Well, after a hiatus in 2009 (GFC and all that), we are back on the mid-year travelling circuit once again and not before time. With mother in tow, a welcome return to London, followed by pastures new and old in Scotland and a few days in Paris. Not bad, eh ?
A is for Art: So much to see, so little time – a return to sights seen but with time for some new discoveries also.
–Louvre http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home.jsp?bmLocale=en: Using the fantastic Museums and Monuments Pass (which you would be completely mad not to get if you stay in Paris even if it is only for two days), we marched past the waiting throng at the Pyramid and snuck in through the VIP entrance. For an almost two-hour session, we got around quite a bit of the place to be honest including the Italian Masters, most of the French, the Greek marble statues, the basement with the historical palace, most of the Egyptian antiquities and of course the usual troika being the the Winged Victory of Samothrace,the Venus de Milo and and La Gioconda (Mona Lisa to you). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_Victory_of_Samothrace) , (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_de_Milo)
Compared to four years ago, you can now take pictures of the Mona Lisa, a privilege not previously afforded to me. However, the protective glass is such that it is not possible to get a fully-focused shot as it appears to be a rather thick defractive / refractive glass. Actually, it is worth getting a picture of the constant scrum there is around it.
–Musee d’Orsay: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/home.html Fearful that highlights of the collection were still in transit from a sabbatical in Canberra (of all places), we headed to d’Orsay to the Impressionist wing. This was not helped by the fact that part of the museum is undergoing a refurbishment which will last until well in to 2011. But some of the key works thankfully remain where you expect them to be. Although while it was lovely to reacquaint oneself with the various Monets, Manets, van Gogh’s et al, it was quite frustrating to now be told that you can’t take any pictures of them ! T’was not the case when I was last there. Still, definitely worth a visit in my opinion despite the refurb work.
–Orangerie http://www.musee-orangerie.fr/: Luckily these won’t be going on tour any time in the near or distant future ! We actually got in without much difficulty at a quiet moment mid-morning. I was beginning to think its popularity was waning and then three large primary schookl groups arrived at the same time. It is therefore not possible to seek quiet contemplation of these magnificent paintings to any great degree – one must snatch moments when one can – but you should try ! Don’t forget the excellent Jean Walter – Paul Guillaime collection below the main gallery housing the Nympheas – many of the Renoirs, Cezannes and Modiglianis (as well as the Picassos) are important paintings that you ought to see.
–Musee Rodin http://www.musee-rodin.fr/: It’s a crime (in my opinion) to visit this museum when it is raining. Or when the roses are not in bloom. So, after covering all the rest above (!), we sought a little sanctuary at the Hotel Biron (which, of course is not a hotel as in accommodation but a grand house) and its gardens. Although the sun was not shining, I finally got the shot of ‘Le Penseur’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thinker without anyone around the sculpture. I might Photosop blue skies in later but I am happy enough. Whatever your religious beliefs, if you have them, I still maintain that La Porte de l’Enfer could apply to any religion believing in an evil chaos. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gates_of_Hell And one can only admire the beauty expressed in Le Basier http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kiss_(Rodin_sculpture) although it is worth noting that the lips of the subjects do not actually touch ! Read the story of Francesca da Rimini as to why this is so ! Don’t forget to go to the top floor of the museum to see van Gogh’s ‘Le Pere Tanguy’ as well as a Monet or two which were also part of Rodin’s personal collection. These ones you can photograph !
B is for Barbican http://www.barbican.org.uk/: This was a must-do. In many ways, a completion of a circular journey. One of the first classical records I can recall listening to (and which my mother bought, by the way) was the London Symphony Orchestra performing a variety of classical snippets from various composers. So it was very appropriate that she should go to hear the LSO live. The programme consisted of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto (colloquially known as the ‘Rach 3’) in the first half and Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria”. While the Rachmaninoff is a work I have heard many times and know well (but cannot play), I had not heard the Gloria before. Based on the Catholic ‘Gloria In Excelis Deo’ text, it is in six movements, was completed in 1961 and is (I did not know this) one of Poulenc’s most celebrated works. The up-and-coming young Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang led the LSO with veteran pianist Vladimir Feltsman in the Rachmaninoff – it was not the most energetic or clean performances of the Rach 3 in my opinion. A number of people disagreed with me to the extent that they actually gave Feltsman a standing ovation. Most odd. I think Vladimir knew how bad it was by not offering any encore. Different story in the second half, however with the highly-regarded Sally Matthews was the soprano soloist in the Gloria – the orchestra and chorus gave a polished and energetic performance while being sympathetic to a good soloist. It’s not the most accessible of works and the audience reception at the end perhaps demonstrated that fact.
