Three Weeks in the UK: Week Three

Museums of London

On Friday Dad and I did our own thing. I’d been to the gym in the morning and then booked him a flight to Vicenza (he was going for a night to see his cousin). After that I went to see the Museum of London’s Fire! Fire! exhibition.

An excellent exhibition. The interpretation was so well put together that it was a treat to stop and explore everything…although museum fatigue kicks in early for me and there were about two cabinets of objects I glossed over.

The words were kept to a minimum, plenty of interactives and theming to go along with it. From a professional and personal point of view, I was engaged and came away with a better understanding of the Great Fire of London and its surrounding social and historical context.

What I did wonder about was how the kids interacted with it. There was a large school group in there and the bulk of them used the dress-ups, played with the blocks (‘how would you rebuild the city of London?’) and sat in the tent. They also pressed some buttons and lifted flaps.

Now, from an educational point of view, you might say that they didn’t really learn anything. They were small kids so there were no sheets to fill out, and it was largely self-directed, with teachers or teacher helpers corralling the group.

But just because they didn’t (or might not) have learnt anything, doesn’t mean the exhibition failed. What I did see was a lot of kids enjoying themselves. They were excited to be there, playing on things, running around with their friends, all while being in a ‘learning environment’.

I doubt they learnt anything by osmosis but at least their memories of being in a museum is a pleasant one, which, you hope, will continue through as they get older and want to discover more. Anyway, opinion piece over.

I walked through the rest of the standard galleries as I’d been before and had filled by brain. I was unexpectedly moved by the rather simple 2005 London bombing memorial – a book containing remembrances of those who’d died. Simple yet effective.

After Museum of London, I headed to the Museum of London: Docklands. I’d never heard of it until Jackie told me about it on Wednesday. Built in an old warehouse that was part of the old docklands, it’s three floors of stories about shipping, the docks and London.

I liked the exhibition on slavery and sugar. Though they didn’t make any overt connections between ‘old’ and modern-day slavery, it was definitely something I read into it. The words around it have changed but some of the structures underneath have survived.

I also liked their reconstruction ‘SailorTown’. The rest of the museum I strolled through as it was heavy on text, light on object and all a bit overwhelming. Excellent if you need to focus on a particular time period that deals with the docks but for a general visitor, I think it could have done with some trimming down.

In the evening I caught up with Jeff and Nigel at their flat for a drink before we went for dinner at Tandoor Chop House (really good Indian food). Many drinks, food and laughs later, I headed home after another great day in London.

Rellies in Reading

Saturday we caught the train to Reading to meet Mum’s cousin, Pauline, and Pauline’s daughter, Verity. They’d come up from Bournemouth so had further to travel than us. We met at the station, walked through a bit of Reading centre and went for lunch at Prezzo. Lovely to see them and catch up, sharing all of our news.

Afterwards we went through some of Reading’s streets, seeing the town hall and this Tudor (either era or style) house that was severely bowed in the middle. Sadly it was sitting empty. We left at about 3, a sad goodbye. That’s the problem with living so far away but at least there’s email etc to keep in touch with.

In the evening we met Donna and her friend, Courtney, at Las Iguanas in Southbank for dinner. The food was really good, even better that they had a vegan menu for Donna (and also to capitalise on Veganuary).

After dinner we saw the circus show Bianco, which was playing on Southbank as part of its winter festival. There were no chairs; it was a roving audience performance. The audience moved (about as well as you’d expect a large group of people to move and follow directions) under the guidance of the performances as bits of staging was relocated inside the space. They did this for much of the first half but it was largely abandoned for the second half when the performance was focused inwards in the centre.

There were a few nice moments and tricks, the performances were all incredibly fit and skilled, but I got bored after the first half as they repeated tricks and each subsequent segment went on too long. They were building on this idea of chaos, I think, as they shouted things out which were completely obscured by the sound from the live band (who were excellent).

The performance could have done with severe editing. I also got over the repeated use of one particular device, which was to come out to perform while clothed and then, within a few minutes, lost most of the outer layers. Once or twice is fine, but then it got tired and looked like they couldn’t make up their mind.

My back was killing me by the end of it and I was annoyed at the self-indulgence. Still, I was probably in the minority and now sound incredibly curmudgeonly about it. Having seen Limbo a few times, it’s hard to find something that comes close.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition

As a Christmas gift to each of us, Donna bought Dad and I tickets to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition on at the Natural History Museum. An excellent gift. Dad and I met her at the museum at about 10:30 and luckily beat much of the queue that later accumulated.

There’s a new bit inside the museum that is prefaced with a stegosaurus skeleton and has an escalator that goes up through an industrial-type model of the earth. The lower walls are lined with lit displays of bits of rock from different times through the Earth’s development. It’s an impressive entrance to the geology exhibition.

We bypassed it at first to get to the exhibition. I missed last year’s exhibition but saw the previous one in Toronto. It’s always awesome and contains just enough photos to get through before you get fatigue.

Standouts for me were the documentary photo of 4,000 slaughtered, frozen pangolin (juxtaposed with a black-and-white image of a lion playing with a rolled up pangolin), hyenas feeding on wildebeest that had died in the stampede, and three hares on snow. Of course, there were plenty of great photos.

Only downside (apart from the massive decline in species across the globe) was a woman who kept talking to her friends and commenting on every portrait, not in an intelligent way, but making a joke on each. SHUT UP! I had to keep going to opposite ends of the display to get away from her. I should have had headphones…and idea for next time.

Courtney and her boyfriend, Mickey, came along too, which was nice to get to share in the moment. After the exhibition we went up the new escalator entrance, semi-experienced the Kobe earthquake in a simulator, and then headed out. So many children!

We said goodbye to Courtney and Mickey then went for lunch at Pret-a-Manger. Next up was the underwear exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (1700s to today). Interesting to see the breadth and variety of female undergarments compared to the relative simplicity and lack of changes in that for males. Power play at work.

