Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Utrecht, Sunday June 7th 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 8, 2015

Utrecht is a university town southeast of Amsterdam, about 45 minutes by bus.   It is a lovely place to explore, and we were fortunate to have an expert guide called Ingeborg Behari to show us around.

We started off in the Railway Museum Het Spoorwegmuseum where Ingeborg volunteers as a guide.   We were not interested in the trains, it was the beautiful building that was so captivating.  Typical of many of these grand railway stations built in the 19th century it featured stunning architecture and grand interiors, and this one even has a Royal Waiting Room.  (Though truth be told, this room was actually somewhere else to start with, but was transplanted here to the railway station when it became a museum.  BTW, do check out the height of the mirror in that Royal Waiting Room.   It is absurdly high, impossible even for tall people so its purpose was really to make the room look larger.)

PS (Tuesday)  I had an email from Ingeborg with some extra info about the ceiling of the Royal waiting room.

“Because there were no photos of the original ceiling and the year is the same as Kasteel de Haar (1892) the architects who restored Kasteel de Haar decided the ceiling could have looked like this.”
Thanks, Ingeborg!

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After that, we took a stroll through the canal districts, where Ingeborg regaled us with all kinds of interesting stories about the rich, the famous and the ones who wanted to be.   But one who definitely deserves to be famous is Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen who won a Nobel Prize for discovering X-rays, and you will see a tiled image of him in the slide show below. Utrecht encourages its citizens to come up with good ideas to enhance the city, and as well as ones like this that commemorate its most eminent citizens, there are also some that show paintings from past times, sited in the same place so that visitors can see the place both then and now. The best of these is the one that shows the cathedral before the tornado blew half of it away in 1674.

Utrecht is also very excited about two major events this year. They are hosting the start of the Tour de France, and they are celebrating the 60th ‘birthday’ of Miffy. If you don’t know who Miffy is, you had a deprived childhood, because the Miffy books are enchanting.  There are large Miffys all over the city, decorated by various artists, but this one is wearing a cape to keep it warm, courtesy of university students who play all kinds of pranks in the city, including chucking some of the ubiquitous bikes into the canals, so much so that they have had to increase the depth!

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We were sorry to come to the end of the tour, but we enjoyed a nice lunch at Graaf Floris.  Tim had Kroketten (which are, you guessed it, croquettes) and I had pork satays.  He also sampled two of the local beers including one drunk with a slice of lemon in it, and I had a cup of honeybush tea which was divine.  I haven’t had a decent coffee in the Netherlands yet, but their herbal teas are really nice.

We had just enough time to buy some bread, cheese and sausage at the Farmers’ Market for an in-hotel meal tonight and to duck into the cathedral before it was time to go.  The cathedral is gorgeous, restrained and elegant by comparison with the more extravagant Catholic cathedrals, and I was especially impressed by the altar which looks from a distance as if it is made of ivory.

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And then we were off to see Kasteel de Haar…

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Dining out, Europe 2015, Historic buildings, Museums, Netherlands, Utrecht | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Amsterdam June 5 & 6, 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 7, 2015

Well, here we are in Amsterdam, and it’s all been very interesting so far. We flew in from London at lunchtime yesterday and were met by the tour leader, a nice young man called Nick Gordon who has a PhD in history but escaped from academia and is now making a living as a tour guide. We were escorted to our hotel in a swish Mercedes Benz, but things went downhill from there because the hotel is disorganised and they didn’t manage to get our room ready until late in the afternoon.  These things happen, I know, but it was hard not to be a bit fed up – and we weren’t the only ones…

But apart from that it’s been very nice. Nick took us on a walk around the historic canals area and pointed out various palaces – though as you’ll know if you’ve been to Amsterdam, a Dutch palace is quite modest compared to everything else in Europe. Most of them are five stories high but they are narrow and if they have any gardens at all they are around the back of the building where you can’t see them. Missing also are the grand churches that you see in Europe’s capitals, I’ve only seen one church and it was quite ordinary.

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Anyway, after the walk we had a ‘welcome’ dinner which was very nice and (based on previous experiences of Dutch domestic cuisine) not how I expected Dutch cooking to be.  Alas I forgot to take my camera so I have no pictures, but we had numerous small courses, beautifully cooked and creatively presented.  We were very impressed!

