Friday, December 31, 2010

Château D'Écouen

When we were in France at New Year we visited this château which has become the National Museum of the Renaissance.

Its construction began in 1538 at the behest of Anne de Montmerency, High Constable of France and chief minister under Francis I(1515-1547) and Henry II (1547-1559). It became the the National Museum of the Renaissance in 1977. It provides the link between renaissance architecture and collections of decorative arts from the Musée de Cluny. Although some of the rooms were closed when we visited we did see many beautiful artefacts during our visit.
The Chateau showing the chapel at the left corner.
The inner courtyard where the visitors would dismount from their coaches or horses.
The ceiling of the chapel.
The organ.

And below are some pictures of the interior decoration. There were lots of faux painting escpecially around the fireplaces.

Among the artefacts on disply was this automaton called the nef of Charles V. Many of its parts move when the clockwork is wound up.
Other artefacts included a harpsicord and the celestial sphere

The ceilings were also decorated.

Sadly the rooms containing their collection of Iznic tiles from Turkey was not open when we visited. We shall just have to return.

Château d'Écouen

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Llama trekking

We had a full house over Christmas and we knew there would be some over-indulging on Christmas Day, so we needed some exercise on Boxing Day to counter all that. But we wanted to do something just a little out of the ordinary and with some internet research we came across the Surrey Hills Llamas and an opportunity to trek with them on Boxing Day.
Now, we have visited South America and come across the whole gang of South American camelids; vicuna, guanaco, alpaca and llama, so we were immediately grabbed by this idea as were the children. To explain a little about these animals, I found the following information on the Surrey Hills Llamas’ website:
“Llamas, members of the camelid family, are believed to have their origins in the central plains of North America around 40 million years ago. The dawn of the Ice-Age, saw a southerly migration into the South American Andes of the guanaco and vicuna, which adapted to the inhospitable climate, sporadic moisture, high altitude, vast daily temperature fluctuations and unpredictable food supply of the region. Domestication of the guanaco and vicuna is thought to have given rise to the llama and alpaca, with the llama originating from the guanaco and the alpaca from the vicuna.
The earliest domesticated animal, llamas were first trained by the Incas in the high Andes Mountains close to Lake Titicaca around 4,000 years ago. The Inca tribesmen used the intelligent highly trainable camelids for hauling and carrying, but llamas were much more than beasts of burden. The Incas called the llama "silent brother", they recognised the llamas importance as a source of meat, fibre for clothing and blankets, skins for shelter and as a sacrifice to the Inca gods. The Incas had a high dependence on these animals. Domestication of the llama allowed the additional use as a beast of burden as well as selective breeding for specific traits. The adaptability and efficiency of the llama as a pack animal made it possible to link the diverse altitude area of the mountainous Andes and to cover great distances of the region. Llamas and alpacas were so important to the Inca culture and economy that they were the property of the government. State herdsmen controlled the breeding and production of llamas and this was closely monitored.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500's had a huge effect on the llamas and alpacas in the Andes. The Spanish destroyed almost all of the llamas and alpacas, putting in their place their own domestic animals, mainly sheep. The Incas and their animals were forced to move to higher altitudes over 4000 metres. Decimated in numbers, these hardy animals adapted to the harsh climate and terrain and developed the ability to live on low protein vegetation where only the strongest survived.
Llamas do not have hooves like horses or cattle. Their feet are designed to enable them to be sure-footed and cause minimal damage to the environment. Each foot is made up of 2 toes which have a toenail and a pad, the pad covers most of the bottom of the foot and is very sensitive giving the llama better contact with the ground than horses or cattle. Since the pad is softer than a hoof, llamas cause less damage to the environment. It will take a llama longer to wear a path than a horse or a cow.
Selectively bred for gentleness, for thousands of years, a well trained llama will eagerly follow adults and children alike, from groups of enthusiastic ramblers to self-proclaimed couch potatoes.”
I particularly liked the last bit and it made me wonder who would be joining a Boxing Day trek. We just had to book and find out.

We arrived around 9.30am to find a distinctly icy pub car park and we were quickly followed in by several other cars. Everyone was piling out of the cars and into warm clothing and decent walking shoes, when the pub door opened and Julie Stoneley welcomed us all inside for a glass of warming mulled wine and a mince pie while she and her husband Colin prepared the llamas for our trek. Amazingly Julie and her husband gave up their heady city jobs to take up a life with llamas and now own and run the Merry Harriers pub, Hambledon, from where they also run the llama trekking business. They have won awards as Guildford Visitor Attraction of the Year (2006), despite being severely affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. Camelids do not get the disease, but they were not allowed to move the animals with the countryside under what was effectively a curfew.
Soon all was ready for us to meet the llamas and after Julie briefed us on the correct way to walk with and behave around the llamas, we walked out the back of the pub and up the hill to the llama fields. They looked wonderful, if a little bizarre in the snowy Surrey landscape, but everyone – about sixteen of us – was very enthusiastic about the outing, even some teenage lads not known for their interest outside iPods and Wiis.
Our group of six shared two llamas, Pandu, who is the leader of the herd and Napoleon. Pandu has some beautiful markings, is about two metres tall, and carries the panniers containing the all important picnic. Napoleon has long white hair and looks very glamorous, though not very tall. Apparently he is the llama that was chosen to star on some of their gifts. When everyone was matched up with their llamas, Julie led us down the path, away from the pub and along the bridle path. The llamas were thrilled to be out and about, dipping into the hedgerows for any fresh greenery they could find. We had to be careful as it was quite icy underfoot, but the thaw had started to set in and we even saw a bit of sunshine. Pandu was as keen as the other llamas to forage, hurrying along to get to a juicy bit of hedgerow; only with the panniers on, he was quite a bit wider than the other llamas and was pretty good at pushing them out of his way. After about an hour and a half, we came to a bit of a clearing and here Julie proposed we took our picnic. She had packed home made soup and wonderful sandwiches made from locally made cheese and ham. Photos of the various groups were taken, the llamas were fed treats of carrots and sprouts and then it was time to walk back again.
The return walk went much more quickly and we were soon back at the Merry Harriers, now hopping with the lunchtime trade. We led the llamas round the back of the pub and up to their enclosure where Julie took off their reins and they were free again. It had been a lovely experience and we all agreed that it would be most enjoyable to trek with the llamas again in a different season.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lisbon Farewell

Alan has been very ill in the night, so didn’t get up at all and we asked for an extension on check out time. Eventually, he recovered enough for us to pack up, leave the bags with the concierge and go out for a walk. We headed over to the Alfama district, wandering around the narrow winding streets of what used to be the city of the Moors, under the castle. All that was lost in the 1755 earthquake, but the ‘new’ buildings occupied the same narrow streets that made the Kasbah. It was very interesting to see the village like areas with small shops, washing hung at windows and across streets, the stairways and glimpses of the river form tiny terraces. But Alan needed a sit down, so we made our way back to Bairro Alto and the Café Brasileira for refreshments. This was our last stop before we went back to the hotel to await the driver to take us off to the airport and home.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Day of the General Strike

Today is the day of the general strike. All public transport, museums, hospitals, schools etc. are meant to be closed. Luckily our hotel seems to be sporting the usual number of staff and at breakfast, although the road around the square was quiet, we saw a tram go by. So we looked in the guide book and decided to make one of the suggested walks. This was estimated to take 45 minutes, but we knew it would take us longer as we intended to stop off at various points along the way. But we had to reach a suitable starting point on their map and this took us across our square and up to the church our guide had indicated as a must.

The church of São Roque is quite plain from the outside, but inside is breathtaking with its embellishments of semi precious stone, marble, gold and silver. St. Roch is the protector against plague. Just a little way beyond this beautiful church we knew there was a view point, but before we reached it, there came one of the funicular trams that ply up and down the steep streets at four points around the city. Surprisingly this one that travels up and down Gloria street, was in service, so we hopped on using our Lisbon cards and took a return trip to Avenida Da Liberdade. It was along this wide boulevard that the marchers would come, apparently, so we didn’t hang about. Back up at the top, we walked out onto the viewpoint and took in the view of the city and across to the castle. Further strolling brought us to Praça do Príncipe Real where a huge cedar tree has been trained to grow around a wrought iron support creating a large shady area where locals play cards in the summer. To one side of the square is a building that looks a bit like the Brighton Pavilion, but in reality is a Neo-Moorish building belonging to the University. They seem to be either trying to sell it or knock out the insides and renovate it. In the centre of the square is a small café where we stopped for a welcome coffee and cake.

Off on our walk again, we began looking for the entrance to Jardim Botanico. This wasn’t easy as it wasn’t clear on the map, and one entrance we did find looked as if it hadn’t been used in years. \we tracked back to the square and walked down to one of the University entrancs, and here discovered that the botanical garden shared it. It does seem a little neglected, but there had been a lot of rain and it is autumn, so maybe that was why. We walked through avenues of tall trees and eventually came across an ornamental pond with what could have been a wonderful summerhouse, but it too has seen better days. Time to move on.
We walked along, up and down steep streets with tall colourful houses; some with tiled exteriors, others just painted, but with tiles over windows. The next place of interest was Palácio de São Bento, the seat of the Portuguese Parliament. It is a Neo-Classical building with lots of arches, pillars and an impressive portico. It is guarded by soldiers who have glass boxes to stand in. Amazingly it was built in the late 16th century, and yet looks almost new.  We back tracked a little and took a steep road up to Jardim da Estrela. We were greeted by tall trees and an ornamental lake with statues and ducks, and behind an impressive band stand. Actually, it is described as a wrought-iron music pavilion (1884) and was moved here from Passeio Público when Avenida da Liberdade was created. Summer days are filled with the music from bands playing here. Henry Fielding is buried in the English Cemetery, north of the gardens. We were distracted by the flock of green parakeets that flits among the trees as well as the Muscovy ducks that inhabit yet another pond. Once again we found a convenient café for tea before we went out of the park to discover the Basílica da Estrela. The interior is clad in pink, grey and yellow marble.

We had just about covered our walk from the guide book, so now had to make our way back to the hotel. As we wandered along to hilly streets we came across another of the funiculars, but this one wasn’t working today. Then we were back at the hotel and made our way up to the roof terrace in hope of a sunset. We were not disappointed and while we waited we watched a submarine slip quietly downstream through liquid gold waters. The starlings swooped over the roof tops below and finally roosted in the trees for the night. We went off to change and ordered a taxi to take us up to the Castelo de São Jorge for dinner.
The restaurant, Casa do Leao, was very pleasant – not quite up to ‘Eleven’ standards, (Understatement!!), but we had a traditional sort of dinner served in a modern style. The view was good, however and they were very friendly and ordered us a taxi to take us back to the hotel.

Jardim Botanico

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lisbon Birthday

Up early in time to open the birthday cards. Some lovely ones – wonder what the obsession with cupcakes is all about. I hope no-one is insinuating things! It was great to receive such lovely wishes. Then a breakfast back in the Flores, with fruit, yoghurt, cereals and pastries with OJ and tea.
Marisa was ready to whisk us off at nine, but the weather was pretty ghastly. Low cloud and rain had come in overnight with no hope of clearing before the afternoon. Nevermind, we have waterproof jackets and decent shoes. Marisa took us all over the city from Avenida and Baixa to Alfama with its narrow streets and Castle of St George, with some photo ops on the way. 

Eventually we stopped at the famous bakery in Belém, or Bethlehem in English, where they make the best and the original pasteis. These are a traditional custard tart of Lisbon and this bakery was given the secret recipe when the monks were disbanded. They have guarded it ever since; passing it down from generation to generation. We certainly enjoyed ours sprinkled with cinnamon accompanied by the traditional cup of strong black coffee. Marisa explained that Starbucks weren’t popular in Portugal as they make too weak coffee – short, strong and black seems to be the way they like coffee here – with or without sugar. After refreshments, we braved the weather again to visit the World Heritage sites in the area, the Monastery of the Hieronymites that was disbanded in 1834 as were all religious orders, and the Torre de Belém both built in the unique Manueline style of the early sixteenth century. The last place we stopped at was the Monument to the Discoveries built by the dictator Salazar in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator. It put us in mind of the statue to Peter the Great in the middle of the Moskva River in Moscow. Just a little OTT.

