Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

August 4-7, 2015: Although many streets in Lyme Regis climb steeply up the encircling hills, flat walks are possible. My first afternoon in town, after checking into my cosy B&B, I walked over to, and along, the Cobb, taking care not to fall down the steps, as I hadn’t brought a Captain Wentworth along to catch me. Lyme Regis now extends all the way to the Cobb, and in addition to good views of the coast, I noticed several interesting buildings.

The next day, after the mostly flat history walk in the morning, I went east. The coast around Lyme is known as the Jurassic Coast for the age of the rocks, and is subject to erosion and frequent landslides, often exposing significant fossils. Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, “Remarkable Creatures”, is about Mary Anning, who made major discoveries in the early 1800s, including the first ichthyosaurus. The local museum organizes fossil walks at low tide, but I didn’t want to carry rocks around for the next three months, however interesting they might be, and stayed off the beach. If the word “beach” conjures up a picture of flat sand, or even pebbles, think again. This beach was an intriguing wilderness of mud and rock. Significant work had been undertaken in recent years to stabilize the ground and a new walkway now ran above the beach to the east. It didn’t go far, just far enough for me to get a good view.

If I had been truly energetic I would have taken the bus east to Charmouth the next day and hiked up Golden Cap, which was reputed to offer fabulous views. But even if I had felt more energetic I certainly wouldn’t have attempted the hike in full sun, and the Dorset coast was enjoying remarkably fine weather. Instead, my B&B hosts suggested a circular walk, starting along the course of the river to the appropriately named Uplyme, and then looping across country. The walk to Uplyme was mostly shaded by trees, and featured a former mill and some pretty houses. I trekked uphill to check out the church, where the 10:00 am service was wrapping up with tea and coffee. It looked to have been well-intended.

Instead of following the directions for the rest of the walk, which looked complicated, I opted to make a loop in the other direction, which appeared easy enough on the map the T.I. had given me. Pity that the map didn’t have contour lines, as Gore Lane went up, and then up again, and again. It was one of those walks where you keep expecting the road to flatten out round the next bend, only to find that it keeps going up. However, eventually I crossed the A3052, and then joined the Southwest Coast Path and was rewarded with some really good views of the coast. I recovered with a crab salad sandwich and another macchiato at Amid Giants and Idols, where I had a long chat with the owners, learning that the coffee shop was their retirement business.
My B&B had made me dinner reservations for the Friday and Saturday nights (I can recommend the Millside, where I followed a duck breast appetizer with tender lamb chops), but I hadn’t bothered for Sunday. So it was my own fault when the Indian restaurant where I wanted to eat turned out to be full, and I ate the first fish and chips of the trip instead. Really quite good fish and chips (plaice).

Read Full Post »

October 29, 2015: As a corrective to the idea that Modernisme was all and only about Gaudi, it would be hard to beat the Palace of Catalan Music, or Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (who was responsible for the Casa Lleo Morera I wrote about earlier). I might have skipped this building, not being musical, had I not read the description – and seen the photographs – on another blog about Barcelona. That would have been a mistake, and the guided tour was well worth the eighteen euro I paid – in advance, as the palace is deservedly popular. It is also a working concert hall, and if I were not tone deaf I would definitely have tried to attend a concert, as the space is magical. (But I see on the website that some events include dance – flamenco in those surroundings must be breathtaking. Next time…)
The palace was financed by popular subscriptions as a home for the Orfeo Catala, a choral society, and finished in 1908. 







Read Full Post »


Colombia, Quimbaya civilization

October 23-26, 2015: Mostly good, as it happens, and I already mentioned the
bad, the National Museum of Anthropology, in my last post. Although I was not revisiting the Prado or the Reina Sofia, I still had plenty of museums to chose from, although many of them closed early on Sunday. I started out Saturday morning taking the metro out of the center to Ciudad Universitaria, where I was interested to see that the streets weren’t cleaned the way they were around Puerta del Sol.
The Costume Museum – the Museo del Traje – was a bit of a trek from the station, but well worth it. Although devoted to Spanish dress through the ages, there was no shortage of English description, the displays were well designed, and I had the place pretty much to myself. Aside from the dress of the elite, which was influenced by French fashions under Bourbon rule in the 1700s, I was interested to learn about the dress of the majos and majas, the Madrid working class.

Majo cap

 My second stop, back towards the station, was rather less successful. The young man at the Museum of the Americas seemed pleased to inform me that the cafeteria was closed, and handed me a map with a curt announcement that it was in Spanish because we were in Spain. I had been in Spain at the smaller Museum of Costume, but they had managed an English map. And I had though the the Americas included a fair number of English speakers. However, it turned out that it wasn’t really a Museum of the Americas, more a Museum of Peru. North America was represented by a few displays from British Colombia and a half-hearted nod to the plains Indians. Plenty of ceramics, but very little gold was on display, aside from a few small, somewhat damaged pieces, and the larger artifacts came from Colombia. Of course, the conquistadores had only been interested in gold pieces for the metal, not the artistry.


Peru, Chimu culture

 After lunch I was firmly back in Spain, at the Museum of Archaeology, although I also encountered Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Moors. This was a more foreigner-friendly museum, with English as well as Spanish descriptions, which I certainly needed for the earlier periods. The Roman section included some excellent mosaics, and the Moorish some elaborate ceilings. 


The Lady of Elche

 Sunday involved less travel, featuring the Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Thyssen, where I also ate lunch. The Museum of Decorative Arts was small, but quite good. I was amused to recognize a number of the artifacts in the temporary exhibition of bakelite on the ground floor. Upper floors contained plenty of heavily decorated furniture, and painted leather wall hangings.

The Thyssen, of course, would be a first tier museum if it were not in the same city as the Prado and the Reina  Sofia, and was full of excellent art. Although by this time In the trip I had had my fill of medieval religious painting, there were still a few pieces I liked, and I was glad to see some El Grecos and a Rembrandt self portrait. I went through the modern section rather fast, which gave me time to visit the Retiro Park and to wander through a few areas south of my hotel before dinner and packing.

Jan van Eyck, Diptych of the Annunciation

Read Full Post »

Second Time Madrid


Puerta del Sol, day time

October 23-26, 2015: My first visit to Madrid, I toured the Royal Palace, the Prado, and Reina Sofia, enjoyed a flamenco performance, and tried to stay cool in the Botanical Gardens before boarding a night train to Ronda. Ever since, I’ve used Madrid as an example of a city that others love and I don’t. I usually contrast it with Lisbon, a city I loved at first sight. But there are plenty of cities I don’t love at first sight, but nonetheless enjoy. It occurred to me that after a decade of putting Madrid down, perhaps I should give it a second look. Maybe I’d like it better in cooler weather. I wouldn’t revisit the sights I had already seen, but Madrid had plenty of museums. Just in case, I allocated only three nights.

Back when I was planning a trip to South America I spent some time trying to learn a little Spanish using a BBC video course (yes, I know the accent is different). I didn’t learn much Spanish, but I did like the look of the Puerta del Sol and the Madrid metro, and I booked a room at the Hotel Europa, practically on the Puerta del Sol, instead of the Hotel Plaza Mayor where I stayed in 2004. I can only conclude that the BBC shot the video very early in the morning, because the square turned out to be tourist central, and both it and the street outside the hotel were mobbed, as was the metro. My hotel room, small and worn, did have a little balcony overlooking a slice of the square, and I did enjoy watching the crowds, but I had no interest in joining them.


Puerta del Sol, night time


Street outside my hotel

 My first afternoon was not a success. After I got off the train from Salamanca I decided I would be better off taking the Cercanias commuter train to Puerta del Sol as the queues for the ticket machines for the metro were much longer. Ticket in hand, I had to wait for the platform for my train to show up on the monitor, and then had only two minutes to get there. The train itself was packed to overflowing. After I checked in and set off for the first museum on my list, I found the metro to be just as overcrowded. And the Anthropology Museum was a total waste of time. True, wandering past a row of second-hand book stalls in the direction of the Botanical Gardens, I did happen on the Caixa Forum, which was probably the most interesting building I saw in Madrid, but much of the exhibition space was closed.

The museum scene did improve over the next two days (I’ll do a separate post for them). I did enjoy the Retiro Park, with its lake, its Crystal Palace and its Velasquez Palace decorated with colorful tiles. I did eat quite well, although one of the best meals was at a South American restaurant. But I did not change my opinion of Madrid. 

Possibly I would have liked Madrid better if I had been staying somewhere quieter. Although that would not, it turned out, have been Plaza Mayor, which I visited one evening, only to find it full of tourist-trap cafes. One or two other squares, recommended in my guide books, seemed to be in rather seedy areas. A walk down Gran Via, which one book claimed had interesting early 20th century buildings, also disappointed. I had my camera out, but the only building that seemed worth a shot was a Best Western hotel with a mural of a Spanish shawl.

I had originally intended to finish my trip in Madrid, flying home on Icelandair with a stopover in Reykjavik, but when I got around to trying to book the flights, I discovered that Icelandair only offered that route in the summer. Flights from Madrid to the US at the end of October were, for some reason, ridiculously expensive, and trying frequent miles didn’t turn up any routings I liked. I found better options out of Barcelona, and decided it was time to see how Sagrada Familia was coming along. I hadn’t been over enthused about Barcelona either in 2004, but Gaudi was a definite draw.


Read Full Post »

Pleased With Pamplona

October 13-16, 2015: Pamplona, to me, has always (and only) meant a testosterone-fueled spectacle I would go out of my way to avoid, not to mention associated alcohol-fueled day-and-night partying, ditto. But the largely useless guide to the Basque country I was carrying included Pamplona, and when I skipped the lengthy information on the Running of the Bulls, the town sounded quite attractive. The Running of the Bulls was long over, as was the smaller autumn festival. It was only an hour by bus from San Sebastian, and a direct ALVIA train to Leon would take four hours, an hour less than the Intercity from San Sebastian. Then I found a good rate on an upmarket (for me) hotel and clicked “buy”.
Although two days would probably have been long enough, I did not regret my choice. Even the bus ride was worthwhile, although I usually avoid buses (my luggage is out of sight and I can’t move around). I had not realized that the whole trip would be through scenic mountains. Probably it also ran through Basque nationalist territory. A couple of times we pulled off the freeway to pause briefly for potential passengers before rejoining the main road, but once we ventured further away to a small Alpine town, where I saw plenty of Basque flags and slogans. To me it seemed more Austrian than Spanish, underlining the differences between the Spanish regions.

The Pamplona Cathedral Hotel gave me a large room with an excellent view, but was on the far northern edge of the old town, while the bus and train stations were well south. Plenty of good views were on offer elsewhere, as a long stretch of the old ramparts was accessible. At one point it enclosed a large grassy area and a fortification. While I had read that swans, ducks and geese inhabited the protected area, I was stunned to see a deer posed at the edge of the fort.

While the distant views of the mountains were good, the foreground views were arguably even better, as the town was amazingly well provided with interesting buildings. Plenty of churches of course, as it is an early stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago (wonder what the pilgrims do during the Running of the Bulls?), although aside from the cathedral they were all closed when I stopped by. Imposing gates, including a couple for the pilgrims. And lots of secular buildings too, some fronting narrow alleys, and some set back around the beautiful Plaza del Castillo. Cafes ringed the square, but so did free benches, occupied by the town folk when the town came alive around 6:00 pm. (Just as we were losing the warmth of the afternoon sun: a schedule that makes sense in the south in the summer makes less in the north as winter approaches.)

Besides the views, the buildings, and the cathedral, the single biggest surprise was in the museum. Aside from the carved capitals I had missed in the cathedral’s cloister, the museum housed a collection of large and remarkably well preserved Roman mosaics. Just stunning. I went round twice. I am a big fan of mosaics, and Pamplona would have been worth a visit just for these.

 I ate well in Pamplona, too. The breakfast buffet at my Relais et Silence hotel was way too expensive for someone who only wanted coffee, orange juice and yoghurt (muesli would have been nice, but not essential). I found a local bakery just down the street that stocked plain yoghurt, made an excellent cappuccino and squeezed me delicious fresh orange juice. Breakfast with the locals – when the woman perched next to me finished her coffee and carbs she moved behind the counter to help with serving. People dropped in for their own carbs, including one elderly woman who cleaned them out of churros, the pastry twists dipped into chocolate. While churros and chocolate are decidedly Spanish, I also saw people on the street carrying baguettes, reminding me off France, just across the mountains. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, but on my last morning I typed a thank you note into the Translate app on my phone, which was well received.

I lunched on pintxos (think tapas) at a place further down the street, but thought I was going to have less luck with dinner. I set out, on a freezing cold evening, headed for the Bar Gaucho, recommended in my guide book and online, but it was mobbed. I wandered into a couple of other places, but the pintxos didn’t appeal. Then I lucked into the Bodegon Sarria (a choice highly approved of by the helpful woman at my hotel). Besides tables at the front for pintxos eaters, it had tables at the back for those ordering from the menu. I snagged a table, ordered something that looked like vegetables, and the always reliable shrimp in garlic. The something vegetable turned out to be baby fava beans with slivers of Iberica ham. Absolutely delicious. So good I went back my last night to eat it again, this time with a half order of Iberica ham, to which I could easily become addicted. I had forgotten that Thursday night was cheap pintxos and wine night, and the old town was packed. Hurrying back to the warmth of my hotel after dinner, I noted students not just standing outside the cafes, but sitting on the very cold pavement.

The other night I ate in my hotel, mostly in solitary state. The meal served to remind me that I am not a big fan of the latest cuisine. The tomato salad included foam, sardines and sugar. The hake, cooked at 45 degrees, was accompanied only by a little sauce. The cheese balls that constituted dessert were encased in a black current crust and came with ice cream and more sugar. It was all edible, but I preferred the Bodegon Sarria.


Read Full Post »

Enjoying Turin

September 28 – October 2, 2015: With a choice of Milan or Turin after the Italian Lakes I had no difficulty picking Turin over Milan, which I had already visited. Turin seemed over-provided with interesting museums, not to mention cafes and restaurants. Hotels were a little more problematic, and I wound up sleeping a bit above my usual price point at Townhouse 70, which had actual turn-down service (provided even when I put out the do-not-disturb sign). The staff were very helpful, breakfast was good, and I slept well.

Founded by the Romans, for centuries Turin was the seat of the House of Savoy, which held sway over varying swathes of northwestern Italy and southeastern France, and ultimately provided reunified Italy with its first king and its first capital. The city had the buildings and avenues one would expect of such a power base. In the city center many of the streets were lined with soaring arcades, no doubt providing welcome shade in the summer, and providing me with shelter from the rain. A little further out the streets were still wide, wide enough that I noticed cars parked along the center line! When just one or two cars were using this novel parking lot, they had their hazard lights on, but where several were lined up they didn’t bother.

The Savoy family also built castles and palaces in the surrounding countryside, and although many have disappeared one, designed as a hunting lodge, still stands in Veneria Reale and was recently renovated after years of abandonment. Calling it a hunting lodge is seriously misleading, palace would be more accurate, although in one of its earlier incarnations it was even bigger. The grounds have also been rescued, and should really be seen on a sunny day. Unfortunately, Accuweather once again proved inaccurate, and I visited on the wrong day. 

 The basement provided more information than I really needed on the history of the family and of the building. All of the furniture was long gone, so the rooms upstairs were mostly empty, but the walls and ceilings were plenty grandiose. A special exhibition on Raphael contained a number of pictures borrowed from Florence, a city I still have not visited. While I could appreciate Raphael’s ability, I was not converted into a fan. I’m afraid I was actually more appreciative of the Venetian barge in the stables. 

The really grandiose palace, of course, was in the center of Turin. I was suitably impressed, but the more baroque buildings I see, the more excessive I find them. The Madama palace/castle, which I also visited, did offer some medieval church artifacts, along with cases of silver, glass and ceramics. And, reached through the wintry gardens, access to a tower and a view. At least you could visit the gardens at the Madama palace, those around the Royal Palace were suffering from neglect and off limits.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my visits, but not as much as those to other museums in town. I confess to complete disinterest in the Shroud of Turin, so I skipped that museum, as well as the well-regarded museums devoted to film and Fiat. I would like to have visited the Decorative Arts and Risorgimento museums, but there I would have had to join a guided tour in Italian. The official at the Risorgimento museum seemed positively offended that an English speaker might want to visit his museum! But I had a lovely time at the virtually deserted Asiatica Museum, and a pretty good one at the popular Egyptian Museum, said to be the best outside Cairo. It was certainly a great deal better maintained and curated than the one in Cairo, although my audio guide was partially defective.

 The Asiatica’s collection was small, but included some exquisite pieces. Not to mention, Tibetan thangkas from the 15th century which I was surprised to see in Turin. I did ask how they came to be there, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. The ritual artifacts made from human bone in the Tibetan section were even more surprising! A temporary exhibition on the Spice Route, featuring National Geographic photographs, reminded me that I still haven’t made it to Central Asia…

The man who completed Turin’s Egyptian collection, Ernesto Schiaparelli, obviously had unusually good relations with the Egyptian authorities. Although short on gold artifacts, the museum held a very great deal of everything else you might expect in the way of sarcophagi, grave goods, and statues. The remains of a couple of pleated linen tunics must be among the oldest textiles on view anywhere, and a bed, complete with bed linens, was not much younger. The visit ended with a long mirrored room full of large statues. The museum was extensive, and by that time I was almost too tired to appreciate them.

Aside from museums, I also made sure to visit some of Turin’s historic cafes. I mostly drank coffee – proper macchiatos! – since although the one spritz I allowed myself in the San Carlo came with munchies, they were not particularly good munchies. (I was starting to feel that I had been eating and drinking too much and was gaining weight.) The San Carlo, once a hot bed of revolution, featured mirrors, frescoes and chandeliers, but ultimately my favorite was the smaller and darker Mulassano, covered with beautifully carved wood panelling.

One consideration in picking Turin over Milan had been that I didn’t have to get up quite so early to catch the direct TGV to Lyon, but I still left the Townhouse 70 shortly after 7:00. I had been looking forward to a reputedly scenic journey through the mountains, but the weather was uncooperative. In Italy one band of cloud lay in the valleys, and another draped the mountain tops. 



Read Full Post »

Respecting Zurich

September 18-21, 2015: On the Fodor’s discussion boards, where I spend a certain amount of time, people are always being advised not to go to Zurich. Now, if the issue is whether to spend time in the mountains or the cities, under most circumstances the mountains should win. But it also seems that when it’s just a matter of cities, Zurich is still always getting dissed. Now, the only time I tried to visit Switzerland’s mountains, my trip was cut cruelly short when I fell and broke my wrist as soon as I arrived in Murren. I do want to go back, but for an appreciable amount of time. On this trip, I was just looking for a three night stop to break the train trip from Nancy to Varenna, on Lake Como.
My first notion was to wander through the Black Forest on the way south, but I got spooked by recurrent German rail strikes, and I wasn’t sure anywhere rated three nights. I did book a hotel, with difficulty, in Konstanz, but then discovered that Oktoberfest started the day I planned to arrive. Since I am no fan of beer, loud parties or oompah bands I promptly canceled the booking and made one for Zurich instead. Zurich made the train trip easier too: one change in Basel between Nancy and Zurich (where the passport control offices were empty but the customs office was manned), and a direct train to Como where I could transfer to the ferry to Varenna. So I put up a post asking whether anyone had a good word to say about Zurich, and I did some research on my own account, and I concluded that three nights might actually be too short. Between interesting museums, a pretty lake, and several possible day trips I thought I would have no difficulty staying busy. And I was right, although I would have been happier if the museums I was most looking forward to seeing had not been undergoing renovation.
I spent the rather gloomy afternoon of my arrival day walking down one bank of the river and up the other side, visiting three churches on the way and checking out a few of the shops. (Not that I had the least intention of buying anything.) I enjoyed the river views, admired several of the buildings, and was repaid a number of times for looking up. The Grossmunster, supposedly founded by Charlemagne, had impressive, carved, bronze entry doors, stained glass by Giacometti, and a stern statue of Zwingli close by. Across the river in the Fraumunster I was reminded that I don’t care for Chagall’s stained glass (or his paintings, for that matter). No photos were allowed in those two churches, the third, St. Peter’s, was notable only for the largest church clock in Europe.

The next morning the sun shone and I activated my Zurich card, which covered public transport, and headed for the Bellerive museum, only to find it closed. I was able to photograph a Corbusier house right opposite, and since I was close to the boat dock I decided to take a “short” (ninety minute) trip on the lake, covered by the pass. This worked very well, as I saved sightseeing time by eating lunch while I was on the boat, and I very much enjoyed the views. True, the lake is not surrounded by mountains, but the hills are fine, and so are the many villas and villages.

In the afternoon I attempted to visit the Design Museum. Its usual digs are also closed for renovation, but it was hosting a couple of exhibitions in a building further out. (The permanent collection can only be seen on a guided tour, and the times didn’t work for me.) I found the exhibition on digital media mildly interesting, but was seriously impressed by a display of Steve McCurry’s photographs. Many were from Afghanistan, covering over thirty years, but some were of places in Asia that I had visited. His photographs are so, so much better than mine… I finished the day at the History museum, where I enjoyed the period rooms, some built into the museum itself, and some impressive gold hoards, along with artifacts from La Tene. The museum was being expanded, but the main collection seemed to be intact, and the courtyard hosted an exhibition of photographs of work and workers, a number of the occupations shown are now obsolete.
 My second full day I went to St. Gallen, primarily to visit its magnificent library. No photos are allowed, so I can only tell you that its claim to be one of the best libraries in Europe is well founded. Its collection goes back to the 800s, and the room itself is impressive. I was glad of the audio guide, which also covered the temporary exhibition on the development of legal systems. While checking directions on my phone I noticed a Textile Museum, which took up part of the afternoon. I had not previously known that embroidery had been Switzerland’s main export around the turn of the 19th century.

The biggest problem with Zurich, alas, was the cost. Hotels were high, but I scored a reasonable if somewhat worn place a stone’s throw from the huge main station (which had an equally huge shopping arcade underneath). Food and drink, however, were stratospheric. Over $5.00 for a single shot of espresso! Fast food (at the Nordsee chain) almost $20 without wine! So I did not eat particularly well in Zurich. Plus it turned out to be the center of the DCC scam. Every place I used my credit card, and I mean every place, from coffee shops on up, had their machines set to offer USD before CHF. At least the machines gave me the option, but I got very tired of figuring out how to select CHF. (For those unfamiliar with this piece of banking chicanery, it means that you are charged in your home currency with a hefty markup on the exchange, instead of in the local currency plus whatever currency conversion fee your credit card company charges – which for the cards I travel with is zero.)


Read Full Post »

Not So Hot in Nancy


September 15-18, 2015: Traveling while sick, especially traveling solo while sick, is a miserable experience. Admittedly, some situations are worse than others. Breaking my wrist in Switzerland was a lot worse than the virus I had acquired in London. Still, I had a lot less energy, and even enthusiasm, for sightseeing than usual. The weather in Nancy didn’t help, being cold and grey when not actually wet and windy. Even my Norwegian umbrella, guaranteed sturdy, got blown inside out a time or two. 
This is by way of explaining why, although I had returned to Nancy to revisit its museums and wander its streets photographing Art Nouveau buildings, I managed the former and not the latter. A more accurate weather forecast might have helped, as the weather was worse instead of better my second full day in town. Still, even Art Nouveau buildings need a little sunshine to photograph well, and trying to manage both an umbrella and a camera in a high wind is a recipe for disaster.

While I am a big fan of Art Nouveau, the term covers several different styles, and I like some more than others – I am not wild about National Romantic for instance. French is one of my favorite variants, and Nancy was the home of French Art Nouveau, and of some of its most famous practitioners. My museum day began at the Musee des Beaux Arts, although once again I was totally unimpressed with the main collection, and had some difficulty finding the Daum glassware in the basement. The museum has been extended at least once, and the visitor is confronted by elevators that only go to certain floors, and signage that is less than helpful. The staircase in the addition is quite nice, however.



Once I found the access to the basement, at the far end of the main floor, I had the feeling that the area was treated as something of an afterthought by the museum staff. It was anchored by the massive remains of some of the city’s former fortifications, I noticed a rather bleak lecture room, one wall held a massive modern tapestry depicting good fighting evil, designed by Jean Lurcat and created by Aubusson, apparently for the university, and one long, low room held case after case of Daum glassware, mostly from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A couple of other cases held more recent output. After a slow and appreciative walk past the glassware, I took a look at the rest of the museum. About the only thing that held my attention was an installation of colored lights and mirrors. You could walk into it, and I found it quite attractive. 
But the museum I most wanted to revisit was the Musee de L’Ecole de Nancy, a house built for Eugene Corbin, a patron of the Nancy school, and completely furnished with items from the period, some of them owned by Monsieur Corbin or his brother. When I had visited the last time I had been carrying a heavier than usual day pack, as I was switching hotels, and had been a bit distracted. The museum still didn’t have secure storage, but I carried the important items in the waist bag that doubles as my camera case, and left my day bag in the unguarded cloakroom. This time I went round slowly (when not attacked by a coughing fit) and was pleased to find a second option on the audio guide, commentary supposedly from the owner.

