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Liberty on a bicycle in Paris

There’s no better way to explore Paris than on a Velib bicycle!

A Paris Street
A Paris Street

My first experience of Paris Public Transport was the Metro. I couldn’t believe its speed, efficiency and convenience. Furthermore, it took me off the streets and out of the way of those anarchistic Parisian motorists. Better still it took them out of their cars and off the roads. Not enough of them, however, as eighties roads in the great city were always clogged with noisy, smelly vehicles, driven like dodgem cars, by homicidal maniacs with a death wish. Not so nowadays. The streets of Paris are noticeably quieter, less congested and crossing them is no longer life-threatening.

The city of Paris has battled on many fronts in the war against traffic. For years there have been carless days, car curfews, car reductions, carless streets, le roller du vendredi soir (Friday night roller rally), two wheel zones, pedestrian zones, walking paths and bike paths.

Still, one of the most successful, convenient and fun initiatives to date has been Velib’ . This self-service bicycle scheme which takes its name from velo – bike and liberte – freedom,  has as its catch cry “Thousands of bicycles in Paris give you lib’erty” and indeed they do. There is a Velib’ station every 300 metres and there are thousands of bikes available 24/7, to all, residents and visitors alike, over 14 years of age. It’s an interesting spectacle to see groups of young people heading off heading off on a night out, the businessman, tie flapping, laptop in his dinky little front basket, racing to a meeting, the immaculately groomed Madame with her hand bag over her shoulder cruising off to lunch, or the tourist, camera round his neck, beret on his head, “J’aime Paris” emblazoned on his T shirt, wobbling uncertainly over the cobble-stones.

Using velib’ is simple. Take your Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JCB, Visa Electron or Mastercard Maestro down to the nearest Velib’ station where the information, reservation and payment terminal will guide you through the steps to obtain your 1 day, 1 week, or 1 year subscription. You will then be issued a ticket with your subscriber code which will allow you to take your bike, ride it as far as you like and drop it at the Velib’ station at your destination.

Velib’ is cheap. A 1 day ticket will cost you 1 euro, a 7 day ticket 5 and a 1 year ticket  29. The first 30 minutes of use is free, an additional half hour costs 1euro, a second half hour 2 euros and every half hour after that 4 euros. At any time you can tally up the total of your velo on the terminal at any station.

What better way to see Paris, than on a Velib’ bike? Still uncertain of the Paris traffic? Take advantage of the 371 kilometres of cycle lanes to ride around Paris “en toute securite” – safely and with complete peace of mind. Remember, too, cycling, as the Velib’ brochure says, makes the city beautiful.

 

R.I.P. Ben E King

I was so sad to hear today that the great Ben E. King had passed away.

42nd Street
42nd Street

I feel incredibly thankful that I had the good fortune to see Ben E King perform with The Drifters and Darlene Love at his 70th birthday bash at BB King’s Bar and Grill, on 42nd Street in New York.

Our table was right at the back of the room  and my seat was facing the door, but did I care? Hell no! For The Drifters, Darlene Love and most of all for Ben E King , I’d have sat under the table, facing a row of kneecaps!

I forced my neck through impossible contortions to scan the rest of the crowd. It was dotted with faces that I felt I knew, or should have known. Who was that guy in the pork pie hat? Who was that lady in the red dress?

There was a hush, then a cheer as the King family, including Ben E.’s 90 year old mother, filed in through a side entrance. They filled one side of the room.   Then the show began.

Age had not wearied The Drifters; those harmonies were just as slick and those moves just as sharp as they ever were. Darlene Love   had the room rocking.  When at last, backed by his nieces, Ben E. King, took the stage to sing, I was blinking back tears. Yes, Ben E King was still the King of the twist!

It was an unforgettable  evening and a memory I will cherish for ever.

May you rest in peace Ben E King and may eternal light shine upon you.

Newcastle in the blink of the eye

Coal, Geordies, ships, the River Tyne and hardy natives, known as Novacastrians, who brave glacial winter temperatures in t shirts – this was the extent of my knowledge of Newcastle until chance took me there on a whirlwind trip.

Millenium Bridge
Millenium Bridge

Determined to make the most of the one day I had to explore, I began with the City Sightseeing Newcastle-Gateshead Hop On-Hop Off bus tour.