C is for Champagne Tour: Those of you who get these monologues may recall a visit to Reims a few years ago. It was good then and it was good a second time only this time slightly different. When I did it the first time, the morning location was at the Heidsieck cellars (Charles Heidsieck / Piper Heidsieck) which was fun as they have this Disneyworld style of ride / tour introducing people to what champagne is, how they make it and so forth. This time, the morning location was at G H Mumm’s which is more sentimentally significant for me as Mumm’s was the first champagne I ever drank. Mumms today is, according to them, the third largest producer of champagne globally with production of about 8 million bottles a year. 60% of which are exported (very high, I thought). The young bloke acting as our guide with the ridiculously thick accent was slightly comical but you get the usual video, blah blah blah the grapes, the blending etc etc and walk around the cave. Of course no one has any questions as we all want the free glass which was light and fresh as a daisy which was good. Mumm was mentioned in an Asterix cartoon (Asterix and the Banquet – Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix), something which is highlighted discreetly in the tasting room – you can find it if you look !
So to the Cathedral at Reims – see the lovely stained-glass windows showing how they make champagne starting with the grapes given to the vintners by the grace of God and so on and so forth. As we had arrived a bit early, we had to wait discreetly toward the back before the morning service had finished. This gave us the chance to hear the lovely organ. Once free to roam, we took some time to windows designed and completed by Marc Chagall which actually are quite beautiful and in keeping with the place in that it is being constantly renovated and renewed. It is remarkable to think that the cathedral was almost completely bombed out in World War 1 and that parts of it originate from the 13th century !
After lunch (at a surprisingly good sushi place) and a wander around for souvenirs (one day I will get that bottle of vintage Perrier Jouet with the half dozen floral glasses !), it’s back on the bus for a relatively short drive through some of the vineyards passing through Haut-Villiers where Dom Perignon (the Franciscan Monk) created what we call champagne probably by accident. He was right though, when he drank it and said “I’m seeing stars !”. Near Haut-Villiers is the ‘fort’ of Moet & Chandon. I’ve always thought that the main building resembles the corporate offices of a chemical factory, for some reason – rectangular, roman letters on it, imposing, made of stone and generally unfriendly. This was not the impression sought to be created by Jean-Remy Moet, however – personal friend of Napoleon Bonaparte and grandson of the founder, like other great Champenois, he too was an exceedingly canny businessman with a nose for marketing. When Napoleon was defeated and the House of Moet was occupied by Russian soldiers in 1814, rather than rue the loss of 600,000 bottles, Moet remarked to his friends, “All of those soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow. I’m letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country”. He was right, of course. Csar Alexandr I was a customer, so was Francis II (as Holy Roman Emperor) and the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley). What of the tour ? The same video as last time (no changes) discoursing at length how the making of champagne is an art and how it reflects nature but the walk around the cave was more interesting than before, primarily because of the increased presence of Dom Perignon magnums around the place. I hope that I haven’t wrecked any rose magnums with my flash photography. Again, we live for the free sample and again, compared to what we are used to here, it was fresh, clear and bright, quite lovely in fact.
The drive back was eminently forgettable. So much so that I fell asleep as we drove out of Epernay and only woke up as we got stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Bercy.
D is for Domestic Air Travel (or rather lack of it): The story started last year when, at a good price at the time, a flight from London City Airport to Glasgow was purchased. I was looking forward to this – a new aircraft (Embraer 190), a new airport (for me) and a relaxing day in London prior to the flight. Then some time in February, way before we had ever heard of an Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajökull and with some prior stike memories in mind, BA cancelled the flight of their own volition. So we applied for a refund late in the piece when we had (sort of) confirmed what was going on. So much for that one. So we had to endure a four and a half hour slog from London to Glasgow on the second full day of the trip (see ‘T’ below). We were also booked to fly from Glasgow to LHR on the 9th – the last day of the second strike. Looking at which flights had been cancelled in the first strike, things did not look promising. And, true to form and completely within expectations, it was. So, it was fortuitous that we had a Plan B. Something tells me that I will be very reluctant indeed to fly with BA in general in the immediate future…….
E is for Edinburgh: It felt good to be back in Edinburgh (for another day only, mind). Still, it is small enough to enjoy for the most part. And the hop-on, hop-off bus services are good.
–Edinburgh Castle: If memory serves, the last time I wrote about the Castle, I think I referred to the Brythonic epic “Y Gododdin” and “Din Eidyn” – stuff that. I had some unfinished business to take care of. Like having a look at St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh and restored to look like what it would have been like in the 12th Century) and Mons Meg. Mons Meg is the 15th Century siege cannon that was constructed in 1449 for Philip III, Duke of Burgundy who then gifted it in 1457 to James II when he was King. Weighing almost 7 tonnes, it could only fire 8 to 10 shots a day due to the heat generated after firing (and if you were firing 180kg, 20 inch caliber cannonballs, you’d feel the same way too !) . Because of its lack of ease of use, it was retired as a weapon in the 1540s but continued to be used as a ceremonial gun until a firing in 1680 when the barrel burst – this was controversial as it was an English gunner loading this Scottish gun and some people would still have you believe that the charge was loaded in order to render the gun useless out of jealousy. Oh well. In fact, the gun was fired at Hogmanay this year (I gather) although I believe that it didn’t discharge an actual cannon ball (and the powder had to be set off using a car battery or something like that). We hung around to see the 1 o’clock gun – rather comical in that there was a bagpiper seemingly insistent on playing tunes right up until the last minute. Fortunately he didn’t get in the way (figuratively and literally).
–Holyrood Palace: Technically, “The Palace of Holyroodhouse”. One thing that I cannot guarantee (given the timing of the visit) is a trip to a royal palace. Sure, the last time we were in the UK, we went to Windsor Castle (the Queen had been there the previous day for the Garter Ceremony) but Buck House (Buckingham Palace !) was not taking visitors. So Holyrood Palace it had to be – not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Queen does live and work from here at least once a year (known informally as Holyrood Week) and there are investitures and receptions for heads and state and the like, so this is a real working palace. Having seen it on television, I rather expected it to be bigger than it actually is. The Investiture Room, for example, is a lot narrower than I thought and it must be quite a crush in summer. And you do get to see what the Order of the Thistle looks like for real (like the Order of the Garter pretty much except it is green in colour). Definitely worth a visit if you are in Edinburgh.
–The Scotch Whisky Experience: See ‘W’ below.
F is for French: Mon troisième langue, en fait. Mon quatrième est l’allemand, mais qui est très laid. Parlant très honnêtement, mon français n’est pas aussi bonne que je voudrais qu’elle soit. Qu’est-ce que j’aurais fait un cours de recyclage avant ce voyage. Mais je n’ai pas. Shame on me.
G is for Glasgow: A welcome return for me. A first time visit for my mother to familairise herself with the Tolbooth Steeple, Provand’s Lordship, Trongate, the Clyde Arc (aka the ‘Squinty’ Bridge), the Armadillo (aka the Clyde Auditorium – where Susan Boyle was discovered) and these other places:
–Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum http://glasgowmuseums.com/venue/index.cfm?venueid=4: This is Scotland’s number one tourist attraction. In many respects, it’s not hard to see why. Locals will be very familiar with Sir Roger the Elephant displayed with the WW2 Spitfire hanging above him in one gallery. Unfortunately, there were no volunteer tour guides to take anyone around so I sort of stepped in to the breach and took Mum around the first two levels of the gallery pointing out, amongst other things, Dali’s ‘Christ of Saint. John of the Cross’, several bronzes by Rodin (including a bust of Alexandre Dumas) and of course various works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a leader in the Art Nouveau movement in Britain. Definitely worth a visit if you are in Glasgow and it is even better with the tour (but not by me).
–Following on from the Kelvingrove, we took a late lunch / afternoon tea at The Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street – the food was very good but you don’t go there for that. The building, the furniture, in fact just about every aspect of the setting down to the staff uniforms were designed by renowned architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. So after the run-down on his work at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, it made a bit of sense to enjoy some of his best work, literally. These days, only the original Room de Luxe remains as it was with the ground floor now occupied by a jeweller. For those interested in the colour scheme, it is predominatly grey, purple and white. The chairs are slightly different now (they are generally black but still high-backed). Definitely one place to have a nosey around. http://www.willowtearooms.co.uk/
–The central shopping streets are very accessible and mostly car-free. Around parts of Argyle Street, Buchanan Street it’s generally well patronised and a good variety of shops around the place. Not going to Ibrox this time around, I made a bee-line for JJB Sports. Might not be significant to the majority of you but for those in the know, there were certain bargains to be had in relation to a local football team (53 SPL championships now !).
H is for Hotels: Naturally, we endeavoured to make the most of our network. Some quick notes on those.
–Millennium Gloucester Hotel London Kensington : Our London base (it sure feels like it) – we stayed here on arrival, then on the way back from Glasgow (thus allowing us to leave most of our luggage here in the process). No upgrades but that hardly matters – or rather it wouldn’t have mattered much were it not for the service which was a bit slipshod – bathroom maintenance on our return from Glasgow was wanting. Put it this way, the more finnickity the tapware, the more problems you have with it and multiple-part taps which are not maintained will inevitably collapse in your hands. Plus a very (and I mean very) smoky room initially (it was changed without dispute, luckily). The best thing about this hotel is its location in relation to transport – Gloucester Road is on the Piccadilly, District and Circle Tube lines which make getting around pretty easy.
–Millennium Hotel Glasgow: Having stayed there in 2008 and enjoyed it, I thought I should repeat the experience. But it wasn’t on staff rates, I would add (near enough plus breakfast added on) although they were kind enough to offer a Club Room. Given its central location adjacent to George Square and Queen Street Rail Station, it is brilliantly located. The food’s pretty good there as well, taking as they do a not unnatural pride in the local produce (although they stopped serving local mussels which is a shame). Best hotel of the trip, I think.
–Millennium Hotel Paris Opera didn’t offer Staff Rates. Again. Plan B called for. The Mercure Paris Arc de Triomphe Etoile came surprisingly highly recommended on a well-known travel website and was also one of the cheaper options in Paris (on advance purchase, of course). Big pluses were its proximity to the Arc de Triomphe and the Charles de Gaulle Etoile Metro station (as well as Ternes Metro station). And there is a Monoprix supermarket next to it as well as a branch of the patissiers Paul across the street. And at 54 rooms (8 floors), it’s small. The minuses ? Well, there is a lap-dancingclub next door to it. Like most Mercure’s, it was small, functional and in a location that offered (and delivered) possibilites. The neighbourhood is not one conducive to dining out to any degree but that doesn’t matter much. There’s always the rather good Maison Pou (charcutieur, traiteur, patissieur) across the road should you wish to self-cater ! There are plenty of worse hotels in Paris.
–Millennium Baileys Hotel London Kensington: First stay for me (as I prefer the Gloucester) but I can now say that I’ve stayed at all five of the company’s hotels in London. Baileys is slightly quirky and quaint in atmosphere and décor. It harks back to a sort of Georgian England and is thus in many ways the antithesis of the slick-modern architecture-American franchise hotel. Thus, it fits well in London. Not my favourite layout or style but it was fine – in fact, the staff here were the best of the whole trip, kudos to them for their friendly and efficient attitude.
–M Hotel Singapore: Stayed here for a night to break the journey home – the original plan had us staying at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Singapore but in actual fact, the M is in the centre of the business district and not having stayed there before, I was keen to try. Fortuitously, we got a Club upgrade (due to a mix up over what room configuration was requested) so we were able to enjoy a glass of wine and canapes in the Club Lounge on the 28th Floor. The Lounge also serves a rather good buffet breakfast and is clearly targetted at the corporate market. Their Japanese restaurant ‘Hokkaido’ is very good – rather than endure the humidity and test our jetlag, we decided to dine in and their set menus are very generous and high quality. Definitely recommended. Checkout was exceedingly slow, however, the only negative aspect of the stay.
I is for Industrial Action : Luckily we missed the metro strike that took place about a week after we went to Paris. Imagine that, getting around by the horrid RER or expensive cabs. Summer in Europe is always a 50:50 proposition particularly in France. An Air Traffic Controllers strike was an expected part of the vacation season.
J is for JPEG: Not the actual Joint Photographic Experts Group per se, rather the file format (which, I discovered, involves what they call “lossy compression” – I wonder of dog photos are subject to lassie compression). Of which I used over 1800 in total over the course of the journey. As usual, severe editing will be required.
K is for ‘kuruwasson’: WTH ? Ha ! Japanese transliteration of ‘croissant’, actually. Started with a standard Monoprix-issue commercial one. Not bad, actually, not as finely layered but crisp on the outside and nice and buttery. Eric Kayser’s croissants are slightly bigger and have more layers but aren’t hand made either. From a uniform consistency point of view, Paul’s crossaints (and in fact their bread generally) were likely the best but the croissants from Le Grand Epicerie were very nice. Size is not the issue here, it is in fact the number of layers and textures (so effectively the amount of butter used).
L is for Loch Lomond: When planning this, it was a bit of a toss up between Loch Lomond and Loch Ness. Sanity and the desire to see some of the picturesque countryside prevailed (as was the prospect of a tour of the Glengoyle distillery on the way back – see ‘W’ below). Loch Lomond is the largest loch / lake by surface area in the UK (but not by volume – that honour goes to Loch Ness). For the loss adjusters amongst you, it is 39 kilometres (24 mi) long and between 1.21 kilometres (0.75 mi) and 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) wide. It has an average depth of about 37 metres (121 ft), and a maximum depth of about 190 metres (620 ft). Its surface area measures 71 km2 (27 sq mi), and it has a volume of 2.6 km3 (0.62 cu mi). Depending on the water level, one is able to see up to 60 islands in the loch. Of these, two are rather interesting – Inchmurrin is the largest (and privately owned) and it was here in 1984 that Alan Pettigrew threw a 1lb 8oz haggis an astonishing 180 feet, 10 inches. That record still stands. Inchconnachan is home to a colony of wallabies which are apparently thriving to the extent that the local bird population is or has been under threat.
We travelled to the east side around Balmaha and went up one of the hills to get a good view. Yes, there are many places in NZ which offer as good, if not better, views like it. But there’s a certain magic to the place, to be honest. I enjoyed going there. Obscure references: Apparently the world ‘loch’ is Goidelic in nature – that is, from the branches of the Insular Celtic languages as opposed to the Bryothic languages. To be honest, I have no idea what that means ! And there are something like 31,460 freshwater lakes in Scotland – that’s a rough guess, apparently.
M is for Music: Our concert going in major cities continue in both London and Paris – for London, refer ‘B’ for Barbican. In Paris, we had tickets to a recital at the Salle Pleyel by Rafal Blechacz (pronounced ‘ble-hats’), the young Polish pianist who won the 2005 International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. So good was he that the jury didn’t award second prize to anybody and Blechacz also scored best performance prizes in all three categories of the competition. And with an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and the world seemingly at his feet, he came highly recommended. It was a well-balanced programme starting with a solid if brisk rendition of the with the Bach Partita No.1. Following on from this good start, a somewhat unconventional performance of Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat K.570 – unconventional in the sense that it was ‘voiced’ as you might expect. This sonata being somewhat operatic in style, should be treated very much like accompanying singers and the melodic lines and emphases were not where you might expect them to be. So no prizes for that one. Blechacz was clearly more comfortable in Debussy’s Pour Le Piano which was very nicely performed and the audience reception at the interval was appropriately warm. The second half, entirely dedicated to Chopin allowed him to shine and his programme of the op.60 Barcarolle, the op.20 Scherzo, the theee Mazurkas op.50 and the ‘Heroic’ Polonaise op.53 was masterful. Totally assured in his technique and interpretations of all of these pieces, this was a masterful and confident performance of these pieces by a very talented pianist. He was generous in his encores as well with two Chopin mazurkas and some Beethoven to boot.
A note about the Salle Pleyel. Built by the French piano makers Pleyel & Cie, it has a lot of history in that it was the venue where Chopin gave his first (and last) Parisian concerts (on Pleyel pianos, incidentally). Stravinsky and Ravel conducted their works here also. It is home to the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. In 2002, the concert hall underwent a reconstruction / refurbishment improving the acoustics of the venue and also reducing the number of seats from 3000 to 1913. We were seated in the balconies on the second level. Interestingly, the seating is such that you face the front of the hall rather than look into it. Somewhat disconcerting at first, you get used to it after a little while.
N is for Networking: I am the first to admit that I am shockingly bad at this ‘social’ skill. However, having built up a small but diverse network of contacts in London, I took the opportunity to catch up with some of them. They included a fashion model-turned-writer (Ms. B-C lately of Los Angeles but now of Middlesex), an project manager / events co-ordinator (Mdm. CG of Paris & London), a consultant make-up artist (Ms. NVP) and a senior audit manager (Ms. M-YB). Unfortunately, due to time pressures, there was only sufficient time for cocktails and dinner at The Botanist, Sloane Square. It was a very pleasant evening, good drinks, good food, sparkling conversation and many jokes – hopefully the opportunity to repeat it will arise at some stage.
O is for ‘Oh, no…’: Which was a lot of people were saying about their teams in the World Cup. England were getting there but not impressing – the draw with the USA probably hurt them more than they realised. France were absolutely abysmal and deserved to be bundled out by Mexico – Domenech had no friends either in the team or with the media. Only Germany were impressing with a 4-0 clubbing of the Socceroos (great game, I thought). But from a All White point of view, we were going ‘Oh, Yes!’ – I was really chuffed when I heard the result against Slovakia – we had been on the Eurostar and had no idea what the result was. Luckily, a football made taxi driver was able to tell us. Of course, the draw against Italy later on was also a fantastic result for us.
P is for Paris: Well, it only took the best part of a decade or so but I’m proud that my mother was able to briefly put aside her prejudices against the French and enjoy the City of Light for the first time.
–Eiffel Tower: Rather than do it solo and unaided, I thought my mother might enjoy a half-day tour of Paris to get her bearings. The good part was that the tour included a pass to the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower which was rather good, I thought. That was good. But her first impressions were not favourable, coloured in part by those souvenir vendors. Oh, well. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it lit up due to time pressures and other commitements. No matter. See also ‘V’ below.
–Seine: I’ve walked along its banks, crossed it over several of the bridges at a number of points but never been on it. As part of the tour, we got a short cruise on the famed river. Sure, there’s nothing remarkable about the river per se (although it originates in Burgundy, it’s basin is approximately 78,910 square kilometres and has an average depth in Paris of about eight metres) except of course to point out the critical distinction between the Rive Droite and the Rive Gauche. The Left Bank is associated with artists, authors and philosophers and seen as more bohemian. Strangely, one does not see that much reference to the Right Bank – I wonder if this is because the wealthy feel no need to or rather it would be beneath them to do so ?
–Arc de Triomphe: The advantage of staying near it was the pleasure of walking around and past it every morning to get to the Metro station. We didn’t go up it but we did go around it by foot (safe from traffic) and once in a bus.
–Champs Elysees: Didn’t do the obligatory coffee stop as everyone does but we walked up and down the majority of it (!). Nothing really stood out from a menu point of view and the queue at Laduree was far too long ! Pity.
–Notre Dame: Joined the queues to go through and lit a candle at the altar of St Peter. Sure, it’s full of tourists but it’s a Parisian icon.
–Metro: Used it a lot as you do. Impressed by the new trains running on Line 2 (plenty of space, verbal notification of stations and so on). Got stuck once when there was a brief power surge / cut but that wasn’t so bad. Studying the system map well in advance helps a lot.
Q is for Qantas: This was the ideal opportunity to burn some frequent flier miles on upgrades. Unfortunately, due to the BA strike, it proved not to be (much to my mother’s frustration and disgust). Our flights were invariably full. That said, we were booked in Premium Economy which, on Qantas at any rate, is a genuine Business Class lite as opposed to an Economy Plus on most airlines. But to maximise the experience, you need to get on the Big Bird and not the 747s which sadly are way past their best. Yes, it is roughly double the discount economy ticket but worth it, I think, if you can’t afford full business. Previously, I have been scathing about Qantas’ Trans-Tasman reductions to 737-800 aircraft. I still hold to this view. Some limited sense has prevailed on the AKL SYD route from July when QF A330-200 services return (only one flight a day to / from LAX) but unfortunately it looks like that widebody services across the Tasman will be the exception rather than the norm – pathetic really, when you consider that a three to four hour flight in narrow seating is one of the most uncomfortable journeys around.
R is for Restaurants: Rather than risk aggravating the bank manager and increasing our blood pressure by visiting places like La Tour d’Argent or L’Atelier du Joel Roubuchon or one of Gordon Ramsay’s establishments, we had a half-and-half strategy. Get reservations where one can and then play it by ear for the rest of the time.
In Paris, we had reservations for L’Angle du Faubourg – part of the Taillevent empire, this restaurant does hold a coveted Michelin star and has the added advantage of being next to Les Caves Taillevent. To describe Les Caves Taillevent as a wine shop would be like calling the Mona Lisa a mere portrait painting. Servicing Taillevent and L’Angle as it does and trading on their well-preserved reputation, it has a diverse collection of all sorts of excellent French wines as well as staff to assist.
On the one-star issue, just to put in to context for Paris – Taillevent has two (it had three for 34 years but lost its 3rd star in 2007), La Tour d’Argent has one, Apicius has two as does Le Cinq. But if you are looking for fine dining that won’t break the bank and a fantastic cellar to boot, I can heartily recommend L’Angle. Naturally, we decided to go with the degustation menu with accompanying wines. It was very good – highlights being the ravioli of wild mushrooms with foie gras sauce, an excellent fillet of baked sea bass and the best veal I have ever had. Plus a visually elegant and wonderfully understated strawberry dessert which was actually an accompaniment to main chocolate dessert. The wines were varied and well chosen – they included a Vin de Pays d’Oc, a Spanish Red, a Cotes du Rhone and a sweet Muscat. Only one blemish of service – see ‘V’ below. But very nice regardless.
In London, one highlight (on our last day there) was afternoon tea (albeit at 11.30am in the morning but who gives a toss) at The Ritz. An institution in every sense where the gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie and where the service staff are resplendent in their white jackets. Reservations are required and you need to book at least two to three months in advance (I am not kidding). The setting is opulent, in the Louis XVI style and simply wonderful. The food is pretty good too and they are more than happy to serve you more sandwiches should you require it. The Ritz Chocolate Cake, a signature speciality is delicious and a must. You can select your preferred tea from a whole range of choices and I have to say that the First Flush Darjeeling is excellent. The resident pianist (Ian Gomes) is a font of knowledge and played a selection of Japanese folk songs to the delight of the group of eight sitting nearest the piano. But the setting is the main thing. Definitely a highlight of the trip. Travel tip: Just remember that while cameras are welcome / tolerated within the Palm Court, you cannot take any pictures in the Rivoli Bar
We didn’t ignore breakfast either and went to Fortnum & Mason’s The Fountain restaurant one morning to partake of a decidely upper-class breakfast. Silver service of course in relation to the tea and coffee pots and the portions are agreeably generous (which lessens the sting on the wallet). If you want to treat yourself and you are fan of high quality tea served in a high quality way (assuming you’ve done afternoon tea the traditional way to death), there’s tranquility and good food to be had here. Recommended.
S is for Shopping: So are we seeing a full-blown recovery now ? Are the days of decadence and significant excess coming back ? Well, not quite……
–London: Harrods still attracts the tourists although there are fewer numbers around the Dodi and Diana memorial than previously. Now that the Qataris have bought it, I wonder what will happen ? Still, the good news is that it seems to have improved its product line – perhaps taking a belated leaf out of Fortnum & Mason, we thought. Chocolate aficionados will be dismayed to learn that Selfridges lost the Leonidas concession to Harrods but perhaps because a whole corner of one section is now devoted to it (fresh included, you can select what you want). The downside (for me) is that you are rather restricted in the ballotins you can get as opposed to a wider range of stock. Mustn’t complain, though. Selfridges had started sale season early – you could tell as soon as you got in the door, the swarm in various areas (such as ladies shoes, summer fashion et al) was as bad as the crowds along Oxford Street. Some good discounts on offer to be fair but we didn’t splurge. Jermyn Street seems to be in permanent sale territory to a degree – for Kiwi guys, this might be a good thing as high quality shirts, ties and suits are reasonably affordable what with the current exchange rate in our favour. And with the World Cup in full swing Lilywhites was a magnet for all things sporting. We got an England suitcase for little dosh which proved to be quite useful on the way home. Considering the price paid, it stands out in a good way (not being black, for one thing), has wheels and it fairly robust. One omission from previous visits – We had to visit Berry Bros. & Rudd, fine wine merchants located very centrally in London (find The Ritz, walk down the street first on the right as you leave it, basically). Pleased to see a healthy selection of fine New Zealand wine including Kumeu River Chardonnay, Amisfield Pinot Noir and various others. Go Kiwi, I say!
–Paris: It would be churlish and rude not to visit two of the Grand Magasins Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. Not yet in ‘soldes’ (sale) mode, some the prices are a bit eye-watering but even if you have little or no money, it is worth a visit there to appreciate the gorgeous interiors of both. Lafayette keeps adding to their gourmet section with a whole new corridor devoted to Bordeaux wines including a nice selection of the top houses. And they keep adding small bars / restaurants as well. Tempting though it was, we decided to go next door and after not finding Takashimaya Paris (it seems to have disappeared – we weren’t the only people looking for it), we decided to have lunch at Printemps. The restaurant is in a room with a huge crystal domed roof and is both elegance and historic as it is modern in terms of the furnishings and the food. Luckily, the staff took pity on our inability to speak French fluently although I was able to help the waiter with one of the plats du jour (it was duck, actually). How can you not visit Fauchon when in Paris ? Along with Hediard, both in their own ways are wickedly stylish conglomerations of high fashion meets French cuisine and presentation – Hediard being the upmarket but still traditional grocer and tea / coffee merchant where is Fauchon reaches for the stars in everything. Of course it is a pricey as hell – that’s not the point. Best buy still remains their chocolates, I think. But I love La Grand Epicerie De Paris. It’s probably my favourite shopping venue in Paris probably because you can get seemingly everything here. If you only had a day and and hour to shop and get something for everyone, make a bee-line for this place. You won’t regret it.
T is for Trains, specifically Eurostar: Truth is that there is no point flying between London and Paris anymore. Think about it – you have to go to Heathrow or Gatwick or Stansted or London City, do the usual queue-up, passport control, customs clearances etc etc, endure the flight, repeat in reverse, collect bags and then get into town. The whole process probably takes as long as the train journey from St. Pancras International to Gare De Nord with the added advantage of actually being in the city on arrival. Yes, you do need to go through border screening (and the slightly unusual procedure of entering France while technically still being in the UK and vice versa) and a luggage check but you expect that sort of thing these days. Well, I do. So how was St. Pancras International ? Well (he said with tongue firmly in cheek), luckily there was no snow. Seriously, it’s a lovely, spacious station and once you know the drill, very easy to get around. The same cannot be said for the Gare du Nord which still continues to be one of the places I love to hate. Getting one’s bags through metro gates is hardly fun and you should prepare beforehand with some gym sessions, particularly if you get stuck !
In the UK, we went with Virgin Trains and got a Pendolino / Voyager train from Euston and stood like lemmings waiting for the platform to be confirmed. It was ok but not spectacular. Like most of the VT network, you head up past Crewe (but don’t stop) then through Warrington and Wigan, past part of the Lake District and then through Calisle before arriving at Glasgow Central (the run from Carlisle to Glasgow itself takes over an hour). The saving grace of the trip up was the cheap upgrade you can get in weekends. Get on baord, find an unoccupied First Class Seat and
U is for Unfinished Business: We did a lot, saw a lot but there were some things in the battle plans not done – we didn’t see the Eiffel Tower lit up (shame, but blame the weather and a packed schedule). Nor dis we go up the Arc de Triomphe (ditto). Nor did we get around to having a gander around Abbey Road in London or stop in at Hediard in Paris. That said, there were many additional things that made up for that which the average tourist might not get to see elsewhere. Six of one, half a dozen of another !
V is the Roman Numeral for 5 – The Five Most Unusual Things That Happened:
1.Stuck in the Channel Tunnel for 80 minutes due to the train in front breaking down. We were close to going in to reverse to the crossover point and using the other tunnel. Still, the emergency lighting was engaged for a time and the airconditioning was not working all the time.
2. Almost getting caught out in the queue for the top level at the Eiffel Tower – there are no signs shoeing you where to buy tickets and in fact you need coins which may not be possible if the note changing machine broke down (luckily for us, someone was repairing it at the time). Luckily, I was able to jump out of the queue, get tickets and rejoin the queue (much to the surprise and disgust of a few people – never mind).