 The lack of secure storage was a problem at other Nancy museums. The Beaux Arts museum said they didn’t have a cloakroom, but when I found a perfectly good set of lockers, and went back to the front desk to point this out, said that they were off limits because of terrorism. (The security guard took pity on me and let me use one, but don’t count on it.) The Lorraine Museum had no storage of any kind, and once again I was carrying a heavy day pack while I waited to check into the Hotel des Prelats. I can’t really recommend this museum, all you really need to know is that a former King of Poland became Duke of Lorraine and Bar after his daughter married King Louis XV of France (must have one’s father-in-law suitably situated) and that he was responsible for Nancy’s stunning Stanislas square. Unfortunately, the beautiful gilding on the baroque ironwork that is a feature of the square looks its best in sunshine, and there was no sunshine while I was in Nancy. Consequently, I took no photographs of the square, having take a lot the last time. 

One piece of good news: After two months on the road I was in dire need of a hair cut. An enquiry at my hotel produced a recommendation for a salon literally next door. I was pleased with the result, especially as it cost about half what it would have done at home. (Checking the real estate listings, I was also surprised by the house prices – considerably lower than I expected.) I finished my visit with dinner at the Brasserie Excelsior, one of the few remaining commercial Art Nouveau buildings in town. If I return to Nancy, and I may well, I need to remember that the interior of the restaurant is not that interesting, and the food overpriced and pedestrian. On the bright side I can recommend the omelets at T’Roi, just off the square, and the enormous slice of raspberry pie and coffee I enjoyed at Foy, on the square.


Read Full Post »

I had chosen the Hotel Ayres Colonia with the expectation of walking to the ferry terminal. It was certainly close enough. However, when I looked out my window the morning of my departure, I found a full gale in process. Rain was coming down in sheets, small rivers ran along the gutters, and the trees were bowing before the wind. I would need a taxi after all.

I also packed everything in plastic, although Buquebus, unlike JAL, did an admirable job of keeping my checked bag dry. (No, I have neither forgotten nor forgiven.) Buquebus did a less good job of keeping to the schedule: the smaller (and possibly slower and cheaper) Colonia Express left on schedule, carrying most of the backpackers, while the Buquebus passengers had to wait an extra hour. Still, at one point it looked like we might not leave at all, as the captain had some understandable difficulty getting his large craft alongside


For the first, and likely only, time on this trip I was met by a man with a sign with my name on it. Having a fixed rate for the ride proved especially beneficial when the driver had difficulty finding my hotel. He pointed out a couple of times that the additional distance wasn’t going to cost me extra. Along with the remise (car and driver), I had picked a more-expensive-than-usual hotel, after I was talked out of staying in the cheaper but dodgier San Telmo barrio (good advice). I had been a little dubious about the hotel, as it was very highly rated on Tripadvisor, and I had had a couple of bad experiences with highly-rated places. This time, though, the rating proved justified, and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. (I had thought I was about to quit posting on TA, after they pulled my review of the Kalemi in Gjirokaster, the owner apparently having claimed it was about a different hotel, and that he didn’t have the amenities I mentioned. Since there is a bare handful of places to stay in old town Gjirokaster, and the only amenities I had mentioned were the view and the bathroom, this was patently ridiculous, and so I told TA. It took two or three weeks, but they finally put my review back up again.)

With the delays, I didn’t have much afternoon left, and after getting settled I decided to go visit the Las Violetas cafe, which had been highly recommended on my planning thread. This also meant I could check out the Subte (metro) in general, and the original line in particular. I had no trouble buying a ticket (actually a small set of tickets), nor with navigating the system, but I did encounter a well-known scam for the first time. I connected from Catedral to Peru through a crowded and rather wet tunnel and was just reaching the new platform when a young woman tapped me on the shoulder to show me globs of some yellow substance on the back of my coat and trousers.

I do wonder why I was picked for this scam. I was wearing the rain pants I had bought for Patagonia, and my heavier, but still washable, coat, and would have no trouble getting rid of the stuff without stains. I simply swore and kept walking, but when a second young woman offered to clean me up I handed her a couple of tissues and let her get on with it, meanwhile keeping a death grip on my bag (which I had been carrying in front as I usually do on metros). I don’t keep valuables in my pockets, so they were out of luck. (Actually, I later discovered 26 cents American at the bottom of one pocket, but the pockets on that coat aren’t designed for easy access.)