Full up of museums at the end of it we parted ways. Once home, I went to the gym (getting caught in the rain) and later we met Donna at a vegetarian/vegan restaurant called The Gate in Hammersmith. It was great. Kind of like fine dining for vegetarians. We each had something different for our mains and dessert, and all of it was delicious. Very full at the end of it.

Tube Strike!

img_5171In the morning Dad and I caught the train. He was heading to Gatwick to fly to Vicenza to see his cousin for the evening, meanwhile I was heading out to Leigh-on-Sea for lunch with Sheila, Ian and Donna. A tube strike had been called the night before and was to last 24 hours. As a result, travel in and around London was a little different.

Dad needed to go to Clapham Junction but the trains weren’t stopping there because Clapham had turned into a nightmare due to all the people desperately trying to get to work while central London’s tube stations were all closed.

He was going to have to head into Waterloo then out to Clapham and then to Gatwick, however, there was a woman in a wheelchair in our carriage and she’d requested to get off at Clapham. The train made a special stop and he was able to get off and continue his journey.

When I got to Waterloo, the announcements were saying the tube station was closed. The entrance was even locked. I needed to get to West Ham so was standing there, figuring out alternatives, when I overheard the policeman say that the Jubilee line was still open but you had to leave the station and go in another entrance. Hooray!

Meanwhile, the Jubilee line was mostly closed so the train made about three stops between Waterloo and West Ham and I got there in about 15 minutes. It was wonderful. Less wonderful were the delays to Southend and having to take the slow train. Oh well. Can’t win them all.

I arrived in Leigh-on-Sea and went to Sheila’s and then the three of us went to a vegetarian restaurant called The Oak Tree where we met Donna. Really good food. Caught up on what had been happening over the past little while and then it was time for Donna to go to bed (night shift again). Looking forward to seeing her again in a few weeks when she’s in Oz.

Sheila and Ian dropped me at the station and it was another goodbye. Hate them. I caught the train back into the city, no drama with the trains, and then met up with my friend, Daniel, for a few drinks at the Riverfront. Despite knowing each other for years, we’ve never met in person so it was a relief that we got along so well. A few glasses of wine and a bunch of stories later, we went our separate ways. A fun evening indeed.

A Monument to Stuff

After the gym and a chat with Glen in the morning, I caught the train into the city to the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Jackie had suggested it to me the other week and it had just reopened from being cleaned.

John Soane was an architect in the 1700s. Through an Act of Parliament he had it decreed that his house and all its possessions would be bequeathed to the country as a museum, provided it stay in as close to its original state as possible.

There’s a crypt, a kitchen, some drawing rooms, a monk’s yard, and a library – all of which are open to the general public. If you go on a booked private tour, you can see the other floors and living quarters.

I was expecting something that was just heaving with junk, overstuffed rooms, shelves and drawers of a true hoarder, something of a manic collector. Instead it was all well organised even if it did contain bits of marble statues and all the walls were covered within an inch of their lives.

The picture room was fascinating as two of the walls had movable screens so he could display many more paintings that a room of its size would. Also impressive was the sarcophagus in the crypt and its hieroglyphics. Humbling to think that they were more than 3000 years old.

After the museum, I had some lunch then went to BEERS Gallery near Old Street to see the Red Hot 100 exhibition. About twenty portraits of male and female nude red-heads. Some nice work.

Next I went to the Tate Modern to check out the installation in the turbine room. I joined about ten other people as we sat on the carpeted floor and watched a cuttlefish swim about on the screen. I then had tea and did some puzzles before heading home.

Dad returned in the evening, taking a little longer to get back from Gatwick than expected. I packed my stuff (I’ve bought a lot, mostly books – and think I’ve shrunk two of my new shirts. They’re suddenly smaller and tighter. Still wearable but not as loose as I’d like). When Dad got back, we went for dinner down the road as our last meal.

London, Out!

The car came at 5:30am. I really should have made it later. I’d already changed it from 5 but not knowing the roads to Heathrow on a Wednesday morning, I was concerned. Better to be early than late, of course, but I reckon we could have left at 6:30 and still got there with plenty of time to spare.

Check-in was a breeze, as was security. We sat in the lounge for over two hours. We ordered a la carte breakfast, which was a nice change from the buffet. Flight to Abu Dhabi was just over six hours long. I watched Bridget Jones’s Baby (not as bad as I was expecting) and then some TV. I did some work too. I didn’t sleep.

Landed in Abu Dhabi, showered in the lounge, ate some more food, got back on the plane. Ten hours later we arrived in Perth. Holiday over. Two weeks to India 🙂

Three Weeks in the UK: Week Two

Moving to London

I managed to squeeze in a workout in Southend in the morning and grabbed some lunch before Donna picked us up and drove us to Westcliff Station. She’d been on night shift so we were lucky to get her. Couldn’t think of anything worse than night shift, especially every two weeks for a week at a stretch.

We caught the train to West Ham then to Waterloo and then Pitney where we were staying in an AirBnB. As we still had much of the afternoon and evening to go, once we’d settled in we went into Leicester Square to the half price ticket booth to see what tickets we could buy. The selection was rapidly dwindling, which wasn’t surprising for the time of day. In the end we settled on The Dresser.

It starred one of the League of Gentlemen, Fleur from Absolutely Fabulous and the pharmacist from Doc Martin. I think I recognized the other main character but couldn’t place him. The performance was excellent but I think the story lacked something as it started to feel like a 2 hour and 10 minute production. Dad slept through most of it.

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Fog followed us from Essex to London

New Year’s Eve

We braved Regent Street but surprisingly it wasn’t too busy. Sales were everywhere but I rapidly ran out of energy for checking out all the stores. I bought a T-shirt from Ted Baker, tracksuit pants and chinos from Uniqlo and checked out a few other stores before we decided we’d had enough and needed a rest.

After a few hours rest at home we got ready for New Year’s Eve and headed into Central London to meet my friend, Paul, and Donna at Paul’s hotel. We walked to l’Ulivo, an Italian restaurant right near Heaven, where Donna, Paul and I were going to ring in the New Year.

