Off to the East Coast

Christchurch is our next destination so it is across to the east coast we go, climbing into the mountains before descending to the Canterbury Plains. There are small patches of snow on the mountain summits, but I struggle to imagine how it would look covered in white.

The changes in the terrain as we head up, up, up, then slowly down, down, down is fascinating. Even the flowers have changed, with wild foxgloves giving way to beautiful wild lupins, and then patches of yellow gorse.

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The thought that men carved through these mountains by sheer physical labour boggles the mind; and vestiges of the old Cart track can be glimpsed.

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Lord of the Rings has been a bonanza for tourism operators throughout this land, with every opportunity to exploit the link grabbed with gusto, as we discover as we arrive at Otira.

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Descending from Arthur’s Pass the hills change character again, becoming an interesting montage of dirt, gravel and hardy grasses and the occasional rocky outcrop.

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As we approach Christchurch the land is completely flat, our hill climb but a memory. But not for long, as we are actually staying in Governors Bay, so must climb the rim of the crater that surrounds the bay. The whole area is in fact a series of (hopefully) extinct volcanoes, with the various craters merging together like honeycomb. It is a crazy cyclist’s dream as there are an endless number of steep hills to climb, with gradients that would break many a heart. The local car hoons and motorbike riders are also in their element as they attack the curves and steep ascents and descents with gusto, and noise.

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Before Governors Bay we stop off in Lyttelton, a township that suffered badly in the 2011 earthquake, which was centred just outside the township. The port seems to be back in full swing, as containers line the wharf and trucks beetle back and forth, and London Street is definitely open for business, with new funky cafes and shops, but it has been a hard struggle back, and many properties are still waiting to be repaired.

The road from Lyttleton snakes around the bayline to Governors Bay. Sitting pride of place is the Governors Bay Hotel (  http://www.governorsbayhotel.co.nz/)  owned by friends of ours from Elwood Primary days, Jeremy & Clare. They have turned what was once a down at heel hotel into a thriving gastro pub, catering to very happy locals and tourists alike. As we arrive on a hot Friday afternoon, the locals are gathering, eager to end their week on the lawns, enjoying the Bay breeze and the bay views. Clare and Jeremy dispense drinks and food with a welcoming smile for all; making all the hard work look effortless.

The hotel has 7 rooms upstairs, 4 of which open out, through French doors, onto the upstairs verandah and the views across the bay to Quail Island. The pub does a pretty good accommodation trade, and the verandah can often resemble the United Nations, with a variety of accents holding forth.

We join the crowd on the deck, and soak up the warmth, the views, the wine and the excellent food. Joined eventually by the exhausted mine hosts, ready to share a cleansing glass or two.

Next day is devoted to exploring Christchurch, which is still a building site. But slowly, a new city is emerging from the horror of the 2010/2011 earthquakes. And one day it will be lovely again as they seem to have planned in a lot of open space, and inner city living.

As always my eye is taken by the street art; many walls have been given over to large street murals.

We visit the temporary cathedral, and the White Chair memorial to those who lost their lives. And, the remains of the old Cathedral, where a lively Korean Festival is taking place.

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Lunch is at Madame Woo, providing some much needed Asian food for Himself.

Then a visit to The Tannery complex and a mooch around the shops before heading back to the Governor for drinks, and dinner, on the deck.

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Sunday we devote ourselves to exploring the Banks Peninsula, setting out to circumnavigate it in a clockwise direction. As you travel around the coastline you get wonderful views of the crater walls, and the various bays that cluster around the coast.

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Our first stop is Diamond Head, where we discover, to our joy not one but two coffee places to choose from. We choose the one on the left, that may or may not be called Preserved , a Café come home brewery come Cooking school. It has a deck and seats out the back that provide grand stand viewing over the sports oval behind it.  Clare tells us later that she used to watch her sons play sport from the comfort of the cafe. The coffee is made by a biker looking guy who tears himself away from his home brew making, and would you believe it turns out to be the best coffee I’ve had in NZ thus far. He is thrilled when I tell him so.

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We carry on, sticking to the coast road, which turns out to be a winding one lane dirt road until we get to Pigeon Bay. Luckily we only came across one other car, and it was in a spot that he was able to edge across, allowing us to squeeze past ( do hope the rental agreement didn’t mention staying on bitumen only – there’s been a lot of dirt roads on this trip!).

