Singapore, more than a stopover

According to the statistics, most travellers jet into Singapore, stay two days and then jet out again. It’s easy to understand why nobody would want to pass this lovely island by. It’s also easy to understand how, given its size, anyone might imagine that they could whiz through everything it has to offer in a couple of days. However, there’s so much to Singapore, that to really see it, feel it, breathe it, taste it and drink it all in takes time and a leisurely pace. This is a place that merits much more than a lightning tour and a quick look on a two day stopover.

 

The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants
The Fullerton Hotel and some modern giants

To begin with, if you’re lucky enough to be staying in one of Singapore’s sumptuous multi-starred hotels you’ll need to set aside a sizeable chunk of time to fully enjoy its countless luxuries. There are constellations of these stately pleasure domes all over town, from the dress-circle down on the waterfront, the river and the quays to the gallery up on Tanglin Road. They range from massive, compact modern plinths, like the Pan Pacific on Marina Bay, through grand, rambling colonial mansions, like Raffles, near the old city centre to the traditional Singapore shophouse/concrete, steel and glass tower blend of the Intercontinental overlooking the colourful Bugis Street Bazaar.

Offering multiple, international, Michelin star-studded restaurants, heavenly spas, serious but sans-smell-of-sweat gyms, palm-fringed pools, state of the art technology, exquisite fusion décor where gorgeously ornate east meets elegantly understated west, beds like fat fluffy cloud banks, cool, rarified air, exclusive in-house shopping (Raffles) or skywalks (Pan Pacific) or foyers (Intercontinental) linking to fabulous malls and last but not least service which thoughtfully anticipates and graciously panders to every possible whim, they could keep any hedonist content and confined for weeks.

Enjoy, but beware, don’t let your hotel swallow your whole holiday, there’s so much more outside.

 

Homeless in Paris

They call it the city of light, but Paris can be a dark and ugly place, especially for the homeless.

Homeless in Paris
Homeless in Paris

History, monuments, palaces, chic boutiques, bars, restaurants, gardens with gravelled paths, sculpted trees and hedges, fountains – this is Palais Royal. It’s a quaint little quartier, steeped in the ambience of old Paris. But charm and atmosphere mean little to the SDF or sans domicile fixe (without fixed address, or homeless) of the Premier Arrondissement. An eighteenth century colonnade, an arched passage, a Galerie from the Belle Epoque, is just a place to shelter from the sun and rain, or to sleep under shadow of the night.

He sits all day on the pavement in front of the colonnades outside Galerie Colbert on Rue des Petits Champs, with his cases packed beside him. People and cars pass, buses stop, but not for him. As I stoop to drop some coins in his little basket, the kind that might sit on any French table filled with bread, his eyes lock on mine accusingly. I can’t look away. He’s talking, pointing, angrily, urgently. I don’t understand his words, they’re rushed, garbled, neither French, nor English, but his story is plain, it’s one of pain, loss, grievance, blame and grief. I tear myself away, feeling useless, sorry, guilty. He shouts after me as I hurry across the road. From a corner table in chic Café Pistache, I watch him, still muttering and gesticulating furiously, spread his grubby bedding against the back wall, under the arch and stack his cases close around him for the night.

It’s summer in Paris at present, the nights are warm and the days are long so, although no less miserable the homeless are not quite so vulnerable, at least not to the elements. But in a few months the days will draw in, the nights will lengthen and the plight of the people on the streets of Paris will be desperate.  

Marseille, city of the sea

Marseille is a city shaped by the Mediterranean. It sits on the edge of the south of France, in a landscape where stunted trees and scrub cling tenaciously to the rocky windswept hillsides.

Le Vieux Port
Le Vieux Port

Marseille’s old buildings are fashioned from the solid pink-tinged stone of much of the south of France. Its modern buildings are shiny glass and steel reflecting the sea and the sky, recalling the shape of waves and the colours of water. Its people are Mediterranean – Africans, Africans and French coloured, moulded and tempered by the sea.

Le vieux port, or the old port, is one of Marseille, most beautiful spots. It also encapsulates the essence of this ancient Mediterranean port. Thick stone ramparts and forts guard it against the wind, the sea and attacks from long forgotten foes. From a distant hill, a walled church and monastery watch over its calm waters, crowded with yachts and pleasure boats.

Le Vieux Port
Le Vieux Port

Stores selling shipping supplies, striped seamen’s jerseys, boat shoes and slickers, fishing tackle and souvenirs, line one side of Le Vieux Port. On the other, grand old buildings glow in the sun. Dark, narrow lanes lead away from the water’s edge to sunny open squares edged by apartment buildings with ornate facades and tall shuttered windows. Cafes and restaurants with broad street-side terraces sell bouillabaisse and fruits de la mer. The air is steeped in the smell and feel of the sea.

Spoilt for choice in Lyon

There is, as the Lyonnais say “un embarrass du choix” (an embarrassment of choice) in their fascinating and beautiful city. Whoever you are, Rugbyman, foodie, party animal, nature-lover, shopaholic or film buff and whatever your particular penchant, you’ll find it in Lyon.

Lyon lighting up for the night
Lyon lighting up for the night

With over 1,500 hundred restaurants, many of them award-winning establishments with world-renowned chefs, Lyon enjoys a reputation as France’s capital of gastronomy. Most restaurants are located in Rue des Marroniers and Rue Merciere between Bellecour and Terreaux. Of particular interest to the visitor, and unique to Lyon, are “Les Bouchons”, the hundred-year-old Brasseries where the atmosphere is relaxed, friendly. and old-world. Here you can sample typical Lyonnais charcuterie as well as machons, the before-work snack once eaten by Canuts, or silk workers and chase it all down with “pots” or special thick-based 46cl bottles of Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhone.

Lyon night-life offers many choices. For the party person, there are bars galore around City Hall and Opera. Down on the banks of the Saône, discotheques and pubs pump till dawn. For those with quieter tastes, the night-time streets are perfect for a stroll; they hum with life and people; shadows throw a different cast of beauty on the ornate old buildings; light plays on the rivers; and buskers entertain the passing crowds on every corner.

For a daytime promenade and for a glimpse of the Lyonnais at leisure, the left bank of the Rhône is the place to go, especially on warm weekend afternoons. You can walk for five kilometres along the river and enjoy the chain of parks, playgrounds, skate parks and petanque areas which stretch from the Tete d’or Park to Park Gerland; you can laze on a bench on the riverbank and watch roller bladers, cyclists on velo ‘v (the communal bikes provided as part of the public transport system throughout France) and joggers zoom by, while water-skiers and pleasure boats cruise up the river behind you.

Shopping in Lyon is a pleasant and easy experience – no long-haul treks across the city, burdened with shopping bags – most well-known stores, such as Galleries Lafayette and Printemps, are located in the Presqu’ile, from the Rue Victor Hugo to the Rue de la Republique. Original designs can be found in the Village des Createurs, in Passage Thiaffait, in the Croix Rousse district. But for a unique retro experience, visit the old world shops of the Passage de l’Argue. In the gastronomic capital of France, a little gourmet shopping is a must and the best place for this is the central food market or Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, in Part-Dieu where 56 traders sell every local delicacy.

If you don’t see another Lyon Museum, be sure to visit the Musée Lumiere which celebrates the work of brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere, who invented cinematography right here in Lyon. Its 4 levels and 21 rooms trace the history of cinematography and house such wonders as the “cinematographe numéro un” which was used in the first public movie showing in 1928, a selection of Lumiere films with commentaries and “le photodrama” a kind of giant screen on which in 1901, 360 degree, 6 metre high photographs were projected for public viewing.

It was the 2007 Rugby World Cup that first brought me to Lyon. I’ll always be grateful that it did, otherwise, I might not have discovered this interesting, beautiful and welcoming city.

Buildings, boeuf and Rugby in Toulouse

Toulouse is an ancient city with a long, rich history and proud traditions. It is a city distinguished by beautiful architecture, fabulous cuisine and great Rugby.

The pink brick buildings of Toulouse
The pink brick buildings of Toulouse

Toulouse is often called “la ville rose”. This is because of the distinctive pink brick from which so many of its buildings are made. The finest and most famous of these pink brick and stone structures are la Cathedrale de St Etienne and La Capitole (the City Hall and theatre) Aside from its pink brick beauties, Toulouse also boasts some of the world’s most distinguished buildings, like St Sernin Basilica which is the oldest Romanesque church in the world and the church and cloister of Jacobins which is the most complete group of ancient monastic structures in Europe.

Rich in fertile farms and vineyards, the Midi-Pyrenees region prides itself on its bonne cuisine et bons vins. Saucisses de Toulouse or herb sausages, cassoulet or pork and bean stew, garbure or cabbage soup with poultry, foie gras, or pate made from the liver of fattened geese, are all acclaimed and delicious dishes of the region. However, one evening, on the recommendation of a Toulousain at a neighbouring table in La Boucherie restaurant, we discovered the cote de boeuf, a side of succulent beef, carved into mouth-watering slabs at the table and would highly recommend this too, especially to other carnivorous Kiwis. Well-known wines include Bergerac, Bizet, Cahors, Gaillac and Madiran. But also on the recommendation of our neighbour, we discovered a delicious local, nameless vin rouge ordinaire and washed down our cote de boeuf with a generous carafe of it.

The Crowd at the Stade de Toulouse for the 2007 match between Romania and the All Blacks,
The Crowd at the Stade de Toulouse for the 2007 match between Romania and the All Blacks,

Last, but certainly not least of Toulouse’s claims to fame is Rugby. Teams from Toulouse have dominated the sport both regionally and nationally over the years, Le Stade Toulousain is known throughout the country as a Rugby epicentre, international stars often come to play a season here and the city has produced and nurtured such national Rugby legends as Fabien Pelous and Frederic Michalak. Tout ca se voit. The Midi-Pyrenees’ passion for the sport, their pride in their place as national and international greats and their commitment to the world-wide Rugby fraternity is evident everywhere and was especially so during the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

A brief History of Toulouse

Toulouse sits in the region of France now known as the Midi-Pyrenees, halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It is an ancient city with a long and proud history.

France, Toulouse, TravelstripeBridge over the Garonne, Toulouse

The first Toulouse was established at a ford on the banks of the River Garonne long before Roman conquest. At the time of the Roman Empire it was the third largest city and the intellectual centre of Gaul.

After the fall of Rome and after the rise of Charlemagne, as the County of Languedoc, the region enjoyed a long period of peace, prosperity and independence from the rest of France. Toulouse retained its reputation as a centre of culture and learning from the 5th to the 13th centuries and its courts, which were considered the most civilised in Europe, gave rise to the literary and musical traditions of Languedoc and the Troubadors.

In 1229, threatened by the Toulousain Cathar heresy, which they believed was a result of too much freedom of thought and independence, France invaded and brought the region under its heel. With the Treaty of Paris in 1229, it became a French Territory. In 1271, to quell further heretical tendencies and to promote orthodox religious philosophy, the French Inquisition established Toulouse University, which is now one of the oldest in Europe.

Toulouse and its surrounds were largely untouched by the upheaval of the industrial revolution and it remained, until the 20th century, a somewhat isolated, tranquil centre of agriculture and culture. It was not until after Clemont Adler made the world’s first aeroplane 20 kilometres from Toulouse, that the region made its first venture into industry. It established an aircraft factory. France’s first flight was made from Toulouse by team of fliers including native Toulousain Antoine de St Exupery, who also continued the region’s literary tradition with his famous works Vol de Nuit and Le Petit Prince.

Today, Toulouse has a population of 117,000. It is the 5th largest city in France and the largest in the Midi-Pyrenees region. It has grown out from that ford on the Garonne and spread along, away and out from the river on all sides. The aerospace industry is thriving. Toulouse is now a major centre for the European aerospace development and is the headquarters of the Airbus and of the Galileo positioning system. With the aerospace boom has come enormous growth. Between 1960 and 2000, the population doubled and the city developed into an impressive modern metropolis.

Still, the Garonne still flows quietly under old arched bridges of pink stone. Fish jump in the bright green water and on the flat grassy banks patient fisherman watch for a twitch on their lines. Boats full of tourists and commuters chug slowly along the river and the canals which cut across and through the city.

 

Greyfriars Bobby

Edinburgh is a city rich with stories. Its ruins speak of lost glory days, its castles of the might of great kings, its solid city buildings of prosperous commerce, its narrow winding streets and rows of terraced houses whisper with the histories of ordinary folk and its monuments tell of heroes great and small.

Grayfriar's Bobby
Grayfriar’s Bobby

While Greyfriar’s Bobby is probably Edinburgh’s smallest hero, he is also one of its most famous. Bobby and his story are known across the globe and have inspired countless other dog stories, books and films, including such classics as Old Yeller and Lassie. Bobby is often the yardstick against which many of the worlds’s smartest and most devoted dogs are measured and “S/he’s another Greyfriars Bobby”, “s/he’d leave Greyfriars Bobby for dead” and “s/he’d give Greyfriars Bobby a run for his money” are often heard phrases in canine appraisal.

I must confess that until I spotted his statue outside the Greyfriars Bobby Bar, I hadn’t known that Bobby was an Edinburgh dog. Furthermore, when I thought about it, I really only vaguely knew his story. It’s a poignant, moral tale and one worth the telling.

John Gray came to Edinburgh from the country, with his wife Jess and his son John sometime in 1850. Unable to find a job in his usual work as a gardener, he became a night watchman for the Edinburgh Police and was assigned to the area around Greyfriars churchyard.

As nights on the beat were long and lonely, John took as a companion a little Skye terrier which he named Bobby. Over the years, Bobby and John became known to everyone in the streets around Greyfrairs and in the local Coffee House where they were daily customers.

Sadly, in 1858, John died of TB. He was buried in the churchyard which he had patrolled for the past eight years. Just as he had been John Gray’s constant companion in life, so Bobby continued after his death. Day and night, he lay at his master’s grave-side, moving only at the sound of the 1pm gun, when he would run to the Coffee House for a meal. For weeks the keeper of the graveyard tried in vain to take Bobby home with him. Finally, he realised that the dog would never leave his master, so he built a makeshift shelter beside the grave and this became Bobby’s home.

Bobby’s story spread throughout Edinburgh and every day at one o’clock a crowd would arrive at the gates of Greyfrairs Churchyard to watch him dash off to the coffee house for his meal.

In 1867 the Edinburgh Council introduced a by-law that required all unlicensed dogs to be put down. Bobby, it seemed, was doomed. But the Edinburgh public immediately rallied to save him. Sir William Chambers, then Lord Provost paid his license and presented Bobby with a collar fitted with a brass disc on which were inscribed the words “Greyfriars Bobby from the Lord Provost, licensed in Edinburgh”.

Bobby kept up his vigil at his master’s grave for fourteen years. He finally passed away on the 4th of January, 1872. Bobby was denied a final resting place next to his master in the consecrated ground of Greyfriars but was buried instead outside its gates within sight of the grave.

The monument to Bobby was the initiative of Angelia Georgia Burnett Coutts of the Ladies Committee of the Edinburgh RSPCA. Its inscription reads “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all”

The story of Greyfriars Bobby is not just a story of a loyal and devoted dog; it’s also a story of the generosity of spirit of the people of Edinburgh at the time and the value they placed on loyalty and devotion.

 

Lightning Weekend in Edinburgh

The trouble with lightning weekend visits is that there really isn’t much time for anything. This is a shame when the place is one you’ve never visited before and will probably not have the opportunity to visit again. It is a double shame when the place is peopled by kindred spirits and is as historically interesting and as dramatically beautiful as Edinburgh.

Edinburgh city is small, featured by imposing stone buildings, glimpses of distant steep green hills with jutting rocks, expansive green parks with spreading trees, ancient ruins, spectacular monuments and castles.

A piper on Edinburgh's Royal Mile
A piper on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Edinburgh is hilly, with labyrinths of lanes and passages with worn stone steps. The best and the best way to explore it is on foot

We took the touristic walk up the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace at one end, to Edinburgh Castle at the other, missing one extraordinary Edinburgh opportunity after another as we went.

There wasn’t time to see the weaving exhibition at the Tartan Mill and a run round two of its four floors threw up a dozen or more fabulous knitted and woven wonders that we couldn’t possibly carry in our limited luggage. Over at the road at the Whiskey House, we just missed the tasting tour. We didn’t have time for the tour of Edinburgh Castle and missed the famous Tatoo by a month.

We did our best to re-cap at least one lost experience and ducked into a bar half-way down the hill to sample some real Scottish Whiskey. Highland Park was the recommendation of the Texan Barmaid and a very good recommendation it was too.

With a wee bit of fire in our bellies we wound off down the hill, passing a statue of Greyfrairs Bobby and a bar of the same name, through the Grassmarket and Fountainhead and finally to hallowed Rugby Ground at Murrayfield.

A hint of the village in Harpenden

Just 40 minutes from frenetic St Pancras Station, lies peaceful, picturesque Harpenden.

Harpenden High Street
Harpenden High Street

It is a sizable town, with all the trappings of modern urban life – supermarkets, chain stores, phone shops and consumers to go with all of that. Yet, on my visit to Harpenden I discovered places and people that make me think of the kind village life I had found in novels a long time ago on the other side of the world.

When we arrived at mid-morning on a drizzly late autumn day, Harpenden Station was completely deserted. We set off down a sloping, curved and empty street towards the town, coming to rest in the first lit and populated shop – the Oxfam Store. Racks of damp-smelling tweed and stout shoes, glass cases crammed with one-short sets of sherry glasses and shelves stacked with travel books suggested that the good folk of Harpenden are fond of winter walks and arm chair journeys with a fortified wine. They are also painters, or at least collectors of paintings and it was near a pile of gloomy oils that I met my first Harpenden character. Carelessly groomed and shabbily chic in shades of peat and moss, with a voice like the Queen, she was commanding a bemused young lass to authenticate a dark, foreboding landscape. When the girl shook her head helplessly, she left the shop with an exasperated snort and slammed the door behind her.

We ambled on down to the corner, past the post office, past rows of small, old world buildings, where modern businesses had taken a tenuous hold – Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants, dress shops full of shiny stuff, a gelati parlour and a boulangerie/pattisserie – and from which idle personal stared vacantly at the street.

Round the corner in the High Street, we found the church and in the church, a cafe, offering morning teas Monday to Thursday and lunch as well on Friday. It sounded cosy, almost “villagey”. Inside a matron in a floral apron served us piping hot tea and buttery scones. At table near the counter, a tiny old lady, with a booming voice that belied her frail, stooped frame, shared a postcard with the vicar.

A few doors down from church we came across a piece of old Harpenden, a piece, in fact, of a lost world – the tobacconist. Dark, small and with a deliciously exotic mixture of smells, its corners were crammed with stands of canes, shelves of cigarettes, cases of cigars and packets of sweets.

Further along, Sainsbury’s holds half the block. Here, we came across the Oxfam art connoisseur again. She was shouting at a shelf-stacker. Across the road a Café Nero had the corner. We headed into the back streets where there were quiet cottages, greens, graceful manors.

Harpenden, as we had already half guessed from the racks in the Oxfam shop, is the departure point for some wonderful walks. One follows the Ver River, another skirts the Moors and another crosses the Common. They all follow routes marked with fascinating names, like Sopwell Nunnery, Smug Oak Lane, Frogmore Pits and Jack Williams’ Wood. Unfortunately we were unable to tramp out these paths. We discovered them at the Harpenden Library, under the sharp gaze of a stern-faced Librarian in brown tweed and brogues, just before our 5.30 train left for London.

Earth and Sky on Mount John

Mount John rises steeply from the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo. The strong and the fit can make their way up a steep path to reach the windswept, rocky summit. The less energetic can drive up a smooth, curving, tar-sealed road.

The View from Mount John's Astro Cafe
The View from Mount John’s Astro Cafe

From up on Mount John the view is breathtaking. It’s a landscape solely of earth and sky. It is an earth of shadows, light, folds, seams, sharply contrasting colours, rivers, lakes, stands of trees, rocky outcrops, hills, cliffs and mountains. There are ribbons of road, threads of power lines and the thin filigree of a ski lift. The sky is a light, clear, infinite blue dome hung with great, thick luminous clouds and there’s something about it that reduces you to silent, motionless specks.

There is more to Mount John than the view however.

Firstly it is the site of the University of Canterbury’s Observatory and home to a team of astronomers who man the collection of telescopes which keep constant watch over our skies. Star of the fleet, so to speak, is MOA, a machine of unbelievable power and size. Every night they click away relaying the state of the firmament. Mount John Observatory offers fascinating tours – called Earth and Sky which explain the work of astronomers, the workings of the telescopes and best of all allow a look, through a telescope, at the earth and the sky. Fascinating by day, magical by night!

Secondly, Mount John boasts, according to Lonely Planet, the best place on the planet- the Astro Cafe. The food here, and the coffee too, are excellent, but really, it’s mostly a question of location, location, location!