Saturday, August 25, 2007


Glasgow is the final stop on my journey - I got in fairly late after my day travelling around Inverness and was reminded almost immediately of the city's troubled history when a security guard was assigned to walk me from the University reception to my rooms. Glasgow is supposed to be an example of successful urban renewal, but it seems that some people haven't been as renewed as others. There is an area beside Kelvingrove Park that has been yuppified and prettified into seven-figure addresses - and then there are other areas where I wouldn't walk alone. The University obviously is in one of these - the reception has hard-core security, after 9pm the front door is locked and two guards are on duty.

My first stop in Glasgow was the Kelvingrove Park, which is very pretty where it isn't vandalised. There is evidence of an outburst of civic pride during the later stages of the Industrial Revolution (inspiring statues on bridges, a public arena for concerts) but also evidence of recent, more difficult times (the bandstand has been pretty comprehensively graffitied). Declining educational standards are also in evidence - one piece of graffiti reads 'For hard cook, ring 087XX XXX XXX). I assume the young gentleman who was thus promoting his services has since been hired by a local restaurant...

From the park, I went on to the Kelvingrove Museum and Gallery, which wasn't vandalised but wasn't open either.

A stroll along Sauciehall St showed me pretty much the full gamut of the Glasgow experience - Pound Stretchers (the UK $2 shop) and greasy-spoon cafes at one end, the Italian Centre (Versace, Gucci etc etc) up the other.

At the end of Sauciehall Street, the Buchanan Galleries towers over the town. In Edinburgh, a castle. In Glasgow, a shopping centre. That's urban renewal for you.

I flee the shopping district for the Cathedral. The Cathedral is a lovely old building built to honour St Mungo (who originally had the far more dignified name of Ketigern - am I the only person who thinks 'Mungo' sounds like some sort of insult? As in, 'that pack of mungos couldn't find their arses with both hands'?). Anyway, the Cathedral is good value - lots of lovely old stone work - the chapel under the main Cathedral has a sort of sampler of bosses holding up the roof. Every boss has a different pattern, including of course the inevitable skull design. Outside, the church wall is lined with inset tombs, adding a new meaning to the term 'hole in the wall'. Some of the tombs are surrounded by iron cages... oohhhh, creepy!! On close examination, the locks on two of the cages are open and the doors are ajar - there's a good ghost/vampire/zombie story in that!!

From the Cathedral, I wander over to St Mungos Museum of Religious Art and Life. It certainly induces religious feelings in me when I realise that I'm about to pay four pounds for a teaspoon of salad and a falafel (as in one, crumbled falafel ball) on a bit of pita bread and a cup of coffee. Perhaps I am supposed to be practising asceticism before I enter or maybe the people who run the cafe know that there's nowhere else to eat for miles around, so they have a free hand. I sit in the Zen Garden (not from choice - the cafe is full) and try to contemplate enlightenment. If I keep eating like this, I will definitely be en-lightened...

The museum itself makes up for the disappointing fare - on the top floor, there is an exhibition on the history of religion in Scotland which includes religions that have come to Scotland more recently (Hinduism, etc). It includes such gems as the sign to a 19th century public toilet for Indian sailors only - which might simply have been institutionalised racism, but which might also have been an attempt by the locals and the sailors to accommodate certain religious needs (which perhaps fortunately weren't explained in the display!) - toys that were suitable for children to play with on the Sabbath and a Seder plate (Jewish passover meal).

Downstairs there are exhibitions of religious art, including a Central Desert dot painting, and an exhibition called Cradle to Grave, which looked at the role of religion in life. It was a pretty comprehensive look - the exhibition included everything from a Chinese statue of the God of Death to African tribal amulets and a video of six religious ceremonies.

After my religious experience, I cross the road to the Necropolis. Dead people in Glasgow seem to fare better than live ones - the Necropolis is row upon row of the most spectacular monuments you could imagine. One point their owners seem to have missed though is that, spectacular monuments aside, they are still very dead. Cheerful lines such as 'He is not dead while he lives in memory' surround me as I slog up the hill. Some of the stones have been eroded by acid rain until the text has vanished into something that looks eerily like rib bones... To my amusement, many of the mausoleums are wired shut with signs on the door saying 'Danger - keep out'. I'd have thought anyone going in would have been well past worrying about such things as an uneven floor or a dodgy roof, but there you go.

Having gotten in touch with my inner Goth, I wander back down to the oldest house in Glasgow. The oldest house in Glasgow is very small - I walk around with a permanent stoop so that I don't brain myself on the ceiling or a lintel. Lots of historical bits and bobs and a lovely garden out the back, a memorial for something-or-another (I couldn't find the plaque telling me what).

Unfortunately, it is too late to go back and see the Kelvingrove Museum - it's after three and the museum shuts at five. I try a bit of shopping, but UK shops really don't do it for me. In the end, I grab some M&S salads and head back to the University. The walk back fills in about an hour and a half - no wonder I am tired!! On arrival, I pack up all my junk ready to depart - which I will do as soon as I sign out.

Look forward to catching up with y'all on my return!!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Culloden and Cawdor Castle

Inverness is a great base for doing tours. From Inverness, you can get to any number of great tourist attractions, including Skye, the Orkeys and Lewis. You can also get on a bus that takes you to Culloden Moor, the site of the last battle fought in the UK, and Cawdor Castle (as in "MacBeth hath murdered sleep..." - that Cawdor).

I miss the first tour because I'm waiting to put my stuff into the Left Luggage at Inverness Station. The Left Luggage manager is a nice man, he does a very good Australian accent. He also tells jokes and shares his life story - he has seven grandkids, so it is a pretty eventful and complex tale, but worth a listen. He gets so caught up in the tale that he leads me to the garbage bins instead of the bus station - luckily, I've been to the bus station before and can find my own way back!

To while away the time before the second tour, I go to the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum is an eclectic selection of exhibits covering everything from prehistory to Scottish industry to the Clearances to natural history. The nature display includes some stuffed animals. Now I know what the huge raptors were that I saw in the Cairngorms and en route to Thurso - they are merlins. Nice to know what I've seen, even if I'd rather not see it stuffed as the centrepiece of a tragic looking tableau. The Art Gallery has some interesting pieces by local artists. My favourites were three knitted 'somethings' that wrapped around the neck like a scarf - sort of! They were knitted out of some sort of industrial material, wires, beads and I know not what else - they looked like colourful snakes.

I caught the second bus out to Culloden Moor. Culloden Moor is where Bonnie Prince Charlie (a Jacobite) had a red-hot go at taking the crown back from the Hanoverian kings (the Government). Most of his forces were wiped out and he died a lonely alcoholic exile in Rome. There is an exhibition and a film that explain the battle - the actual battle only lasted 45 minutes, but it led to all sorts of oppression as the government tried to ensure that the whole incident would never be repeated. Speaking Gaelic and wearing tartan were outlawed - Scots had to give up all their weapons - a lot of people emigrated because the new laws were so harsh.