We walked past a long queue of people who had tickets to see the fireworks from the banks of the Thames. When Glen and I had gone years before, we didn’t need tickets and we managed to stand right behind the London Eye. No way would I want to queue for that.

Dinner was nice, filling too, and went well with a bottle of prosecco. Fortunately the station at Embarkment was still open for two-way travel so after dinner we put Dad on the underground to go home and the three of us joined the queue for Heaven.

We got in at opening, checked our coats, bought some drinks, checked out the multiple dance floors and danced along to pop music. We made a friend – Peter – who was there by himself and made random acquaintances throughout the night. I was unwittingly given a counterfeit £5 note that the bartender pointed out and then gave me a real one to make up for it. How nice.

Donna and I had a wish come true: that they’d play Let It Go from Frozen. They played it as the second last song of 2016. Ecstatic! The countdown happened with the pop bad Steps on stage. They then disappeared without singing anything until 1:30. Donna left just before them as she was fighting a cold but Paul and I stayed.

Steps was advertising the fact that they’d been around for 20 years which was a sobering thought. When I first went to G-A-Y and Heaven, I was 19 and dancing with mostly other young people. And while it’s not yet been 20 years, time has definitely passed. I knew one of Steps songs (Tragedy) and the other five I had no clue about. They didn’t sing 5, 6, 7, 8 which I think was an oversight.

We left sometime around 3 or 4, I can’t quite remember which and headed back to the hotel.

New Year’s Day

Paul was out of the hotel early as he had to catch a flight to Malta, as you do. Donna and I took our time getting up, then headed downstairs to take advantage of their breakfast buffet. We then had a rather tired journey to Putney.

Despite our best intentions, once we were inside again we didn’t really want to go anywhere. In fact, I went to bed and caught up on sleep. Long gone are the days when I can function on minimal sleep after a big night out.

In the evening we walked up to Jackie’s for delicious dinner, some wine and a catch-up. Always a good time. And then we walked home at about ten for some more sleep.

Hampton Court Palace and Wimbledon

Not wanting to waste a morning, we caught the bus out to a Hampton Court Palace for a bit of a look around. It’s been years since any of us have visited. Unfortunately we only had limited time so we only saw about half of it, and didn’t get to go in the maze either. But we made the most of it.

We donned our velvet robes (the hand them out for you to wear during your visit…except not in the gardens) and stuck the audio guide to our ears and followed the Henry VIII royal chambers tour. I really liked the interpretation here. The guide filled in much of it, available in two different styles, with some proclamations and household rules stuck to the walls. There’s also an app and various trails.

I also liked the Georgian interpretation, particularly the games room, where there were four tables that each featured a game from the era. We sat down to play Win or Lose, which encouraged others to take a table too. I won 🙂

All too soon we had to leave to catch the train to Wimbledon to meet Jo and Roger for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien. The food was good and the company even better. It was a shame to say goodbye as one afternoon is never enough.

After lunch we caught the bus back to Putney, and Donna packed up her stuff and ran to catch the train back to Essex. In the evening I went to Richie and Jenny’s for dinner. They’re a couple of doctored from back home and Richie is in London to do a fellowship.

They’re living in the new posh part of Kings Cross which looks amazing and definitely does away with the old impression of Kings across. Apartments there must cost a fortune!

I met their six month old daughter Aurora, who, not to sound too conceited, took a shine to me, and I to her. Talk about adorable. The hours past in conversation and eating curry before I caught trains back to Putney.

Getting Our Art On

I finally returned to the gym, signing up for one that’s a couple of streets away from where we’re staying. It’s a good facility, the only slight minus being that it’s spread out over four floors so until you figure out where everything is, it can be a bit confusing. Still, it was good to hit the weights again after a few days off.

Afterwards, Dad and I headed into the city as I was keen to see the National Portrait Gallery, which is one of my favourites. We forewent the paid exhibitions and instead spent our time in the free ones. My favourites are the Tudor Gallery and the more modern gallery. The Tudor gallery just seems so iconic and recognizable to me, while the modern is more relatable.

After about an hour and a half, we went for lunch at Pret then went briefly into the very busy National Gallery. The only reason we went in was so I could show Dad Holbein’s The Ambassadors and its visual illusion with the skull. I have since been told I’ve committed sacrilege by not seeing the Caravaggio exhibition which was on display.

Our dose of culture done for the day we went up to a Regent St so Dad could buy a jacket from Uniqlo and have a coffee from Nespresso. From there we went to Burrough Markets as it was closing, and then I met a friend from Australia for a drink before going to meet Noel and Marcus for Japanese in Soho. Thanks to Marcus, I’ve now bought a copy of Five on Brexit Island.

Kinky Boots

Feeling a little under the weather I spent the day at home. This gave me a chance to do a bit of planning for our trip to India which is in a couple of weeks. Nothing has been booked except flights in and out. Trains book up. It’s a little worrying. A little clearer on what we’re doing and when but still lots to do.

In the evening we headed to Covent Garden to meet Jackie for dinner at Wagamama. The place was busy, we had to queue, but, whether by design or accident, the staff were great at managing our expectations.

The waiter said the wait would be fifteen minutes and food would take 25 minutes. In actual fact we waited for five minutes before being shown a table. Food took about 25 minutes but we were all done well before we needed to leave to collect our tickets. The food was pretty good, considering in the past Wagamama’s has left me a little underwhelmed, but this time it hit the spot.

I collected the tickets from the Adelphi, meeting Donna out the front. She’d come up from Essex to join us for Kinky Boots. The seats were good, although I had a tall guy’s head in my way through the second half. Hopefully I wasn’t ‘the tall guy’ for the person behind me.

The show was a lot of fun. We all remarked on how good the Angels were (the drag queen ensemble), and the guy who was Lola was excellent. I thought the conflict at the end was a little forced but overall the story was fun, different and enjoyable. Some catchy tunes in there and a great performance. Glad we got to see it…especially as Glen saw it in Melbourne at New Year’s.

A Change of Plans

Thursday we were meant to take the train to Lincoln (a three-hour journey north) to stay with friends Ashley and Karen. Unfortunately they’d come down with chest infections following their trip to New York over New Year’s and weren’t feeling very good. We’ll see them next time though.

So, now with a day and a half ahead of us that we needed to fill, we went into the city to the half-price ticket booth and bought tickets to that evening’s performance of Art at the Old Vic Theatre. I’d seen posters for it in the Tube and two lots of friends had said how good either the current performance was or the play itself. And considering it was by Yasmina Reza (who also wrote God of Carnage) I was hanging out to see it.

Tickets bought we went to the Wellcome Collection to see their latest exhibitions, Bedlam and Making Nature. I forget how I’d heard about this place but Glen and I went here a few visits ago and loved it. The exhibitions were interesting, particularly the one about the cultural constructions around nature and wildlife, but after a couple of hours our brains were full and feet were sore.

I bought some books and a couple of things in the gift shop (Glen would be proud that I’d gone into a bookshop) and then we sat for a tea. With time to spare, we went home for a while before setting out to see Art.

What a performance! What a play! We had excellent seats in a packed house. The writing is so damn good in this play that it was just a treat to listen to the words alone, never mind how else it was put together.

The play is about three friends, one of whom buys a completely white painting for 100,000 Euros. One of the other friends can’t bear the thought of this and what it means about their friendship. The third friend is stuck in the middle.

Actually, that’s what happens. What it’s about is the meaning of ‘art’ and how relationships are constructed. It’s brilliant. And at 90-minutes it was sheer perfection. I could easily see it again, especially as it had the same sort of destructive force that was in God of Carnage.

I felt sorry for the actor who played Serge though, as his voice was going, but nevertheless it was an excellent production. Thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m so glad we got to see it.

Afterwards we went to Wahaca for dinner, still busy at 9:30pm, and then caught the train. Serendipitously, Jackie was on the same train and completely by chance sat on the seat behind us, spotting us just as she sat down. We chatted, a nice way to end a really good day.

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One of the examples of strange artefacts in the Wellcome Collection.

Three Weeks in the UK: Week One

With Glen working over Christmas, he selflessly suggested I head over to the UK to see my sister and the various family and friends I have on Old Blighty. Dad also came too to join in the festivities.

Originally we were going for only ten days but, with me giving up full-time employment a few months back, we extended the trip. And while I think Glen was initially happy to have some time to himself (and a trip to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve), three weeks can seem like an awfully long time – especially when you have to make your own dinner.

The Flight

img_4432We splurged and flew business class on Etihad, going through Abu Dhabi and landing in Heathrow on the Friday before Christmas. As always, it was so nice to be able to lie down the whole flight and get a bit of a sleep.

I watched a bit of TV across the two flights – The Secret Life of Pets (meh), three episodes of Sarah Jessica Parker’s new drama Divorce, and three episodes of the new season of Cold Feet – but much of the rest of the time I spent flight and trying to rest.

The stopover in Abu Dhabi was short, yet long enough to have a shower, which was heaven. The final leg, from Abu Dhabi to Heathrow, was on an A380, which was the first time I’ve been on one in business. It’s pretty swish, there’s even a lounge, not that I used it.

We landed in London at 6:30am, rushed through border security thanks to both of us having electronic EU passports, collected our luggage and headed to the Heathrow Express to get out to Southend where we stayed.

Jet-lagged and in Westcliff

We stopped into Leigh-on-Sea to see Sheila and collect the key to the flat we were staying in in Westcliff-on-Sea. We chatted for about an hour or so before Sheila had to go to work at the gallery (she’s an artist), and we had a half hour nap on the couch.

Dad and I then fretted over how to get a taxi in a small town to take us the fifteen minute car ride to the next town over. Google was useless but luckily, when we got to the high street, we saw a taxi and I called the number on the side. (Thank you, Donna, for the sim cards.)

A taxi arrived shortly after and, being in desperate need of a proper sleep, we were glad to have paid the expense to make this last leg of the journey as short as possible. The flat we stayed in belonged to a friend of my sister’s who was away over Christmas. It was big, warm (when the central heating was on), convenient, well-priced and comfortable.

We denied ourselves a bit of a nap and instead went down the road to find some food for a late lunch. Donna left work to come see us and it was so good to see her in person again after it almost being a year since her departure.

She had to return to work soon after but in the evening she came by, picked us up and we tackled a 24-hour Tesco’s so we could prepare for Boxing Day lunch. Shopping is never high on my list of pleasurable activities, grocery shopping even less so, but right before Christmas? Bordering on the hellish.

We managed to get nearly everything from our list without getting into an argument with each other or anyone else, and by doing it on the 23rd, we avoided doing it on the 24th, which would have been an even greater hell.

Christmas Eve

Donna had to work part of the day so that left Dad and I with time on our hands. I wrapped the presents that I’d ordered from Amazon, which had been delivered to Donna’s flat a week or so before. I put them under the Christmas tree and then Dad and I caught the bus to Southend as I was desperate to go the gym.

Lately, I’ve become hooked, going 5, 6 or 7 times a week so the prospect of going on holiday and not going to the gym was a little anxiety-inducing. Also, considering how bad diets get while on holiday, I needed to balance the equation somehow.

I picked a gym that was in the centre of Southend and got a five-day pass. I hit the weights while Dad wandered Southend High Street for an hour and a half. It felt really good to be back in the gym, even though it had only been two days.

After my workout and a spot of lunch at an Asian noodle place, Dad and I went back to Westcliff. We were both still suffering the effects of jet lag but pushed on through. After Donna finished work, she picked us up and we went back to her place for home-cooked chickpea curry.

We met her housemate, and Donna’s friend, Denise, who’d just arrived in London, came down as she was spending Christmas with us. We then watched, as Donna and I try to do every Christmas, The Muppets Christmas Carol, which was then followed by Love Actually.