Las Violetas was nice enough, with some pretty stained glass and a fin de siècle vibe, although the cheese cake wasn’t great. I found the metro less impressive, the historic line being uncomfortable and in need of some TLC. The four blocks of Scalabrini Ortiz between my hotel and the metro could also use some care and attention, although the supermarket and pharmacies were fine once I went inside. I concluded that some subsidies must be in effect, because a subway ride is only 2.5 pesos, and two liters of water from the supermarket less than 6 pesos. Officially the rate is 4.76 pesos to the USD. I had not realized when I planned this trip that the Argentinian government had currency controls in place. I think that the black (blue?) market rate is more like 6.8, but that’s not so easy for a tourist to access.

I am not in general a fan of bus tours, but the forecast was for more rain, so I signed up for one for my first morning. Happily, only three other people had made the same decision for the same tour, and the guide was good. Besides drive-by sightings of things like the (modern) obelisk and the (turn of the 20th century) Teatro Colon, and of barrios like Puerto Moderno (new and fancy) and San Telmo (old and decrepit) we got off in the Plaza De Mayo, La Boca, and for a guided tour of Recoleta cemetery. This took care of a number of my sightseeing priorities.


La Boca, listed in the all the guidebooks, was a major disappointment. Aside from the football stadium, in which I had zero interest, the “sight” consisted of three streets totally given over to cafes and souvenir shops and photo ops. The worst kind of tourist trap. Recoleta cemetery, on the other hand, I revisited after lunch, although it did not displace Lviv’s cemetery in my affections.

Since I paid for the bus tour in dollars, I was entitled to a free walking tour later in the week. I would, it turned out, do a lot of walking in Buenos Aires.



Read Full Post »

Turned out, I had misunderstood the description of Colonia del Sacramento. When I saw the phrase “colonial architecture”, I thought “mature, successful, colony”. You know, Palladian town halls and baroque churches and wide, tree-lined avenues. Montevideo, in fact. Turned out that the architecture in Colonia was from an earlier phase of settlement, more beleaguered outpost than center of administration, and it did in fact change hands several times before Uruguay became fully independent in 1828, although sometimes as the result of treaties rather than capture.


I was not the only one suffering from misconceptions regarding the town. The otherwise very good guide on my bus tour of Buenos Aires seemed quite taken aback when I mentioned that Colonia had been Portuguese. Oh no, he said, Uruguay was always Spanish. I’m not sure what they teach in history class in Argentina, but according to wikipedia (and to the museums in Colonia) he is flat wrong. Colonia was founded by the Portuguese (in 1680) and was held by the Spanish several times but only briefly, although they did found Montevideo (in 1726). Plus, during the various reshufflings leading up to full independence, Uruguay was first a province of Argentina but then part of Brazil.

So, history aside, the old section of Colonia, inside the mostly vanished walls, was much smaller and more low key than I expected. (I should have paid more attention to the photographs.) The Plaza Mayor was nothing like the typical Iberian town square, being a long, largely unpaved, rectangle, notable for some gorgeous old trees, and surrounded by one story buildings set well back from the road.


You could easily see all of the old town in half a day if you pushed it. The museums aren’t that interesting (and the tile museum was closed), and you need to start early to get your photographs done before the crowds arrive. There are plenty of photo ops. Also plenty of cafes. And mosquitoes. So far I had mostly avoided mosquitoes, although I had to beat a strategic retreat from a lake in Montevideo. Here I had to finally break out the hated insect repellent.


I had picked a hotel that was just a block from the bus station and two from the ferry terminal, which meant I was several blocks from the old town. It also meant I ate dinner in the (cheaper) new town. Extremely well one night (at El Porton) and rather badly across the street the next night. For a hotel in what might have been the bad part of town, the Ayres was a nice surprise, although I could only get wifi in my room in the corners, as the staircase blocked the signal. I did notice a number of hostels, in the new town, and hotels, in the old town, besides the posh and pricey Plaza Mayor, or the Radisson and its casino. The Radisson is located near the handicrafts market and the yacht club. I was in town on the weekend, and on Sunday morning the water was alive with sailing boats, and the pier well populated with fisherman, although the sailors seemed to be having more fun than the anglers.


I wouldn’t bother with the handicrafts market, unless you want to join the locals and gear up to drink mate, which requires a thermos of hot water, a bowl of the herb, and a metal straw. I haven’t tried it. I quite enjoyed Colonia, at least in the morning, but although I took a lot of photos I don’t think it really justified two nights.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »