Saturday, 29 November 2008

Hong Kong

On our way home from Europe, we broke the long journey with a couple of days in Hong Kong. It's more than 30 years since I was last there and, of course, the change has been massive. The transformation is still going on with shiny glass and metal towers rising beside crumbling old tenements in both Kowloon and Hong Kong. There are many more cars, and no longer any rickshaws, but the picturesque old trams still provide cheap, convenient transport, and bicycles are still popular with the locals.



The contrasts visible on land also apply to the harbour.



Land being so scarce on Hong Kong Island, there were few shrubs or trees other than in the Hong Kong zoo...and this cemetery, photographed from the top deck of a bus on a rainy day.



However, there is a lovely park on the Kowloon side. The HK heritage centre in the park has interesting photos of the city in colonial times, and a tranquil inner courtyard with a simple but effective planting...



... and a sign that I was sorely tempted to steal:



Our journey ended as it began, with one of our trademark mirror shots:

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Paris

For our last four days in France we returned to Paris and the little left bank hotel we had stayed in 15 years earlier. It is still a nice, simple place to stay,and very convenient, being just around the corner from the Gare St. Michel metro station, but last time we'd had an attic room at the back, with a great view of Paris chimneypots. This time we had a first floor room facing the street. Thank goodness for ear plugs! This is a pedestrian-only area of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs and the carousing, shouting, thumping music goes on almost until dawn. Great for people-watching but not so good for sleeping. This is the view from our window at night.



I didn't take many photos in Paris because all the good ones are already on postcards, taken by better photographers with better cameras.
However, I did like this street named after me...



...the Cafe de Flore, haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al, with its vertical garden



...and the Luxembourg Gardens on what may have been the last sunny Sunday of the year.



Most of the lawns in the Gardens have "Keep Off" signs; you are expected to find one of the lovely old chairs, an almost impossible task on a day such as this. The one stretch of grass where it was permissible to sit became increasingly crowded as the long shadow moved across it and those on the shady side sought a place in the sun.


Of course, we couldn't leave Paris without a mirror shot, appropriately arty.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

France

After crossing the border from Spain (see last post), we came out of the train station and found ourselves facing a car rental office across the street. With no plans and no accommodation booked, we abandoned our plan to continue on north by train and rented a car instead.
Our immediate destination was Biarritz, famous winter resort for wealthy English of a century ago and still a destination for strolling along the wild coast or gambling away the family fortune in the casino. We settled for the former and were impressed by the majestic Atlantic rollers crashing onto the shore, covering cars and pedestrians with salt spray.



We wondered who owned this precariously sited little chateau - old money or new celebrity?

With neither, we moved on northeast to moderately-priced lodgings in Bayonne, which gave its name to the bayonet although locals deny that it originated there. It's an attractive town with a small botanical garden within the old ramparts. I, of course, had to go there...



...and had some difficulty finding it until I came upon this obscure sign beside the ramp leading upwards and realised that "within" the ramparts actually meant "on top of" the ramparts.



We left Bayonne, still going east towards Agen, famous for prunes. Somehow I had the idea that it was going to be another charming old town, but we found it quite lacking in charm and populated with swarms of loud, equally charmless youth. So we continued on to Bergerac, an altogether more appealing small, quiet town, despite an extremely clumsy statue of local boy Cyrano de Bergerac in one of the many little squares.
We found a room at the quirky Hotel des Remparts and admired the town's skill with hanging baskets on the street outside.



In clearing weather we continued through fields of sunflowers...



...to Sarlat-le-Canéda, which sounded like the sort of place a Canadian ought to visit. With its winding, narrow, cobblestone streets and old, half-timbered buildings it looked as if it had emerged from the pages of an old book of fairytales. Our room in one of these buildings overlooking the town square had uneven floorboards and heavy, dark beams spanning the ceiling.

The group of three geese on the main street reminded us of our trio at Killara Farm, the infamous Beverley, Hilary and Evelyn.



From Sarlat, we turned round and went west to Bordeaux where we were to drop off the car. Bordeaux is an interesting city, but we arrived to find almost every hotel fully booked. We finally managed a room in a Holiday Inn near the station, expensive and characterless - not at all our preferred accommodation. At least the location away from the city centre gave us plenty of opportunity to ride the local trams which were frequent and efficient.

On the riverside where we alighted from the tram, we found a modest crowd standing around a broad, paved square, glassy with a film of water.



We realised why they were there when a myriad hidden jets suddenly filled the air with a fine, fine mist of water, almost like smoke.

Bordeaux has a wonderful park where many of the locals come to sit on the benches, push their baby carriages, and make love with their clothes on (a very popular
activity throughout France, we found).



This central edifice appears to be purely decorative, a long high wall with arches cut through the centre and both ends.



Signs on the perimeter of the lawns explain that they are converting them to a more drought-resistant grass.



Instead of doing their carpet bedding flat on the ground, they have built up berms and set the plants on the sloping sides. Very effective and visible from quite far away.



From Bordeaux we took the TGV (Bullet train) to Paris where we picked up another rental car and drove out towards the coast of Normandy. Our good friend Robert Lemon had suggested we visit Le Bois des Moutiers, a grand estate with a house designed by Edward Lutyens and a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, the only example in France of the work of this famous pair. This was another highlight of our entire trip, so thank you, Robert.



While Michael sat contentedly on a bench to sketch the house, I enjoyed the garden:











From there we had a long day's drive to the cottage in Brittany which we had booked for a week. This was attached to a small farm owned by an English couple who, with their three children, had opted for a 21st century back-to-the-land existence: raising chickens, ducks, geese and a couple of turkeys, a milk cow, some sheep, pigs and a donkey, as well as growing their own vegetables. They were making jam, cheese and sausages for sale in the local markets. It reminded us of our adventures on Killara Farm although we were never as ambitious as these two.

The cottage was old and quirky but attractively updated and decorated.






We drove out to Pointe de Penhir, in Finistere at the very tip of the Breton peninsula to admire the wild, craggy landscape.



Michael's brother, Paul, and his constant companion, Bonny, flew out from Vancouver to join us for a week before continuing on to Italy.

One of the most attractive towns we visited with them was Quimper with its rickety old half-timbered buildings and flower-bedecked streets:



Another day we made a long journey north to France's most visited monument, Mont-St-Michel. This extraordinary edifice perches above quicksands and can only be approached by a causeway. Signs warn of when the tide sweeps in, potentially over your car if you leave it in the car park at the wrong time of day. Views both of the buildings from across fields, and from the ramparts back down are spectacular.



The cloister high up on its pinnacle of rock seemed peaceful, but partly because there is now a glass wall at the far end. Before its installation, it must have been a brave monk who walked along that side in a storm or high wind.



Before leaving Brittany for Paris, we spent a lazy summer hour outside the pub in "our" local village of Plouyé.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Spain

In September, we left the chilly mountains of Australia for the sunny slopes of Spain, arriving in Madrid to our very pleasant hotel,Plaza Major, just off a corner of the beautiful old square of the same name. It's a fine old building, renovated sympathetically both inside and out.
We found old Madrid a lovely place to begin our trip. This is one of our signature "mirror shots", taken at the shiny new extension of the Reina Sofia museum where the architecture (by Jean Nouvel) outshone the art collection within: a sweeping wing of polished deep-red roof over glass walls framed in black. Square cut-outs in the roof frame small patches of blue and white sky



Outside the Prado (no pictures permitted inside), we saw this delightful warning:



From Madrid we took a bus to Granada, which I have always wanted to visit for the Alhambra and the adjoining Generalife gardens. We found a simple little hotel on a narrow street within easy walking distance of cafes and shops.
In spite of dire warnings that we would not be able to get into the Alhambra because we had not booked in advance, we arrived at 9:30 am to find no line-up at all, and were easily able to obtain tickets to the interior of the palace for 11:30, giving us a generous two hours to explore the gardens first.
They did not disappoint.
While Michael sat on a handy balustrade to sketch the vista below, I was able to wander at my leisure among the flowers and fountains.



The first thing I noticed was this curtain of morning glory, living up to its name for once, even in the shade.



All the plants were spectacular.




But some of the simple effects were among the best,like these boxwood balls on a staircase...



...and climbing roses espaliered on some of the old walls.



Even the hedges were remarkable, clipped to mimic the towers of the Alhambra beyond.





The Alhambra gardens were equally beautiful





Naturally, I had to get a shot of the giant rose climbing over the entrance to the palace. That's me underneath it, with a couple of the entrance guards in the background. It looked like one of the banksia roses, which grow so well in warm climates.


The old town of Granada also had some interesting plant features, such as these "Hershey kisses" of ivy on some of the lamp posts.



And a fine, fruiting prickly pear doing its best to obliterate a little local graffiti.



From Granada we took a bus to Malaga, mainly because from there we could get a cheap flight with Vueling all the way north to Bilbao. As we expected, Malaga was full of British tourists, and the beach had little appeal compared to Sydney's beautiful sand and surf. However, we did enjoy walking up through an attractive park to the old fort above the city.


We flew north to Bilbao, took in the Guggenheim Museum, one of those iconic buildings which tends to overshadow the art within. In this case, however, the massive sculptures by Richard Serra that occupied a hangar-sized room were equal to the challenge.

Our last night in Spain was in San Sebastian on the Atlantic coast just south of the French border. The weather was cool and rainy, but we nevertheless found it an attractive town. Our room had a minuscule balcony overlooking cafes in the street below.