The battle was unusually bloody, as the government side were given fake copies of the Jacobite battle orders before they went into battle. The faked orders said that government soldiers were to be shown no mercy - so the soldiers decided that they wouldn't show any mercy either - they killed any wounded they found after the battle, then wandered around raping and/or murdering anyone who showed up to look for their husband/brother/son on the battlefield once the shooting stopped. It was all pretty extreme.

There is a little cottage beside the battlefield that was there on the day of the actual battle. It is now the site for a historical re-enactment of medical first aid in the 1700s. I time my visit to avoid the demonstration...

The battlefield is basically a mucky swamp. Since the main thing the Jacobites had going for them was their charge, they were pretty much doomed from the start - you can't stage a terrifying charge through mud, water and weeds. All the paths are built up so that the tourists don't get their feet wet. Flags mark the two lines and stone markers show where each of the Highland clans cashed it in. Some markers show where a particular leader died - all in all, it is not a very cheerful place. See for more information.

I have two hours to fill in before the bus comes back. I can't spend that long on the battlefield, I'll slit my wrists. I go in, wander around the souvenir shop and drink coffee. Outside, the sky lours over the moor - later, I talk to a woman on the train who describes the Moor as a spiritual place, but I just find it depressing. What a waste of life, all because two blokes had something to prove.

The bus arrives and I go on to Cawdor Castle. The Castle has little plaques in each room which give you the history of the Castle and the artifacts in the room. The plaques break me out of my dark mood immediately - the writer obviously had a sense of humour and as you wander through the Castle, the commentary becomes more and more eccentric - by the end of the tour, I am laughing aloud. The gardens are also lovely - we have more sunlight today, so I walk around admiring the views. Three gardeners are working like maniacs to keep everything in condition as I wander about - having a garden that looks like one giant picture postcard is hard work! The Dowager Duchess is still in residence - I am terribly envious and I wonder if she can be persuaded to move out. I reckon if I got together about 500 mates, we could just about cover the cost... For more information, has pictures, maps and also some good examples of the commentary style that had me so charmed.

Back to Inverness via Fort George - I don't have time to go in and look. The bus driver talks about moving to Australia. I tell him we have pretty much the same problems, except it is warmer and we don't have any water. He says he doesn't have anything to lose as he'll never afford to buy a place in Britain. I tell him he won't get one in Australia either unless he chips in with about five mates, plus we have all sorts of animals that are likely to kill him. It will be interesting to see what he eventually decides... I must keep an eye out for him when I next catch a bus somewhere...

Off to Glasgow, my final destination - the train goes past Balsporran B&B en route, I interrupt the woman I'm chatting to with a squawk of 'I stayed there and it's so lovely!!'.

Insight into Scotland 6

People are much more willing to chat on the train here than they are in the UK. So far, I've talked to a DJ who was moonlighting as a labourer to make ends meet, to a nice lady who was also on the Culloden Loop tour with her sons and to the trolley lad on two different rail services.

Insight into Scotland 7

It is just plain wrong to hire a toothless man to operate the snack trolley on a train.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fort William and Inverness

I spent most of a day travelling to my next destination, which I thought was Fort William. The point of Fort William in my mind was that it was close to Loch Ness of monster fame.

The ten hour journey was all very pleasant - on the bus to Fort William, I watched the Loch carefully for signs of monsters, but not a monster was to be seen :-(.

Again - must read Lonely Planet carefully! Fort William is not that close to Drumnadrochit, which is the main Nessie centre, and it is a complete hole. I manage to get a decent meal and to have an interesting chat with a Canadian lassie who is also travelling alone but that was it. And there is better yet to come - after dinner (it's about 9:00pm) I start looking for my guest house. The address I've been given is 'Ard-An Guest House, Fort William'. Now Fort William may not be very attractive, but it is quite big. The directions say to follow the A85. I do that for roughly a mile and a half. By this stage, I am pretty sure that I am lost.

I ask at a booked-out B&B for help. This is where I discover two things - one, I'm here on the wrong day and two, Ard-An is something like six miles down the road. I've already decided that I hate Fort William so I cancel my booking. Now, problem - hole though the town is, it is very popular with masochistic hikers who want to climb Ben Nevis. There is no accommodation anywhere - absolutely none. I end up catching a taxi back to Inverness, where my booking actually was. Don't ask how much it cost, all I'll say is, it was an hour's drive. We saw a stag and a hedgehog, luckily we missed both of them. Still no monster...

The Guest House in Inverness is lovely. Even better, they have a room free for two nights, so I book an extra night. I really don't want to head back to Ard-An, it is miles out from a moderately unattractive town and the woman who runs it didn't seem all that fussed about me being stranded - she pretty much said it was my stiff s!t. Compare this to another hotel, where I had no claim on anyone, I just wandered in to see if they had any vacancies because it was 10:30pm and I was quite tired. The manager rang five other places for me to see if there was room, rang two late customers to see if they were going to cancel with the aim of giving me their rooms if they weren't coming and finally let me sit in the lobby while she booked me a taxi - oh, and she also let me call the place in Inverness to see if my room there was still being held... I have to write a nice email to her boss, telling him to give her a pay rise. Maybe two pay rises...

The next day, I go monster hunting once again. To my delight, Inverness has a Victoria Market - it is what we'd call an arcade, it is very cute. Lots of tourist shops, selling purple plush monsters, monster keyrings, soap, etc, etc... oh deary, dear. While I wait for my tour, I check out the Market and grab lunch at Mustard Seed.

Another point to Lonely Planet. The food at Mustard Seed is just brilliant. The waitress asks me if everything is OK - I tell her it's the best meal I've had in the UK, which may be damning with faint praise, but she takes it as it is meant. Those of you who know me well will realise how good the food is when I say I left a tip. Yes, it was that good.

My tour involves a half-hour cruise on the Loch, an hour at Urquhart Castle and a trip through the Loch Ness Experience 2000. Cruising on the Loch makes it clear how so many people thought they could see large animals swimming just below the surface - the tides and currents do very odd things to the boat wake and several times it really does look like something large is swimming alongside the boat.

The Castle is mostly in ruins, lots of lovely romantic shots - I am getting very good at photographing scenic ruins. Lots of tourists are out enjoying the sunshine - yes, that's right folks, we have sunshine!! For two consecutive days, the sun has been visible. Yesterday, I was comfortable in a long-sleeved shirt, today I managed to dig out one of my T-shirts for the first time. Almost as exciting as a scenic ruined castle! There is a telescope on a ruined fortification, but still no monster.

Actually I tell a lie - when I am fighting my way out through the shop to get to the bus for the next leg of the tour, I realise there is in fact a Loch Ness Tourism Monster which has swallowed the wee beastie down and which is busily consuming all my ready cash... We drive to Drumnadrochit to see the Loch Ness Experience 2000.

The exhibit is a sound and light multimedia show and it is actually extremely good. It provides very good explanations of the different Nessie phenomena, breaking down some quite complex science into easily understood bites of information.