In the morning Nick gave a talk about the long and complicated history of the Netherlands, and then – armed with knowledge about the hostility to Catholic Spain – we visited the Church in the Attic. This was a hidden church where worshippers came together in secret to avoid persecution. There was even a small confessional, and a little baptismal font. I know that religious persecution was widespread all over Europe, but still this little church was a vivid reminder that certain kinds of worship could result in a visit from the Inquisition during the period that the Spanish were in control here.

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From there we went to Rembrandt’s House, bursting with wonderful paintings and portraits and drawings by the great man.   They have tried to recreate the house as it was in his time, using the documentation from when he was made bankrupt to know how it was furnished.  There are paintings hanging on the walls as they would have done in his day, when apparently he displayed his work in the front rooms of the house for buyers to come and purchase.  You can see some of them here,  but of course it is nothing like actually being there.  I didn’t take photos because I thought we weren’t allowed to, but I have some postcards to use when I scrapbook this trip when I get home. My favourite room was his studio, which is a lovely light-filled space near the top of the house, and you can stand right there in the same place that he stood beside his easel. I wonder what he would have made of his home becoming a tourist attraction…

We had lunch at a restaurant called Senses and once again the food was excellent. All my preconceptions about Dutch food have now been laid to rest!

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We now have the rest of the day at leisure. So we’re putting our feet up for a bit, and will go out again later on, to brave the Saturday night crowds and the young people whizzing about everywhere on bicycles.

Posted in Amsterdam, Cathedrals & churches, Dining out, Europe 2015, Historic buildings, Netherlands | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Imperial War Museum, June 4th, 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 5, 2015

Today started with a pleasant breakfast at Caffe Russell … a short stroll from the hotel through Russell Square.  There’s a pretty fountain, and lots of dogs rampaging around in a well-behaved British kind of way, and people sit outside in the sunshine with their briefcases and read the paper. Breakfast is unexceptional but the coffee is good and the wait staff are very friendly and nice. (Yes, you read that right, the coffee is good. It’s like Melbourne coffee).

We took the tube to Lambeth North via Piccadilly Circus, making the acquaintance of friendly Poms who’d been to Australia en route. We started chatting with the first one when he made a joke about making squeezing onto the train an Olympic sport and I said that the Poms would win that event for sure – and it turned out he’d been to Perth though not to Melbourne. Conversation started with the second one when he noticed the Tassie Wooden Boat Centre logo on Tim’s windcheater, and it turned out that he’d worked in Tassie for a year or so, and had spend a little time in Melbourne too. It’s friendly encounters like these that make me work harder at learning foreign languages, because I want to have similar experiences in other countries too, if I can.

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The entrance to the Imperial War Museum is dominated by these massive naval guns from WW1 battleships. They can fire 15″ shells for 29km, and those yellow things in the picture are the shells. It’s quite horrible to think of these things raining death and destruction at sea. But there were more than a few sobering artefacts in the museum, as you’d expect…

The purpose of our visit, however, was to see the Fashion on the Ration exhibition.  (Sorry, no photos allowed).  I was interested in this because my mother was a young woman during the war, and so her young womanhood was spent mostly in uniform.  She was in the ATS, driving POWs up to Leith Fort in Scotland, and ferrying supplies across the channel and salvaging spare parts from wrecked vehicles from near the front.   According to the signage, the ATS uniform was thought to be the most drab, and the lisle stockings a lot less desirable than the smart navy ones worn by women in the other services.

It was fascinating to see how women managed to make the most of the ration and still look quite smart.  There was a lot of mend-and-make-do, and they made sure to wear aprons and wrappers to protect their clothes when they were doing housework, but there were Vogue patterns for some stylish frocks and some amazing accessories made from plastic salvaged from the factories.  There were sobering vignettes about the dangers of factory work: some women did not like to have their hair tied back in those drab nets, but suffered terrible injuries when their hair was caught in the machinery.