The tour is a comprehensive look and commentary on Newcastle as it is today – a city of contrasts, where old and new sit side by side, the juxtaposition of ultra-modern and ancient structures highlighting its long and still unfolding history. It takes in all those reminders of the past, like the Roman city walls and the Norman Castle Keep. It covers the houses of the Mediaeval Merchants who grew rich on coal and ship-building. It passes through the opulent 19th century inner city area of Grainger Town, the neo-classical masterpiece of Richard Grainger which, now discoloured by time, is like sepia-tinted print of ancient Rome.

The bus paused at St James Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. With a history stretching back for over a century, today St James Park is a gleaming modern structure which seats over 53, 000.  The tour  crossed the river by the old Tyne bridge, giving spectacular views of the regenerated area along the banks and of those stunning and innovative landmarks, like the gently pivoting Gateshead Millenium Bridge, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Sage Gateshead Music Centre, which shines like a great geodesic dome in the light.

The City Sightseeing Gateshead Newcastle Hop-on Hop-off bus tour was gave an excellent overview of the city as well as a potted and lively history. It was a good indication of the size and scope of the place (walkable!) It highlighted places worth a re-look. It was cheap (7 pounds per adult ticket valid for 24 hours) and it fitted perfectly (with hops on and off) into a morning, leaving the afternoon free for rambling at will and exploring galleries and museums.

 

La Boca

A Street in La Boca
 La Boca

Picturesque, romantic and built on broken dreams, La Boca is one of Buenos Aires most fascinating and most visited barrio (areas).

The name La Boca, which means “the mouth”, derives from its location at the mouth the Riachuela River.

The area was settled first, between 1830 and 1852, by Italian migrants from Genoa who had come to work on the newly established docks. They built their houses with leftover materials from the port, raising sheets of corrugated iron on piles and painting them with remnants of paint from ships and warehouses.

During the boom of the late 18th century, thousand more immigrants from Spain and Italy poured into Argentina. Unable to afford the land they had chased across the world, most of them remained at La Boca where they had disembarked, doomed to a life on the docks, building their houses, like the generation before them, from corrugated iron, and painting them with gaudy odds and ends.  Thus the colourful architectural tradition of La Boca began.

Also at about this time in La Boca, the tango was born. Poor, disappointed, lonely, often alone, and far from home, the Boquenses sang nostalgic songs of longing for the lands and the loves they had left behind.  They danced to them in the local Bordellos – a close and sensual dance they called the tango. And in the Bordellos of Buenos Aires, the tango stayed, shunned by polite Argentine society, for a quarter of a century.

La Boca itself remained a place apart, largely unappreciated and even distrusted by the rest of the city until well into the 20th century.  Its unique character and style was first celebrated in the paintings of Benito Quinquella Martin in the 1930s.  In 1933, Martin donated a piece of land to build a primary school and an Argentine art museum. He decorated the walls of the school with his own murals and his own works formed the foundation of the museum’s collection.  Martin was also one of the prime-movers behind El Caminito, La Boca’s “museum” street. Named after a famous tango, it is lined with old, brightly-painted conventillos or family houses, where giant puppets lean from windows and lines of washing hang between balconies. Today, many artists live, work and exhibit in La Boca and it is the most painted and photographed barrio in Buenos Aires.

However, La Boca really became part of Buenos Aires in 1940 with the opening of the Bombonera. This stadium, which seats 60,000 people is the Boca Juniors, the most popular football team in Argentina (and incidentally, the team which spawned Diegoi Maradona) Underneath the stadium is a state of the art museum with a great deal of fascinating local history and of course wonderful displays of team kit, triumphs and characters.

Undoutedly, and perhaps unfortunately, La Boca is now a tourist hot-spot and its main streets and buildings have been pimped and primped to that end, with souvenir shops, tango shows and tango lessons galore. However, it still remembers its roots, it still has its own special culture traditions and style. Those first Genoese immigrants are remembered in Vuelta de Rocha, the small-ship-shaped square they used to call “whispers’ square” where they used to gather to recall their home country.  The Italian influence is still strong here; so much so that just a few years ago, there were moves afoot in La Boca to secede from Argentina and annex to Italy!

 

Buenos Aires

On February 2, 1536 Pedro de Mendoza founded Ciudad de Nuestra Senora Santa Maria de Buen Ayre on the eastern shores of the Rio del Plata. The name literally means “City of Our Lady of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds”.  Nowadays we know it simply as Buenos Aires, which translates as “fair winds”.  The people here are known as Portenos, or people of the port.

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires
Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city; it has the mighty Rio Plata on one side, tall palms, spreading shade trees and bright flowers thrive under its blue skies, radiant sunshine and, of course, in its “fair winds”.  The Spanish colonists spared nothing, it would seem, in creating a city with magnificent buildings, fine monuments, lovely parks and gardens and grand avenues.

Over the centuries settlers from a myriad of cultures have added a humbler, but no less vibrant beauty.

Buenos Aires is  a city that has seen turbulent times and dark, hard days. They are not forgotten. In a short walk across the city, I see grievances scrawled on the walls of buildings. I pass a camp of veterans from the Falklands war, surrounded by banners which speak of the blood of sons and the tears of mothers. They are still campaigning for compensation. I pass a line of Police in riot gear and a few blocks further on I meet a posse, wielding banners emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara. I stop for a drink in a cafe called Resistenza, where Che Guevara look-alikes huddle in corners beneath posters of their hero.

But for all its beauty and its passion, Buenos Aires is a tragic place. The homeless and dispossessed are everywhere. Young families camp on mattresses in doorways, under trees and in the shelter of monuments in the parks. Their ragged clothes, laundered in the fountains, hang to dry on the ornate wrought iron fences. I follow a pair of skinny shirtless waifs along street and see them snatch the food from the plates of tourists lunching on a cafe terrace.  Outside a church I meet a young mother begging. Her newborn daughter Priscilla lies in her lap, dressed in the hot, unsuitable clothes of some distant charity. In the market stalls of San Telmo the trappings of better, richer lives are up for sale.

Beauty, passion, a complex mix of cultures and a rich history make Buenos Aires one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Ipanema

Just over the hill from Copacabana at Ipanema the broad golden sands, the rolling waves, the beach volleyball nets, the black and white wave patterned pavements, the kiosks on the promenade, the lifeguard stations, the tent cafes, the deckchairs, the sun umbrellas, the lines of apartment buildings overlooking the road and the avenue of palm trees, continue. So does the society of sunseekers, surfers, joggers, volleyballers, buyers and sellers. It’s the same coastline and the same beach culture.

Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro
Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

But for all that, Ipanema is quite a different place. It was a chic, rather exclusive and relatively quiet beachside suburb until Vinicius Morais wrote his legendary song, The Girl from Ipanema, and brought it to the attention of the world.

The café where he watched the girl on her walk to the sea and penned the song is now something of a shrine. Its original name has long been forgotten. Today, it’s La Garota do Ipanema. The lyrics and music are inscribed on the wall. Nearby is a framed newspaper article showing the once “young and lovely” garota, now, as a middle-aged aspirant for the local council. The café teems with tourists. But it’s still clearly a neighbourhood haunt where locals meet or wander casually through, sometimes in bikinis and speedos, on their walk to the sea.

Although Vinicius’ girl from Ipanema has grown old, her tall and tanned “grand-daughters” now stroll down the streets of Ipanema to the sea. So do their beautiful brothers.

Over the years Posto 9 or Lifeguard Station 9 has become the meeting place for Rio’s gay community. A rainbow flag flies nearby and at holiday and festival times, like Carnaval, spot on the sands of Ipanema becomes a gay (in both senses of the word) international village.

Rio Centro

The people of Rio de Janeiro are sea creatures who head for the water whenever they have a spare moment. This probably explains why their beaches are ship shape and their city is not. On the weekend downtown Rio has the deserted, grubby look of a house whose occupants have said “To hell with housework, let’s go out and play!” Nevertheless, Centro is fascinating. There are many beautiful historical buildings, magnificent plazas with grand monuments and some quaint little streets.

Exhibition Hall at the Imperial Palace
Exhibition Hall at the Imperial Palace

Praca XV de Novembro is the seat of the old Portuguese Empire and is dotted with monuments and landmarks to its glory, like the Pyramid Fountain and the Statue of General Osario. It is also the site of the Paco Imperial or Imperial Palace.

Constructed in 1703 as a warehouse, the Imperial Palace was converted to accommodate the National Mint and then, in 1743, it was transformed into a residence for the Brazilian Governor.

When the Portuguese Royal family fled Europe it became the Royal Palace of King Joao and the surrounding land became the Largo do Paco.

A great deal of the history of Brazil was played out in this square. It was here that Princess Isabella signed the document which abolished slavery. It was the birthplace of the Brazilian Empire; independence from Portugal was declared here 1889 and the Emperors Pedro I and Pedro II were crowned here. Lastly, its present name commemorates the day that Brazil became a Republic.

Today the Imperial Palace is a Cultural Centre and the rambling halls and galleries now house exhibitions. The Imperial Palace also has a restaurant and a wonderful book/music store with a great little café tucked between the discs and the tomes.

The Praca XV de Novembro is at its best during work hours when there are crowds around to bring it to life. During the weekend, it is rather bleak, lonely and uncomfortable.

 

Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges

Strathbogie Ranges
Strathbogie Ranges

I must confess I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Strathbogie Ranges, in Victoria, Australia, if I hadn’t been a conscript to a school camp – a late conscript.

Once I’d adjusted to the idea of five days in the wilderness with forty something Year 8 girls, I began to consider the possibilities – hiking, camping, abseiling and mountain biking in the outback, kayaking on a peaceful lake. It sounded better and better.

A week later, tramping along a rough bush track, breathing in the heady scent of eucalypts, with the cackle of a kookaburra ringing through the trees, swinging from a rope down the face of a giant boulder, paddling in a kayak through an avenue of semi-submerged ghost gums on a mirror-smooth lake and finally falling asleep under a star-studded night sky, I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t missed it.

 

A child’s Christmas in Aotearoa New Zealand

When I was a child in New Zealand, Christmas was a simple occasion. Compared to the excesses of today’s celebrations you might even call it meagre.  But it was fun and it was an adventure.

A beach in Aotearoa New Zealand
A beach in Aotearoa New Zealand

On Christmas morning, we would head off “down the East Coast”. Although Rotorua, our home town, had lakes, streams and hot pools where we swam all year round, the sea was something else and the very word was synonymous with summer, holidays, freedom and happiness.

There never seemed to be a plan. We stopped at will at random spots – for a swim, for an ice-cream, to explore the bush, to look at a tree, for a paddle in a stream, for “forty winks” (nap), to “see a man about a dog” (have a beer or raspberry and lemonade, depending on age) at country pubs  or for chance meetings with strangers and even long lost friends along the road.

Our Christmas dinner was ham, bread and cold Christmas pudding.  We ate it on the beach. Dad cooled his beer in a rock pool and lit a fire to boil up a battered kerosene tin for tea. Sometimes there was fizzy drink. Our Christmas tree was the ancient pohutukawa, the New Zealand Christmas tree, decorated with bright red flowers for the season. We watched the sun go down, and tucked up in an old army blanket on the sand we gazed at the fire and listened to Dad’s stories until we fell asleep.

Legendary London shops; Fortnum and Mason’s

Fortnum and Mason’s department store is one of London’s most luxurious and oldest. It has survived over three centuries in its Picadilly location and its history is closely linked to London’s and indeed to England’s. Although nowadays only one floor of Fortnum’s is dedicated to food, the store is renowned mainly for its wonderful ground floor provisions department. 1999

Fortnum and Mason's Hampers
Fortnum and Mason’s Hampers

William Fortnum began his career in 1705 as a footman in the Royal palace of Queen Anne. Part of his job was to replace the royal family’s used candles, which he then on-sold to other servants. In 1907, he persuaded his landlord, Hugh Mason to go into business with him and together they established Fortnum and Mason’s Emporium. The business ran successfully and profitably for almost fifty years. In 1761, William Fortnum’s grandson Charles became official Royal provender to Queen Charlotte. With Royalty behind it and with a new range of merchandise including, exotic teas and spices imported from the new colonies, luxury items and pre-prepared meals, Fortnum and Masons boomed and its reputation as prestigious, luxury establishment was forged.   .

Royal and government patronage continued into the 19th century. Fortnum’s became the official supplier of preserved foods to British Officers during the Napoleonic Wars. It catered for state functions at the Court of Queen Victoria and during the Crimean war shipped beef tea to Florence Nightingale’s hospitals. At this time the store also began to deliver its famous luxury picnic hampers to Victorian high society at events like the Henley Regatta and the Ascot Races. Fortnum and Mason’s hampers feature in the works Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins and Henry James. Charles Dickens, writing of the  Epsom Derby said “Look where I will…. I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!”.

Fortnum’s success continued as its fame spread into the 20th century. Its fare featured during the Great Exhibition at the beginning of the new age. During World War II, it supplied food to the British troops and furthermore guaranteed to hold open the jobs of Fortnum staff serving in the forces. In 1922, it supplied the first expedition to Everest. A refurbishment of the sore in 1925 saw new departures into a range of different stock, like ladies and children’s wear, kitchen wear and perfumes. In 1931, in response to a growing U.S. demand for Fortnam and Mason’s products, a branch was opened in New York.

Demand from visiting overseas dignitaries for King George’s jubilee in 1935, prompted Fortnum’s to begin importing the foreign delicacies which soon became one of its hallmarks. During the Second World War, the Officers department, selling anything an officer might require like special cigarettes and silver-plated sporks.

The twentieth century saw the end of the Fortnum and Mason family association with the store. The store was acquired by Canadian W. Garfield Weston, who became its chairman. In 1964, as a tribute to the founders he commissioned the huge four-ton clock which hangs above the entrance and from which four foot models of William Fortnum and Hugh Mason emerge at the chime of every  and bow to each other. Currently, the Fortnum and Mason’s is run by Garfield Weston’s granddaughters Jana Weston Khayat and Kate Weston Hobhouse.

In 2007 Fortnum and Mason celebrated 300 years in business with a massive 24 million pound refurbishment. Today it is a thoroughly modern establishment offering all kinds of luxury services, including a Day Spa. There are four excellent and very popular restaurants, including the Diamond jubilee Tea Salon opened by the Queen in 2012

Although nowadays only one floor of Fortnum’s is dedicated to food, it is there in its food hall on the lower ground floor that a large part of Fortnum’s fame rests.  Food at Fortnum’s is always fresh and always respects the seasons. It still stocks its famous teas, its foreign and exotic delicacies and pre-prepared meals.

Fortnum has famously joined the movement to “green” inner city London and established a rooftop garden, complete with bee hives. Fortnum and Mason’s bees are housed in a bespoke hive, made from English oak painted in the Eau de Nil Blue (the colour of the house) with gold leaf filials. The bees produce 400 jars of honey each year and each year it is awaited with great anticipation. There is a long waiting list. The quality of the honey varies from year to year. Sometimes it has a light floral tinge and sometimes it is rich and aromatic. Needless to say, it is packaged in exquisitely labeled jars. The bees also contribute to Fortnum and Mason’s famous Roja Candles, an initiative which would have warmed the heart of old Willaim Fortnum.

Fortnum’s still provides to Royals and caters to official and state occasions. It still stocks its famous teas, foreign and exotic delicacies and pre-prepared meals and it still delivers luxury hampers to every occasion from christenings and Christmas to historic races and regattas.

In a tradition dating back to the Napoleonic Wars, Fortnum’s continues to support the British Forces and every soldier on active service receives a service tin. It still has an expeditions Department.

There’s something wonderfully clean, fresh and wholesome about Fortnum and Mason, it’s that light, calming Eau de Nil Blue that follows you from the shop front, the windows, to appear in little touches on the staff’s uniforms, into the décor on every floor, into the china in the restaurants, the table linen, the packaging. There’s the aroma of exotic teas and coffee and the scent of fresh flowers of fresh flowers. There’s something in those exquisitely presented tins and hampers and packets of teas and jars of pickles jams and honey that makes you want to stock up or even inspires you to race home and launch into a frenzy of preserving.

Fortnum’s is a wonderful place to wander, browse, marvel, soak up the history and the atmosphere, people-watch and, yes, even take photos