The sightings and photos are explained easily - one famous photo, when subjected to careful analysis, turned out to be a blurred picture of a waterbird taking wing. It really did look like a monster head and neck, because cameras back in the 50s weren't well equipped to deal with motion photography. Another famous underwater photo and sonar reading were explained with the tree truck that caused them was located on the bottom of the Loch.

The next part of the exhibit explains the surveys carried out in the Loch which proved that there is very little edible life within the Loch environment - understandable, the water looks like crude oil, it is black with peat and silt. Very little light penetrates the water to support photosynthesis. Even trout can only grow to a fraction of their usual size on the scant food available in the Loch - there is no way it would support a massive creature like the Monster is supposed to be.

Finally, the exhibit explained sonar readings showing the presence of large 'somethings' in the barren zone below the warm waters at the top of the Loch and the icy silts at the bottom where all the organic matter ends up. To greatly oversimplify, the Loch is such a massive body of water that it has very odd thermal properties - these cause bizarre sonar echoes and patterns which look like something but aren't.

The bit I found exciting was that they really have discovered Ice Age survivors in the Loch - at the bottom of the Loch in the freezing cold, several species of wee creatures have survived off the debris that falls to the bottom. A type of prawn that has survived for 100,000 years is not quite as dramatic as a great big monster, but I find it amazing that this Loch (and probably only this Loch) is the home to so many survivor species.

Anyway, it was a very good exhibition - I noticed though that their gift shop had a squillion different variations on the monster theme - T-shirts, toys, slippers (alas, not in adult sizes), hats - the list was endless. Back to Inverness in time for rush hour.

I stroll along the river, which is very pretty and also leads me straight back to my temporary abode. I try to do a ghost walk in the evening, but not enough people show up and it is cancelled. The tour guide invites us back to the pub where the tour ends - I say great, then feel like a fool when everyone else heads home. I do get a sample of his tour style - he's extremely good. This is the bloke who originally set up the Real Mary Kings Close tours - the style of the tour is very similar, to judge by the sample, but the delivery is a lot more convincing than my Real Mary King experience. (Yes, it is the bloke - I recognise the face from the RMK posters. With difficulty. He's not only a great storyteller, he's a bit of a master of disguise as well). He's quite well known, which means that we get interrupted rather a lot - I take advantage of one of the interruptions to vanish, as I'm feeling a mite like a freeloader.

Back at my abode, I finally get around to writing up my postcards. I feel like a bit of a prat writing about my day in Inverness on postcards I bought at the Louvre. I will beat the postcards home well and truly!!

Tomorrow's post will hopefully cover my adventures on Culloden Field and at Cawdor Castle, with an uneventful trip to Glasgow. Stay tuned!!

Away we go to an island fair...

It takes about five hours to get from Dalwhinnie to Thurso by train. During the journey, the Parisian jumper works its magic once again - I purchase a cup of tea from the trolley bloke.

"Do you want sugar?" he asks

"No thanks"

"Ah" (with a roguish look) "You must be sweet enough!"

No, I tell him, I am an evil-tempered bitch from hell - all because I don't take sugar in my tea, of course.

The drunken fool in the seat opposite distracts him with a request for beer - but a couple of minutes later, as I am drinking my tea, a hand appears around the edge of my seat and places two sticks of sugar and a stirrer beside my cup. Score - ScotRail one, evil-tempered travellers nil.

During the trip, the drunken idiot sneaks out into the vestibule to have a smoke. He believes that no-one has noticed. Everyone else is choking, gagging and muttering to themselves. I have the ultimate secret weapon - not enough Lactase with my tea. Another aroma slowly overpowers the smell of cigarette smoke - in fact, it overpowers the idiot, who sleeps for about 50 miles. During the trip, he sneaks out about four times - he is off his tree, but not so far off his tree that he goes out when the trolley guy is likely to come past and spring him. Naturally, because he is an A-grade pain in the ass, he is travelling right through to Wick, the last stop after Thurso. There is no god...

I arrive in Thurso at about 10pm. This time, it looks like my accommodation is on the map, so I set out, luggage in tow.

Some of the glass at the station has been recently smashed, which doesn't give me a very good impression of how civic-minded the locals are likely to be. When I realise that the place I'm staying actually isn't on the map, it is about 40 minutes walk from the station, I get a wee bit nervous. Unfortunately, it is a week night in a small town, taxis are not an option.

I complete the hike safely, the local vandals obviously have a healthy regard for their own safety. The place where I am staying is extremely new and very spiffy. I'm not really in a position to appreciate it however, after five hours on a train all I want to do is sleep.

Unfortunately, I can't quite manage this as the radiator is turned up full blast. I turn it off, but there is another radiator in the bathroom - I end up tossing and turning in a pool of sweat on a night when the outside temperature is less than six degrees. Bloody stupidity!!

The next morning, I am up bright and early to catch the ferry. The MV Hamnavoe is quite cushy, lovely leather couches, comfy seats, three different cafes and a sun deck. The last is a bit of a misnomer as it is about three degrees, misty and wet. The weather clears just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy, a famous rock formation, as we steam past. (It's a very big rock that sticks straight up out of the ocean - think Freud!!).

We arrive in Stromness, the main point of Stromness is that people catch the bus from Stromness to Kirkwall. It looks quite pretty, but it is not the type of pretty you want to wander around on a day when the temperature is only slightly about freezing and the wind speed is somewhere around 60kph.

I should have paid more attention to the Lonely Planet or done more research. Buses on the Orkneys are fairly limited. A bicycle is not an option today (although I later see some hardy locals slogging home on their treadlies). I try to hire a car, but there are none to be had. I catch a taxi from Sternwall to the B&B - the kind B&B manager drives me back into town as she has to go in and run some errands.

There are dozens of Neolithic sites on the Orkneys and lots of bird sanctuaries. In the current weather, the chance of me successfully spotting any native wildlife is about zero, so I make a run for the tourist information centre. Are there any tours of the archeological sites?

I discover that it is possible to get a day trip from Inverness that includes a bus tour of the Mainland (the island where Stromness and Kirkwall are located. Shetland also has a Mainland, which I believe is only slightly larger than the average Aussie farm...). I manage to get on the second half of the bus trip - a bus!! Warmth!! Dry!! Hooray!!

Before I synch up with the bus, I grab lunch - another Lonely Planet recommendation. The only way I can describe Pomona's Restaurant is 'unprepossessing'. Why would any sane person eat at such a dingy greasy-spoon cafe? The short answer is, because it's cheap. I got a burger, chips and coffee for under two pounds, normally you'd pay more like six pounds for that. Points to Lonely Planet!

The bus tour starts at Skara Brae, an extremely ancient and incredibly well preserved Neolithic village, and Skaill House, the stately home next door to the archaelogical site. The short video explaining the site and the small museum are very well done. I brave the elements and head out to the actual dig. The path to the dig is lined with plaques showing significant dates in history, starting with the moon landing in 1969, right beside the exit.

By the time I get to the Birth of Christ, the wind is blowing rain horizontally into my ears - I am wearing my rain poncho the wind actually rips a loose piece of plastic off the hood. This is not good weather to be looking at an archeological site. The foundation of Skara Brae is some 50 metres further on, earlier than the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids at Giza.

The houses are intriguing - a dozen or so little huts, all perfectly preserved except for the roofs, each identical inside. Are we looking at the earliest ever commission homes? To support this theory, some rocket scientist has snuck out here and written graffiti on one of the walls. I say rocket scientist, because the daftie wee sod wrote, amongst other things, his name. Wonders will never cease...

I go into Skaill House to get out of the wet. Skaill House is very cute and has some very interesting exhibits, furniture, clothing, artworks etc etc. To my surprise, they have the dinner service from Captain Cook's Endeavour. The dinner service is decorated with bright pink flowers - I am forced to believe that all the horrible things that are said about sailors are, in fact, true. Pink!! PINK!!!

The next stop on the tour in the Ring of Brodgar. This is a ring of standing stones, again Neolithic, historic, interesting and bloody freezing. A nice American gentleman offers to take a photo of me with the stones. Somewhere on my memory card there is a tragic photo of me pressed up against a great big rock like a chicken huddling against a hen, trying to stop my rain poncho from self-destructing. I may also be picking sand out of my ears. Yes, that's right, sand. The wind at Skara Brae was gently carrying sand up from the beach and sandblasting my face as I went around the ruins. It really isn't very nice weather.

We drive past a lot of other standing stones - some of them we can see, others are invisible in the mist. The watchstone is visible - it is over 17ft tall and it is right beside the causeway. There used to be two of them, but one collapsed at some point in the dim, dark past and no-one could be bothered to replace it.

The driver shares some of the war history of the Orkneys with us. The Orkneys were used as a military base and prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. In 1939, a German submarine came into the harbour and managed to sink a ship, the Royal Oak. The Royal Oak was a navy training ship with about 1100 people on it, most of whom were under 18. About 800 of them died. The ship is still out there and apparently every year the Royal Navy sends two divers down to change the flag - it is an official war tomb, which does none of those kiddies the least damned bit of good. Apparently quite a few of the 300 survivors have arranged to be cremated and scattered over the spot when their time is up. Very sad.

We also visit the Italian Chapel. The Italian prisoners of war were all good Catholic boys and they felt the need for a place of worship. No worries, said the camp commander, you can have those two Nissen Huts over there. (A Nissen Hut looks like a galvanised iron water tank turned on its side - they are not very attractive!). The POWs collected all sorts of scraps and bits of rubbish, and turned the Nissen Huts into a very convincing Italian village church. It is all trompe l'oeil painting but it is so clever! One of the POWs managed to do some amazing decorative ironwork with bits of rubbish and leftovers - he came up with 'wrought iron' lamps, an altar rail, candelabra - it was amazing!

I manage to get back from the tour in time to look at St Magnus Cathedral. This is another one of those amazing things where someone started building a Cathedral in 1100-some and 300 years later, his great-great-great-grandkids finally finished the damned thing off. The main thing I notice about St Magnus is the tombstones. Every single one has a skull drawn on it somewhere. There is a 'skeleton tomb' in a Cathedral in England too, I saw it last year, but it is a tourist attraction because it is so unusual. Up here though, it is just the done thing. I take photos of every possible variation on a skull tombstone that you could possibly imagine.

I also manage to get over to see the two ruined palaces next to the Cathedral. Very romantic and atmospheric, also still bloody icy cold. At the B&B, they have a big hamper full of warm, woolly hats by the fireplace. I was tempted as I headed out, but refrained - now I bitterly regret avoiding temptation. I would have looked utterly naff, but at least I would have been able to feel my ears...

After the palaces, I wander back towards the B&B along the shore. En route, I find a little memorial labelled DUNKIRK. Not Dunkirk the famous WWI battleground, but Dunkirk the ship belonging to one of the VIPs who used to live on the island in 1200-something. The site, now the Ambulance HQ, used to be a whaling processing plant - the memorial talks about whaling history too.

The next day, I basically have to get up and leave. There is only one train from Thurso all day and I need to catch the 11am ferry to be on it. Appropriately enough, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped to a gentle breeze...

Insight into Scotland 5

As I dine on traditional Orcadian beef chilli at the Shore Hotel, a techno track comes on the music video channel playing in the background. The track has a tasteful video clip involving shapely young women in latex nurse uniforms who seem very fond of each other.

The bartender, a virile young Scottish laddie, immediately changes the channel so that he can watch the start of the football match. Nothing, not even scantily clad ladies, comes between a Scot and his 'fitba'...

Monday, August 20, 2007

The hills are alive...

I can't help thinking that I didn't explain my situation to Visit Scotland very clearly. They have booked me in at a place four miles out of Dalwhinnie that can only be reached by car. I don't have a car.

Dalwhinnie is a Scottish Congupna, except with a railway station and pretty scenery. There are also kind, kind, kind people. The hosts at the B&B where I will be staying drive in to collect me. The B&B is the most adorable little cottage in the mountains that you could imagine. The hostess asks me if I want dinner. I say yes and order haggis, then panic thinking of all the things that could go wrong with a dish which is basically cooked offal.

Nope, my instincts were good. The hostess can cook like a charm and I am served the most massive plate of haggis, tatties and veg you could imagine. It's delicious, I eat the lot and order dessert. Kanga the cat comes in and investigates. It is just like home - a little furry head appears beside me, eyeing off my grub. I push the cat away - five minutes later, back she comes. We keep this up until a stressed-out Italian couple arrive and check in. Ms Italia is a cat lover. This transcend all language barriers - for some other things, such as the mysteries of the hot water service, I offer some (minimal) assistance. It also causes some awkwardness when Ms Italia asks when Kanga is due to have her kittens. Kanga the cat is not pregnant, merely very overweight. Something to do with never going outside, which is a mercy for the local wildlife at least.

I sleep like a log - not a Rotarian for miles around. The bed is so comfy, it seems a shame not to share it with someone - maybe I should leave the door open for Kanga, but I suspect we wouldn't both fit.

The next day, I go hiking up in the hills behind the B&B. This is actually not a real bright idea, as it is cold and foggy. I stick to the trail and when I run out of trail, I stop and come back. It beats the hell out of being lost. I have some wonderful atmospheric photos of misty hills covered in heather, trickling brooks and the like. I didn't manage to get a shot of the four massive birds of prey that sailed past as I trudged up the hill, slogging through mud half an inch deep, or of the view from the hilltop as there wasn't one. Paranoid sheep watch me pass, no doubt expecting me to leap up the hillside and snatch the heather from their wee jaws. The sheep around here are skinny, agile things that look a lot like woolly goats.

I have a coat, a jumper, a long sleeved top and a rain poncho on when I leave. When I get to the top, most of it is tied around my waist. As soon as I stop, the wind blows up and I have to put it all back on again. The trip down is about half an hour shorter than the trip up, but no less lovely.

The kind hosts drive me back to the railway station for the next leg of my trip - Thurso and the Orkneys!!

Insight into Scotland 4
The UK really does have wilderness. The wilderness includes all the bits that I'm currently touring and the wilderness is not overly blessed with public transport. I remind myself, if I ever come back - sod the environment, I will hire a car.

Sweet dreams are made of this...

Why the quote? Because Aberdeen is where Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics was born and grew up (interestingly, Aberdeen doesn't advertise that fact - I wonder if they did back in the 80s?). As a fan, I had to throw it in, so I could show off my erudition. Now on with the tale...

I had planned to do a bit more sight-seeing in Edinburgh, but the queue at the Left Luggage office was enough to put me off, so I caught the first train to the Granite City instead. When I got out of the train, an evil pigeon besmirched my luggage. Oh for a falcon!!!

At Aberdeen, I began to realise the disadvantages of the Visit Scotland cheap accommodation strategy. All the cheap places are well outside the CBD and therefore I can't find them on my Lonely Planet maps. Also, I can't walk that far with my luggage. A kind taxi driver who is completely intelligible takes me to my temporary abode. From there, I can see a bus stop and I find my way back into the city. Score one to me!!

The main attractions in Aberdeen are the Marischal Museum, the Art Gallery, the Maritime Museum and Provost Skene's house. As I've arrived fairly late in the afternoon, I decide to start at the gallery. The gallery is a nice, manageable size with a gorgeous Japanese exhibition. When the gallery closes, I do the sculpture trail checking out public works of art in the CBD. It's an interesting blend of old and modern, mostly quite tasteful and interesting. I have dinner at a 300 year old pub, luckily the food is a bit more contemporary, very good thank you.

My plan for day two is to check out the Marischal Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Provost's House. Discovery - the Marischal Museum is shut! This turns out to be a good thing, because the Maritime Museum is quite large enough to occupy an hour. It had displays on everything nautical, including oil rigs, whaling, shipping, ship building and nautical weather information.

Provost Skene's house is just gorgeous. Until the 50's, it was a slum that only narrowly escaped demolition, but since then it has been restored and it is an absolute gem. None of the original furniture has survived, but the rooms (underneath the plasterboard partitions etc that were used to turn it into a cheap 'hotel') were more or less intact. I was absolutely enchanted by the Painted Gallery, which had a very Catholic looking life of Christ painted along it. Unfortunately, not all of the paintings survived, but the ones that did were in quite an unusual style and they appealed to me very much. There is also a smaller painted room that hasn't survived so well.

Back at the station, I need to catch a train to Inverness, then another train to Dalwhinnie to see the Cairn Gorms. The total trip will take about 5 hours. It gets off to an inauspicious start when another pigeon besmirches both my ticket and the station master. Obviously, they have some sort of contest going... I get on the Inverness train about 30 seconds before it leaves, clutching a sopping wet (but poo free) ticket.

Of the time spent in transit, enough said. The scenery is very pretty. I knit. More scenery, more knitting. Of my time spent in the Cairngorms, more anon.

Insight into Scotland 3

On my way to the B&B, a beggar approaches me and asks for 66p so he can buy something at McDonald's. You can't actually buy anything at Maccas that costs exactly 66p. Please consider...

Edinburgh The Sequel

There are worse things in the world than a skinful of duty free and two hours sleep. Merry Rotarians for one. I stagger out to get my full Scottish breakfast, ready to belt anyone who even looks like they might be involved with the Rotary. Oddly, they are all sound asleep in bed. Can't think why that would be.

But sleepless nights away!! I drink two cups of coffee - another press-button machine - and eat my breakfast, which is very high in cholesterol, but quite tasty. Now I am fortified to spend the day in Edinburgh. I catch the bus, which comes right up to the Reception area, and I am off.

My agenda for the day is to see as many as I can of the following:

- the Castle
- the Museum and Art Gallery
- Mary Kings Close
- Roslyn Chapel
- Holyrood House
- the gardens.

Well, the Castle is a no-brainer. When you get out at the railway station, there is this bloody massive monolithic THING towering over the city. You can see it from everywhere. To my amusement, as my bus pulls in to the Princes St bus station, a giant green garbage truck is making its stately way along the battlements.

I decide to leave the Castle for the moment and try for the Chapel - Rosslyn is about six miles out of town and it's probably best to try that with the whole day before me to allow for misadventures. Some of you may recall that Rosslyn Chapel featured in 'The Da Vinci Code'. Having been there, I can now say with authority that the author obviously never went anywhere near it. If he had, the Chapel scene would have gone something like:

* Our hero and heroine arrive at the Chapel and queue for about half an hour in the freezing bloody cold. Around them, children whine in dulcet tones, by the time they arrive at the cashier, they have learned how to ask for sweets, soft drink, the toilet and to go home in seven different languages.

* When they get in to the Chapel, they don't find the carving with the key to the mystery, because a group of tourists is standing in front of it.

* They wander around the Chapel for an hour or so. By the time they leave, they can say 'Get the F* out of my way' in seven different languages.

* The heroine's long lost granny doesn't end up meeting them in the Chapel because there are so many bloody people, she can't find them in the crowd.

* When they finally get outside, they try walk back to the bus stop and either get hit by a car because there's no footpath, or end up sinking in inch-deep mud because there's no footpath.

Now my homage to Dan Brown is out of the way, I can say that I found the Chapel absolutely fascinating (my abiding dislike of both crowds and the Da Vinci Code notwithstanding). Every surface that can be carved has been - a lot of the carvings are very pagan in theme. Apparently there are 100 Green Men (a pagan fertility symbol) in the building and one of the pillars is carved with very elegant Norse-style dragons. There is also an angel playing the bagpipes, which disturbs me deeply. The Chapel is undergoing renovations and the public is allowed onto the walkways to see the work being carried out on the rooves. Again, more carving. Very cool (provided you remember NOT to look straight down).

From the walkway, I can see the romantic ruins of Rosslyn Castle. I walk over. Now I know why so many Scots settled in NZ, they must have felt right at home. The path to the Castle ruins is steep and covered in thick, deep mud. Hooray for hiking boots!!

I slog down to the Castle and find out that someone has built a charming little Georgian home on the foundations. Two cars are parked in the Castle forecourt. I take photos of scenic ruins and a VW Golf. This is an aspect of the UK that has always charmed me.

I manage to get a bus back to Edinburgh almost immediately. Hooray! More time for sight seeing.

One thing I did not think through. In the Lonely Planet, there is a lot of information about where to eat in Edinburgh. Everyone else has this information too. For this reason, I end up eating a chicken mayo sandwich in a shopping mall before going on to book my walking tour of Mary Kings Close and visit the Castle.

The only tour I can get into leaves about 6:30 - all fine with me. I head up to the Castle - up being the operative word. Edinburgh is very steep. The Royal Mile is not only steep, it is crowded with street theatre and people touting their shows. I end up carrying my bag in my arms like a cat, the strategy works, I still have a wallet when I get to the Castle. The Castle staff promptly relieve me of the contents and let me in.

The Castle really is as amazingly big as it looks. There are still military regiments using it as a base (Dragoons! Very exciting although their uniforms don't look as smart as the ones we had for 'Patience'). There are lots of museums and exhibitions, including the Honours of Scotland and lots of military this and that. I manage to see most of it without queueing or being rained on (it's a balmy Scottish day, which is to say that, even with the Parisian jumper and my raincoat, I am bloody freezing. And wet. It has rained more today in Edinburgh than it has in Melbourne in the past seven years). There is a massive queue to see the Honours (Scottish Crown Jewels) and I wonder whether or not I want to see them. Eventually I decide yes I do and I join the queue. The National Trust chappie at the door has a sense of humour, essential for someone whose job involves standing in the freezing bloody cold for hours on end. Every few minutes, he asks if anyone in the queue is English, if anyone replies yes, he tells them to sod off. He asks me if I'm married, the Parisian jumper strikes again! Or maybe I just look so miserable after half an hour freezing my ass off in a windy cobbled courtyard that he thinks yes I must be. No, it's all a ploy to sell St Margarets Chapel as a wedding venue. The Chapel is very sweet, but not sweet enough to induce me to tie the knot - as I get this statement out, the queue moves forward and I am finally inside! Lot of fuss to see a sword, a crown and a heap of other gewgaws!

When I get out, the Castle is closed so they can set up for the Edinburgh Tattoo. Happy memories of my Uncle Noel drinking himself into unconsciousness every New Years Eve in front of the Tattoo on the ABC reach up and choke me ... or maybe it's the bloody camera bag.

I try to do the Lonely Planet walking tour of Edinburgh before I go to Mary Kings Close, but there are too many people and I can't spot the landmarks, so I give over. I stop in a cafe to get a cup of tea and thaw out. I meet two lovely ladies who have relatives in Australia, surprise, surprise. I check out some more street theatre. Some of it is extremely good. The rest of it is there, what a pity that I don't have any fruit to throw.

Now, before I go on, I should explain the close. Edinburgh has heaps of the things, they are basically narrow alleys with stairs and people live along them in townhouses. Mary King's Close is famous because the good burghers of Edinburgh built the Town Hall over the top of it, but left quite a bit of the actual close intact in their cellars. Some enterprising souls set up a sort of history cum ghost tour showing people through, which has been massively successful. All I can say is, deservedly so!! My group was taken through the Close by a 'plague cleaner', a lucky chap who, by dint of surviving the plague, managed to get the job of removing any plague corpses from that day onwards.

The bloke playing the role did an excellent job - managed to get all the gruesome facts about mediaeval sanitation in (to the delight of the kiddies), told the ghost stories with great flair and some humour and covered a fair bit of Edinburgh history in the forty or fifty minutes we were down there. Someone obviously put in a hell of a lot of research to come up with his script! Their mention in the Lonely Planet was well earned. (See for more information).

Last stop - dinner. The crowds are all trying to get a feed before the Tattoo begins. I end up in a filthy McDonalds off Princes St, trying to eat my meal as fast as I can before I catch something from the foul tables and floor.

After that, half an hours bus ride takes me home to a peaceful, Rotarian-free slumber. And the morrow brings a trip to Aberdeen...

Insight into Scotland 2

They don't sell Persian rugs for full price over here either.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Edinburgh, Festival City...

As we all know from my last post, I woke up bright and early the day after the performance, ready to go to Edinburgh. Only one task remained - to pack up the costumes and post them back to Australia.

This whole process started with a trip to Waitrose to collect boxes - Robert had asked one of the staff to put aside the boxes after they stocked the shelves that night. Brilliant idea, but nothing is idiot-proof - nobody had actually thought to pass the message on to the shelf-stockers, so we were boxless. My morning thus began in pouring rain with a tour of Green Buxton, where everyone does their bit for the planet by crushing and recycling their boxes. Laudable and under other circumstances, I'd have been overjoyed, but at the time I'd had two hours sleep and I needed to post several dozen costumes back to Australia.

By 11:30, the costumes were in a van heading to the post office and I was walking towards the station. Luckily, there was a train at 11:38 and I made it. Less fortunately, there was a train to Edinburgh that left about 5 minutes after I arrived at Manchester, which I missed because I was looking for someone to tell me when and where the next train to Edinburgh left. To spice up the two hour wait that ensued, some nice lad left his luggage lying in the waiting room and vanished. If you want to see major excitement, leave your luggage in a train station.

When he came back, it turned out that he was of a dusky complexion, so all I can say is, he was bloody lucky nobody shot him. Or else I could say we were all bloody lucky that he was a nice young man who'd naively assumed that he could go grab a cuppa without lugging his backpack along with him.

Anyway, all musings aside - let us go on with the journey!! Sitting in a train for four hours is not very exciting so I won't dwell on that (apologies to Michael and Chris the train spotters!). However, Edinburgh made up for that lack because they have a festival on about this time of year...

All I will say about the festival is, unless you're a complete masochist, don't go. I was feeling rather tired and wussy when I got off the train about 6pm and decided to take a taxi to the University where I was staying. Since every other human being in the world was also in Edinburgh and also wanted a taxi, this was a silly idea.

Eventually, I got to the head of the queue and was picked up by a driver whose accent was so thick, it was completely unintelligible. That was OK, he didn't understand me either. I ended up waving the Visit Scotland booking letter at him and he finally drove off.

Herriot-Watt University is the Scottish equivalent of Monash. It is miles away from the CBD, set in parkland amidst disadvantaged suburbia and it has the same 60's ambiance. I was glad I'd taken the taxi!

When I got out at the Reception, dinner was being served. A large Rotarian convention had taken over the dining room proper, but us plebs could eat in the canteen. I surveyed the choices carefully. It seemed that I could eat Orange Something or one of two different Brown Somethings, with two veg, chips or salad. I selected one of the Brown Somethings, purportedly a lamb hotpot, and the two veg. To my surprise, it was actually quite tasty. I sat beside a window overlooking The Wood (a small sunken area full of trees between two of the buildings) and watched the rabbits grazing peacefully.

After my hotpot, I went to bed. Early in the morning, I was awakened by merry Rotarians in the room below me and also by someone screaming 'Shut up!' repeatedly. Was she a Rotarian screaming at me to stop banging on the floor with my hiking boot or was she another annoyed resident? At about 2:30 am, the Rotarians took the hint and packed it in. I dropped my boots and returned to my fitful slumbers...

Insight into Scotland 1

In a souvenir shop, I discover a postcard which shows two Highland Cows in the process of creating a third. No, there really is nothing so tacky that a tourist won't buy it...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Buxton 2.0

I arrived in Buxton in the chill early evening. Being rather naive, I assume that the halls of residence are near the University, so I go to the University. So, it seems, does everyone else.

As soon as I arrive at the gates, the security guard comes out with a friendly smile. "You looking for the Halls of Residence?" he asks. Yes, I am. "You one of them Italian exchange students?". I suppose I'm flattered, but no. The Halls of Residence are in the opposite direction to the University but most people don't realise this. The guard has a sense of humour about being confronted daily with lost people, or maybe he is just relieved to have a lost person who speaks fluent English. Or maybe he is overwhelmed by my Parisian elegance (only slightly marred by the absence of any cosmetics) - he offers me a glass of water before I set out. When I explain delicately that, after a two hour journey, this is a bad idea, he lets me use the facilities before I start my trek down the hill.

The halls are at the bottom of the hill underneath the railway line. Through some inspired coincidence, Michael the mad-keen train spotter is on the railway line side - I am on the opposite side of the building and to my astonishment, I don't hear a train for my entire stay. (Michael wakes up at 6:45am every morning to check out the 64... or whatever it is. It was all explained to me in detail, but as I didn't have to document it, I promptly forgot it).

All the shows are sold out. Bummer! I had hoped to see at least one show other than our own... well, it was not to be. I am still pretty tired, so I will take the chance to catch up on work and sleep in that order.

Saturday night

On the evening of my arrival, we have a celebratory dinner. I sit down to deep-fried chicken pieces on soggy spiced rice and think longingly of Paris... The Buxton climate is actually not that different, it is cold and rainy. But the food - alas, the English have never quite come up with something to equal my chicken salad. I eat the fried thing and stagger back to the university to work while indigestion wreaks havoc on my innards.


I wake up and do a morning run down to the Gardens and back. The Gardens are closer to the halls or I am fitter - I did the same run last year and took most of an hour, this year it only takes half that. Little furry critters flee before me - some things never change...

Rehearsal. This year, we have the Octagon, which is right in the middle of the Gardens. It is a lovely venue, but very public - we have a lot of people looking through windows, wandering in and out etc etc. Eventually, someone shuts the doors and draws the curtains so we can work in peace. Our extra aesthetic maidens need to be fitted in their costumes and decorated appropriately - for some reason, I am in charge of this, it is a bit like asking Attila the Hun to mind a china shop. Luckily Tiffany is prepared to help out!!

Hooray! We are right next door to a canteen we can get coffee!! Maybe I am not used to cows milk, because the coffee tastes quite odd. Or maybe the problem is that the coffee comes from one of those press-button machines like they have on the railway stations in Australia. Sad addict though I am, I can't drink it. I empty the cup into a garden bed, then apologise to the flowers.

Sunday night we have a working bee to let things down, take things up and add extra glitzy bits to the four spare costumes. Much to my amazement, they work out rather well - possibly because my main contribution is to organise the event rather than to actually participate!


More of the same. We rehearse. Today, I know not to grab a quick coffee from the Octagon cafeteria. I go back to Project X over the road, which does superb coffee using a proper coffee machine.

I go to the wool and craft shop in the mall about six times for ribbons and extra costume bits - eventually, I succumb and purchase a heap of wool for the plane trip back. It looks like we have 20 lovesick maidens and a sheep in the Octagon - maybe I bought too much wool?

I finish my first project and email it back to Australia... one down, one to go!


The big day!! This year, I know not to help with bump-in. When I am good and ready, I make myself breakfast and cart my costume down to the theatre. Since the costume is 90% of my baggage, I end up carting my suitcase down to the theatre and back. Twice. I really have way too much stuff!

I manage to get a quick lunch break and go back to the halls for some time out.

The dress rehearsal was pretty lame - everyone was saving themselves for the night. Luckily, it paid off. We were great and the audience loved us. I was extremely happy with what I did, we got a lot of laughs and at the end of it, our adjudication was all we could have hoped for.

Our cabaret also gets a rousing reception - people are quiet and listen to us. That never happened last year or at any of the cabarets I saw this year. Usually, there were people ordering drinks and moving about. This time they sat and paid attention to every word. Particularly good reception for 'Chocolate' and the 'Dance of the Cygnets', also for a racy version of 'Three Little Maids'.

Afterwards, we went home and drank everyone's duty free. Maybe a bad move - one of the orchestra seemed to be coming along with us for the party, but when I explained where we were staying he told me that they'd been banned for rowdy behaviour. Hopefully we won't suffer a like fate, because there was a LOT of duty free at the start of the evening and none at all by the time we all knocked off about 4am.

Outside my window, a local moggy, with an unerring cat instinct for finding a sucker, was crying. I wandered out (carefully!) and brought it in. I gave the poor little thing a cuddle and dried it off, then realised that I couldn't keep it in overnight so put it out again. All a bit of a waste really, but I do miss having little purring furry people around...

The next day I awoke at 6:30 and went to Edinburgh, but that's another story...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Paris again...

I arrived in Paris on Wednesday about midday their time and 2:00 am my time. Although I'd slept on the flight, I was not necessarily in any condition to be in a country where I effectively didn't speak the same language as everyone else.

My train journey from the airport to the CBD was not marred by pickpockets or any of the other nastiness I'd been warned about. It was marred by my luggage, which was too big and heavy to move quickly. When I got to Chattelet-Les-Halles station, instead of changing trains to get to Pont Marie, I ended up stuck behind the luggage watching Chattelet-Les-Halles fade into the distance behind me.

I ended up at Notre Dame, which is only about 10 minutes walk from Erin's abode, unless you have giant baggage, in which case it's physically impossible to get there. I learned a useful phrase from the first taxi I flagged down, which I think meant something like 'P!ss off I am not driving you such a pathetically short distance'. At this point, the impending thunderstorm had broken and so had one of my bags, so I felt moved to reciprocate by teaching the taxi driver some useful Australian colloquial phrases. I hope they all come to pass upon him in the imminent future, with an especially large pineapple and a Rugby All-Black.

The second taxi driver was more helpful and I arrived at the Cite des Artes at about 5pm Paris time. As I said in my previous post, Erin's apartment was amazing - the location is beyond belief, she is about 10 minutes walk from everything and the block was just gorgeous.

Using her flat as a base, I explored the Ile-St-Louis, which is sort of like a very, very plush and much older Toorak, and the area around Notre Dame. I never did actually get in to Notre Dame on account of the terrifying queues, which stretched most of the way across the square (see the pix).

On my second day there, we went to the Louvre. The Louvre is every bit as amazing as everyone says. You can't see everything there and you'll go completely insane if you try - my strategy was to focus on a couple of areas that I thought would be interesting and to skim through, allowing things to catch my eye.

The building itself is a wonder - I think it's about 1km each side - and the craftsmanship involved at every level of its construction just defies belief. I found myself wandering around the mediaeval foundations of the Louvre by mistake (I was looking for the Egyptian antiquities wing, which I never found) and it was quite interesting to see how much work was involved in just keeping the edifice upright. The public areas were painted, carved, varnished, veneered and otherwise decorated to within an inch of insanity - all in superb taste of course.

Stand out memories:

Sitting on a carved stone seat on the servants' stairs. How did I know they were servants' stairs? Plain stone walls, no carvings, no chandeliers, no ornamental work - except on the seat, which had two perfect little lion heads carved on the armrests.

Seeing the Code of Hammurabi - the very first piece of written legislation and for those of you who remember your Bible, the origin of the saying 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. His Highness had a very literal sense of justice... He was also very into killing people for infringing the law.

Walking into a room which was deserted except for two 12-foot high Mespotamian Winged Bulls, dug up from the ruins of some ancient palace or other (my French wasn't up to the fine detail of the exhibit labels).

Laughing hysterically at a Classical carving of a Greek hero. An explanation is in order - as I understood the label, an Ancient Greek Olympian who was reknowned for his sporting prowess wandered into the woods one day, where he was unfortunately eaten by wolves. A famous French sculptor, moved by this tale, decided to commit it to marble. The end result is a sculpture of a very well-built gentleman being bitten in the ass by a lion. Said lion is about 1/3 the size of the athlete and it looks like the sculptor used his pet cat as a model. I felt that the sculpture perhaps did not convey the tragedy of the tale in the way that the sculptor intended.

Case after case of Mesapotamian cylinder seals with their impressions. These things are about 3,000 years old (or maybe older - again, language difficulties!) and yet they create such delicate, detailed impressions!!

A case with small Mesapotamian artifacts - a crude clay sculpture of a bed, happily occupied - on one hand, a sign that some things transcend history. On the other - what did it mean to the original owner? Was it a prehistoric version of Playboy? A religious object? Something you gave to your kids before they got married as an educational aid? Beside the sculpture, a group of the daintiest little ivory carvings of a cow suckling a calf. Obviously the image was important enough that some exceptionally skilled artists put a great deal of effort into reproducing it, but why?

Going through the Arab exhibits and realising that I could easily substitute most of my jewellery for that on display - seeing pottery that looked very contemporary - finally finding myself in front of an abstract human figurine that (I think!) was about 7000 years old.

Trying to find the bloody Egyptian exhibit!! I found a Sphinx in one of the crypts, but the rest of the exhibit eluded me.

Jumping up and down at the back of a very large room trying to see La Gioconda/Mona Lisa. The Venus di Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were also very popular.

By about 3:30, I couldn't handle any more art so I wandered back to Erin's apartment. En route, I tried to see Notre Dame but was foiled by the queue again (and by the funeral of a Cardinal, which meant that the tourists had to wait until the service was finished). Instead I went to see the Crypte Archeologique, which is under the Cathedral - someone has excavated the Roman and medieaval ruins under the Cathedral -it is quite trippy seeing how the City has built up on itself, layer after layer, with the lower layers quietly biding their time in the dark under the ground. It was also trippy seeing how narrow the streets were! The main thoroughfare for transporting materials to the Cathedral site was a whole 7m wide (probably about the same size as a two-lane road or slightly less) - that was major thoroughfare territory in those days, sort of their equivalent of the Western Ring Road.

On Saturday, my mission was to see Kilometre Zero, the central point from which all distances in France are measured, and the Memorial de la Deportation. I also had a fancy to purchase some Florame skin products - sort of a French Jurlique, only all the ingredients are organic not just some. Slight problem, in France they do not have the concept of 'open 24/7' so everything was shut.

I managed to get to the Memorial at 11:00, just in time to stand in a queue. The Memorial is dedicated to the French who died in the concentration camps. The only way I can describe it is to say, think of a prison. Or look at the pictures. When you get through the claustrophobic concrete maze, you find yourself at one end of a tunnel full of little lights. There is one light there for each person who disappeared or died, and it looks like the tunnel goes on for ever.

I missed the Kilometre Zero, it is in the square outside Notre Dame so presumably some tourist was standing on it. I found Florame and purchased several products - unfortunately, I left them in my handbag, so French customs confiscated anything over 200ml. Luckily my plane was delayed or I'd have missed it while I was trying to work out what the hell was going on. My French is OK for simple things like 'Interdit' (Prohibited) and ne... pas (do not [do whatever]) but I wasn't equipped to deal with the complexities of whatever law I'd transgressed by having 200ml of cleanser in my handbag.

Lessons learned in France:

- The food is great, but you do still have to know where to go. And what to order - Erin and I went to a health food restaurant, where I scored a delicious chicken salad. Erin got an overcooked casserole with soggy rice salad. This might relate to point two...

- If you try to speak French, you really do get brownie points. I found everyone extremely polite and helpful, but I always tried to communicate in French and only used English when I absolutely couldn't get my point across any other way. Even Customs were reasonably polite and helpful - put it this way, I've still got a couple of bottles of cosmetics and I'm not entirely sure that I should have them!
In case I missed the lesson, I came across a small group of American tourists who were in a similar predicament to myself on my first day (missed their stop, trying to find their way back to their station). I mangled out some sort of explanation of my plight and got directions to a taxi rank. They communicated by shouting at everyone and were still standing outside the Metro station being rained on when I left.
- There are places in this world where a three room apartment (not three bedroom, three ROOM) is a pretty good score.

- Melbourne house prices are really insane, apartments on the Ile-St-Louis are about the same prices as premium Melbourne apartments (although they are possibly a bit smaller).

- Either French men have an entirely undeserved reputation for sleaziness or they have a better sense of self-preservation than they've been given credit for. Although I was on my own most of the time and identifiably a tourist (wearing jeans - big fashion no-no in Paris!), I didn't have any problems.
So much for my first experience of travelling somewhere where I can't speak the language fluently. It was nowhere near as scary as I thought and I reckon I'd be right to do it again. Although next time I'd like to speak enough French to ask the Customs for my bloody make-up back!!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Paris! Part I

Hello everyone, just in case you haven't caught up with the good news, I made it to Paris safe and sound. I even made it to Paris well-rested, as there was no-one in the seat beside me in the plane. Although it's not easy for someone of my build to lie down on two aeroplane seats, I was determined and so slept, pretzel-like, across the Indian Ocean.

On arrival in France, I quite quickly discovered that a vocabulary of about 30 words is really not adequate for very many situations. It got me most of the way to Erin's place though and a kindly taxi driver got me the rest of the way.

Erin is staying in a converted old-style apartment block - some genius has partitioned a graceful 18th century building into bedsits, luckily they haven't completely succeeded in destroying the elegance of the original although they've had a red-hot go at it.

You'll be astonished to know that it has been freezing cold every day that I've been here - one of my errands today will be to go to the department store and buy a warm jumper before I go anywhere!!

What else? I've seen some amazing queues, but not many tourist attractions. I've managed to buy myself some universal chargers and adaptors at FNAC (the French Harvey Norman or Dick Smith, except much more stylish). I've gone shopping, which was actually quite enjoyable, and I've seen a couple of churches and parks that weren't tourist attractions and were therefore accessible.

Off to the Louvre today!