Marisa dropped us in the square known colloquially as Rossio where they were preparing for tomorrows general strike – all public sector workers are expected to join it. It had now stopped raining which was great, so we could make our own walk about. First we decided on a little lunch – Marisa had pointed out a traditional restaurant, Nicola, and we decided to have omelettes – the waiter asked us would we like some bread and it came along with wafer thin ham and air dried cheese, then the omelettes arrived with chips! (Just a light lunch!)  It was, of course, very good and we did plan a bit of a walk afterwards.
We set off and stopped to take pictures of the station that looked very pretty. Outside was a chestnut roaster who was making lots of smoke. We noticed that this was quite normal and no-one bother about it. We popped into the church of Sao Domingos with its marble faced interior, then walked through Praça da Figueira, then up and down the parallel streets running down to the Tagus. We came to the triumphal arch and the U-shaped Praça de Comércio with its wide open space and trams.

Now it was time to make our way to the Elevador de Santa Justa that takes you straight up to the Barrio Alto area. We could ride free on our Lisbon passes and we lined up with a crowd of tourists waiting for the car to descend. Soon we were on board the car and away we went, rising up through the amazing wrought iron structure built by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, an apprentice of none other than Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. When we got to the top we could climb up the narrow spiral stairs to a viewing platform with panoramic views (32m). Great fun. Then we walked across the bridge to Largo do Carmo, under the walls of the ruined Carmo church. There was a dreadful fire in the Chiado district in 1988 that destroyed the church and much of the Chaido area. This road took us back to Rua Garrett and eventually to the hotel for a cup of tea in the ground floor bar. 

This evening we have had dinner at the Restaurant Eleven. A Michelin star restaurant, called Eleven after the entrepreneurs who funded the enterprise, but maybe with a nod to the towers at the viewpoint above Parque Eduardo VII. We sipped champagne as we perused the menu. We opted for the tasting menu – I think there were five courses mentioned, but by the time we had tasted two amuse bouche, some small dishes in between courses including sorbets, and petit fours, we must have had maybe – eleven! And we tasted some delicious wine with the wine matching menu, too. 
The wine was: a reisling-gewurtztraminer; Chablis "Cuvèè Elegance" (Chardonnay)2009; Chef's Collection (Portuguese) Reserve 2009; Roco Plana Syrah (Spain) 2009; Port Late Bottled Vintage 2002; and Ortega Beerenauslese 1999
They called us a taxi at 11.30pm.

What a great birthday!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Landing in Lisbon

Arrived in Lisbon at 4pm and made it to the Bairro Alto Hotel by around 5pm. where we have a lovely room. We were keen to explore our surroundings, so took some advice from Paulo and wandered down to the right of the square outside the hotel, Praça Luis de Camôes, Rua Garrett. Along here is a very famous café, A Brasileira that was the favourite haunt of poet Fernando Pessoa. We easily found it and the bronze café table and chairs at which he is seated. We strolled on down the street busy with people making their way home at the end of the day – meeting friends, shopping and enjoying themselves. At the bottom of the street is a shopping centre filled with all sorts of shops – including a Starbucks, but more interestingly a shop selling fabulous cupcakes and macaroons! Back at the hotel, our next stop was for a drink on their 'world famous' roof terrace. We had missed the sunset, but enjoyed cocktails and the lights across the harbour. There is a small version of Rio's statue that is lit up at night. I had a Cosmopolitan and Alan a Mojito. When we were ready we went down for dinner in their Flores Restaurant. To start we were brought a bouche amuse of marinated Japanese vegetables - just a tiny taster, before our starters arrived. These were three kinds of shrimps with a wasabi mousse, and cheese carpaccio with apple crisps. This was followed by veal and duck. We drank a bottle of  Quinta de la Rosa, which was excellent.  So far it was all very delicious and we couldn't resist having desert of orange cake with a passion fruit and ginger crisp, and pistachio parfait in a sugar and coconut soup with praline crisp. Then we had an early-ish night as we had to be ready for Marisa at 9am in the morning.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Trip to NOLA 9

Our last full day with D&S started with more delicious homemade pancakes, then we were off to the Renaissance Fair on the North side of the lake. This involved our crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway with its twin spans and crossing places. At 38.42km it is classed as the longest Causeway in the world. On the way across we looked out for birds and spotted several cormorants, sea gulls and one pelican. It wasn't the best of days, with showers, sometimes quite heavy as drove to the showground at Hammond. The theme for this weekend is the Festival of Fools.

As we arrived it was a bit drizzly, but we hoped it would go off, and headed for the ticket booths. We were soon walking through the entrance and stepping back in time, where 75% of the people were dressed up to look like renaissance folk. Some of them looked a bit chilly, too and we decided that a warm cup of something would be perfect. The local hostelry served us coffees and no sooner had we sat down under an umbrella than it started pelting down with rain. We were lucky to have the brolly and stayed there drinking our coffee until it eased off again. So we set off to explore all the wonderful stalls - some selling hand crafted goods, others food and many selling dressing-up costumes. We dodged the rain by diving into the tents, and we aimed at hearing the bagpipe performance at the Rampant Haggis as well as the falconry display and the jousting. But the rain was relentless and eventually we saw the birds of prey under their shelter before opting for a chicken on a stick to revive us. Everything is sold on a stick at the festival - including cheesecake. Oh, yes, the steak is actually sold on a stake.

Luckily, we were eating our chicken, when we heard that they had decided to have a jousting match as the rain had more or less stopped, so we went over to the stands and sat at the back. Our man, Sir William was going to fight the other stand's man, Sir Owen ( I think or it could have been Gawain). There was much cheering and jeering as the joust got underway and it was evident that our guy was going to win by any means possible, so we cheered loudly and watched the hilarious antics of the protagonists. Soon it was all over and Sir William won, albeit by foul means. What fun.
We walked back round the opposite side of the lake, avoiding a hot stone massage, some siege machine shys and arrived back where we started having had a great time. Back to the car and S drove us home. Dinner was booked at a lovely restaurant on Magazine St. called Martinique Bistro. We had a table inside and we were delighted with our delicious food and wine: Jermann, Red Angel on the Moonlight Pinot Noir, Venezia Giula, 2007 to go with some duck, pork and some scallops. The scallop eater was lucky that we had some prosecco as an aperitif with our starters, which went well with them.

So that was that - the end of our wonderful time with D&S. We have to rise pretty early for D to drive us to Louis Armstrong Airport for our flight to Newark and then home.

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Trip to NOLA 8

We had home made pancakes for breakfast - plain and banana ones. Very scrummy. Then A spotted this interesting insect on the front porch.

D&S had plenty of jobs to do so we set off for the bike shop to start with. D's bike was in for tuning and we went into the bike shop with him. There are all sorts of bikes, some very high tech. Soon we were putting D's bike on the back of the van and taking it back to the house. Off again to Magazine St., where we needed to collect a footstool that matches the front porch chairs. D parked and we had just about reached the shop when he caught us up. Lots of designer furniture and a very nice woman served S. She knew S straight away and was chatting on to her. The footstool was all put together - it comes flat pack usually, but they wanted to be sure it was OK. Then we set off to find a cup of coffee, but places were very busy with Saturday morning shoppers. We just looked at the shops and then got back in the car. We drove to a sports shop that may have had Saints T-shirts for our neighbours twins, but there were only sizes up to 9 months then S,M and Ls, and they were $60!
At last we found a Starbucks for coffee and then we drove out towards Baton Rouge and the Plantations. We planned to visit Oak Alley, a plantation house that is featured on lots of the adverts because of its long avenue of live oaks some planted 300 years ago by a French settler and added to about 150 years ago by the later occupants of the house. There were grass verges at the side of the road and suddenly we saw an armadillo foraging along; then another and another until we must have seen about a dozen.
We arrived as the sky began to darken and we bought tickets for the 4pm tour of the house. A bell sounded and that signalled the start of the tour, so we joined a crowd of about forty people and after a short introduction, we were led into the reception room. The guide, in costume then took us on a very informative tour of the house. Meanwhile, it was pouring with rain outside and we went out onto the upper floor veranda to see it streaming off the roof.

By the time we came downstairs again the rain had stopped and we could walk round to the garden where we saw a red cardinal flitting in the trees. Then we walked back to the car as the sun was going down. We drove off, stopping at the view of the house down the avenue of trees and we could walk up the levy to look at the river and the sunset.
It was busy on the way back and we were running short of time, but a quick change and back in the car brought us to the French Quarter with just enough time for a quick bite before we went to the show 'Forbidden Broadway' at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré. It really is a tiny theatre, seating maybe 200 people on chairs on a concrete floor. The walls are the basic brick and all the lights and stuff are mounted on girders across the ceiling. There is a small stage. The show was performed by four singers accompanied by a pianist. All the songs were Broadway hits, but with different words sending up the stars and the producers of the musicals the songs came from. We laughed a lot and really enjoyed the performance.
Back to the car and home for a cup of tea before bedtime.

Oak Alley Plantation
Le Petit Théâtre

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trip to NOLA 7

D had gone for an early run, so when we got up he was just arriving back. After breakfast we had a few things to do starting with collecting a couple of pictures D&S had had framed. Then we parked near Audubon Park with the intention of walking around the lake. Just what we needed, but we kept spotting wildlife and in the end we didn't get very far. But we did see some woodpeckers - the Downy, we think; squirrels, other little birds; turtles/terrapins; a darter/anhinga; lots of ducks - not just mallards. So, we turned around and walked back to the car and D drove us off to find a coffee. The first stop was St James' Cheese Shop, but although we got to look inside and smell the incredible range of cheeses they keep, the place was full. Onwards and Borders wasn't too far away, so we parked and went in for coffee and a browse.

We had to leave town at one to get to the Swamp Tours place, so back in the car we set off into some heavy traffic. Eventually we got onto our road and whizzed back over the large bridge we had come back into town on last night. We turned off onto ever smaller roads and at last arrived at the edge of the swamp. Here there were large barges being pushed up and down the waterway, but also a collection of airboats of various sizes. D went and arranged for us to go on one of the smaller ones and at 2.15 we were all setting off - seven on our boat and all with the yellow ear defenders on. They are very noisy.
Jostin, our driver, took the boat across the waterway and into some of the narrow bayous, swinging sideways round corners. Around the first bend a very large heron flew up from the bank - a blue heron. Eventually we stopped at a sort of bay, overhung with trees dripping Spanish moss where we found at least four smallish alligators lounging around on logs and in the water. It's getting to hibernation time for the alligators so they are quite slow and lugubrious. The water is covered with Japanese water hyacinth which is quite a problem, but no-one is doing anything about it, just driving over it, which doesn't seem to achieve much. Our next stop was more open and here Jostin pointed out another alligator lurking in the weed. He threw something in the water and it sped across towards us snapping up the white marshmallow. J threw in a couple more while he chatted on about gators. It was quite funny to watch. There were also some large birds about, swamp buzzards and also lots of egrets. D spotted a woodpecker on a tree trunk that we think was a pileated woodpecker. The trees are mostly swamp cedars, the state tree of LA, and are a protected species. The afternoon passed along in the same vein until we met up with another of the company's boats where we were watching common gallinules, looking like large moorhens. Jostin came round to the front of the boat with a baby alligator - he had brought it with us in a cool box, not just picked it out of the water, and we all got to hold it before it was passed round the other boat, too. Apparently the company will keep it until next year when they will release it back into the swamp.
Now it was time to race back to the dock, which was great fun.We came to the main channel where there was a barge boat pushing four loaded barges up river. Our captain was very sceptical about it getting around the Mississipi bends.  We were soon back at the car. We decided to find the NP visitor centre where there were some interesting facts about the swamp and several self guided walks along boards. We will have to come back to do those, as we needed to be leaving for the airport to collect S. D thought we would have time for a cup  of tea at Starbucks on the way, so we did stop for a break, then we got stuck in Friday night traffic creeping along the freeway to the airport. At last we got there and D ran in to meet S as we parked the car. They came out almost immediately and we were soon on our way back to the house - having free parking, too.

S&D opened the remaining pictures from the shipment and we all were impressed with how good they looked. Now they have the problem of how and where to hang them. S also opened her birthday pressies from M&N and us, which she really liked. Just time to spruce up before we were due at the restaurant, Le Petit Grocery, for dinner. It was also busy, but we had a table booked. We suggested Sazeracs as an aperitif, but they were not pleasant - almost all hard whisky and hardly any of the sweet herby taste that I's had had. But dinner was tasty - steaks and rabbit were greedily consumed and a very pleasant Frog's Leap Zinfandel was a delicious accompaniment. Then there was dessert - plum cobbler was the special, but sadly it had all gone - and lots of people hadn't got as far as dessert, yet. So we had chocolate mousse, crème brulee and pear bread pudding. We intended to have tea back at the house, but ended retiring after a busy day.

St James Cheese Company
Louisiana Airboat Swamp Tours
La Petite Grocery

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Trip to NOLA 6

D took today off and so we didn't start too early, but we didn't dawdle either as we were planning a road trip. D planned to take us to the Wetland Jean Lafitte National Park Centre at Thibodeaux, so we piled into the van and headed west. A warning light came on to say that one of the tires had low pressure, so we tried to check the pressure when we filled up with petrol in Thibodeaux. No working air pump at the Shell station - this was the second Shell station we stopped at as the first had no petrol! Alan looked at the tires and found one had a huge nail in it. It didn't look good for travelling another 80 miles to Grand Isle as was the plan. But there across the road was a tire shop. We went over, but the man couldn't do anything for us for at least a couple of hours. We decided to go to the Wetlands Centre and have a look round in the meantime. This is not quite what you imagine and seems to be a centre for educating the kids about the history of the area, nothing much to do with wetland wildlife habitat at all. So in the car park we changed the tire to the temporary one and then drove to a decent café for a small sandwich and coffee. Then we went to the Chevron garage and after some help from the garage woman we got some pressure in that tire and she recommend that we go to the WalMart a few blocks away. We got there and the man said he could do it and it may take about an hour, so we handed over the keys and went to explore the huge supermarket. All went well and we were soon on our way again. It was quite a long drive following the canal all the way down into the swamp area, reaching Grand Isle as the sun was getting low in the sky. D had to stop and pay toll fees at a supermarket and we took some photos of the low sun on the water - discovering dolphins in the harbour and pelicans on the posts. We had seen lots of egrets and herons on the way down as well as a couple of belted kingfishers sitting on the telegraph wires. The National Park area was still a bit further on, so we drove along, but the sun was really about to set, so we turned off the road and drover to the end of the lane, just in time to see the sun dip into the sea and the light up the wispy clouds with the afterglow.

This spit of land is really built up with holiday homes on stilts - rather like large ETBs in Brunei. It looked as if lots of people have weekend homes here and come for the beach and fishing. To one side is the Gulf of Mexico where there have been clean-up measures taken following the oil spill, but there are offshore rocks looking very white with guano, so hopefully just here things haven't been as bad as feared. Back at the supermarket we stopped for refreshments and watched boats coming and going - so there seems to be some fishing happening.

D drove us all the back to NO which took about two and a quarter hours. We drove straight to Il Posto and D ordered two antipasti platters, some salad, bread and a bottle of Merlot. The wine came from the vineyard owned by the parents of the café owners. They were sitting at a table in the café and when they left, they asked how we had enjoyed the wine. It was the last bottle of the 2007. We had really enjoyed it, very smooth and just right with the food. Then it was home for a cup of tea and bed.

Wetland Jean Lafitte National Park Centre at Thibodeaux
I tried a direct link, but couldn't get in.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trip to NOLA 5

D went off to the office at eight and then we got up and pottered about before leaving for breakfast at Il Posto. They served us granola with fruit and yoghurt, coffee and fruity muffins. Well fortified we walked down to St Charles and waited for the streetcar. It is very leafy along the road and there were plenty of joggers bashing along the tram tracks. We were glad to see that most of them were running towards the oncoming trams with their headsets on. While waiting at the stop we saw a flicker bobbing up a tree trunk close by.
The tram journey down to Canal Street takes about half an hour and D had given us some tokens to pay for it. There is a standard charge whatever the length of the journey. We got off and wandered back into the French Quarter for a while. Everything was getting going, but the photographers with the 'good' was closed, so we just made our way back to One Shell Square to meet D. He walked us down to the French Market where we wandered passed the stalls selling fruit, veg, clothes and stuff as well as food. And then we crossed the road and went into a little café on the corner where we had salad and D had shrimp etouffee which was quite spicy. To finish off lunch we walked to Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets which are rather like flat olie bollen covered in icing sugar.

Soon it was time for D to go back to work and we to get on the boat for the river cruise. As we walked along the Moonwalk we were entertained by the calliope on the Natchez steamboat. This is a steam organ that plays all sorts of tunes. 

We joined the queue to get on the boat and soon we were pushing back from the dock with the red paddle wheel churning up the water. There was a running commentary as we headed downstream, pointing out various landmarks and giving us lots of facts about NO and the river. After about an hour we turned round and crossed to the opposite bank for the return trip. We were able to go below and look at the engine room with its huge pistons driving the paddle wheel. There are two huge boilers called Thelma and Louise providing the steam. We powered passed the other tourist boat with a paddle wheel, but apparently that is not a genuine steam boat. Our boat, Natchez sailed to the very large double iron bridge, then turned again and came to a stop at its berth. What a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

When we had disembarked, we took a long walk up to Basin St. This isn't anything to see, but we got there and then zigzagged back down towards the French Market area. There was a fabulous sunset to glimpse along between the streets, and we stopped at a Community Cafe, a sort of local Costa/Starbucks for a cup of tea. We were meeting D at six at Snug Harbour for supper before attending their Wednesday Night Jazz session.
Everything went to plan and we were soon seated in the restaurant having delicious fishy meals - Mine was blackened fish, D had salmon with a creamy sauce and A had a plateful of shrimps all served with baked potato. The chaps had pecan pie for dessert, but I had had enough. At 7.45 we went through to the small room where the jazz was to be. a stage at the far end was crammed with chairs and music stands and a grand piano. We were to hear the Uptown Jazz Orchestra - some fifteen or so musicians, sax, trombone and trumpet with bass and piano. The room was also stuffed with tables and we took one in a corner and ordered some tea and beer. Soon the musicians came in and started their session. It was fantastic and the hour and a half flew by. Everyone was very enthusiastic applauding all the solos. Each member of the band got to play some improvisation during the session. But it was time for their break and for us to go; they do two sessions a night at eight and ten.
We walked round the corner to where D had parked and drover home to find several large boxes on the front porch. These are some big prints they have had made to fill some of the large amount of wall space at the house. D was keen to open a couple to check if they were OK and we found a picture of a South American volcano and one of D&S overlooking Macchu Pichu. The rest will wait till S arrives back on Friday evening.

Il Posto
Shrimp etouffee recipe
Café du Monde
The history of Steamboat Natchez
About the calliope
Snug Harbour

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Trip to NOLA 4

 It really was an early start as we had to be on the road by just after seven. We said fond farewells and thanked I&M for they wonderful hospitality and gave Fergie a hug before setting out. We set up the Garmin, but all we needed to do was get on to and stay on I-78. The traffic built up and at times we were moving fairly slowly, but at least moving. All was OK until we got near the airport, and although we could see the road, Garmin seemed utterly confused and at one point we were in danger of entering the Hudson tunnel. Just escaping on to the last exit we were able to 'go round again' and this time, with Garmin unplugged we got ourselves to the rental returns. Then it was plain sailing to our terminal and the flight to >New Orleans. When we landed we collected the bags and headed off to the bus area. D was working, but we sent a text to say we had arrived. Then one came back to say that he would come for us, but we were already on the bus, so we sent him back. The bus took us to the Intercon, just across the street from One Shell Square and as we were ordering a sandwich D appeared and stayed while we ate. Then he showed us where the French Quarter is and had a coffee with us before arranging to meet up at 5pm.

Some of the old street signs we saw.

There were street performers everywhere.

And just a few of the hanging signs.  

He swung the van by the Intercon and collected us and the bags and we were soon off to the house. As it was now dark, he put on the lights to welcome us - it looks very pretty and the Adirondack style chairs on the front porch are very welcoming. After a quick tour, D walked us down the road to the Creperie for supper. It was mobbed and we had the last free table for a while. 
Delicious savoury and sweet crepes were consumed, then we took a different route back to the house. We saw where we would catch the streetcar tomorrow and D pointed down the street to Il Posto, their favourite Italian coffee shop and restaurant. Then when we got back, just a few final instructions and arrangements for meeting for lunch tomorrow before it was bedtime.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Trip to NOLA 3

 - w/e in PA

We are getting better at sleeping, and although the sun was peeping over the horizon when we woke, we lay in bed for a while reading. Breakfast at nine, and M had already taken Fergie to the supermarket by the time we got down. But as he still needed a walk, we joined M for a stroll to Stage Stop Farm along country roads. It was lovely to be out and about and we saw lots of birds flying about. SSF is an old stage stop on the route to somewhere. Passengers could buy tickets for their journey by the entrance and get on when the stage arrived. The window is preserved, but as it is a private house, we couldn't walk up to the front door, positioned on the side if the house, to see it. They do have a huge pond to the other side where there were loads of Canada geese and some swans. It was very idyllic.

We turned here and walked back to the house where I. was ready to take us down to Barnes and Noble for a browse among the books. We had been talking about what we had been reading and watching on TV, and I. ended up with the first two of the Millennium Trilogy (Swedish version) and also two Wallander DVDs also Swedish with English subtitles. We had coffees at the in-house Starbucks, then headed back to the house as we were off to watch the grape pressing for this year's homemade wine. This year the club have bought Sangiovese grapes from Napa Valley and these have been sitting in barrels with sugar for several days. The fermentation has finished and now the group takes the resulting juice and divides it between their carboys for the next stage. To get the maximum amount of juice, they squeeze the fermented grapes (must) through a special press. This was quite complicated as if it spills it makes everything very sticky as well as staining anything it comes into contact with - like the walls and so on. So the process is mostly outside and it was suddenly very cold and wet, quite unpleasant.  About halfway through, M decided it was time for us to depart up to the house and Fergie, where she made us some supper. I. would have supper with the wine club. We were then going to watch a film, but couldn't get the DVD player to talk to the TV, so we waited for I. to get back, then sat and watched the latest Bourne film with Matt Damon.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Trip to NOLA 2

 -w/e in PA

The clocks went back in the night, so we had an extra hour in bed, but not asleep. We did watch and photograph the dawn and watched some white tailed deer pick their way across the garden, before getting up and joining I&M for breakfast. Fergie was keen on retrieving some frisbee throws, so A was obliging for a while. After we had tidied up, we put on boots and jackets to take the dog for a walk down by the creek that runs through the area. It was lovely with the sun shining and there were even a few leaves left to take reflection photos of. We walked for about an hour and a half, enjoying the countryside views and fresh air.
Back at the house, we settled Fergie and then we were off in the Jeep again to discover the city of Bethlehem. This is a city that was built on steel, having good communications via the river, to bring in the ore and the coal for smelting. Nowadays that has all gone and the redundant half-mile long rolling mill and blast furnaces lie cold and silent. The town was created by the Moravians, a group of Germanic people with a strict Lutheran background. We walked around looking at various significant historic buildings, coming to the cemetery with its horizontal gravestones. This, like the community houses was also divided into male and female areas and there are many interesting inscriptions to be found, including one man who had been a soldier in Napoleon's army for fifteen years before emigrating to America. As the sun went down it got a bit chilly, so we were quickly back to the car and drove home.

Fergie needed a few frisbee throws after being inside, then we had a 'slideshow' on the big TV of the photos so far. There are some goodies in there. I. made us some drinks – a sazerac with the glass 'oiled' with absinthe, and a beer - and some of M's famous hummus. We had delicious chicken for dinner with some of the 'homemade' wine from the wine club - 2006 Merlot. Tonight we sat and watched the movie with Renée Zellweger in 'New in Town' before retiring.

About the history of Bethlehem PA
Sazerac information

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Trip to NOLA 1

 - In PA for w/e

We arrived last night, driving down I-78 into the setting sun. The location is very rural, I and M’s place is set in acres of trees with a few houses dotted about. They have lots of wildlife about including deer, which render gardening nigh on impossible as they eat everything. We awoke early and just caught the sun rising and casting early morning shadows across the frosty grass. Downstairs, we found them throwing the frisbee for Fergie the friendly Golden Retriever who of course never tires.We had expressed a desire to see something of the area where they live, so that was the plan for the day. We set off in the Jeep, minus Fergie and made a tour up the Delaware River. On one side it is PA and the other bank is NJ, so we pottered to and fro across various bridges from one state to the other. The towns and villages are mostly a couple of hundred years old with quaint shops, churches and inns. As it has recently been Halloween there were plenty of pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons and witches decorating the doorways and porches.

One of the places we stopped at was Frenchtown with its pretty main street and alleyways with artisan shops. We drifted into an art gallery/shop where the theme was definitely nature. The owner had hundreds of bird carvings from local wood carvers, all very lifelike and beautifully finished in realistic painted plumage. The walls were covered in natural history art, it was good to see so much excellent work. This was, after all, the Decoy and Wildlife Gallery. But coffee called so we went next door to River Blue Café and enjoyed coffee and cookies before exploring further. One very brightly coloured shop front displayed equally cheerful handmade hats and scarves and just down a side street were more pumpkin displays. There was a certain French flavour to the town, one shop was even called 'Pardon my French'. So soon we were off again, heading for Peddlers Village. Although I&M warned us of its touristic cuteness, they said it was a good place to go, but none of us had anticipated the crowds. It was Apple Festival weekend and there were scores of big buses parked in the car park bringing people to the associated artisan market. All the car parks were full and we eventually found a space at the furthest away point possible. We walked back to the village only to find, as you can imagine, that it was mobbed. There were queues for everything from the loo to the café and with that many people we couldn't even see anything properly. What a shame, but then we will just have to go back again one day.

So we returned to the car and made our way back to the house via a couple of covered bridges to a welcoming Fergie. Dinner was booked at Don Shula's restaurant in the nearby mall. Shula's is famous for its steak, and most famous for serving a 48oz portion. If you can eat it unaided at one sitting your name goes on a plaque on the wall. There seem to be about 300 of them so far, with one guy having done it one hundred times. For the 100th dinner he was joined by Don Shula himself. The theme of the restaurant is a football season when the Miami Dolphins, that Don Shula coached, had a perfect season. That means they played the whole season unbeaten. We settled for steaks up to 12oz and still had plenty to take home for Fergie; and they were superb - tasty and tender. We followed them with chocolate fondant - just two between four and it could have been one between four it was so rich and flavourful. And then we had some refreshing mint tea.

Decoys and Wildlife Gallery, Frenchtown NJ
River Blue Café, Frenchtown NJ
Cathy Smith Designs, Frenchtown NJ
The Frenchtown Inn, Frenchtown NJ
Black Bass Hotel, PA
Peddler's Village PA
Covered Bridges of Bucks County, PA

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Falconry at Wisley

In sharp contrast to the sunny autumn weather of Monopoly day, we woke to a really wet one for our planned trip to see the birds of prey flying at RHS Garden Wisley. We first stopped by the small marquee that had been erected for them as they waited to perform for us. A short walk through the arboretum brought us the reward of seeing some beautiful trees in their autumn colours. But after the flying display, we admitted defeat and after a welcome, warming coffee at the Glasshouse Cafe we came home to dry out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Final Monopoly Day

The last Monopoly day came and was a lovely autumn day, We began our expotition by travelling to Euston Road. We explored around Euston Station, the British Library and then St Pancras and King's Cross Stations before continuing on along Pentonville Road to Angel.

Suitably refreshed in a local hostelry, we caught the tube to Liverpool Street Station and began a long walk from there passed the Bank of England and onto Fleet Street.

There are lots of interesting old buildings here with narrow alleyways leading to churches and pubs hidden away.The Loriner makes and sells bits, bridles, spurs, stirrups, saddle trees and the minor metal items of a horse’s harness. 

Fleet Street and the Strand took us passed many famous buildings including the Courts of Justice as well as the newly renovated Savoy Hotel. A certain Mr Faraday was discovered outside the Institute of Electrical Engineers.

Our last location was Bow Street, famous for its Runners, which runs in front of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hyde Hall's Taste of Autumn

 RHS Garden Hyde Hall also held a Taste of Autumn Festival this weekend.

There were several excellent exhibitors, apple tasting and lots of activities for kids. The sun shone on us as we walked around the garden, enjoying the autumn colours - from the Upper Pond down to the vegetable plots and back.

And then we wound our way around the dry garden, the Australia and New Zealand garden and finally past the lovely autumn colours in the beds on Clover Hill bringing us back to the entrance.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Taste of Autumn at RHS Garden Wisley


The day began with a frost, which surprised everybody and gave us the chance to take some rimey photographs when we entered the garden early with the eager visitors to the festival. It was certainly a popular outing for lots of parents with their children on half term holiday. There were lots of apples to taste and buy as well as a host of different types of pumpkins. In a tent of its own Europom, the European apple club, had  wonderful country displays of unusual apples and pears to delight all, and there were plenty of people keeping the experts busy with questions on apple growing and identification.


As the sun shone and warmed us up, we strolled through the Garden, enjoying the sunshine and the colours that it brought to life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Walking round Winkworth

Such a lovely autumn day, we just had to take a walk through Winkworth Arboretum. It was so rewarding.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jordan Journal Day 8

I got up and met up with Wendy and Lucy to take their photos covered with mud and bobbing about in the Sea. This was at 6.30am! Then Alan came down and we waited in the Lobby as gradually everyone gathered. All too soon, we were saying goodbye and waving them off in a great big bus, as Mohammed had been called away to another job, and we couldn't say goodbye to him. The others would give Moe our gifts and say thank you from everyone when they got to the Airport. That just left Maki and ourselves, so we went and had breakfast together. She went to get ready for her flight to Amsterdam, and we got ourselves ready for another bathe. This time after the mud, we used the platform to get into the Sea, which was better. We bobbed about, making it across to the float and rope barrier to hang about for a while, then came out and after a shower for me, we lay out of the loungers to 'dry'. At 11am we went to the bar for a coffee, then upstairs for a quick shower, before seeing Maki off with Khalid who will be collecting us tomorrow.

Now we are alone after our week of being thirteen - a strange feeling as it has been such a busy and fun time. A great crowd of people to spend some time with. We are going to have dinner at the Italian restaurant tonight before our 9am start in the morning.
After a second dip in the Sea, we tidied ourselves up in readiness for another sunset, but a sea har came up and that was that, so we had a quiet half hour when A watched some golf on the TV, and I read my book. Later we descended to the Acacia Bar for a lemonade with mint and a beer before dinner. Khalid will meet us at 8am tomorrow to drive us to the airport and our flight home.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Jordan Journal Day 7

5am, just light and almost time to get up. It had been a quiet moonlit night with a few clouds, but mostly clear and quite cool towards dawn. We all started rising about 5.15, with loos and teeth cleaning, before clearing up our devastation of the camp - i.e. putting back the beds, and leaving all unnecessary stuff ready to be taken to the big camp. Moe invited us all outside (except Keith and Jenny) to settle us on camels in readiness for our safari to watch the sunrise. We clambered onto our mounts, then the camel leader encouraged the camels to rise, which nearly tipped us over their heads. Mick's camel was a huge grumbler and quite contrary, sitting down in the middle of the ride, then standing so Mick couldn't get off when we got to the sunrise spot! Before that, we swayed across the desert with the camels grabbing at the scrubby vegetation as we went by. It was so peaceful with only the odd voices breaking the quiet. We climbed up and down the dunes and as the camels were tied together in pairs, the leaders of the pairs were 'allowed' to hold the leading rein and take charge of their two camels. The Bedouin were only a stick's length away.  By nearly 6.30 we had reached a high spot and our Bedouin leader got us to dismount and sit on the sandy ground, facing a bit of a mountain. Gradually we saw the red sun appear from behind it - sunrise in this part of Wadi Rum. Photos taken, we remounted and our camels strode off in the direction of the large camp, ready for breakfast.
We left the camels and walked through a narrow pass into a valley where we found a couple of camps, one of which was the one we wanted. Here we found a Bedouin breakfast buffet awaiting us. Some herbs mixed with sesame seeds and seasoning was one of the unusuall things on offer. Moe said we should mix it with olive oil to make a sort of paste. This was very tasty on our flat bread. There were eggs and jams, too. Lucy was very keen to get to the Dead Sea hotel, and persuaded Moe that we should leave asap. So Wendy and I teased her with the story that Moe had arranged for us to visit the Museum in Amman on the way - so Lucy was resigned that it could be a while before we got there. We set off with Mohammed in the driver's seat, stopping to take a picture of the Camel road sign and again at the Midway Castle - a souvenir shop with some tourist souvenirs, but also with Dead Sea products on sale cheaper than at the hotel. A and I had coffee and a stroll about only buying a couple of PCs and some mud impregnated cream for A to try. Back in the bus and on to take a photo of the Sea Level sign nearly at the Dead Sea. By now Lucy realized we weren't going to the Museum.

We arrived at the Marriott by 1pm, but our rooms weren't ready - such frustration, but we could grab stuff out of the bags and change in the loos by the pool. As lunch was up to us, some of us went to the sports bar for a snack. This turned out to be more substantial than we anticipated - A's a chicken sandwich with fries and my waffle chips and cheese would have fed a family of four each! And all the while there was boxing on the TV and loud music! Then Moe found us and said the rooms were ready, so we found our way to reception to collect the keys and changed in our rooms before heading down to sample the delights fo the ultra salty sea. First people cover themselves with mud from a pot by the shore, then it's into the luke warm water. It was a weird experience, you just can't get your feet down, but bob about on the surface and woe betide you if you get the salty water near your eyes. We could see the 'oily' salty liquid swirling about as we moved. We propelled ourselves to the rope and floats marking the edge of our pool, using the rope to anchor ourselves so we could 'rest' without floating away. Really strange!
At last we came out and I rinsed off in the fresh water showers, and A left the salty water to dry, doing his skin lots of good. It was so hot, probably nearer 40 degrees than 35. Eventually we retired upstairs and sorted out the bags.We emptied everything out, then shook the bags out on the balcony to get rid of the sand. Time for showers etc. before going to the terrace to watch the sunset. We couldn't find any of the others, but as they are leaving tomorrow, they were all sorting out their stuff. A mint lemonade and a beer were very refreshing as we watched the sun going down and waited.

When everyone had collected, Moe was there ready to take us to the restaurant for our final dinner together - a buffet of mezze and rice and lamb or quail. Some of us tried the Jordanian wine, the reds being typical of a hot country with a raisiny taste, not at all unpleasant. We sat with Wendy and Lucy and chattered away, then Lucy mentioned that she had once had a boyfriend whose parents lived in Oman and this turned out to be people we knew fairly well - what a coincidence! Some went to peruse the desserts and Keith brought Jenny a wonderful selection of small slices of cakes and mousses - we had to have some, too. Chocolate mousse cake and fruit. There was one called Alhambra cake, with purple and yellow stripes. (too much for me!) Over tea and coffee, we all said what a great time we had had, and Lucy read us her poem about our holiday together - email addresses were swopped and promises of sharing photos were made - a Flikr page for the Jingly Janglies, the mythical group of belly dancers we have formed while staying in Petra - lead dancer Terri with Jen, Sian, Lucy, Maki and Wendy as performers - Jason as manager, Alan as costume buyer, Mick as the FD, Liz make-up. And so to bed, with the promise that A and I would see them off at 8am in the morning.