Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Spring flowers and glorious gardens

A few years ago on an autumn trip to France, I planned a trip to Giverny to visit Monet's gardens. I even bought a ticket to the museum when I visited the Orangerie Museum in Paris. Unfortunately when the day came to take the 45 minute journey out to Vernon, I was really unwell and ended up spending the day quietly in the Luxembourg Gardens instead.

But when I finally got there and stood in the dew soaked gardens of Monet's house and looked at the mass of spring flowers under a  deep blue sky, I couldn't be anything but grateful for that upset stomach a few years ago. Spring time in Giverny is absolutely breathtaking.

I caught an early train out of Paris and arrived at the village in time for the opening and headed straight to Monet's house and garden to beat the crowds that were enjoying a Sunday trip out of the city.  

Monet moved to Giverny in 1883 and lived in the house for the last 43 years of his life with his second wife and eight children in their combined family. He loved gardens as much as he loved painting and apparently he conceived a plan of how they should look and spent a lot of time having things constructed the way he liked. He was entranced by the light and the colours and reflections on the water - and we all know how famously that enjoyment turned out.

My first stop at the site was to walk through the house. Going through historical houses can often be a frustrating experience. You are crammed in with crowds of people, you can't touch anything and often the places feel so sterile that you can't imagine anyone has ever really lived there. But the proportions of Monet's house are surprising and the colour and furnishings really give it a wonderful feel. The studio sitting room on the ground floor is full of light and hung with paintings and the you can see that the large yellow dining room was used by families for the riotous dinners that were cooked in the blue kitchen. Upstairs, the light airy bedrooms have huge picture windows that look out into the gardens below.

The gardens themselves were an absolute delight to wander through. Around the house are the lawns, walkways and kitchen gardens. Then you walk down some stairs and through a walkway to get to the famous water gardens. There are pathways around the outside of the water garden where you can wander alongside a fast-moving stream that is set with cherry trees before you take the inside pathway into the pond.

Pansies, violas, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, apple trees, cherry trees and hundreds of other flowers I couldn't identify - they were all there and all blooming furiously. The only thing that wasn't actually in flower were the water lilies on the pond itself.

It's slightly surreal to see the green Japanese bridge and the weeping willows draping gently into the water that featured in so many of the most well known paintings of the Impressionist era. I sat on a bench and tried to imagine what it must have been like when it was just the private home of a family but there were just too many gasping tourists to be able to really see it. I think that the tribe of gardeners who care for the property probably have one of the best jobs in the world to be able to work in such beautiful surroundings.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the village of Giverny. There is also the Museum of Impressionists, artists studios, restuarants and private homes. At the end of the village is the church where Monet and his wife are buried and there is also a monument to some soldiers who crashed their plane near the village during the Second World War. 

Between the perfect spring weather, beautiful surroundings and fabulous flowers, I had a perfect visit to Giverny and I won't forget it in a hurry. It's certainly been one of the highlights of my trip so far.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Four days in Paris is never enough

After a couple of restorative days with my family in Germany, it was time to pack up my bag of lovingly washed clothes (thanks Auntie!) and head to my next destination - Paris.

I've been to Paris many times, but there is always so much to see and do that I still haven't covered off my long, long list and I was hoping to tick off a few more places on this trip.

On the advice of a friend, I had booked a little hotel on the Champ de Mars, just down the road from the Eiffel Tower and about 15 mins walk from Invalides. It was a charming little hotel and I had a room up on the fifth floor (thankfully they had a lift there!) which looked down onto the street below and even showed a little of the Tower above the buildings around it!

I hit the streets and walked towards Les Invalides, which is dedicated to the military history of France. There is a veterans hospital and retirement home in one corner of the site and a number of different museums which showcase different eras of France's military history. I really enjoyed the display of uniforms and armour through the ages and they had interspersed it with portraits of known soldiers and stories of different battles. They even had displays of decorated saddles for their horses.

The Dôme des Invalides was the most spectacular building, with a large golden domed roof and it's a church with the burial site for some of France's war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.

I walked around for a couple of hours and had a hot chocolate in the Angelina cafe in the grounds (another item I'd wanted to tick off my list as I'd heard it was some of the best hot chocolate in Paris. It was nice, but way too sweet for me and I didn't drink much) and then I wandered down to the Siene and along the banks until I came to the Eiffel Tower. The parks around it were full of people enjoying the evening sunset and also all the inevitable touts and beggars so I walked to the far end and settled on a bench to watch the sun set behind the fabulous monument and enjoy the evening. It's such a beautiful structure - I never get tired of looking at it.

The next day was Saturday so I walked into St Germain and wandered down towards the river. I stopped in Laudree for a delicious morning tea with mini croissants and a Madeline (my favourite little scallop-shaped cake treats) and a pot of tea and was rewarded with my only celebrity sighting of the trip. I never see anyone when I'm out and about (or maybe I just don't know who I'm looking at) but the amazing Australian actor Noah Taylor and his family were having tea at the next table and I was super thrilled to see them. I wanted to stop and tell him how much I loved 'The Year my Voice Broke' and 'Shine' but didn't want to interrupt, so I sent a mental message and moved on my travels. I stopped at an art shop to buy some of their beautiful watercolour paint and walked across the Siene and over to the Louvre to watch the crowds. Then I took the metro into Opera, which is in the heart of the shopping district and wandered around the shops for a little, enjoying the bustle of the Saturday afternoon shoppers.

When I headed back to my hotel, I found that an antique market had been set up for the weekend in the streets around the hotel so I wandered between the stalls, looking at antique lace tablecloths, beautiful china cups and saucers and a million different items that I would have loved to take home. But with no room in the suitcase, I bought nothing but a linen handkerchief and kept wandering.

For dinner, I had an amazing, superb picnic; sourced from the traders in the streets around me. I had a petite baguette from the boulangerie, cheese from the fromagerie, some salmon caviar and some jambon (ham) and a nice little salad from the deli. Sooooo good!

Germany to France - and back again

When you live just a few kilometres from the border, it only makes sense that you would jump over into France on a regular basis. Today we made the short drive into la belle France to explore a few of the local villages in the Alsace region. And eat lunch.

Our first stop was into the village of Haguenau. We parked on the edge of town and walked into the centre, with icy winds sweeping around us that made our cheeks glow and noses go numb. A sudden cold snap bought the temperature down and it was still only a very brisk 11 degrees at 11am.

After a warming coffee and croissant, we took a wander around the town, admiring the grey stone buildings and flashes of colour from flowering gardens. The town is a real mixture of French and German influences, with the traditional blue French street signs on ever corner, but many German influenced building styles.

The Alsace region has alternatively switched between Germany and France over the years and they historically spoke Alsatian, a Germanic dialect. Today they mostly speak French, but most people can switch into German easily enough which was helpful for my aunt and uncle - but not a lot of good to me. Luckily, the 10 words and five phrases I know in French kicked in and I was able to manage a few orders and payments in cafes.

I was feeling a little bit smug about remembering things I haven't spoken in nearly two years until we got talking to an old man in the street when our dogs were sniffing one another. He started chattered away in French until I had to admit that I didn't have the first clue about what he was saying. Then he thought for a minute and started speaking in slightly halting English. We talked for a bit and he said that in his youth he had learned a little English but hadn't spoken it in decades. I was so beyond admiring for this gent to be able to pull out enough of a language not used in so long to be able to have a chat to an Australian girl!

We feasted on a delicious lunch in a gorgeous little side street restaurant and then took a little walk around the town as we made our way back to the car. There were some lovely shops around and I was half tempted to go in and look at some sandles when I realised that the shop - in fact almost all the shops - were closed for lunch. The village is so traditional that they close between 12-2 every day for lunch. You'd never see that in Australia these days and I sort of had to admire them for keeping the work life balance going (although I really did want those sandles).

Our next stop was into the little village of Soufflenheim, which is about 20 mins away. The village specialises in pottery and we stopped into the Poterie Philippe Lehmann, who was an artist my aunt had read about and wanted to see. Their work was really beautiful and we looked at the red and blue blowls and plates and platters stocked around the showroom. It was all beautiful but there was no room in my suitcase for such heavy items so I only bought a little heart shaped hanging ornament.

Finally we wandered down the main street through the town to stretch our legs and enjoy the sunshine. It had warmed up to 19 degrees and the wind wasn't as cold so it was really nice. I dawdled at every strip of flowering tulips, hyacinths and pansys and admired the beautiful colours.

Then it was only a short drive down the autobahn and over the Rhine river and we were back in Germany and home again.


Visiting western Germany

When I left Prague I went back to Dresden to meet my friend for lunch and a final catch-up before I had to catch the train for the four hour journey back to Frankfurt. The next morning I got back on another train and headed to Baden Baden for a few days.

Baden Baden is a charming spa town on the western edge of Germany; and also the place my aunt and uncle live.

My relatives had moved home since my last visit and were living in a little town on the outskirts of Baden Baden near the French border (you could actually see into France from the street). The area has lots of small farms and while they live in a normal street of houses and flats, their back windows look up to a vineyard and I lay in bed each morning and watched the sun come up over the vines.

Spring has well and truly sprung in Baden Baden and every garden was full of blooms. Lawns boasted patches of tiny daisies and bluebells and there were streets edged in flowering cherry trees and almond blossoms. There was even a little tulip farm around the corner!

After a rapturous reunion and catch-up on the news, we went for a drive around the area and popped into the city for lunch and a hot chocolate in a little cafe.

The next day we drove to a nearby town to check out a local linen maker that designs and manufactures their materials on the premises. The building was set on a larger block and had rows of flowering trees running down the hill.

People in this corner of Germany really love to celebrate Easter and everywhere we went, we saw seasonal decorations of rabbits, eggs, ribbons and chickens on homes, balconies, shops and even in town squares.

After a pleasant afternoon meandering around different areas, we went home for a nap and then my aunt cooked me the most amazing coq a vin for dinner. She is an awesome cook so it was a completely delicious meal. So spoiled.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Prague - part two

On Sunday morning I decided to walk to the castle up on the hill. It was a cool, crip morning with no fog at all and the walking was easy until I hit the bottom of the hill and started up the stairs. I walked and climbed steps and walked and climbed steps and had just stopped for a mid-climb break when I heard a band begin to play a catchy tune, so I hit the steps again and came out at the top of the hill, overlooking the city. What a view! The morning had warmed up and covered the city in a light haze and the breeze was blowing among the cherry trees and drifting petals down the hill. Behind me, people were walking around the square in front of a church and there was a small band playing music to entertain the visitors.

I bought my entry ticket and walked around the outskirts of the church and the square inside; watching the people and deciding where to start. But as soon as I was out of the sun it got quite cold so I stopped for a coffee. Once I was warm and fuelled, I entered the castle and wandered around the areas open to the public, reading the boards which gave information about the spaces.

After a quick walk through the church and one or two of the other buildings I walked down to the gardens and had a doze in the sun and then started down the hill again through the public gardens. The place was full of people enjoying the sunshine and it was a pleasant place to linger but I was hungry and wanted to find a place for lunch so I didn't linger. I was walking along a pathway, looking for the right place to get back down to the river when I came across the most beautiful old building sitting on the side of the hill. When I got closer I discovered that it was actually a restaurant and also that it boasted the most amazing view; looking out over four bridges spanning the riverbank. It was a view of Prague that I'd seen on postcards around town and wondered where it was - and I'd found it!

I scored a table on the balcony and ate roasted duck breast in plum sauce with dumplings and it was amazing. You have to be grateful for a day when you stumble across the perfect place to spend a Sunday lunch. :-)

A few hours later I finally finished walking down the rest of the hill and crossed back into the city to take a tour of the Jewish synagogue and cemetery. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the old town, finding picturesque courtyards and arty streets and looking down on the city from the top of the town hall viewing platform. Prague is truly a charming city and it's just made for lingering and walking.

Nearly 20,000 steps later my feet gave up the ghost and I had dinner at a stunning restaurant across the square from my hotel where I had pork medallions with wild mushroom risotto and local beer. The food on this trip has been amazing so far!

A few days in Prague just isn't enough time to really explore every corner of this charming city and I was sorry to pack up for the return journey to Germany at the end of my visit. It's easy to get around (unless your are bad at following map directions like me!) The people are friendly and everyone I met had some English, so communication was never a problem. The food was consistently amazing and the beer was very good and cheap. I'll definitely be back!

Sunday, 16 April 2017


Ahh, Prague. Its everything I dreamed about and more. 

This was a destination I always wanted to visit and when I looked on the map it was only a short trip from Dresden so it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The bus trip takes about two hours but you pass the border into the Czech Republic in about 20 mins. I arrived on the road across from the main train station and went to get some money changed before I decided to walk to the hotel.

My map app told me it was only about 2.2km so I put in my headphones, hefted my backpack onto my shoulders and set off down the road; following the instructions as I walked.  At first it was easy, but then I started getting random instructions: " in 10 metres turn left at Sueickslekaljkeks street". What the? There were multiple left turns and I couldn't see the name of the street written anywhere. I turned left and tried for the next instruction.  "In 200m turn right at Tkdkaldfjaklsdlfnankdlfjdf."  Sure!

One and a half hours later, I decided that this was a cosmic plot to make me explore random areas of the city and tried to find a cab.  Nothing. I kept walking and seemed to be getting slightly closer to the destination but was still (and had been for an hour and a half) 35 mins from my hotel. 

Half an hour later I finally found a cab driver who took one look at my destination and told me I was just around the corner. He sent me off in a different direction and sure enough I found it 10 mins later. A 30 min max walk had taken more than two hours. But I had seen a lot of the city I guess. I'm really crap at reading maps!

I'd booked a hotel right in the middle of the old town so I walked down old cobble stone streets sided by charming old buildings of sand and ash coloured stone and found my hotel in the middle of a bustling maze of little streets. I checked in and scored a room on the top floor which would have been perfect except that there was no lift and I'd already walked my feet sore. I had a quick nap and went out to explore the area. I'd come in from one side so I turned the other way to wander and..... walked into fairyland.

The sun had dropped low and all the lights were on and I was standing in the middle of a courtyard under the astronomical clock. Across the square was a large Disney-like church lit up with dramatic lighting. People were wandering around in the hazy dusk and exclaiming at the beauty of it all and I joined them enthusiastically. It was just so, so pretty.

After a little walking around, I started looking for a place to eat and settled on a restaurant a little off the main drag. The waiter obligingly found me an outside table away from the ever-present smokers and gave me a blanket for my legs. I ordered a pork knuckle and local beer (Pilsner). A little while later a giant - and I do mean giant - piece of meat arrived, all crispy and brown on the outside and succulent on the inside. With little roast potatoes, mustard, horseradish and sauerkraut it was truly a delicious feast. I hacked my way around the big bone and hoovered up the delicious meat and slurped down my beer. Heavenly!

The next morning I dressed early and hit the road by 7.30, walking along cool, misty streets. I came out onto the river up from the Charles Bridge and walked along enjoying the fresh breeze and watching the swans laze along the banks of the river. The city was hosting a half marathon in the morning so there were lots of people out setting up for the event and runners strolling along the course and warming up. I stopped for photos along the way and then walked under the street to come up at the Charles Bridge. The famous bridge is adorned with religious sculptures along the sides and it spans the river beautifully. Stall holders had set up along the bridge and people were strolling and browsing and stopping to take photos of the castle up on the hill and the buildings set against a perfect blue sky.

I wandered along the river on the other side, ducking in and out of little side streets to look at the view from different angles and stopped to watch children feeding the many swans who live on the river. Then I crossed back again on another bridge further down the river. By now the marathon had started and the streets were full of runners and supporters and passers-by. Everyone was cheering and yelling and blowing horns and making a fun-filled racket. It was great. 

The city had also kicked off their Easter celebrations and a market had been set up in the middle of the square with stalls bedecked with Easter decorations and flowers and ribbons. A stage sat off to one side with entertainers of all kinds and there was a big maypole strewn with coloured ribbons. I bought some lunch and sat near the statue to watch the people and rest my feet.

Later that evening I went back to the river to find a nice spot to get some sunset shots. I found a cafe on the other side of the riverbank and set up my little tripod. The sunset wasn't spectacular, but a beer and a snack and a few photos later, I was quite a happy camper. 

Stay tuned for part two....

Friday, 7 April 2017

Discovering Dresden

After a night in Frankfurt, I took a train to the east of Germany to Dresden to visit a friend who is living there for a few months to study. The friend was one I met on a tour in France a few years ago and I was excited about having a mini reunion in her new home town and seeing the sights.

And Dresden doesn't disappoint. The capital of Saxony has a really different vibe to the central and western areas of the country and I liked its laid back vibe.

Despite having a terrible cold and being quite unwell, my lovely friend met me at the train and took me for a walking tour around the city before we headed back to her flat.

We started in the city center and did a walk around the historical Altstadt (Old Town) and then made our way to the city centre of Dresden-Neustadt. We walked up to the top of the Zwinger Palace (more about that later) to see the gardens and then walked past the Catholic Church and the Sempervivum Opera before heading back to her flat to make pasta and catch-up on all the news.

The next day my friend's illness really caught up with her so I set out on my own to explore the town while she found a doctor and some good medication.

I wandered around the city for a bit, enjoying the sunshine and cool breezes and all the different little touches that make new places so interesting.

The traffic walk/stop signs in Dresden are kind of special and interesting and have a cool story behind them. Rather than the little stick figures we usually see, these Ampelmännchen or "little traffic light men" were designed in the early 1960's with the aim of differentiating between the stop and go with shape and colour so that even people with colour blindness could see them. After the reunification of East and West Germany, there was a push to get rid of them because they are a purely East German feature, but the public pushed back and today they are there is a whole Ampelmännchen memorabilia industry and you can buy "walking man (or women) bags and t-shirts and postcards. Not particularly high-brow culture, but I found it interesting.

One of the things I always associated with Dresden was the city's porcelain and I was interested to see more of it. Porcelain isn't actually made in Dresden, but has been manufactured out of Meissen since 1705 and is still made there today. I didn't have time to visit the town but I dropped into the Meissen shop in one of the bigger hotels to look at the famous work and gape at the prices.

I fuelled up with a veal schnitzel with mushroom sauce and a beer in a courtyard cafe and then wandered down to the Elbe River to look at the view and then walked up to the Zwinger, which is a fabulous Baroque building. The gardens in the Zwinger courtyard are just beautiful and the buildings around them hold different museums you can visit.  I started with the porcelain museum which holds some of the extensive collection of August the Strong (yes, he was really known for that). August really had a thing for porcelain and not only collected it from all over the world, he also captured and enslaved the guy who eventually began Meissen porcelain; thus creating the local industry and creating pieces he thought could rival the Chinese techniques. [Item, while enslaving a man and making him make porcelain isn't very nice, the guy was claiming that he was an alchemist and could create gold, so there was a little justification for the action!]

The other side of the building had an extensive gallery and I wandered around the paintings until it was time to meet my friend for kaffee and kuchen (coffee and cake) to refuel and catch-up on our days. 
Then we wandered into the Frauenkirche (the Church of Our Lady) which has been reconstructed after being completely destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War (it wasn't finished until 2005). It's a very pastel-pretty church upstairs, but the elements of the original church in the basement are lovely and well worth a visit.

While a scant two days aren't enough to really see everything, having a local guide made all the difference and I'm so glad I got to explore this interesting area of Germany.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

First day lessons

The first day of holidays are always a juggle. After a setting out from home and travelling for more than 24 hours, your body - very reasonably - wants to do nothing but climb into a real bed and catch-up on some much needed sleep.

But your brain is waaaaaayyyy to excited to do something so mundane. You've been planning and counting down to this trip for ages and now it's finally here. You can sleep anytime!

Its also kind of practical to get out and get some sunshine, fresh air and exercise after being stuck on a plane for such a long time. So out you go and you walk, and walk, and walk for as long as you can stay awake.

But walking too long on the first day can bring its own problems. Hiking boots that haven't been on my feet since last winter need a little time to settle in. Give yourself a blister on the first day and you'll be in pain for a fortnight and your can't rest it because then you might miss something. And energy fuelled by coffee and excitement can be a bit fickle. One minute you are happily striding along and enjoying the view, the next you are drooping with tiredness and wishing you weren't quite so far away from your hotel.

It also takes a few days to get your travel persona settled so that you put out the right vibes. I'm usually aiming for relaxed and chilled, with just an edge of 'don't mess with me'. A tour guide I met once called it "getting your Italian on", and whenever I travel, it's like a coat I mentally wear.

She took it to mean that you are assertive and firm and don't  get pushed around. It means you stand tall and project an aura of 'don't mess with me' - all in the nicest possible way of course. I practice studied indifference on trains, look purposeful when walking and I wait to get off the main drag before checking my map.

I also choose my bench seats in parks with care. Settle yourself on a park bench in Brisbane and you'll likely be accosted by a few hungry Ibis or a pigeon or two. Pick the wrong part of the park in Europe and you'll get beggars or hagglers. It pays to choose with care.

Today I wandered the streets of Frankfurt city, looking at the skyscrapers and shops and then wandering down to the Opera house and the old district. Many of the trees are still bare and brown, but there are pockets of spring coming out; with tulips flowering in gardens and cherry blossoms shedding petals over the ground in a pale pink carpet. There are buds on the chestnut trees and the sky is lovely and blue.

After walking for a few hours, I stopped at an Italian restaurant for lunch and faced the other part of first day travelling I always have to get used to. Solo dining. As I walk through the crowded restaurant and get settled at a table alone, I always have to remind myself that people are much more interested in themselves then they are in me and that they aren't really staring. And if that fails, I go back to my number one rule when travelling - they're never going to see me again.

Want to put your hair in plaits for the day but worried you'll look like an aged hippy? No problem, they're never going to see you again. Want to order creme brûlée for morning tea? Go for it - they're never going see you again. Walk into a swanky cafe in jeans and hiking boots and ask for a table for lunch? Smile bright, ask politely and remember that they'll never see you again. Works like a charm - until the day they actually do see you again.

I turned up at the same hotel in Avignon on two different tours a few years ago and they clocked me straight away. Have you stayed with us before? Yes, yes I have. Yes, I was one of the people on that tour who sat up till 2am drinking wine on the rooftop bar - and I'll probably do it again this year.

It doesn't matter does it? After all, they aren't going to see me again......

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Greetings from Germany

So it's just after 6am in Frankfurt. It's dark outside and I've just landed after travelling for something like 28 hours from home.  I don't speak the language, I don't know where my hotel is and I'm not sure how I'll get there - and I can't even check in for another 7 hours. Oh, and it's 5 degrees outside.  But none of that matters and I can't wipe the smile off my face. It's good to be travelling again!

A remarkably smooth trip this time, despite the fact that I came straight through and flew two different airlines along the way. There was an empty seat next to me on the sector to Singapore and the time flew by really easily. I paid to have a shower at the hotel in the airport, had a meal, a big walk and then a nap in the tranquility lounge. The sector to Frankfurt was in premium economy and let me tell you - it was worth every penny. Super comfy seat that reclined further than a normal seat and had a nice footrest. I lucked out and got the front row so there was no one in front of me and only one other chair. I actually got some sleep!

Now I'm sitting in a cafe with a cafe creme and watching the airport come to life around me. The woman at the table next to me is doing the crossword and some Asian tourists behind me are chattering away at a million miles an hour. Across the concourse, I can see people waiting around the arrivals gate for friends and relatives to arrive. A couple of young men have a homemade sign for someone they are meeting. It's pink and sparkly and they are holding it up high as they peer through the gaps in the gate to look out for their arrival. A tall guy in jeans and a hat is standing waiting with a single, long stemmed red rose. Who ever can he be meeting? My guess is that he has been conversing with a girl over the internet and she is flying out to meet him. He looks too shy for it to be someone he knows well.

The girl at the cafe is from Greece and we just had a lovely chat while she made my cafe creme. She tells me she's been here two and a half years, but while it's good that she can make money here, she needs the sun too much and she's going to go home at the end of the summer. What interesting lives people lead!

I'm going to linger over my book for an hour or so and wait for the sun to come up and then catch a taxi to my hotel and leave my bags while I go out for a wander around the city.

Update: the hotel let me into my room early which is just the best bonus ever. So now I can have a shower and clear my head before going out.  A very good beginning :-)
© Expressionate
Graphics for Website Background by Sassy Designs