Christmas Day

Donna and Denise came around to our flat on Christmas morning so we could open presents. Over the years, like most adults I think, we’ve given fewer and fewer gifts. In fact, last year I don’t think we gave any. This year, Donna suggested it and I jumped on the idea. Dad, however, misread the email but gave us gifts nevertheless.

Donna bought the two of us tickets to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I’d wondered if it was on as I thought it usually took place at this time of the year; excellent gift. She also gave me two new shirts – one that makes me look very buff – and a box of Shreddies, something of a family tradition.

After the presents and general sitting around, she drove the four of us to Ipswich where we spent Christmas lunch with Mum’s sister and her family. A feast awaited us, much like the traditional turkey dinners we had back home, though this time with the benefit of the English cold weather.

We stuffed our faces, had helpings of dessert, opened some presents (we’d bought for them and they’d bought for us) and then played some games, including about eight rounds of the very loud Pit (another family favourite). Meanwhile, William and I won the other game, the name of which I’ve forgotten.

At about 8, I was ready to drop and we bid our farewells, especially as Donna didn’t have her glasses and had asked me to drive home instead. Luckily it wasn’t raining, it wasn’t foggy and it wasn’t snowing, however, it was still a harrowing drive. There are very few street lights on country roads (and country highways) and the reflectors on the roads were rubbish so it was a tense hour and a half drive back as I attempted to follow the cars in front, which kept disappearing! Horrible, but we survived and crawled into bed sometime after ten.

Boxing Day

It was our turn to cook. We were having lunch with the four of us (Denise was still in town) and had invited Sheila and Ian too. We had a brand new, big oven to use and it was just large enough to accommodate the two chickens, nut and lentil loaf, pumpkin, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, potatoes and Yorkshire puddings. Carrots were steamed on the stove.

Everything was timed pretty well, ready for when Sheila and Ian arrived at about one. We had mimosas and wine, tucked into first and second helpings, with Donna and I congratulating ourselves on a lunch well done.

Mary came around sometime after two for dessert, which consisted of store bought Christmas pudding (still really good) and Donna’s homemade chocolate fudge brownie thing. Delicious and very filling.

Lunch wrapped up about six. The four of us then plonked ourselves in front of the tv and watching the David Brent film and then one of the British celebrity quiz shows.

Thus was a pretty good Christmas.

Hadleigh Castle

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Hadleigh Castle

After a very much needed morning workout at the gym in Southend, Dad and I caught the train to Leigh-on-Sea to meet Donna. I lost a glove when getting off the bus, which was just so annoying. I haven’t yet replaced it, relying on keeping my hands stuffed in my jacket pockets to keep them warm.

The three of us went for lunch at a burger joint and then Mary and Eric picked us up. We headed to Hadleigh Castle, a ruin on the hill just before getting into Leigh. We decided to take the long way around, going anti-clockwise from where we parked instead of going clockwise and hitting the castle straight away.

The walk was very English, heading through forest and field when the sun was sitting low on the horizon. We saw a fox in the distance and a bunch of birds as we head along the tracks, from on high to down low and then back up the hill to Hadleigh Castle. The sun set while we were there, providing a good opportunity for some nice photos.

Mary and Eric dropped us back home where we chilled out for a bit before Donna drove us back to their place for dinner. We ate risotto (for the carnivores) and pasta (for the herbivores) and then gooseberry crumble for dessert, made with fresh gooseberries they grew themselves. Delicious!

A Quiet Day

Wednesday we had no plans to do anything so I went to the gym and then spent the afternoon working on my next book. I needed to get some planning done as a deadline approaches. This made for a very quiet day on the couch. In the evening we had Indian takeaway delivered and watched Poirot.

Old Friends

img_4739Thursday I borrowed Donna’s car and drove to Woodham Ferrers to catch up with a high school friend, Ellen, who lives there with her husband and daughter. Thank god for Google Maps or else it would have been a lot harder to get there.

The last time I’d seen their daughter, she’d only been about six months old, if that, so to see her walking, talking and interacting was really nice. We went for lunch in the town and then Dan and Freya went to play in the kids playground place next door while Ellen and I caught up some more.

After a few hours, we headed back, took a photo and said our goodbyes until next time.

 

The Great Ocean Road, Victoria

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After attending our friends’ wedding in Geelong, we took the opportunity to head along the Great Ocean Road and see the 12 Apostles. It’s one of those things that we probably wouldn’t have done if that hadn’t been a reason to be out of Melbourne so we took it.

We left Geelong on Saturday morning, warned that part of the Great Ocean Road was closed due to landslides. However, we’d been given directions on how to get around the dangerous bit so were not too phased about missing out on a stretch of it.

It rained most of the day so it was with some ambivalence that we left our apartment and headed south, already rearranging our upcoming plans. The original idea was that we’d drive south, stop along the way, go for some walks in the forests, check out the beaches, and then end up in Apollo Bay where we’d spend the night.

The next day we’d drive to the 12 Apostles, which is about an hour and a half from Apollo Bay, then head back up to Melbourne for our flight at 5:30pm. Not having done this journey before and expecting we’d do more than we actually would, we soon realised that the amount of time we’d set aside was too generous. This is also because we didn’t keep in mind the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’.

What is the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’?

The ‘Dan and Glen Factor’ is two-fold. The first is that if there’s something we’re really keen on seeing that everyone else has seen, then it is likely we won’t see it, either at all or in its entirety.

This has occurred on multiple occasions, specifically when seeing Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon, Northern Lights and moose. While others are almost assured seeing these things, when it comes to us, some sort of caveat kicks in so we miss out on it.

The second part of the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’ is the speed in which we see things.

‘Oh, you need two hours to see that.’

Really? We’ll be done in 15 minutes.

‘You should really take three days there.’

Thanks for the suggestion but we’ll have finished after a day and a half.

So when we think we’re going to take a whole day to travel a couple of hundred kilometres and go exploring, we should really know that, when combined with a hell of a lot of rain and wind, we’re going to be done by lunchtime.

Zooming down the Great Ocean Road

We got out of Geelong, zoomed through Torquay, attempted to see a lighthouse but the rain got worse, then headed onto Lorne where we chucked a right and went inland, away from the road.

The Great Ocean Road wasn’t as pretty as I imagined it would be. It’s certainly atmospheric when there’s a storm ranging but at least on the stretch we saw, there wasn’t really much that truly grabbed me.

What did strike me as we continued our journey from coast and then inland was the variability of the landscapes. That really impressed me. We went from rocky coastal forest into stringy bark forest where all the bark was peeling off. That amazed me. It was so beautiful. We also went through farmland and then ferny forests shrouded in fog. I loved it.

And, one of the real highlights, was stopping on the side of the road to look at a koala and her joey in the tree above. That’s right. We saw a WILD koala with a JOEY. I couldn’t believe it. How lucky were we?! She seemed unfazed by the crowd below taking their photos and the joey was very big.

We continued on to Apollo Bay, having taken the detour inland, and got to one of their Chinese restaurants were we had a big lunch. We’d booked accommodation in the town but as it was only lunch time and we didn’t really see the need to hang around, we headed for the 12 Apostles.

The 12 Apostles

An hour and a half after leaving Apollo Bay, we reached the 12 Apostles visitor centre with a million other people. We got out of the car, and were thankful that by now, at least for a little while, the rain had stopped and the skies cleared.

We had a bracing walk to each of the lookouts, navigating around clumps of people who were stopping to take their selfies with some of the Apostles in the background. There aren’t 12 anymore as a few of them have been excommunicated.

You can actually see how the erosion is taking place, with the water eating into one edge of it and the strength of the wind blowing away the upper layers. It’s an impressive sight and a great place for a biology lesson (though I was surprised at how little interpretation there was. One sign and even that was small and uninteresting).

We went from the lookouts at the top to the sea level, seeing a washed up blue-bottle jellyfish and watching the clouds roll in again. We piled back into the car and the rain came down heavier. We bypassed seeing the other natural rock formations along the way, and instead took the road back up to Melbourne.

Impromptu Melbourne Visit

One of the reasons for returning to Melbourne on Saturday night was so we could go to Ikea the next morning to buy a sink. We’re getting the kitchen renovated next week. We had to pay for all the stuff on Friday/Saturday but when they rang on Friday it was to say that they didn’t have the sink we wanted and they didn’t know when it would come in. What would we like to do?

We didn’t want a different sink but WA operates separately from the eastern states so even though there was one in Richmond, Victoria, they couldn’t get it shipped across the country. So we decided we’d get it ourselves.

We possibly could have squeezed it all in on Sunday – seeing the 12 Apostles, returning to Melbourne, buying the sink at Ikea and then catching the plane – but we felt it would be too much of a rush and having seen what we came to see, we could spend a night in Melbourne and see some friends.

Glen drove us back to the city (I’d done all the other billion hours of driving) while I searched for accommodation for one night. There were only three rooms left in the whole of the Melbourne CBD. I’m not joking. Something to do with some bloody horse race.

We ended up staying at Pegasus Apartment Hotel, which was nice and did for what we needed, but we couldn’t believe how limited the choice was. We got into Melbourne in the evening, then went out for dinner with Julian, Deanne and Albert, before we caught up with Simon and Shih-Ern and a few us went dancing after.

All in all a packed but fun day (oh my god, we saw two koalas!), and going to bed never felt so good.

Return to Roma

Friday was a travel day. After a restless night’s sleep, with some pretty weird and dramatic dreams, we had breakfast at the hotel, finished packing and then walked down the road to the station.

Yesterday’s guide told us about the express train – the Campania Express – which only takes 50 minutes to get from Sorrento to Napoli and is a nicer train than the Circumvesuviana.

We got into Napoli just after 11, bought our tickets to Rome, had some food and then hopped on the train. We were in Rome about an hour or so later and then catching the Metro down to Piramide.

The pyramid is initially a bit of out of place in Rome but considering Egypt was part of the Roman Empire at one point, perhaps it’s strange there aren’t more Egyptian influences here. We were staying at an AirBnB place near the station owned by two guys called Fabio and Massimo.

Fabio let us in, showed us around, gave us coffee and then he went back to work. Meanwhile, Glen and I took the opportunity for a mini-stroll around this part of Rome.

We walked up the nearby hill which sported a number of old churches, looking very picturesque on their tree-covered hill. They looked more suited to the Tuscan hills. The great thing about them though is that even though they’re still in Rome, they’re relatively under visited.

There are some great views from this part of town and a beautiful garden too – Giardino degli Aranci – that, as the name suggests, has a lot of orange trees. It’s enclosed behind old walls and would be a lovely place to have a picnic or read a book.

From the garden we walked down the hill to the Bocca della Verità – the mouth of truth – probably made most famous from the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie, Roman Holiday. When I’d visited in winter many years ago, I was the only one there and the monument seemingly ignored.

Today it had a line out the front that would have taken about 20 minutes to get to the front of. Glen was pleased to get to see it but was happy to not have to wait to put his hand in the ‘dirty’ mouth. We had a quick look at the nearby fountain and temples and then crossed the bridge into Trastevere.

Hungry again we stopped at Akbar which was offering a €10 aperitivi, with a small buffet of salads and cold foods with water, coffee and I think a drink (which was never offered). It took the edge off our hunger and we found a cool little bar in the process. (They have a glass-topped table that’s really a garden bed for succulents.)

We walked through a bit more of Trastevere, stopped into the basilica to hear a bit of singing and look at the gold mosaics again, then decided to head back to the apartment.

We did laundry, I updated my blog and then at 7:30 we went to a local restaurant called Da Bucatino recommended by the host. We managed to get a table – ours was reserved but they weren’t due in until later – and we ordered far too much.

There was the obligatory bread, and we ordered a pasta each, thinking they’d be small. They weren’t. And then Glen had steak, I had pollo alla romana (cooked to perfection) as well as asparagus and green bears.

We were full after the pasta. I finished the chicken and got through half of the beans. Glen couldn’t finish his steak so we asked for it to takeaway which the waiter, a nonno it seemed, did take away but also picked up the plate of unfinished vegetables and plopped them in front of Glen with a gesture that roughly translated to ‘eat your greens’.

We failed on this score too. ‘Non posso finire,’ I said. The waiter repeated it with a bit of good humoured derision. No dessert for us that was for sure. We waddled home.

Then we packed and we’re ready for our flight home tomorrow. The holiday hasn’t felt like it’s gone quickly; we packed in a lot. Work and our lives in Perth seem a million years ago. I suppose that’s a good thing. Looking forward to giving Smudge a cuddle, that’s for sure. Hopefully she won’t be too annoyed at us.

 

Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii

On a friend’s recommendation we booked a private car to drive us to Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii with our own tour guide at the two ruins. Despite the fee, we thought this was a good choice after our train ride the day before and how long it would take to get to all the sites, a near impossibility if we wanted to do them properly.

The driver – Igor – picked us up at 9am and we joined the insane traffic, adding yet another car to the road, as we drove around narrow and winding streets, catching glimpses of seaside towns. It was indeed picturesque.

Vesuvio

Our first stop was Vesuvio, approximately an hour and a bit away from Sorrento. The road up the mountain wound around and around, so much that I had to stop reading or else I’d be ill by the time we got to the top.

Igor dropped us at the start of the trail and then drove off. Unfortunately, he’d neglected to drop us off at the ticket office about 300m back down the road. Without the ticket we weren’t going anywhere. So we trudged down, bought our €10 per person ticket, and then set off properly.

Within about ten metres the side of my left calf started cramping. And then the other side. I was not getting up the volcano very fast at all. Nevertheless, I made it after we went up the criss-cross path and then to a rest stop where we could join a guided tour.

The tour wasn’t so much a guided tour as a 2-minute chat standing still. And it turns out that much of the information he gave us was incorrect. For example, I was surprised to hear that Vesuvius wasn’t the volcano that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum but rather the volcano next to us which was called Mount Somma. This was in fact wrong and Mount Somma had erupted tens of thousands of years before 79AD and was now extinct.
Vesuvius, however, is alive and well. It’s last ‘little’ eruption was in the 40s. Another is due sometime soon and it’s predicted to wipe out a lot of the surrounding area. Visit Napoli while you can.

After the non-guided tour, we walked half the perimeter of the volcano, taking pictures along the way. It’s not as wide as Sierra Negra in the Galapagos but it’s got more cache for sure. There was really only one place with the gases come out, but lots of little lava lizards running around.

We spent about an hour and 45 minutes all up getting up there, walking around and then down again, and our driver was waiting for us when we got down so we could zoom off to Herculaneum. With it being just about midday I was ready for some lunch but we pushed on through.

Ercolano

Our guide, Andrea, met us at Herculaneum and then took us inside to see the ruins and learn a bit about them for two hours. Herculaneum was left a bit more intact after the eruption so there are two and three stories buildings still standing. Unfortunately only about 25% of the site is excavated and the rest lies under the ‘ugly’ (the guide’s words) new town of Ercolano.

What struck me was how much it got covered – it’s about 10 or 20 metres down – and the sea came in a lot closer. We were in fact standing at the edge of what was once the shoreline. This was also where about 300 bodies had been discovered. Andrea’s theory is that when the earthquake hit, the people remembered the earthquake from 17 years prior, and headed to the ocean to avoid the buildings collapsing on them.

There they slept but when the eruption came the gas was so hot – about 400°C – it killed them instantly. The children and the women at the back of these cave-like structures, the men in the middle, the slaves at the front. The skeletons we saw were reconstructions but they’re in the positions the originals were found in. It all looks terrifying.

We wandered through the city with Andrea pointing out different features such as water pipe systems, the gymnasium, baths, fast food shops and other ancient things. I asked where Hercules was represented, considering it’s a town named after him, and he showed us a few things.

One was a hydra statue-cum-fountain, another the ‘dumbo ears’ Hercules on a public water trough, and another of a fresco on a wall. Each time, before we saw another one, he called us ‘fans of Hercules’ which was starting to sound like a euphemism.

Herculaneum was also less visited than Pompeii so we didn’t have to battle the crowds too much. I really enjoyed this small site, especially as much more of it was intact. Andrea sounded very disheartened that so much of it was still underground but it looks like they’re digging tunnels underneath the town to uncover more.

Pompeii via Pizza

When we finished, I said I needed food or else I wasn’t going to last a two-hour tour around Pompeii. This prompted a rather tense discussion between our guide and our driver. When asked what we wanted, we just said something quick like pizza so we zoomed off.

The driver took us to one of the entrances of Pompeii where there was a roadside pizza restaurant where a friend of his works. We wolfed down our large pizzas and then got back in the car to be taken to the other entrance to Pompeii where our guide had wanted us to go. There were food places there and it would have been better for the driver to have done what the guide asked but he was young and arrogant and knew best.

This created tension between the two and also made us a little later than intended. The guide was visibly annoyed with the way that things had turned out and probably thought we were going to complain to the company.

He brought it up twice before we could really get going. Nevertheless we got our full two hours worth, probably more, and I think that was more to stick it to the driver than anything. I’m sure there were words later, especially as Andrea had been with the company for 17 years.

Anyway, we moved on.

The first thing we saw were a selection of the bodies they’d extracted. These were kept in two semi-circular sealed glass rooms. They were in their death poses, one of a child and mother, another of someone covering their face to keep the gases out. Some we could even see their skulls and teeth. Unlike Herculaneum, where death had been swift, in Pompeii it had been slow and agonising. It was a sobering start to the tour.

Pompeii looked different from when I saw it 16 years ago. Then it had been overrun with vines and weeds and I think a lot of cats or dogs. Now it was almost sterile in its restoration. The city had been just about flattened from the eruption so the buildings weren’t as tall as those we saw in Herculaneum.

As with Herculaneum, I was surprised at how brightly all the walls and floors had been decorated. It seemed odd to think of it being so colourful because now we see so many bland representations but really the place must have shone.

We went into a number of buildings, check out a lot of mosaics and frescoes, graffiti, a brothel (including the penis carving on the road that acted as a signpost to the brothel), and gardens. Some of the gardens had been restored and were growing plants that had once grown there (they’d done soil tests etc). There were lots of pomegranate and quince trees, all bearing fruit, all rotting on the ground.

We checked out the amphitheatre and then the arena as well as the large gymnasium. Inside the gymnasium were large solid concrete structures in the ground. They were to represent the sycamore trees that had once grown there. When they were destroyed they were about 100 years old. The size is staggering. Also in this area we saw carbonised food – lentils, beans, peach stones, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and bread.

We had visited at the perfect time of the day as it was getting closer to 5pm, the sun was getting lower, it was cool, the crowds had thinned. And after about two hours, we were ready to head home.

Andrea took us back to the entrance, we said our goodbyes, and then Igor drove us back to Sorrento through the insane traffic. Again we got to see the towns hugging the cliffs and it was indeed beautiful, and a welcome distraction from the cars. Not for the first time I was very glad I had decided not to drive in Italy.

Fancy-pants Dinner

I was ready to eat by 7:30pm even if Glen was still a little full from our late lunch. Perhaps my stomach has expanded on this trip. I’ll get it stapled when we return. I decided we’d go to Il Buco, a Michelin-star restaurant in Sorrento. I rang and was lucky to get a reservation for 8pm for the two of us.

We strode into town, got a little lost trying to find the place, and then took our seats. We ordered the fish tasting menu, which came with six courses plus a couple of small extras throughout. I also ordered the matched wine.

The food was delicious and the portions, though small, were an adequate size. Glen got full a lot quicker than and struggled on a couple of course. I managed to wolf mine down, aided by the large glasses of wine they served. I couldn’t finish two of them and at the end was rolling drunk and had begun to feel woozy.

After the three-hour meal, we wandered (stumbled?) back to the hotel and climbed into bed, staying awake long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to be ill and then went to sleep.

The Pope and the Train to Sorrento

Wednesday morning started with me doing a phone interview for a job back in Perth. I banished Glen from the room so he could have breakfast and I could have some quiet to focus. The interview lasted an hour and then I joined Glen outside, sensibly taking a jacket with me to keep warm on the terrace. After breakfast we hit the streets to see a few more sights before our train to Sorrento.

The Pope

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I wanted to get a look at St Peter’s Square, if not inside the basilica itself. Glen wasn’t fussed about looking inside the church either and finds the ins and outs of the Catholic religion, or much of Christianity, baffling. Even if he’d wanted to see inside what is no doubt an impressive church, we wouldn’t have been able to until 1pm anyway.

On the route to the Vatican we were asked by about 20 people if we wanted a tour of the museum or the basilica and told that the church was closed. I ignored them because mainly I didn’t want to go into the church but after about the tenth I got concerned and told them this. They said the square was open (of course) while the Pope was giving his address. The last bit of information was only grudgingly given.

The square was indeed open for visitors, and probably actively encouraged so this head of state and head of the church could address the masses and lay his blessings upon them. We went through security and then got a bit closer. The Pope was a speck in the distance, seated beneath a shade sail.

Screens dotted around the edges showed either him speaking, another priest speaking or the crowd. The audio was terrible and inaudible, and I imagine you could only hear him clearly if you were standing within a certain part of the crowd. Nevertheless people waved or clapped or generally looked with adoration.

We stayed for about ten minutes, got our photos then got the hell out of there. We walked towards Castel San Angelo and then crossed Ponte San Angelo, one of my favourite bridges, before heading towards the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Again

Glen’s interest had been piqued by the Pantheon and he wanted to see inside it so we headed south and got a look inside the old temple. We watched the sun tracking its way around the inside of the dome, its light cast on the wall. We could actually watch time pass.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a little paninoteca, a simple place with only two tables but easier than finding a sit-down restaurant and it really offered all we wanted. We got another ice-cream at Grom, the same place we’d been to in Siena. I had trouble deciding which flavour to finish last as they – peach, raspberry, and cookies & cream – were all so delicious. In the end it was cookies & cream.

Then it was back up the Via del Corso, into the Moleskine store so Glen could have a look, into the Piazza del Popolo and to our hotel where we collected our bags. The subway took us to Termini and we booked our tickets to Napoli.

Roma – Napoli – Sorrento

It was another few hours of travelling in the afternoon to reach our final destination. We caught the high speed train to Napoli and then the local Circumvesuvian to Sorrento. Unfortunately we took the rickety subway-style train that stopped at every stop getting out of Napoli, then all the stops in between there and Sorrento. We stood the whole hour and a half journey, and at times I feared we’d crash and die. It was not a fun train ride.

In Sorrento we walked up to our hotel, walking up the Corso Italia, a two-lane street that seems to be the main thoroughfare cutting through the village. It’s hell, crammed with cars, bikes, mopeds and buses. The pedestrian sidewalk is only about one and a half person thick so meeting people coming the other way requires risking life and limb to step onto the road and into chaotic traffic.

As always, it baffles me that there aren’t major traffic accidents (at least if there are they’re not more frequent) on streets like this as there’s very little give and take and much swerving and near missing. The traffic also doesn’t gel with the nice image you have of the picturesque seaside town of Sorrento. Perhaps it’s only picturesque from a distance.

We checked in and went walking, mostly along back streets which were quieter and calmer, until we reached Sorrento proper. The place was crawling with tourists but at least corresponded a bit more with the image in my head. There were plenty of narrow streets for pedestrians only where shop after shop sold lemon-everything (except actual real lemons I think).

We stopped for an early dinner at a place down one of the streets but really we should have kept looking. It was a last minute, oh-god-can-we-stop-now decision and the food was edible but definitely nothing to rave about. Probably our worst meal in Italy.

We walked home along the busy – but direct – street and were in bed by 8pm. So much for wild nightlife in Sorrento.