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Pigeon Bay is quite the hive of activity – turns out there is a bitumen road into it from the other side of the peninsula. There is a junior boat race in full swing, and we spy a sign advertising high teas outside the village hall. How can one pass that up? So, we slam on the brakes and hop out. Have we made a booking we are asked. Well, no – who would have thought that one needed to, but it turns out that Deb puts on a highly sought after high tea in the hall on the first Sunday of the month. But, our lack of booking doesn’t prove to be an obstacle as Deb rustles up a table for us, although apologises for the lack of flowers on it.

We get talking to some of the fellow guests. One couple are local farmers, bemoaning the lack of rain. He agrees to stop wishing for rain until the 13th December, which is the day we leave! The other pair work at the nearby luxury accommodation, and since Googling it, do I mean LUXURY (check out Annandale Luxury Villas), and one of them is from Melbourne and used to work at Zartowa, Elwood’s very first café. How’s that for coincidence!

The high tea is a delight, and Himself is in heaven with the clotted cream.

Happily full, and with just a little bit of a sugar rush, we head off for Akaroa, a small French settlement, and major tourist attraction, on the peninsula. The cruise ships that used to dock at Lyttleton pre earthquake have defected to Akaroa, so at times it can be absolutely heaving with tourists.

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We wander up the street as far as the lighthouse, before heading back to the car and the return journey.

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That evening we dine, with Jeremy & Clare, at their son’s bar, Civil & Naval, in Lyttelton. Louis has been one of the pioneers of the revitalised Lyttelton, and the bar is abuzz with customers. The staff are all young and groovy; the vibe is laid back. There are almost more dogs than people, as all the locals seem to bring their dog with them, and one of the staff also has a dog. Add into the mix a resident cat and things can get quite rowdy!

The menu is small and designed around sharing, and everything we try is delicious. An excellent way to end our Christchurch sojourn, even if it does make me feel ancient to think that I last saw Louis as a small boy and here he is running a very successful establishment.

 

Windy Wellington

Flying into Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, can be a pretty hair raising affair as the plane skims across the often white capped water, squeezing between the hills surrounding the airstrip suspended in the strait. The slight anxiety was not helped by Pete’s dentist telling him the day before our flight that Wellington is one of the more dangerous airfields for landings due to the vagaries of the crosswinds. But, all’s well. Our only issue now is to front up to Customs with our hiking boots and poles, as all hiking/camping equipment needs to be inspected. My shoes are whisked off to be washed, and we are then cleared to go.

I am always charmed by this city, with its eclectic mix of architecture, and the homes strung around the coastline, all jostling for a Bay view. The lovely gothic wooden homes remind me of San Francisco, but many of the modern buildings are not to my taste. Currently several of the newer CBD buildings are covered in scaffolding, or in some cases, abandoned, thanks to last year’s earthquake, which definitely rattled the rafters.

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We are staying with friends in the Aro Valley, an easy 20 minute walk to the quay area, and just around the corner from buzzing Cuba Street. We celebrate our arrival with a couple of glasses of local wines before heading up the street to Rita , a new eatery in Aro Street that is already packing in the punters.

  • This is the place for the decision challenged as there is almost no choice. You are told what you will be eating, but you can add an extra starter and/or a pasta between entree and main and/or extra vegetables. The basic 3 course meal is $65, then you add the rest. Tonight we have kahawai (which is a New Zealand fish) with the freshest peas I have ever tasted, followed by lamb (and we added in a cos lettuce side) and finished with rum baba for dessert.

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The food is simple, with super fresh produce and beautifully cooked. The only downside is the noise, which is close to deafening. A small space, wooden floors, packed with happy customers. Bursting out into the street brings blessed relief to the ears, but we were certainly well fed.

Fall into bed, it’s been a long day.

We ease into Saturday; venturing forth after a leisurely breakfast. Cuba Street is our first destination, with its vintage shops and cafes. Thought this suit at Hunters and Collectors would be perfect for Pete.

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Time for coffee, so we head into Memphis Belle, where the young man persuades me to try their soy milk with the promise that if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t pay. And he’s right – the first soy outside of Bonsoy that doesn’t overpower the coffee. But, it is all the way from Denmark, or was it Norway – hardly good food miles. We rock along to Bye Bye Miss American pie whilst we sip away.

Wandering the laneways, full of street art, is reminiscent of Melbourne. As are all the cafés- Wellingtonians like their food, and coffee, as much as we do.

We spy an artisan chocolate factory and detour for a quick taste, and of course some buying – purely for emergency hiking supplies of course.

Then its down to the quay for a wander before hopping into the car for an explore of some of the Wellington coastline.

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Shelly Bay, with its views back to the city, and its array of old warehouses, is currently in hot dispute as to its future. Needless to say the developers have their beady eyes on it, but currently artists are happy to call the old sheds home. There is also a bustling seafood cafe, Chocolate Fish, famous for its fish sandwiches. After a poke around a couple of galleries and a chat to one of the charming resident artists, we find a table out of the wind to sample the fare. And, the grilled fish sandwiched between fresh white bread is surprisingly good, but perhaps my hunger helped.

Back into the car for more sightseeing, ending up on top of Mt Victoria for a quick overview of the city. The brisk wind makes this a short visit, but it’s time now to buy dinner supplies. We head into Moore Wilson’s and my heart skips a beat – what a fabulous food store, bursting with an amazing array of goodies. I could stay in there forever. Instead, we load the basket with wines, cheese, salmon and asparagus and head home for a feast.

Sunday has been earmarked for a visit to Te Papa but first we stop for a coffee, this time at Midnight Expresso, and a mosey through the Cuba Street shops.

Te Papa has a very moving exhibition about Gallipoli; the highlight being giant sized but incredibly realistic models of various soldiers, and one nurse, together with their stories. The conditions these men fought in, and the human carnage, is difficult to comprehend, no matter how many times you hear the story. Such a terrible waste of, usually young, lives. How terrified they must have been. Heartbreaking.

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Time for lunch. On a recommendation we seek out Charley Noble, only to find it closed tight. Not open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Go figure. But, rescue is at hand with, also recommended (thank you Clare), Shed 5. We make ourselves comfortable and watch the constant parade of passing people, whilst we enjoy the wine and food.

A quick pop into the Wellington Museum to check out their artisan’s market – nothing here to make us linger – then on to see the remains of  Plimmer’s Ark, a 150 year old wooden sailing ship that was discovered during the renovations of the Old Bank Arcade.

Followed by a meander through a few more shops as we wend our way back to Aro Street, where we have a cleansing ale at the local brew house, Garage Project. Wellington is awash with coffee shops and craft breweries; both very popular pursuits with locals and tourists alike. The small Garage Project Bar is pumping. We squeeze in and make our choice from the array of beers on offer – White Mischief for him, Petit Mort for me.

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Refreshed, it is a short walk back to ‘home’, and we end our stay with yet another beautiful meal cooked by Rochelle and Dean, washed down with more lovely NZ wines.

The night ends with a very Wellington experience – a 4.5 earthquake rattle, which wakes us with a start in the small hours of the morning. It is the loud noise that startles us more than the movement. Luckily Rochelle had warned us, so we knew what it was. Didn’t last longer than a minute, with some small shudders to follow. Talk about finishing our visit with a bang, but no damage done.

Thankyou Wellington, it’s been grand.

 

 

The last hurrah – the three Bs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.


A whistle stop tour of Melbourne

Keith, the elderly Yorkshireman we met on our Tour du Mont Blanc last year, dropped in this week for a quick visit en route to Queensland. What to show a fit and healthy 81 year old walking fanatic in one day???

We plan a route from Elwood into the city and back that combines walking with tram travel (a very Melbourne experience). First off, we walk to St Kilda along the bayside path – with whitecaps ruffling the normally flat bay waters:

 Turning inwards, we admire the twin St Kilda icons of Luna Park and the wonderful Palais Theatre, which is thankfully undergoing much needed maintenance work to ensure its glory lives on. As I stand to watch Keith take his photos I am reminded of the time Abby was a little girl and we took her to Luna Park in Sydney. She gazed up at the Sydney face and puzzled “Why is their man smiling but our man looks cross?”. She is right you know, the two entrances portray quite different emotions. 

   
 Photos taken we stroll along the Esplanade to the start of Fitzroy Street and catch a tram to the Domain Interchange.

  
It has been decades since I visited the Shrine of Remembrance, and it is a surprise to discover the beauty of it, enhanced now by 4 ‘wings’, or courtyards.

   
   
One of the courtyards has been designed as a tropical garden, its walls adorned with the names of towns that supplied recruits to fight in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War:

   
 
Another is dominated by a poppy sculpture:

  
Climbing to the terrace that encircles the top of the Shrine we get 360 degree views. Looking up St Kilda Road the new development adorned with the face of William Barak draws the eye – an inspired architectural landmark for the city.

  
  
Down we climb and make our way to the Royal Botanic Gardens. It is 12.30, so we stop at Jardin Tan to share a very pleasant al fresco Vietnamese inspired lunch:

   
 
Refreshed, we amble through the beautiful gardens:

   
   
Over the Yarra, past AAMI stadium towards the hallowed grounds of the MCG:

  
Through Birrarung Marr, which is full to bursting with stalls set up for the Night Noodle Market (here’s a tip – avoid the crowds and queues and go for lunch on the weekend, there was almost no one there and most of the stalls seemed to be up and running).

   
   
A tour around Federation Square and then into NGV Ian Potter Centre to see the Indigenous art collection:

   
    
  
Then on to ‘art’ of a different nature – the graffiti of Hosier Lane:

  
A peek into St Paul’s Cathedral, then a walk through the lanes and arcades that are so very Melbourne:

  

Block Arcade has some new sculptures to admire:

   
 
The 81 year old still seems pretty chipper, but Pete and I are definitely tiring by this stage, so it is a quick admire of Gog and Magog in the Royal Arcade:

  

before we nip into Koko Black for an iced chocolate to revive the flagging spirits:

  
Then we catch the light rail back to St Kilda, and a short walk home. Still so much to see – it will have to wait for his next visit. Hopefully, he has enjoyed his whistle stop visit to Marvellous Melbourne.

Singapore Stopover

All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately that means our Spain & Portugal odyssey. But, our last hurrah is a two night stopover in Singapore to decompress and break that awful flight.

I’m quite fond of Singapore. It isn’t all this:

  
You can still find pockets of this:

  
And art pops up in all sorts of places, like the metro stations:  

  
And then there is, of course, the food:

  
So, here’s our 48 hours in Singapore guide (for those who have been before and ticked off the main sights, and are mainly interested in eating).

Getting Around

Singapore is graced with a terrific metro system – frequent, clean, easy to use. You can buy a ticket that lets you put 6 trips on the card. After trip 3 you get the 10 cent cost of the card back. With trip 6 you get another 10cent discount. Each trip is purchased individually from a very simple ticket machine. Easy peasey (I’m looking at you Myki – why on earth did Melbourne feel it had to reinvent an already round wheel??). The only glitch is that you need to have small money – the machine won’t accept notes higher than $5 for trips less than $5. This means you have to hope there is a manned Service Booth (which more often than not there is) so you can get change for the $50 notes that come out of the ATM machines.

Getting to and from the airport is super easy – train from Changi Airport two stops, then walk across the platform to catch an East West line train (and then change to another line if needs be). It cost us $2.40 each to get to our hotel.

We ended up using the MRT a lot this trip (last trip we walked everywhere) due to a combination of the smoke haze, the heat and the very high humidity. So, we did spend a lot of time underground.

The other thing that makes Singapore so easy to navigate is signage. Boy, these people leave nothing to chance. Trust the signs and you will find your way anywhere. But, not happy with just signage they also have things that light up (on the trains) and/or talk to you (always with beautiful diction and enunciation) – the train talks, the platform talks, the lifts talk. Just a bit of overkill me thinks.

Our hotel

We stayed at the Adonis Hotel (http://www.hoteladonis.com), a small hotel in a heritage building not far from Raffles Hotel. Perfectly located a couple of blocks from Bugis MRT stop, which is on both the East West line and the Downtown line, and also easy walking distance to Clarke Quay, and in the other direction, the Arab Quarter, and Little India.

   
 
The staff were charming, and better still, from 5 – 6.30pm they have free drinks! Bonus. But, when they name a room Quaint Queen, be warned – Quaint is a euphemism for Tiny in Singapore. Our room was very pleasant but very small. To get in and out of bed I had to climb over Pete. And, his bag had to sit on the shelf above the bed. But, this is Singapore – accommodation is very expensive, and $ doesn’t always give you space. But, we were expecting this, so we managed.

  

Our first evening

With luck we arrived at the hotel in time for the free drinks, before walking down to the river front and the Makansutra Gluttons Bay hawker market (sits between the Theatres in the Bay and the Singapore Flyer), where of course we ate too much, but it was all delicious. The night was balmy and as an added bonus we nabbed a table facing the water so were able to watch the light display on Marina Bay while we ate.

   
    
    
 
We finished up just as the rain started, so scurried back to our hotel, from where we could hear the thunder storm later that night.