3. This is the second time the Glasgow ‘Race for Life’ has disrupted my travels in Glasgow – I knew it would as soon as I saw the barriers being put up when I arrived at the hotel around George Square and I instantly knew what event it was. Not that I have anything against women running for a great cause (breast cancer research) in pink (!) but it was mildly irritating that no signs were put up advising alternate routes and the like prior to the event.
4. L’Angle du Faubourg did not open its doors until 7.30pm precisely. Not 7.29, not 7.31, but 7.30. Why they insist on this practice is a mystery. You can see the dtaff going about table prep and the like but why you would not open a few minutes early for people with reservations at 7.30pm is a bit strange. Maybe they expect people to be late.
5. I did my very best to suppress guffaws of laughter over breakfast at Fortnum & Mason – the American businessmen who were at the table behind were only there because they were sick of their hotel breakfasts and ‘had done breakfast at The Wolseley to death’ (those of you familiar with London can start laughing now). F&M was therefore ‘a discovery’ for them. Clearly they don’t drink tea ! Then there were the noisy Latin American women at the table next to us chatting away in English which was surprising as one was clearly Colombian (and appeared to resent being sent home on frequent business trips), the other Argentinian (as far as I could make out). You’d have thought they would be gabbing in Spanish ! But no.
W is for Whisky: Two opportunities to experience the water of life presented themselves – the first on the way back from Loch Lomond, the second in Edinburgh. Not far out of Glasgow is the Glengoyne Distillery http://www.glengoyne.com/. Almost two hundred years old, the distillery, like many others of the time, started out as an illegal operation – illegal because production of spirits came with a heavy tax imposed by the government to fund things like the war in France and so on. That changed in the 1820s when a legalisation bill was passed. Glengoyne also has a passing association with Rob Roy – legend has it that while on the run, Roy successfully evaded his pursuers up a tree only a matter of yards near the site. This was something mentioned in the promotional video you get to see as part of the tour. The distillery itself is rather small in comparison to the larger commercial operations and you wonder how it makes all of that whisky – one explanation for the size of it is the fact that nearly all distilleries these days buy their grain pre-malted so they do not need to store it and then malt it themselves as happened decades ago. Thus, with this step in the hands of others, the only thing to do is to make ‘beer’ (as the initial liquor is called) and then distill it a number of times through what is pretty much a giant pot still. But there in lies a secret – the design of the pot still contributes hugely to the overall end result (as does the ingredients themselves, of course). Also, the terroir (to use a wine term) is critical and in this regard Glengoyne is most unusual. The actual distillery sits in the Highlands. But the storage facilities and where the barrels rest is just over the road and technically in the Lowlands. Some purists therefore argue that Glengoyne is a Lowland whisky while the owners themselves insist that it is genuinely Highland water of life. Go figure. We tried the 10 year old and the award winning 17 year old whiskies as part of our tour and, although, I am not a fan, I preferred the younger one.
The Scotch Whisky Experience http://www.whisky-heritage.co.uk/ in Edinburgh is one for the tourists. But things have changed in the two years since I was last there and very much for the better. Sure, the Disneyland barrel-ride still exists but the explanations as to the process of making whisky are better and you get a pretty through tutorial on the characteristics of the various whiskys – I have to say I am a lot wiser about Highland, Lowland, Speyside and Islay single malts and blends than I ever was and on the whole, if the tasting was any indication, I prefer the Highland malts as they are lighter and brighter. You won’t get me drinking an Islay whisky – too peaty, smoky and very medicinal (apparently due to the influence of the seaweed in the air and ground, they say). You must see the Claive Vidiz collection of whiskies – an incredible colelction of about 3000 bottles collected personally by Mr. Vidiz and now owned by Diageo. They won’t say how much it is worth but it would be several hundred thousand pounds for sure. Go and see it.
X is the Roman Numeral for 10 – The Top Ten Highlights:
1) Paris generally: C’est manifique !
2) Loch Lomond, Scotland. It’s worth a visit even on a rainy / overcast day.
3) Visiting the champagne cellars at G H Mumm. And Moet & Chandon.
4) Tea at The Ritz – opulent, beautiful and the food’s good as well.
5) Dining at L’Angle du Faubourg and visiting Les Caves Taillevent, Paris.
6) Qantas A380 in Premium Economy – very relaxing, actually.
7) Socialising – not something I get to do a lot of but what I did do, was highly enjoyable.
8) Having (another) Singapore Sling at the Long Bar, Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
9) Eurostar to Paris and return. Except the delay in the tunnel.
10) The concerts at the Salle Pleyel and the LSO at the Barbican.
Y is for You Must Be Wondering Why This Took So Long To Get Out: I don’t blame you. An unusually high backlog of work is the reason. Plus I had to significantly redraft large swathes of the original draft. Such is life.
Z is for zzzzzzzzzzzz: Despite the relative comfort of the A380, it took a good four days to get back to normal sleeping patterns. Jetlag wasn’t too bad, though.
It’s good to be travelling again !