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Ancient places Bars and cafes Hostels street culture Travel Itinerary Uncategorised

Too crowded and too hot.

My experience of Paris this time was so different. I have no idea how I ended up wandering around with a guitar waiting for a bus at 2.30 in the morning.
The day before, I had arrived at Gare du Nort from Amsterdam at 9.40pm, it was a very warm evening and I walked along the back streets to find my hostel. The Gare du Nort and the Gare de l’Est, strangely, are right beside each other in a drab part of the 10th arrondisement in north east Paris alongside the massive corridor of railway lines. I soon found myself walking past a group of about 100 North Africans sleeping and lounging on the footpath under the watchful eye of the Gendarmiere carrying their compact submachine guns. When I arrived at the Generator hostel, sweating a little, the reception guy had no greeting for me, no smile – he eyed me up and simply said, ‘Passport’.   Welcome to Paris; crowded, dirty, hot and a bit edgy.
The attitude was so different from where I’d recently been. The Scandinavians and Dutch are so courteous and they all speak English, in France they will, but only if they have to. Many can’t speak English at all (and it’s not that they should, but it does says something about the French that speaking English is an option). This does not apply to people in any official capacity dealing with the public with a huge tourist population. On the other hand, for example, a woman in a supermarket working at the checkout did not attempt to speak English. I made the mistake of bringing my fruit selection up to the till where I assumed it would be weighed and priced as they did in other places I’d recently been. In France you weight them yourself and put a sticker on the bag which pops out of the scales machine. It’s all these little things that need to be explained – just once. It was explained to me very clearly and patiently, in French.
I nodded intelligently and there’s always someone around to help, usually a younger person. I just wish I had worked a little more on my French language before coming, although, the phrase, ‘You need to weigh them, press the button and a little sticker comes out that you put on the bag’, may have been a bit beyond my comprehension, anyway.

I would recommend The Generator Hostels to anyone budget travelling in Europe, they’re a new approach to hostels and more like a hotel. They cost about NZ$60 a night. The big difference between these and the usual hostels is there’s no kitchen, no self-catering, no fridges, no food to be brought into the place (but people still do, of course, and take it to their rooms. But the rooms are cleaned everyday, so they’re keeping an eye on it). There is a $NZ14 breakfast available, which is probably better value than you’d get in the local street cafés because it’s self-serve which means you can load up for later. The rooms all have ensuites and the reception areas are very modern with spacious parts set aside on the ground floor with sofas, tables and chairs to hang out with your friends. Generator Hostels are the way of the future I think, they’re all over Europe, referred to as Designer Hostels. The wifi reception is strong everywhere and good in all the rooms – and there’s no password. My room had 3 other women already asleep in the room. There seems to be so many women travelling now, not just as couples but many solo and in pairs, and completely comfortable staying in mixed dorms that they can opt for and get slightly cheaper than a women’s dorm.

I was up and away at 8am before any of my room mates were awake and had a basic plan for the day. First, the nearby Sacre-Coeur for the big view, St Germaine-des-Pres for the street culture, Musée d’Orsay for some art, and to stand beneath the Tour Eiffel. But it didn’t go to plan. I must have taken the wrong streets up to the Basilique. I was wanting some breakfast but the streets were all just drab and faceless apartments – where were the quaint cafés with guys wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers and elegant women wafting perfume walking with poodles that I remembered from 20 years ago?

When I got there I was disappointed I couldn’t walk all the way around the Sacre-Coeur, it’s all gated and locked off, and the only big view available from the front steps didn’t include the Tour Eiffel! What’s the point of taking a photo of the Paris skyline from the top of a hill if you can’t get the Eiffel Tower in it! – ha ha <-;

The cafés I did come across walking up the hill looked a bit tired and were empty – maybe it was still too early. I noticed how the advertised price for a croissant and coffee kept increasing the higher up I walked, and NZ$18 was getting a bit much and I couldn’t really go back down to the cheaper ones so I have up on the idea of breakfast and would wait until I found a place on my way down.

Everywhere I went I was searched by security, everyone was, even entering a canal swimming la plage area. Anyway, I sat inside the Basilique and had some snacks and water from my pack looking up at the dome. All the little gates around the pews were locked up, why so many locks everywhere? Twenty years ago I was in awe of the power expressed in the art and architecture of the Roman Catholics – but now, to me it looks different; the biggest and most elaborate con-job in history; cruelty, subjugation, exploitation and the repression of women and science, a relic of the dark ages, and still today expressing it’s medieval mumbo jumbo.

So interesting going on the Metro again, I was amazed they still had the same system with the little paper tickets – I bought the 10 pack, as you do, and watched young guys jump over the turnstyles. I wondered at what age a bloke gives up doing that little athletic move. Other guys enter using the exit gate by reaching their hand around and pressing the button to open it. No wonder they have the Oyster card system in London.
Musée d’Orsay was shut on Monday, so onward to St Germaine. The streets are all so long and there seemed to be so much construction and whole blocks are fenced off. I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for – so much walking. I chanced upon a small art gallery, the Musée Maillol  with works by Leger, Picasso, Braque, Pissaro and Sisley – my favourite period of French art, roughly 1890-1920.  It was creeping up to 34º and after the gallery I sat at a cafe had a coffee and chatted with the woman opposite me who suggested I go to the Rodin Garden nearby. I was thinking it might be a nice place to have a quiet nap under the trees, – but of course, it was shut on Monday.

Later, I returned to the hostel, the subway was getting really hot and crowded by now and I needed a break. The room was empty and I slept and showered and headed out again with my guitar to an open-mic night on the other side of Paris. When I finally got there the bar manager shrugged his shoulders – there’s was nothing going on. According to my Google search there are plenty on Tuesday and Wednesday night, of course – but only one on Lundi and that wasn’t happening.
I still wanted to get up close to the Tour Eiffel, so more Metro and walking the long boulevards. It was nearing midnight and the place was really crowded and the air so humid. The tower was blocked off with temporary high-fencing and armed guards were all around it. Such a shame, so much has changed because of the Islamic attacks, it seems like the city is now in a permanent kind of low-level, lock-down mode – they’re not taking any chances. Paris seems to be full of people who look like they aren’t there for the cafés and the culture – they’re just milling around, looking a bit out of place  . . nothing to do, just looking  . . looking at you, trying to sell you a souvenir with a flashing light.

The Tour Eiffel looks magnificent when up close, something I never did before. I came towards it from the 16th, west of the Seine across the Pont d’ Lena bridge to the 7th, unfortunately the gardens, the Parc du Champde Mars, wre fenced off. The Metro had stopped, the buses were few and far between, I waited nearly an hour and took a bus all the way across Paris (where would I be without Google maps with bus timetables). I finished the last part of my journey to the hostel with a $12 taxi – the only one I have taken so far on this trip. I didn’t feel all that concerned out late at night, I just figured another 2km walk down these streets holding an iPhone for the map with drunken kids and homeless people sleeping here and there, was just too much.

That was my day in Paris and the best part was meeting the woman at the table in the café who showed me two of her favourite small hidden public gardens nearby, they would have been convent cloisters, I think, they all had fruit trees and vegetable patches. It was nice walking with someone else for a change without having to hold my phone – to just chat away and be shown around a bit. I knew Paris in mid-July was never going to be a great idea and I was glad my plans had only allowed one full day. I was looking forward to getting into the countryside. My accomodation there had a pool and I was really, really looking forward to that pool.

At the moment I’m sitting in a gypsy caravan with that pool outside. I have a brew of coffee going, there’s goodies from the local village boulangerie and patiserrie and I’m listening to RNZ. I’m using the hotspot from my phone on a signal that comes and goes from one dot to three dots out of five. Tomorrow I go to Vienna. It took me hours to figure out how to get there. Originally, I was planning to take a train from nearby Lyon but it takes 13 hours and goes via Frankfurt in north Germany, unbelievable. I considered numerous options, nearly did my head in, it’s like a game of chess.

My journey involves a bus to Roanne, a train to Lyon, the TGV to Paris Charles de Galle, and a flight, and I needed to co-ordinate all those journey times. And of course I was looking for all the cheapest variables. There were no direct flights from Lyon to Vienna either, only ones going via other places and taking 10 hours. It may have been better to hire a car from Lyon to Vienna, I don’t know, but that would result in a different set of costs and issues – and might take two days. The only decent wifi I could do all this research was at the Office d’ Tourisime in the local village of Marcigny. It took me such a long time and they needed to close at 6pm but I continued outside sitting on the step.
Again,  my apologies for the poor grammar and spelling, will tidy up later.

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Ancient places Booking early Stockholm Uncategorised

Vasa Museum and Modern Art.

Yesterday my phone battery went flat so I had to use a paper map and it was so easy. No fiddling around zooming in and out of a tiny screen. The maps and apps on the phone are brilliant tools but they give you so much more than you really. I have trouble seeing the important icons for the things I really need like the Metro stations among the clutter of other commercial locations like restaurants and shops that fill up the screen. I have switched between Maps and Google Maps to find the best and I think Maps is the quickest but the directions are so big they take up a third of the screen – I think Maps it was made for people in cars. Google Maps has more stuff but sometimes it’s far too much stuff. When you select a route in Google Maps it puts a dotted line right over the name of the street you need to go down and you spend so much time zooming in and out trying to read it. Finding where all the dropped pins are is a hassle.  The phoneis an amazing asset in these unknown cities but you still need to flip over to other apps to see the metro map or the bus and train routes – flip, flip, fiddle, faddle – it was a such a nice break air to use a regular paper map – at a single glance I could see where I was, the direction I wanted to go and the all the nearest metro stops – and I could scribble on it. I was brought up using paper maps, from ordinance survey maps to the A-Z of London that I knew inside out – it was nice to use some old skills. In fact, I’ve now decided to best and most fun way to get around Stockholm is on a bike with a paper map.

The reason the phone died, and it’s a new iPhone SE I bought in Portland that easily lasts all day on a full charge, was because today I made a 40 minute Facetime call to Julia while wandering from the Vasa Museum to the Modern Art Museum which is a ferry ride and a bit of walking, and it drained the battery.

The Vasa Museum is one of the top attractions in Stockholm so I got there early to avoid the crowds and I stayed for about 3 hours. Briefly, a ship was built in 1624 to rival all other war ships, it took 4 years to build and used tonnes of oak, had 64 cannons and ornate scultpures all around the sides, it was a magnificent example of Middle Ages craftmanship but soon after being launched it sank in the harbour – a major embarrasement for the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolf who had invited all his fancy friends to come down to see it in action.

 

 

 

But 300 years later it was hauled up in a major salvage operation. Because of the polluted water with sulphates in the river and low oxygen it was well preserved. The reason it sank was simply comes down to basic physics, it was too top heavy with too many cannons in the mid level, and they left all the lower gun-ports open on the launch day – a gust of wind came up, the ship tilted and water poured in the open gun-ports.

Another great part of the exhibition is the fine examples of beautiful model-making craftwork. These included the shipyard and construction phases, the modern salvage operation and profiles of the people who worked on the ship. There’s also an auditorium with a movie of the whole story.

A ferry ride took me to the Museum of Modern Art on a nearby island where, apart from the permanent exhibition, there was an exhibition of work by the architect, furniture and fabric designer Josef Frank.

And finally, the view from my bed as I write this post.

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Ancient places neolithc rural Uncategorised

Stone walls and stone circles.

Ring of Brodgar

It seems I’m on a constant search for good wifi. The hostels are hopeless. Usually I try to find the actual location of the modems, sit by it and if that doesn’t help, re-boot it myself – but the airports are good. Today I left Kirkwall town early for the airport to have a couple of hours before my flight to Edinburgh to do some emails and blogging.

The main problem is uploading images of course. I have a couple of hours before a flight to Stockholm here in Edinburgh. It’s an end of quaint country pubs and friendly locals with heavy accents to a modern metropolis.
I am so glad I pre-booked these flights 5 months ago, NZ$180 from Orkney to Edinburgh and just $140 from here to Stockholm, which included checked luggage. So far my two costly flights were the ones booked a week out. This was done to give me some date flexibility; London to Edinburgh was $350.

Before I enter Scandinavia I must post a couple of images from my walks around the stone circles and ancient sites of Orkney. It’s not often I say to a bus driver, ‘Can you drop me off at the turnoff for the Stones of Stenness, please.’
I walked 2km up the road and practically had the three sites to myself. The weather was good although the northwesterly brings the temperature down to 12 degrees. The next day the wind swung around to southwesterly and it was really warm in the sun. I met some interesting people including a local medic walking his dog which was a New Zealand-bred Huntaway – a sheep dog. Everyone gives you information about local issues about the sites, can you believe someone recently spray-canned the stones. The medic also wanted to talk about the All Blacks and I can quite happily talk about rugby for about 5 minutes.

I also met a mad looking hippie German photojournalist called Jurgen who was ‘wild camping’ as they call it here. It’s legal in Scotland to camp whereever you like – a part of ancient rights for common people that still remains. He was on a commissioned job visiting distilleries and other places and was wanting to stay near the Stones to get those beautiful sunset shots – he had an enormous lens on a Canon EOS 80D. The sun sets at 11.30pm by the way – it’s a very long day, and of course it’s the absolute opposite in winter with really short days.

In this stretch of road is the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar and the massive Ring of Brodgar. The Ness of Brodgar is covered over because it’s an on-going excavation site and the dig starts again on 3rd July for two months. They only found it after a storm in 2006 – it’s about 5,000 years old, appears to be a full village, and now, as they say, archeology is being rewritten on a daily basis there. All these sites are free, there’s no security and it is the most beautiful place to be looking around with the distant rolling hills in various shades of green as the clouds pass over the sun.

I went on an official guided tour of the island that I had booked from New Zealand which included the World Heritage site of Scara Brae. Clive was the most boring person you could ever meet. The droned on like a newsreader doing the marine forecast, he didn’t have any personality and was painfully pedantic. For example, he stopped the van and spent 10 minutes explaining the military details of a British ship that was torpedoed in Scarpa Bayin WW2 . I have an interest in military history to some degree but the exact timing of the 3rd tordedo was starting to get to me. I guess some people are fascinated by this stuff, but not my group. I found the volunteer guides who walk around the sites were much more interesting and personable – these are representatives from Heritage Scotland.
I bought an Orkney tea towel featuring all famous neolithic sights – but haven’t decided who’s getting that for Christmas.
We had perfect weather with big white puffy clouds and sunshine and a warm south westerly. I was enchanted and could have stayed there for hours.

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Ancient places Bars and cafes guitar shops London street culture Uncategorised

Choose one thing in London.

Standing on the South Bank in the morning sun I needed to choose at least one significant place to visit in London. I’m only here for a few days before and after my side trip to the Isle of Wight. I strolled along the embankment and considered the options. Living in London for about six years back in the early 90’s I stopped doing those ‘touristy’ things – but now I have no qualms about it. The National Theatre has two plays that interested me: Salome and a new one called Common set in early 1800’s – and they’d both be superb, of course. I have no interest in the big musicals but the wacky London Dungeon show looks like the kind of cheap gory slapstick I’d enjoy. I immediately ruled out the London Eye and the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace is never going to be on the list. I settled on St Paul’s Cathedral because I’ve never been inside – I spent two amazing hours there, even climbing the stairs to the upper outdoor balcony.
Entrance is £16 and includes a headset and a very hi tech visual hand unit about the size of an iPhone 7 with videos and information that’s really easy to use. I normally hate these fiddley things with a commentary but some clever tech team has designed something quite amazing because you choose the bits you want to hear and there’s short videos.
I used my binoculars and learned the story of each panel in the main dome. Paul’s journey to Christianity and his spreading of the word. I have looked closely at a few ancient religious story panels recently and realise the faith was primarily based on a few clever conjuring tricks; getting bitten by a snake and not dying, making someone instantly blind, and curing a cripple (‘look he’s walking!’) is all the proof you need. One of the panels in the great dome shows Paul burning the books of other pagan belief structures of the time – way to go. Religious mythology aside you can’t help but be completely blown away by the architecture, art and music it produced – and I speak as a person who studied and still enjoys listening to Palestrina plainsong, that’s the spooky male-choir music they use all the way through movies like The DaVinci Code.
It was a big day; I bought advance tickets for my journey to the Isle of Wight at Waterloo Station in person so I could talk about the options. It’s one of the wonderful things about Britain, and I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book while travelling and he says the same things but much better – Britain is charming. London is full of people and yet it feels safe, sensible and civilised. It’s a good change from the grim and menacing hordes of homeless on the street corners in Portland. I only saw a few individual beggars in London, apparently, Boris Johnson ‘got rid of them’.
I enjoyed wandering through Soho, had a bite at a restaurant called Kricket where Luca used to work, chanced on a Kath Kidson shop and bought something for Julia. After St Paul’s I travelled to Brixton to meet Allan Evans, a New Zealander who stayed on in London and whom I used to play in a duo with, 20 years later we picked up like it was yesterday.

We sat in a place called Brixton Box, a cluster of containers around a court yard that’s definitely the hang out for the new young Brixton arrivées – arty and edgy, and a bit rough and ready. Brixton is still the same, lots of West Indian people playing reggae, it’s still grubby, but lovely.
People ask me if I think London has changed, well, yes and no, there are all new shops, people have phones in their hands rather than A to Z map books, there’s more people I guess, but to me, it feels and looks more or less the the same. It was the smell inside the Underground that brought it all back – I really, really like London . . to visit. I’m so lucky to be able to stay with Leo, an expat in Brixton just a short walk from the Underground. He is renovating a flat and being an artist it’s going to have some very tasteful features. It’s so good to have a friendly kitchen table to sit at – because onwards from here it’s going to be crowded hostels and cheap hotels.