Next day 

The rain didn’t clear the smoke haze which is covering the City thanks to the fires in Indonesia, nor did it reduce the humidity. After a late breakfast we headed off to find the coffee house we had found 5 years earlier in Kampong Glam, in Kandahar Street to be exact. I was desperate for a good coffee after 7 weeks away, and much to my delight Maison Ikkoku ( http://www.maison-ikkoku.net) was still there, and still making a great coffee. 

   
 Caffeinated, we wandered around the Arab Quarter and Kampong Glam. There are wall to wall cafes, both old school catering for the locals, and more hip and happening places, catering for young Singaporeans as well as tourists. I had booked us into an afternoon food tour of the area but unfortunately we had received an email the night before cancelling the tour as we were the only ones booked on it. Disappointing as there looked to be some very interesting places to eat. We had to content ourselves with smelling and looking and thinking of what might have been.

 In the meantime, there was some street art to admire:

   
 
And of course the mosque, which is at the heart of the area:

    
Then it was back underground to train it to the Gardens by the Bay, which were under construction last time we were here. Incredible concept really – a zoo for plants. How on earth they managed to get what in some cases must be over one hundred year old trees to a) Singapore and b) to survive is beyond me. And, just like a zoo, it made me feel a little sad to see ancient olive and boab trees in this false environment. But, as Pete says, what an amazing gig for a horticulturist.

   
 
   
 As well as plants there are also sculptures scattered around the gardens.I was  particularly taken with this one, by French sculptor Bruno Catalana, called La Famille de Voyageurs (A Travelling Family):

   
 After several hours wandering the different zones, we again hit the MRT, this time to Chinatown for a late lunch, and a bit of a walk around the area. It was just starting to get going (in terms of boutique hotels and cafes) when we last here – more have sprung up since then. 

  
Again we found somewhere for a pretty decent coffee and a pastry (in my case, a very nice almond croissant), at a place called Bread and Hearth.

Time then to get back to the Adonis for drinks, before heading out to Chin Chin Eating House. A laminex table, plastic chopsticks, quick service, crowded with locals, noisy restaurant just a few doors up from the hotel.

   
   We opted for their signature dish of Chicken Rice, plus stir fried vegetables and a dish called Fish Salad, which turned out to be some sort of fried fish covered in mayonnaise. Once we had scraped the mayonnaise off, it was actually very tasty. 

   
   
After all that food we needed to walk it off, so wandered back to Kampong Glam to see what was happening with the groovy people. The cafes were packed, there was some live music in the street – it was indeed a happening place.

  
On our walk back to the hotel we stumbled across Parkview Square, one of the many tower blocks in Singapore, but this one is an attempt at a re-creation of the Rockefellow Centre in New York. It is an office block and houses several embassies but downstairs there is a bar. The wine rack is like a towering library bookshelf, and the wines are accessed by a  young woman who is winched up in the air, Peter Pan like, to retrieve the bottles. Very very bizarre.

   
    
 Last Day

The final day is always awkward when you have an evening flight – you have to juggle a midday checkout with your desire not to arrive at the airport all hot and sweaty. Our solution, spend most of the time in a restaurant!

So it was a leisurely breakfast, then checkout, followed by a walk back to Maison Ikkoku for coffee before taking the train to Marina Bay Sands where we had a 1pm booking for lunch at David Thompson’s newish restaurant, Long Chim (http://www.longchim.com.sg).

   
    
 To fill in time we had a bit of a wander around the shopping complex. It’s disgusting really – nothing more than blatant branded consumerism. It defies belief how there can be so many shops in Singapore – are there really that many people who just want to buy, buy, buy???

  
And then we had to be exposed to the horror of the gaming floor of the casino as Long Chim sits within the Casino at Marina Bay Sands. Luckily, you only look down on the floor as you walk to the restaurant, but that was enough for me.

  
The restaurant is quite large, and is based around street or hawker food – but not at hawker prices! The full menu looks interesting:

  
But, we opted for the lunch value menu – S$40 (excluding taxes & service charge). 

  
But of course, when you add in 2 glasses of wine each, the bill came to S$167!! However, the food was terrific and we enjoyed the experience. Next time maybe we will go the whole hog and do the tasting menu for S$88.

Fish cakes:  

Beef skewers (absolutely delicious):  
Kanom Jin noodles with tomato, pork and yellow bean sauce:  

Stir fried minced beef with chilli, basil and fried egg (not too spicy at all): 

Banana roti and Mango Sticky Rice (both very yummy):

 

Then it was time to collect our luggage and head out to the airport. So, that was our Singapore Stopover – food, and more food basically. Would you expect anything else?