When I saw a lifesize image of Dior’s New Look which so captivated my mother after the war, I mentioned it to Tim – and was immediately asked about it by some schoolgirls who were there visiting the exhibition.  The signage was really well done, I thought, but perhaps it had more impact to hear about these things from a real person?  The girls gathered around me and asked about this and that, and so I told them how when my mother was their age that she would have had very few clothes compared to them, and that she was thrilled by the new designs that used so much more material when the restrictions were lifted some years after the war.  We talked about how boys like her brother (my Uncle Pat) were only allowed to have shorts until they were 13, and men couldn’t have turn-ups on their trousers.  And I showed the girls how they wouldn’t have been allowed to have so many pleats on ther uniforms that they were wearing either. They were just at the age when clothes really start to matter, so they were really interested…

They didn’t know anything about food rationing so I told them about how it was still in force when my older sister was a baby so that there was just one egg for the family for the week, and how it was a disaster when as a baby she threw a shoe out of her pram unobserved and my father tramped the streets afterwards looking for it, but never found it.   I suppose all this is so long ago for school kids now, that it’s ancient history!

From there we went upstairs to the Heroes exhibition, which profiled the numerous VCs from Britain’s wars, and then we went to the Holocaust Exhibition.  It was very sobering, especially seeing the scale model of Auschwitz which showed the dreadful process in a ghastly white snowy landscape.  On the lower floors there was an exhibit about Britain’s secret operations, from the Enigma codebreaker to MI5 and MI6, and there was also a vivid exhibition about one family’s experience of WW2.

All in all, it was much better than I had expected: I thought there would be more about weapons and equipment, but it mainly focussed on people and the impact of war.  I probably would never have gone to this museum if not for the Fashion on the Ration exhibition, but I’m really glad we went.

IMG_1743We had an indifferent lunch at a nearby pub called The Three Stags – which had the most interesting wallpaper I’ve ever seen!  Until I looked properly I thought it was just another set of nostalgic images that you see everywhere, showcasing British country life.  But no.  On closer inspection, the images turned out to be social commentary.  On the top RHS you may be able to see the man in a suit striding past with his mobile phone  – oblivious to the homeless person sitting on the park bench.  And below that on the LHS, you can see a man being held up by a robber.

Tomorrow we’ve off to Amsterdam,  so we bid farewell to the lovely people at the Montague who have looked after us so well.  It will be our first trip to the Netherlands so we are really looking forward to it:)

 

Posted in Museums, UK 2015 | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

A day for family and friends, June 3rd 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 4, 2015

Today was a day to catch up with family and friends. In the morning I met up at the London Review Bookshop café with my sister, her daughter and my three grand-nieces, including meeting the littlest one for the first time. So much to talk about! But yes, I did find time to buy a new book: three novels in one by Henry Green, so I shall be ready for Henry Green Week next time it comes along.

At lunchtime, we had a blogger’s lunch.  Yes, all four of us are bloggers!  Stu from Winston’s Dad wasn’t able to be with us due to a recent bereavement but he was with us in spirit as we met up again with expat Aussie Kim from Reading Matters, and had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind for the first time.  Jonathan is also a fellow contributor to The Works of Emile Zola,  so there was much bookish talk over a splendid pub lunch at the Marquis Cornwallis in Bloomsbury, not far from our hotel.

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(Tim who blogs at The Logical Place, took the photo, so he’s not in the picture. Great photo, Tim, thanks!)

Posted in UK 2015 | 15 Comments »

Indigenous Australia Exhibition at the British Museum, June 3rd 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 3, 2015

In the afternoon we visited the Indigenous Australia Exhibition at the British Museum.

Nobody was taking photos so we thought we’d better not, but there is a video at the BM website that shows some of the paintings.

The exhibition was smaller than we were expecting, and I had thought that there would be more artefacts that had been taken back to Britain by the early explorers and settlers.  Still, it was interesting to see the original of “Batman’s Treaty” and that notorious poster that was used to show the Aborigines that British justice would be applied to both the indigenous people and the settlers.  (Which of course it wasn’t.)  There were examples of tools, weapons, basketwork, and jewellery and so on, and the signage was quite well done I thought though it glossed over some things such as the number of indigenous language groups that have been lost or are endangered.

It was also interesting to see the reaction of the other visitors.  It was quite clear from their avid attention to the signage that they knew very little about indigenous art and culture, so (whatever the politics of museum v indigenous ownership), I was pleased to see that this exhibition has increased awareness of the oldest living culture on earth.

Contemporary Australia doesn’t come out of it too well.  There was a video timeline that showed the Apology and the return of traditional lands by Gough Whitlam but as you’d expect, even though it was tactfully handled, there was more about unfinished business.

There was an intriguing video at the end of the exhibits, of a man weaving a basket, claiming to be the only person who still knew how to do this particular type of weaving using a wood called ‘wait-a-while’.   It was intriguing because as far as I know, basket weaving was – and still is – women’s work.

I was delighted to see Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin winning novel That Deadman Dance on sale in the shop afterwards!

 

Posted in UK 2015 | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Courtauld Gallery, London, June 3 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 3, 2015

We had a leisurely breakfast at the Russell Square café overlooking the park, and then set off for the Courtauld Gallery, now housed at Somerset House (the building that originally housed my birth certificate, when it was where births, marriages and deaths were registered.)
The building is gorgeous, with an especially stunning staircase:

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We’re just off to dinner now, but will add some of my photos of the artworks when I get back. (Unless I drink too much champagne…)

….
Just back from dinner at the Cosmoba Cucina Italiana – nothing special, but a tasty meal and the service was friendly and efficient:)

Here’s some photos of artworks I especially liked at the Courtauld:

Update, a bit later: Hmm, the slideshow isn’t working.  It’s not the effects of champagne, I didn’t have any.  Maybe the images are too big and take too long to load.  Maybe the ISP here at the hotel isn’t very good.  I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Posted in Art Galleries, UK 2015 | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

The Little Prince, artwork at the Fullerton Hotel

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 31, 2015

Artheline is the signature of artists Arnaud and Adeline Nazare-Aga, whose stunning sculptures – inspired by the original illustrations in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery – are on display in the Fullerton Hotel.

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Posted in Singapore 2015 | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Singapore, Saturday May 30th 2015

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 30, 2015

Fullerton HotelWell, here we are in Singapore, en route to the UK and Europe.  The flight was uneventful and as always with Singapore Airlines, the service was faultless.  Even the food is edible!

We are staying at the Fullerton Hotel, which is very grand.  There were two Rolls Royces parked outside when we arrived (in a Toyota Camry taxi).  This is the last of the grand hotels that we’ll be enjoying in Singapore: now that we’ve had a night at Raffles (which was lovely) and another at the Marina Bay Sands (too crowded, too noisy) we shall in future be staying in less expensive places.  But it is a lovely way to start a holiday, especially when there is a 14-hour long haul next, to London.

courtyardroomWe have a courtyard room, which is spacious and comfortable and deliciously cool.  Through the window we can look down to the courtyard which is where we had afternoon tea last time we were here in Singapore.  We went there again tonight for some splendid patisserie after we’d had a rather ordinary Chinese meal along the river.  I couldn’t help thinking of Masterchef as I tucked into a scrumptious chocolate bombe, washed down with a nice glass of Baileys…

It’s only nine o’clock here but it’s after eleven Melbourne time, so it’s time to curl up with a book in bed.

Posted in Europe 2015, Singapore 2015 | Tagged: , | 10 Comments »

Ten Best Things about Russia

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 4, 2013

Back home again, and still scrapbooking our trip to Russia … I’ve had time to reflect and share my thoughts about it all.  While Aussie tourists have been ubiquitous on all our previous travels, in Russia we found ourselves exotic.  ‘From Avstralia’, they would say in delighted astonishment, ‘a long way!

Well, yes, of course it is, but Australia is a long way away from everywhere and the long-haul flight to Moscow isn’t much different to a long-haul flight to London or Paris or Rome.  The tyranny of distance doesn’t explain why so few of us venture to Russia.  So, here are my Ten Best Things about Russia to entice you!

1.  Visiting Russia will clear your head of all those obsolete grey Cold War preconceptions that you have from the movies.  Moscow is a dynamic, exciting city full of interesting things to see; St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

2.  Russia is a booklovers’ paradise.  They are justifiably proud of their literary heritage and visiting the homes of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky is a wonderful experience.  Allow more time than we did so that you can go to the Pushkin Museum too.

3. Russian churches are breath-taking.  Somehow the best ones survived Stalin’s aggressive atheism and German vindictiveness in defeat, and the Russians are brilliant at restorations.  Because these churches are Orthodox they are quite different to anything you can see elsewhere, and if you are lucky you will also hear spine-tingling a cappella male voice choirs.  (There are no musical instruments used in Russian Orthodox Churches).

4. Russian palaces and the museums now within them are spectacular.  The Hermitage is only one of a number of amazing palaces.  The tsars were the billionaires of their day and they, their friends and relations had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it all.   They built astonishing palaces all over the place and filled with them with marvellous treasures.  The Soviets flogged some of it off and the Germans trashed a lot of it, but there is still so much left that you could spend weeks just admiring it all. (See some here).

5.  The Moscow Metro is brilliant.  Do what we did, spend a couple of hours doing a circuit of it so that you can see the best of this architectural extravaganza.  Marble walls, monstrous chandeliers, propaganda sculptures and carvings showcase all kinds of aspects of Soviet life, each station with a different theme.  You’ll probably need a guide so you don’t miss the best ones, Krushchev put a stop to Stalin’s grandiose ‘gift’ to the Soviet people and the stations built in his time are positively Spartan.

5.  Russia’s history is more than fascinating and visiting the actual sites of great moments in history is an experience that is more than mere tourism.  In the palaces and churches are stories of Tsars ignoble and poignant,  elsewhere you will hear about their tumultuous 20th century when they were a social laboratory under the Soviets, transformed from the extreme social inequity of Tsarist autocracy to experimental Communism, and then catapulted into modern capitalism and democracy.  There will be references to what they demurely call ‘Soviet Times’ when they were traumatised by Stalinism and repressed by a string of Soviet dictators.  And in so many places restored from the scorched earth barbarism of World War 2, you will come to understand their catastrophic losses in World War 2, with 9 million military deaths, more than 11 million civilians, and two million Soviet Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Because most of my generation grew up under Cold War hostility, I think that most tourists would gain a different perspective from learning about all this.  I know that I did.

6.  Russian people are friendly, helpful, delighted by pitiful attempts to speak their language and tolerant of tourists who won’t even try.  Younger people have learned English at school, and though some of them may not be very good at it, they are clever about guessing what you are asking.  You will find it easier if you try to learn their alphabet, or at least carry a phrase book that has an alphabet that you can use to read the names of streets and train stations.  But in restaurants where no one speaks English you will find that they are more nervous about getting it wrong than you are.

7. The tourist areas of Moscow and St Petersburg feel safe.  Not once in a fortnight did we feel uneasy, even when we were on our own without a tour guide.  I suspect that you are more likely to be pick-pocketed in Rome.

8. St Petersburg is only an hour from Berlin, and much more fun. Getting the visa is the only tedious part.

9. It is possible to spend a great holiday in Russia without eating any cabbage.

10. It is not possible to spend a holiday in Russia without trying some neat vodka. Good quality, expensive vodka is much better than the stuff you use in mixed drinks.

Posted in Russia 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Carnavalet Museum, Paris

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 7, 2012

We had a lovely lunch at the Royal Turenne Bistro (where the food was scrumptious and the waiters were friendly and helpful (and kind to me about my awful French) and then made our way to a most enjoyable afternoon at the Carnavalet Museum, Paris.

This museum traces the history of the city from its beginnings to the present day and it is full of fascinating exhibits.  If you watch the slideshow you can see

  • fragments of a massive statue of Louis XIV which was pulled down during the revolution, locks of hair from the murdered royal family, the dauphin’s toys and a model of the guillotine
  • Voltaire’s chair, and a bust of him too
  • Proust’s bedroom where he did much of his writing,
  • gorgeous miniatures and lovely porcelain used to advertise wares in the days when people were illiterate (and a modern one of Lanvin’s boutique)
  • Fouquet’s glorious art nouveau cafe, and
  • memorabilia from the French Revolution.

All of this is in two lovely buildings with more than 100 rooms decorated in style from the 17th to the 20th century.  There are also two formal gardens and a kitchen garden, a pleasant place to sit and rest weary feet.

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Posted in Dining out, LitLovers pilgrimage, Museums, Paris 2012 | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »