Sunday, 18 January 2015

Descriptive Jottings Of London

Bruges Goose (really?)

Tim’s girlfriend Jess finally arrived, very weary, having experienced her own set of adventures.  Dinner had been booked at The Rose, a gastro pub, which had been given rave reviews.  Unfortunately, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that a number of various Christmas functions were taking place and the noise was increasing with every round of shots that were taken.  We decided to give up and return home with takeaway kebabs for dinner.  Welcome to London, Jess!

The next morning Michael and I headed to Orpington, leaving Tim and Jess to their own devices.  Margaret had kindly agreed to store some of Michael’s work gear so that we didn’t have to carry it with us for the next leg of our journey.  Margaret’s daughters and families were there to celebrate Peter’s birthday and we had a lovely cup of tea with them.  On our way back through the Orpington shopping strip we were lucky enough to see the Christmas parade riding through.  There were two Santa Clauses riding in pony traps with an assortment of elves escorting them.  It was all rather fun.


Michael and I took the chance to take in the Columbia Road flower market on the Sunday morning.  It is always good there and I was able to see real mistletoe for the first time.  I had only ever seen the plastic mistletoe that Michael’s mother decorates her hall with every Christmas.  We met Tim and Jess at Spitalfields Market and had a good pub lunch.  Then it was off to Brick Lane to show them the markets there. 


We checked out of our apartment in Fulham Broadway and moved to the Ibis near Euston Station.  Michael and I took a walk around Spa Fields, a lovely little area that Tim and I had stumbled upon the previous week.  There is a very nice food market held daily and we enjoyed lunch al fresco.   


Later, we met Tim and Jess at the Euston Tap House, a bar that specialises in boutique beer, which Michael has been dying to try.  They then went out for dinner with friends leaving Michael and I to dine alone.  We found a really nice family run Italian restaurant and had a great meal, all the while being entertained by a group of young ladies at the next table who talked loudly in Ali G accents. 

23 Minutes In Brussels

We met bright and early in the hotel lobby.  The idea was a leisurely walk to St Pancras International where we would have breakfast before boarding the Eurostar for Brussels.  We arrived at the station and had our breakfast before Michael went to check out where we needed to go to pass through customs.  He arrived back and told us that the queue was very large and that they were already prioritising our train’s passengers.  Poor Jess didn’t even have time to gulp down her tea.  Off we dash to the line and make our way through customs into the bag x-raying area.  Three of us go through without a hitch before Michael is pulled aside and told that his bag needs to be searched.  By this time, the final boarding calls are being made, so I sent Tim and Jess ahead to board while I waited for Michael.  Michael, in his wisdom, had decided to go all Crocodile Dundee and pack three knives (after losing our picnic knife in London last trip) and these of course had showed up on the x-ray machine.  In all fairness, he had been carrying these knives since leaving Dublin and this was the first time that they had been a problem.  Now of course, once they had found the knives, they then kept looking and found all the spare batteries that Michael was carrying, which, if you didn’t know Michael, would look suspicious as why does anyone need to carry their body weight in spare batteries?  Michael, meanwhile, is telling them to keep the knives and batteries, just let him get on the train.  I am sure that this just made the search go slower.  All the time the announcements are getting more urgent and by now I am thinking do I wait for him or do I get on the train?  Finally, they let him keep the knives and batteries and he has to repack his bag at the speed of light.  He joins me just as they announce that the train is about to depart.  We literally fly up the ramp and on to the train, just making it before the doors close.  I don’t think my heart stopped hammering for the first 10 minutes of the ride.
We arrived in Brussels and then had the fun of trying to find our hotel.  We dragged our bags up and down the city before deciding that a taxi might be a good idea.  It was just as well, as we had been trudging in totally the wrong direction.  We dropped our bags off at the Ibis and then headed out to find the Old Town.  There were a number of Christmas markets taking place and we stopped along the way so that Tim and Jess could try some frites.  Michael and I headed off on an art nouveau walk, which took in some wonderful sights especially The Metropolitan Hotel.  I have now added this to my mental list of all the wonderful places that we will stay when our Lotto numbers come up.

Pismanis dressed for Christmas
In the evening we watched a light show set to music on the local church.  The colours were beautiful.
The following day, Michael and I had breakfast at the wonderful art nouveau café Le Cirio.  The surroundings were beautiful and I had my first Belgian waffle, which was smothered in cream at least 3 inches high.  To make the morning perfect, a greyhound was standing at the table next to ours while his owners ate.  I love the way Europeans are generally welcoming towards animals.  We did laugh when we saw that the café cat didn’t emerge until the greyhound had left!
We spent the day wandering the shops and had the most decadent afternoon tea at Neuhaus.  This consisted of a pot of hot chocolate, (basically melted chocolate with cream), 2 chocolate cakes and assorted chocolates and biscuits.  We could only manage the drink and cakes so they kindly gave us a doggy bag for the rest.  It was unbelievably good.
The one thing that I thought was slightly disappointing was that there was no Christmas market in the Grand Place and the only decorations were a Christmas tree that had been donated by Riga and a full sized nativity scene complete with live animals.  It wasn’t until we were walking through the area one evening that we stumbled on the most amazing light show.  Every building in the Grand Place was lit with the most beautiful array of colours and all set to fabulous classical music.  The show went for 10 minutes and held the spectators spellbound.  It was without doubt, one of the most spectacular things I have witnessed.  It brought the buildings alive.

The Belfry of Bruges

Merry Christmas one and all – our third away from home!  Up early with time for a quick Skype session with everyone back in Australia.  Then it was off for a short train trip to the beautiful city of Bruges.  We arrived and circumnavigated the city with our bags in tow before finally finding our hotel.  I think Tim and Jess are getting the hang of dragging their bags along cobblestones now.  We found a café for breakfast and then it was off to explore the city.

Chocolate Nativity Scene (is there any better)
The Christmas market was open and Michael and I had a lovely time trying gluhwein and hot dough balls dusted with icing sugar.  We also tried hot Chouffe Coffee Liquor – yum!  It was a great day, made even better by the fact that there were no large crowds so it was very relaxing walking around the city.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Fidel, the most famous dog of Bruges, as he was wisely keeping indoors out of the cold.
We had a lovely dinner in an underground cellar restaurant although I think that we had a little too much to drink.  Well, it was Christmas.

On Boxing Day, Michael and I attended the exhibition The War in Pictures/Bruges at War at the Stadshallen.  It was a very good exhibition highlighting the occupation of Bruges by the German navy in World War 1 and the damage the city suffered. 

We also visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which we had somehow managed to miss on our last visit.  It is a beautiful church, which houses the venerated relic of Christ, his blood, which was collected by Joseph of Arimathea.  The relic was on display, guarded by a priest, and people were invited to approach and offer a prayer.  It was moving to watch the procession of people, both young and old, offering their prayers.

We kept the day nice and relaxed as Tim had booked a very special restaurant for our belated Christmas dinner and we were all looking forward to it.  The restaurant, Den Gouden Harynck (The Golden Herring) had rave reviews and so we used it as an excuse to get out of our walking boots and actually dress up for a meal.  We decided on a four-course meal and selected an appropriate wine to accompany it.  Michael, who hadn’t been feeling well during the day, only lasted for the first two courses before he took ill and had to leave.  Tim, who also hadn’t been feeling well, went steadily down hill as the meal went on.  Only Jess and I valiantly forged ahead, Jess finishing off Michael’s venison and me finishing off Michael’s dessert (chocolate orange – my absolute favourite!).  To make matters worse, as we were trying to make a hasty exit before Tim face planted on the table, the owners of the restaurant decided to be super friendly and tell us all about the history of the restaurant as they were tickled pink that our surname was Herring.  Poor Tim – I didn’t think that he would make it back to the hotel without passing out.  It was such a shame that both men took ill on the one night that we had something special arranged.

Berliner Star

Guess who found some snow
Another early morning wake up call, as we needed to catch the train from Bruges to Brussels to connect with the train that would take us to Cologne.  Michael was much better however still not 100% whilst poor Tim was worse than ever.  The first two train journeys were uneventful and we arrived in time at Cologne to make our connection to Berlin.  We waited on the train platform in the designated area for our carriage and when the train arrived there was the usual surge forward to board the train.  Michael made it on board with his bag and mine and I was just about to board when the train door shut.  Tim, Jess and I were left stranded on the platform with at least a dozen other passengers and no amount of pushing the automatic door button would make the door open.  People were yelling, trying to attract the guard’s attention, as the train was due to leave at any moment.  When it became apparent that the door was not going to open, we all galloped to the next carriage to try and board there.  To our absolute horror that carriage door started to close as well.  Luckily a man holding a baby in his arms wedged himself in the doorway like Hercules keeping it open just enough for people to scramble through.  Thereafter followed the ludicrous sight of two carriages worth of people trying to board through one entrance before the train departed.  I managed to board, closely followed by Jess and Tim just before the train took off.  We then had to negotiate our way through 2 train carriages crammed with people in the aisles.  It was absolute mayhem.  I finally found my seat next to Michael after about 20 minutes of pushing my way through the crowd.  Michael’s only comment, as he looked up from his book, was that he was starting to get worried about his lunch (I was carrying the sandwiches). Tim and Jess finally clawed their way to their seats some 15 minutes after me.  Poor Jess had actually had a girl climb completely over the top of her.  Luckily we had reserved seating, as the aisles were crammed with people.  It was so disappointing as our previous travels on German trains had been wonderful.  Tim was looking sicker by the minute.

We arrived at Berlin after a six-hour journey from Cologne.  We had seen snow all through the countryside and we were surprised that there had been a light fall of snow in Berlin and some remained on the ground.  We took a taxi to our apartment, as by this stage all we wanted to do was get Tim inside to rest.  We were on the 5th floor with no lift.  Yes, 104 steps up with our luggage.  I don’t know who looked more dismayed – Tim looking like death warmed up or poor Jess.  Our host, who must have been in his late 60’s took pity on Jess and helped her carry her bag (whilst telling her that he had just had an operation) and then returned to help me.  By the time we reached the top of the stairs I was seriously questioning why we had booked this apartment.  Luckily for us, what we found was easily the nicest place we have stayed anywhere.  A very large, two bedroom, two bathroom, two balconies, large study, large lounge and large fully equipped kitchen – an absolute delight. 

We all slept in after our previous day’s adventures and Michael woke feeling himself again.  Tim was much better but still not 100%.  We took a walk into the city along the banks of the River Spree to see the Reichstag.  Tim wanted to see the Brandenburg Gate however when we arrived, we were unable to walk through as they were setting up the big stage ready for the New Year’s Eve concert.  We walked along Unter den Linden and I was pleased to see that a lot of the work that was being done for the new train line has been completed although there is still more to finish off.  There was an enormous Christmas market at Alexanderplatz, which was probably the best we had seen on this trip so far.  We finished with a trip to Checkpoint Charlie so that Tim and Jess could have a look at one of the museums there.

Check Point Charlie
The next day we awoke to a winter wonderland.  Heavy snow had fallen overnight and our balconies were completely blanketed in white.  Tim and Jess were thrilled to see snow and even I was excited.  That excitement lasted approximately two hours until I slipped on the ice and fell heavily on my back, hitting my head and then I remembered why I had been so glad to leave the Canadian winters behind me!

Michael and I headed over to the East Side Gallery and were disappointed to see that many of the pieces are now being covered by graffiti.  I don’t mind if the graffiti is artistic and interesting but the pointless tagging just vandalises some very good works.  The iconic Trabant crashing through the wall is still pretty much intact along with Brezhnev kissing Honecker.      
We revisited the Holocaust memorial and I was horrified to see people climbing the steles to take selfies.  Up until now I had thought that the worst selfie I had seen taken was by someone climbing on the altar of St Paul’s Cathedral in London however this just took the biscuit.  I guess some people just don’t have any common sense or respect.

The Museum Island was somewhere Michael and I missed on our last visit so we decided to make up for that.  Firstly we visited the Pergamon Museum, as I wanted to see the replica Ishtar Gate.  It was every bit as fabulous as I had hoped it would be – breathtaking in scale and such beautiful colours.  There were also many other beautiful Islamic artworks on display.
The Neues Museum was next on the list to see the famous Nefertiti Bust.  I was surprised at just how mesmerising this limestone bust was.  It was simply stunning and a very beautiful piece of work.
The Altes Museum was full of German artwork with some lovely sculptures.  Both the Neues and the Altes Museums have been beautifully restored, having been badly damaged during WW2. 


We also visited the Palace of Tears which was the former border crossing station at the Berlin Friedrichstrasse railway station, where East Germans said goodbye to their families and visitors going back to West Germany.  There were heartbreaking displays depicting what it was like living in the divided city. 

On New Year’s Eve, Michael and I took a walk around the city and visited the Silent Heroes Museum.  This museum is dedicated to the Germans who helped persecuted Jews stay alive under the Nazi’s.  These were people who hid, fed or helped Jews escape often at considerable danger to themselves.  Many remarkable stories were detailed and one left marvelling at the courage of some people.
Boxes of empty fireworks

Fireworks are not banned in Germany, so as the day progressed we saw more and more groups of children and adults lighting firecrackers, especially bangers.  There was a steady cacophony from about 4.00pm onwards reaching a crescendo from 11.00pm through to 2.00am.  Unbelievable.  I couldn’t help wondering how many people were injured during that time.  We viewed the midnight fireworks displays from our balcony and noise was deafening.  Tim and Jess took the opportunity to see some Berlin nightlife, heading out at 2.00am to go clubbing and they had tickets to see a DJ at 6.00am!  Oh, to be young again!
New Year’s Day was quiet with not much open and Tim and Jess sleeping the sleep of the dead.  Michael and I found one gallery that was open – the Gemaldegalerie, so we spent the afternoon wandering around paintings ranging from the 13th to 18th centuries.  There was a particularly interesting copy of the Hieronymus Bosch triptych The Last Judgement.  We had seen the original on our trip to Vienna, however this gallery has a copy attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A La Parisienne
It was with trepidation that we waited on the platform for our train to Mannheim, as the memory of our trip from Cologne to Berlin was fresh in our minds.  The train arrived and we everyone boarded our carriage in an orderly manner.  It was when we were seated that we realised that Michael had inadvertently booked first class tickets for us so we had a very comfortable journey with no one camped in the aisles.  We changed at Mannheim for our connection to Paris and this leg of the journey was even more comfortable with food and drinks being served.  It is definitely the way to travel.

We arrived at Gare de Paris-Est and walked along the cobbled streets to find our apartment in Republique.   We were on the 4th floor – no lift.  Yes, 77 steps up with our luggage.  I have now imposed a 3 floor limit on our apartment stays.  I keep telling Michael that this old, grey mare just ain’t what she used to be!  Luckily, once again our apartment was very nice.  This time it was a two bedroom, split level apartment.  The only negative was that Tim and Jess’ s bedroom was accessed by a very steep staircase, which was more like a ladder, so they had to be extremely cautious going up and down.
The following day we all set off to explore some of the main sights of Paris.  We did lots of walking starting with the Marais and the Hotel de Ville.  Then it was off to Notre Dame Cathedral walking along the Seine to the Louvre.  We finished with a stroll along the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe.  I am not sure that Tim and Jess really wanted to do all that walking however at least they got a good overview of the city.
Sunday was once again the free museum day.  We always seem to time our visit to coincide with this.  We took Tim and Jess to see the Musee d’Orsay and they enjoyed wandering around looking at the artworks and I was able to show them my favourite sculpture of the White Bear.  We then took them to the Eiffel Tower where we set them free to roam the city on their own.

Michael and I finally made it to Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur Basilica.  We had only viewed it from a distance on previous visits however, this time we took the funicular to the top and walked through the church.  The church is quite beautiful however the most spectacular thing is the view from the hill.  Even though it was a misty day you could quite clearly see the panorama of Paris spread before you. 
We stopped at a café on the way down the hill and Michael ordered two coffees.  The waitress had a hard time understanding him, which surprised me, as most of the French seem able to understand his gestures at least, if not his pronunciation.  It then dawned on us both that we were in a café staffed by the hearing impaired.  The poor waitress had been trying to lip read Michael’s appalling French.  Needless to say, we ended up with something completely different to what we ordered, however, it was very peaceful there!

One evening, we decided to dine at little restaurant in our street.  The four of us arrived and were greeted by the owner who spoke very little English.  This didn’t worry us as Michael always carries his trusty French dictionary with him.  The owner did his best to explain the menu, expressively pantomiming each dish and between his explanations and the dictionary we were able to place our orders.  Three of us ordered the curried pork dish and we settled back with our wine to await the arrival of our dinner.  The owner came out of the kitchen and in rapid fire French started to animatedly tell us something.  Between the four of us, each picking up the odd word, we managed to work out that the pork was not possible but that was as far as we could understand.  The owner, seeing our incomprehension, turned to a gentleman at the next table and obviously asked him to translate for us.  The gentleman looked at us and said “ze pork ‘as exploded in ze kitchen.  Now you will ‘ave veal”.  Veal we did indeed have, and it was very nice.  The meal was so good that Michael and I vowed to return again if we could.
The following evening, Tim wanted to try a restaurant called Chez Janou that had been recommended to him by a friend.  We had a wonderful meal and the restaurant was packed to the rafters.  The best part however was the dessert.  We ordered a chocolate mousse and the waiter brought out a mixing bowl of mousse the size of a motorcycle helmet and a bowl.  You are then allowed to serve yourself as much you like.  Three helpings later and we were all feeling totally full. Luckily we had 4 flights of stairs to climb to burn off some of the calories.

Je suis Charlie

Michael and I undertook a walking tour of the various passages in Paris.  We wandered many of these historic arcades, some in disrepair whilst others have been fully restored.  Most of them are architecturally beautiful and full of interesting shops, galleries, boutiques and cafes.  Whilst we were wandering around we became aware of sirens.  At first, just a few police cars followed by more and more until it became obvious that something had happened.  Michael and I kept on with our walk whilst musing on what might have occurred.  When we walked home that evening, we walked past the Statue of Republic on the Place de la Republique and could see people gathered there.  Michael commented that it must be a protest (we had seen several on our previous trips to Paris) and so we just continued home.   

We were absolutely horrified to read in the news about the attack on Charlie Hebdo.  It seems that we were actually not far from where the attack to place.  The gathering of people we had seen was the start of the vigil that 10,000 people attended.  Our main worry was that Tim and Jess had gone out for the day and then onto dinner and it was an anxious wait until they finally arrived home, totally oblivious as to what had happened.


tributes to slain Charlie Hebdo victims
Republique comments around the statute

We had a farewell lunch for Tim and Jess at Chez Janou.  The meal was once again fantastic although we refrained from ordering the mousse this time.  It is possible to have too much of a good thing. 

It was sad to put them in the taxi that would take them to Gare du Nord where they would catch the train to Charles de Gaulle airport, however I couldn’t help feeling a little relieved that they were leaving Paris.  The gunmen that attacked Charlie Hebdo were still at large and suddenly the city just didn’t feel as safe as it did before.  I hope that they enjoyed their time with us.  We certainly enjoyed having their company.
Michael and I were enjoying our final walk around Paris when about 6 police vans hurtled past with sirens blaring.  This was followed by wave after wave of police vans, police cars and motorcycles until the air reverberated with a cacophony of noise.  In all, at least 60 vehicles passed us and I saw one police driver wearing a black ski mask – very scary looking.  By now, we had come to the conclusion that they had found the Charlie Hebdo attackers and were on their way to confront them.  All I wanted to do was get off the streets so we headed back to our apartment.  We were dismayed to discover on the news that there was a siege taking placing 3 kms from where we were staying and that was where the police we had seen were rushing. 
Michael and I returned to the restaurant of the exploding pork and had the restaurant totally to ourselves for most of the evening.  The streets were very quiet and I think that a lot of people just didn’t want to be out and about given the events of the past 3 days.  Nevertheless, we had an excellent meal and the owner was delighted to see us again and performed his pantomime explanations with vigour.