cottage then into town for a coffee and a wander around. Both Lonely Planet and our landlady recommend Ramble & Ritual for our coffee so it’s where we head. And wouldn’t you know it but our coffee is made by an English lass. I swear there are no Kiwis actually in NZ! The coffee is okay but I think their beans are not really to our taste, quite unusual flavour but a charming little spot.

Hokitaki is a fascinating town, dotted by grand buildings that hint of a very different past. Turns out that it was the epicentre of the gold rush, and became a major, but very dangerous, port, welcoming prospectors from all around the world. In turn, business followed. Apparently in its heyday 80 hotels lined Revell St alone.

Time for sightseeing further afield so we hop in the car and head out of town to visit Hokitika Gorge. In the distance we can see the snow capped mountains.

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On the way we pass the memorial erected to commemorate the site of New Zealand’s first mass murder committed by yet another psycho farmer. The memorial is dedicated to the police, both official and voluntary, who died. The gun barrel in the middle is aimed at the farmhouse site where the massacre occurred. I did however love the mention of Graham suffering an irrational conniption.

The glorious turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge is certainly worth the drive out. Really takes you by surprise as you come out of the tropical forest that surrounds the Gorge. Something to do with limestone I gather. And, another swing bridge – yeah!

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Leaving the Gorge is slightly delayed by the young tourist who managed to get his van stuck down a culvert and needed towing out by a local farmer. An entertaining diversion for us but not for the very embarrassed young man.

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We returned back to Hokitaki via Lake Kaniere and a quick visit to Dorothy Falls, displaying a completely different colour of lovely, pristine water.

A late but yummy lunch back at Ramble & Ritual before a final walk along the old quay and beachfront, learning more about the town from the information boards dotted along the river’s edge. We bump into various locals along the way, all of whom love a bit of a chat. Hokitika is, all in all, quite charming.

We end our night in Hokitika with a walk to the glow worm dell just outside of town. It is like a magical cave, but you will have to take my word for it as the glow is not strong enough to be captured by the IPhone camera.

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Road Trip to Aussies – Melbourne to Orange

It’s July. That means it’s time once more for the IRB National Lifesaving Championships (that’s Inflatable Rescue Boats for the uninitiated), or Aussies as we call them, and being the good parents we are it is off to Kingscliff, NSW we go, to cheer on our daughter and the Williamstown team. But, being us, we have to turn this opportunity into a trip, so off we go on a 5 night road trip through this wide brown/green/mauve land of ours.

Packing  proves to be the first challenge. Partly because the temptation when you are travelling by car is to throw yet another item in, just in case. And partly because we will be encountering temperatures from -1 to 23! In goes the puffer coat AND the bathers, and everything in between.

First stop is Fowles Winery at Avenel – a coffee and a bottle of wine for tonight.  Onwards up the Hume. We deviate off at Chiltern for a quick bite. This little town is showing signs of decline, with many empty shopfronts. The story of many towns that have been bypassed by the highways. You take your tastebuds into dangerous territory when you head out into country Australia.  Sure there are some regional gems, but you also encounter some shockers and unfortunately Chiltern turned out to be the latter rather than the former. Ah well, it was food.

We make a quick stop to say Hello to the Dog on the Tuckerbox at Gundagai. As a teenager living in Canberra we would always stop at The Dog on our many trips to Melbourne. So nice to see families still doing this ritual. As well as the obligatory photo, we stock up on a bag of freshly picked Batlow apples – crisp and juicy.

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Time then to turn off the Hume Highway and head inland, with Cootamundra our first night’s stay. We have booked into the Southern Comfort Motor Inn, and it is the classic Aussie motel – large room, clean, decorated in the 70s. Great. Peter, mine host, when asked to recommend somewhere to eat responds with You won’t find anything gourmet in Cootamundra love. He’s right. But, we get a cheap, basic pub meal at the busiest spot in town, the Central Hotel. Even though it’s a Saturday night there isn’t much happening in ‘Coota’  – the enormously wide Main Street is virtually deserted on this cold winter night.

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Next morning we decide to turn our back on Coota and head to Young for breakfast. Trip Advisor recommends The Kettle & Grain cafe so in we head. Nice little spot in an old schoolhouse, but my word those poor schoolchildren must have been too frozen to learn anything back in the day.

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I love these country towns – wide streets and an eclectic mixture of architecture. Every town has its beautiful lace ironwork pub, its impressive town hall, and some wonderful Deco buildings.

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Next stop is Cowra, to visit the remains of the POW camp and the Japanese Garden. The garden is beautiful, so tranquil. Learning more about the POW breakout is fascinating, and it is heartening in these times of so much divisiveness to see a town that has embraced it’s history and has turned it into something positive.

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Our last port of call before arriving in Orange is accidental as we knew nothing about  Canowindra but stopped upon a whim after seeing the sign pointing to Historic Village. But, it turns out to be a little gem of a town – lovely buildings, and an interesting array of shops. We visit the Artesan Chocolate shop, and stock up on treats for later and have a good chat to the two charming owners, refugees from Sydney who toiled to restore what was once a solicitor’s office into a homage to handmade chocolates from around the area and beyond.

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It is then an easy drive through beautiful countryside to Orange, our ‘home’ for the next 2 nights.

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Featured

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.

Friendship in Valencia

There are many reasons to go back to a particular city. It might be the art, the architecture, the history, the scenery or the food that draws you back. Valencia has all that, in spades. But, our reason for returning is more personal. Some four years ago we had the good fortune to meet Mark and Alex, two Valencian residents, on a food tour in Kuala Lumpar. I know, how weird is that! They were on their honeymoon, and were including Australia, and Melbourne, on their Grand Tour. We invited them to come and have dinner with us when they arrived in Melbourne, and the rest is history. We bonded over food, and thanks to Facebook we have been able to keep the fires of friendship burning bright and this is now our third reunion in Spain, and our second visit to their wonderful home of Valencia (little did they know when they met us that we would be like the bad pennies that keep turning up!).


Over wine, and Alex’s marvellous supper,  we catch up on what has been happening in our lives since last years meeting.  They both have to work on Friday so we are set loose to explore Valencia on our own, armed with a plethora of suggestions from Alex, who is a fountain of enthusiastic knowledge about what this wonderful city has to offer. Their apartment is an easy walk to the centre of town, so we set off along the the walking, riding, jogging path that runs around the outside of the old town,  with Torres de Quart, and Mayan Coffee Cafe which sits behind this ancient tower, as our first destination.


Coffee hit taken care of, we walk to the IVAM (Institut d’ Valencia Art Modern), where there is a terrific exhibition based around all facets of urban life, called Lost in the City. 



From there we walk along to the Museo de Belles Arts Valencia, entry free, to see an exhibition of photographs that recreate and/or reinterpret old Spanish paintings.  A very clever idea.

All this culture has made us thirsty and hungry, so we leg it to the Mercado Central and prop ourselves up on stools at Bar Central to indulge in a glass of cava (and food) to salute our 27th wedding anniversary – where have the years gone? Although the ‘official’ celebration will be in the evening, with the boys.

It is then time to meet Alex, who is taking us to see the St Nicolau Church, which has recently reopened to the public after a major restoration of the fresco covered walls and ceiling. Apparently the locals have flocked to see the restoration, and rightly so. The church is magnificent, breathtaking. A visiting scholar from the Vatican has likened the frescos, and the quality of the restoration work, to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. The audio guide does assume a level of knowledge about religious art and architecture that we heathens sadly lack, however we manage to figure most of it out. Even Pete is impressed by this church.


In Alex’s world it is now merienda time (that’s afternoon tea to you) as it is 5 o’clock. He hustles us towards a café that won the best sandwich in the world award last year. That is to be our merienda. He insisted that the sandwich was very small and we needed one each, but when it arrives it seems massive to us, and very rich. Not surprising, given it contains black pudding, olives, melted Camembert, a slice of grilled Pork and rocket leaves!!!! One for you Darryl Morris. We stagger out, grateful for the fact that dinner is not until 9pm.


Our walk through the city streets to our rendezvous point with Mark takes us past a multitude of street art. Valencia’s walls team with excellent examples of street art, and over the course of the day I have come to recognise some of the artists. Alex & Mark have done a street art walking tour, so Alex is able to tell me a little about some of the artists and their signature style.   If you are a lover of this type of art you must visit Valencia.


The next activity on the Alex tour of Valencia is a visit to a refugio under one of the civil service buildings. Here we learn about a terrible time in Spanish modern history, the Spanish Civil War. Valencia was bombed for 237 of the 982 days of the Civil War. The bombing was done by Italian planes given to Franco by his mate Mussolini, out of a base on Mallorca. The bombing aimed to prevent anyone entering or leaving the port and to terrorise the people of Valencia, a goal they certainly achieved. To protect the people, numerous public refuges were built under Government buildings and schools. After the end of the civil war, many destitute families were forced to make their home in the refuges that were dotted around the city.


The one we visit has recently been restored, with an accompanying exhibition. Unfortunately it is in Spanish, but with the help of the boys we glean an understanding of what it was like to live in those times. We are further helped by a fellow visitor, an 80 year old lady who is more than happy to tell us a little of her experiences. A time of fear and deprivation.


To cheer ourselves up we drop into the Centro Cultural Bancaja, where we have the good fortune to see an exhibition of work by an artist called Julian Opie. None of us had ever heard of him before, but we all loved his work – a cross between TinTin and Japanese animé, with a very clever use of technology thrown in. Apparently he designed the album cover for Best of Blur , if any of you are Blur fans (again draws a blank from me).

It is then time for a pre dinner drink in a tiny authentico bar:


Dinner turns out to be a night of some hilarity. We are the only customers in the restaurant, never a good sign. The waiter is eager but clumsy, not helped by the huge angled glass plates he has to deal with. Hang on to your wine glasses as the meals are served. The food leaves a little to be desired, particularly when Alex and I discover that what we thought was going to be duck breast was actually a large slab of duck liver. No thank you. But, there is no faulting the company, nor the excellent bottle of wine, so it was an enjoyable end to a great day.

Saturday morning we are up bright and early for our weekend excursion and overnight stay in the medieval walled town of Daroca (see where the red cross is on the map below). It was fascinating to see the changes in the landscape as we travelled 237km inland.

Our home for the night was Hotel Cienbalones – Hotel 100 Balconies. We took their word for it. We had gone all out and booked the superior room, which was huge and had its own little sitting area. But our schedule didn’t allow for much lounging, Alex had a long list of things for us to see and do.


First up was a visit to the church before it closed for lunch. We arrived just as a christening party was leaving, which meant one of the chapels was still illuminated. Plus, we had a lovely chat to the nun who was whisking away the baptismal water – she told us about the legend behind the church, which escapes me now but had something to do with battling armies, blood on a cloth, and a donkey. The bloody cloth is enshrined in the church and is brought out at 5pm for supplicants.


The rest of the churches in the town were closed, much to Pete’s relief, so we satisfied ourselves with a walk up to the city walls (which extend for 4 km around the town) and admired the view.


There were up to 114 towers in the walls, but few survive today.  There are however two main, imposing, gates into the city and a delightful water trough.


Some of the houses are held together with plaster, dodgy old wood and a wing and a prayer. All in all, a charming city, but not much to do as most things are closed to the public, and/or only in Spanish. We thought we might visit a winery but it transpires that they are currently closed to visitors as they are too busy doing wine stuff. The nearby Laguna de Gallocanta, which is usually teeming with birdlife, is also a no-go as the low water level has meant that the birds have flown to greener pastures.

We stop into the local bar, Méson Felix, for lunch. The local lads in the front bar assure us the food is good, and it is indeed honest, basic home cooking. Served by Felix himself I assume – a very jovial, but slightly grubby, mine host.


It is then into the car for a drive to nearby Calatayud, which turns out to be a beautiful old town, bustling with activity. The ‘modern’ city of  Calatayud was founded by the Moors, and their castle dominates the skyline (as well as providing a wonderful home for nesting storks).


In fact, the town was a poster child for religious tolerance and ethnic diversity in its day as there was also a significant Jewish quarter, and of course the Christians muscled in, so numerous churches abound. We discover in the church of San Juan that a young Goya painted the four scenes at each ‘corner’ of the main dome, something the locals are very proud of, and rightly so.

There are a couple of beautiful towers dotted around the town:

And the old Jewish quarter is a fascinating rabbit warren of houses and narrow lanes. Again, the locals are happy to chat and point you in the right direction.


All in all, a charming and fascinating town to wander around.


But, it was also bustling with activity. When we first arrived the centre of town was cordoned off for a bike race for young cyclists. We joined the throngs of cheering parents to watch as aspiring Tour de France winners hurtled round the streets, before retiring to one of the many outdoor cafes for our merienda, which in my case was an enormous gin tonic.


From here we could enjoy not only the riding, but the antics of the bucks party with their accompanying band:


and the procession for a neighbourhood patron saint, complete with her parade of drummers:


On our wander we even meet a local artist, Juan Carlos Blas, who was busily working away in his studio as we walked past and poked our heads in. A charming man, who works with found materials – creating wooden sculptures and paintings of oil and fabric.


We farewelled the sun from the Moorish castle, which provided beautiful views across the countryside.


Given the hour (remembering the sun sets around 8.30 to 9) we decided to stay in Calatayud for dinner, and after a few false starts (one place was booked out, another closed) we found the lovely La Dolores, which was heaving with happy eaters. Luckily they could fit us in, and we too were happy customers. Mark deserved a medal for driving us back to Daroca after all that food.

Sunday was another clear and sunny day, and the boys had some treats in store for us. First up was the village of Albarracin, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Spain, tucked as it is in a lovely valley and perched high on the hilltops. The village is virtually intact from its medieval days and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourism of course is its life blood, but even on this busy Mother’s Day Sunday there was space for us all.


Lunch was taken at the Hotel Albaccarin, where the jamon salad entree had us all in stitches – food for giants; enormous tomatoes and large slabs of jamon (they certainly didn’t use the fine blade on the slicer).


Then it was back into the car and a drive to Fanzara, which through a very clever initiative has become a street art museum, thus rescuing this tiny village from oblivion. There are now hundreds of street art pieces, from whole building size to tiny pieces tucked in secret places, and this is an ongoing project as new works will be added. Some are by world famous street artists, and I recognise many from Valencia. We spent a very happy hour and a half scurrying around the streets ‘bagging’ artists. We were often helped to spot them by the largely elderly residents, who have obviously embraced the project and taken ownership of the images in their street. Sadly, it was time to leave before we had seen them all. Here are just a snippet of what is on offer – yet another place we will have to return to.


We finally get back to Valencia around 9pm.  We have covered a lot of territory, seen some wonderful sights and had some priceless experiences. These boys are truly excellent tour guides, and we know ourselves to be very lucky. The evening ends with a tantalising spread put on by Mark, and even though I declared I couldn’t eat a thing, I managed to scoff most of the delicious fare. I swear I am bursting at the seams!


It is with sadness that we say Farewell to these lovely people, but needs must. A train trip to Madrid calls the next morning. Hopefully we will be able to repay their generous hospitality when next they visit Australia. In the meantime, here’s to long distance friendships.

Taking a Peek inside the Manchester Unity Building

I am a lover of all things Art Deco, and have admired the gorgeous gothic Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Collins and Swanston Street ever since I arrived in Melbourne in the late 70s. I’ve always wanted to take a peek inside; to get inside the bronze coloured lifts and be transported to the rooftop, and last Sunday I finally got my wish.

 

Turns out that it is actually very easy to do. One way would be to get your teeth attended to by one of the army of dentists that make up Smile Solutions, the main occupier and guardian angel of the building. The other way is much more pleasant – simply book into a tour provided by the downstairs 1932 Café, which are run on two Sundays of every month. You can book in for a breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea tour, which allows you to sit in the café and enjoy a meal before heading off for a guided tour of several of the floors occupied by Smile Solutions (http://manchesterunitybuilding.com.au/tours/).

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the meal itself – we had chosen a breakfast tour – but was pleasantly surprised. Mind you, the glass of bubbles at 10.15 on a Sunday morning helped give everything a rosy glow.


Breakfast done we assembled outside the cafe, bursting to see the glories inside. But first we admire the intricate mosaic floor and hear some of the background history of the building, which was constructed in 1932 and was the tallest building in Melbourne. It was a modern marvel of aesthetics and technology, and Melburnians would come into town just to visit the building – to travel on the city’s first moving staircase; to shop or to eat in one of the cafes or take tea in the tearoom.

Since its glory days the building has passed through several changes of ownership and her age was showing badly. Millions of dollars were needed for maintenance and restoration. In 2003 the building’s saviour appeared in the form of Dr Kia Pajouhesh, a dental practitioner with a passion for Art Deco and a flourishing dental practice. Since 2003 Dr Pajouhesh has slowly acquired floors in the building for his expanding practice, now called Smile Solutions, and has channeled his passion for Deco into restoration of the building. Who knew there was that much money in teeth! But, thank goodness there is, as this Grande Dame of a building is certainly looking pretty good now, with many of its features restored or reproduced.



After a wander through the hallways on the first floor we travel up in the lift to the roof terrace ( which was once a roof top garden restaurant, complete with trees and fountains), to admire the building’s crowning glory – the tower; ignoring the modern carbuncle adjoining it.


It is then into the Smile Solutions head office and the famous boardroom, which were described at the time by the Melbourne Herald as the finest offices in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to heritage protection, the boardroom has come through the decades relatively unscathed, and still boasts the original, massive, boardroom table. 


It has been a pleasant step back into the past. Thank goodness there are people with the monetary means who care about our architectural heritage, as it would be a tragedy to lose this beautiful building. The way she is looking now is really something to smile about.

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.


Into God’s Own Country

Today we cross the ‘border’ into Kerala, a state whose virtues have been extolled for the past 10 days by our Keralan driver, Rajesh. I must admit, it sounds an interesting state, boasting as it does the first democratically elected Communist government where the literacy rate is 100%; the women outnumber men, and are more highly educated;  no one person can own more than 15 acres of land; free housing is available for the poor; and has the highest wages in India.

But first, some excitement before we can cross the border. I had received an alert from SmartTraveller about a transport strike in Tamil Nadu, and they had considerately advised me to stay away from any protests as they can turn ugly quickly. We discuss the troubles with Rajesh as we set off from Banyan Tree, and before we know it the discussion has become more of a reality as our car is stopped by a lad on a motorbike. He has an intense conversation with Raj; much hand waving on both sides. Motorbike boy takes off, Raj stays put. He tells us that the man was saying we should not go any further as there are gangs along the road throwing stones at any vehicle without Tamil Nadu plates. Our car is from Kerala. Raj ponders what to do, but sees that cars are coming the other way so decides to proceed. At a nearby intersection we are flagged down by a policewoman who tells Raj to wait as soon there will be a police vehicle arriving to escort all non Tamil Nadu cars to the border. So we wait, and notice that all the shops are closed – most unusual. Eventually the police jeep arrives, with a long convoy of Keralan cars following meekly behind. We join the convoy to the border, but see no protesters at all – bit of a disappointment really now that we have the police riding shotgun! The border crossing is also something of a non event.


We are heading to Vellinezhi, a small village in Kerala known for its traditional dance and music.


We are staying at a place called Olappamanna Mana, a heritage home stay run by one of the leading families in the area. Olappamanna is their family name  (mana means house) and they are Keralan Brahmins (known as Namboothiris in Kerala). Generations have lived in the house, and the family was once immensely wealthy, but the Communist Government changed all that when they took away their land in 1970, with minimal compensation. The family has a long history and association with traditional Keralan art forms, and remain a revered and respected family in the district.


Now they take in paying guests, who stay in one of the houses on the property – simply furnished, dramatic with its black and white tiling.


The main draw card for tourists, apart from their fabulous pure vegetarian food, is to witness the Kalam Ezhithi Pattu, a performing arts ritual or blessing to the Goddess Kali that started at Olappamanna Mana centuries ago. The ritual is held in the family temple within the compound, and is performed some 125 times a year. We are not visiting on a scheduled Kalam Ezhithi Pattu day, but no problem – our travel agency has arranged it and paid in advance on our behalf, so it will be performed in our name (which means extra blessings and good luck for us).

The Kalam is a traditional picture made on the ground using naturally coloured powders. The patterns and colours are traditionally stipulated and rigorously adhered to, with the knowledge passed down to successive Kalam drawers. Our Kalam takes about an hour to draw. We visit it to check on progress after afternoon tea at the main house:


We are then instructed to take a drive in the local area before returning to shower and be ready for the drummer to summon us to the ritual at around 7.15pm. So Rajesh takes us to see another temple in the area, which I must say is rather small and insignificant, although apparently quite important. The river it sits beside is lovely though.


Much more interesting is the local tug-of-war competition that is happening behind the temple as part of the locals’ Onam celebrations. We watch for a while, while they in turn watch us. It looks like great fun. And the ladies are lining up to have a go as we leave.



We get ready for our ritual, admiring the full moon from our balcony. At 7.30 we hear the drums start beating, so hurry down to witness the ritual. The son and heir has changed into his simple temple outfit, as his little 5 year old boy, looking cute enough to eat! 



The ritual takes about 40 minutes and involves muttering and tossing of flower petals by the young priest; drumming; a bit of guitar type music; an older man wearing red & gold with bell anklets walking round the Kalam before we get a blessing mark on our forehead and rice thrown over us.  A local family has also come to see the ritual, and Rajesh our driver has also joined in, so we are a blessed group of 7, together with the son and grandson.  At the completion of the ritual the Kalam , or drawing, is scrubbed out. All that work gone. Fascinating.


Then it is up to the family home for our evening meal. The meal is again delicious ( we had already enjoyed a scrumptious lunch) and starts with a very yummy soup, served with an ingenious leaf spoon.


Although we thoroughly enjoy the meal it is not without its stress as we are eating in the Indian way with our hands, which despite numerous meals now eaten in that way I am not a fan nor am I particularly dexterous. And this is all under the watchful but kindly gaze of the entire family – rather scary patriarch, his wife, the son and his wife, the grandchild AND the ever smiling servant, all of whom stand to attention at the end of the table and smile and watch. Talk about performance anxiety. But, we manage without major incident. We all repair to the porch for pineapple pieces and polite conversation, before we deem it is acceptable to retire to our own abode. 

We are up and away fairly early the next morning as we have a long car journey ahead of us. It has been an interesting experience, and a privilege to have had a small look into the traditions and rituals that are so ingrained into local life.

 

The Amazing Chettinad Region

We are off again today, but not before we have a breakfast thali at our hotel, Mantra Veppathur. It’s the favourite so far of our wonderful Southern India breakfasts:


And it comes complete with a South Indian coffee pouring demonstration by Rajarajan, which is identical to pulled tea that we have seen in Asia.


And also not before our car is given a Blessing for good luck:


Suitably blessed we are on our way to Kanadukathan in the heart of the Chettinad region, but we will take a small detour first to visit the Big Temple in Tanjavur – which is officially known as the Brihadraswera Temple. I must admit it is very impressive, and much less painful for us as today we have come armed with socks!


We are highly amused by the temple security. You will see in the photo below that everyone must enter to the left so that they can go through the scanner. We dutifully went through it, the buzzers sounded loudly and neither of the security guards so much as looked up from their phones! We saw this happen to others repeatedly. Ah India.


There are scores of schoolchildren visiting the temple, and big family groups. Watching them is as fascinating for me as the temple is:



But, I drag my attention back to the temple, and it is very beautiful.




From here we have a couple of hours drive, with our only stop being to buy cashews from the roadside sellers ($8 for 500 gms). The cashews are roasted in their shells, using the old burnt shells as fuel, then cracked open with a stone by these ladies. There are numerous stalls clustered together in one small stretch of road. Rajesh says the price has gone up 100 rupee in the last 12 months.

Our arrival at Kanadukathan is a revelation. The small village, about the size of a postage stamp, sits plonked in a dry red dust plain, flat as a tack for miles. But within this small space sit some 100 magnificent mansions, on red dirt roads, in varying states of disrepair.


 And it turns out that Kanadukathan is not alone – many of the villages in this region have decaying mansions in them. To understand why we must learn about the Chettinad people.

The Chettiars were traders and merchants of salt, gems, textiles and jewellery. They travelled extensively, to places like Burma, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Cambodia.In the 19th century they moved into banking and finance, growing and consolidating their wealth. The combination of great wealth, travel and importing exotic goods resulted in the building of huge mansions that used a combination of styles from around the world, and were stuffed with treasures. The mansions housed all wings of the family comfortably and were very much the ancestral home. However, with migration of many Chettiars to places like Burma and Sri Lanka, and changes in fortune of subsequent generations, the homes have fallen into disrepair. 

Some are being restored, some have been ‘modernised’, some have become home to many disparate families, and many are empty. Most have stayed in family hands but the family may no longer live in the village, having moved away for work. Many struggle with the upkeep of such huge places, especially if their visiting is restricted to major family celebrations. But for us, who don’t have to worry about the practicalities of all this splendour, it is a truly amazing sight to wander around the village and ogle these wonderful buildings.


We have the pleasure of staying in one, a hotel called Visalam (http://www.cghearth.com/visalam). The mansion was built by a prominent banker for his beloved daughter as a wedding present, but was never actually lived in, rather was used for family ceremonies. The mansion is still owned by the family but has been leased to CGH Earth Experience hotels, who have poured love and attention into the house (and pay more than lip service to environmental claims). 



Our room is simply furnished, and vast in size. On the floor are red and black tiles with a Japanese lacquer feel, but are from the neighbouring village of Athangudi. It is all very beautiful, and the staff are universally delightful. And we have their full attention as we three are the only guests staying here.


This area is only really starting to get on the tourist map, so as we wander the streets oohing and aahing, we in turn are being examined. Everyone smiles, and most say Hi. The children in particular love to wave at us.



Next morning, after breakfast under numerous watchful and attentive eyes, we go out with Rajesh to explore a bit more of the area. But first we stop off at the local Sunday farmers market:




Then it is on to the tile making town of Athangudi but because it is Sunday none of the tile makers are open, which is disappointing – although Rajesh gives us a pretty good description, with diagrams, of how they are made. But luckily one of the old mansions is open for us to have a look inside, and the main reception hall is magnificent – Italian marble columns, detailed carvings on the ceiling with gilt trim, painted decorations.




We also visit the main town of the area, Karaikudi, which has a street of antique shops that sell off the bits and pieces from the mansions. Kitta and I could have bought our Burmese  lacquerware here! And a coveted tiffin box. But, we resist the temptation. Pete does however purchase yet another mortar & pestle to add to the collection, and I spy a beautiful but rundown old deco theatre.


Apart from its glorious mansions Chettinad is also famous within India for its food, which is deemed one of the spiciest and aromatic in all of India. A wide variety of spices are used in every dish. So, in the afternoon we venture into the hotel’s kitchen for a cooking demonstration. In the space of 20 minutes the lovely local lady, overseen by what seems to us to be the teenage aged Head Chef, whips up a delicious Chettinad chicken curry for us to sample.


The dish uses the usual suspects of star anise, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilli, bay leaves and so on. But added in there is a spice completely new to us, kalpasi, which is a lichen known locally as the black stone flower. We are not sure if any old rock lichen back home will do the trick.


We end the day with another walk around the village, and have the good fortune to find one of the mansions open. Whilst it lacks the grandeur of the one earlier in the day :


we are able to climb up to the roof and get a view over the village:


Then it is back to the hotel, as even at 6pm it is still hot and our G&T’s are calling. We dine like royalty poolside, with candles on the tables and more jokes from our aspiring comedian of a waiter (I must say it is pretty darn impressive to be able to pull off a joke in a second language). All in all our last two days have been a special experience.