Author Archives: Damien

New York

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New York has many names: The Big Apple, The Empire City, The City That Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot, even the humble moniker The Capital Of The World. When the opportunity to visit was offered to us via our round-the-world ticket, we jumped at it. How could we pass up a chance to finally see the city that looms so large on the world stage? So we scheduled a week there, and while we did enjoy our stay in Gotham we learnt that doing it on the cheap is not necessarily the best way to visit. We certainly want to return there in the future, but next time we will stay in Manhattan and ensure we have plenty of cash on hand to get the most out of New York. Our attempt at budget living backfired, and indelibly coloured our experience of that great city.

There’s no way to avoid the fact: if you’re a traveller without a friend’s place to crash at, then staying in New York is not cheap. A quick search of shows that even the cheapest dorm bed in a hostal will cost at least $25 per night per person, and a proper hotel room much more. And if you want a quality hotel room in Manhattan – ie. one that is quiet, comfortable and doesn’t double as a by-the-hour brothel most of the night – then you’re looking at $200 a day and up. That was simply too much for our budget, and we didn’t want to stay in a dorm for the whole week, so we scouted around for cheaper options.

We’ve written previously about using, the website that offers couches, beds and rooms for free to travellers willing to stay in someone else’s home. We have had some excellent experiences using this service in Europe, and remain in contact with Lillian in Norway and Santosh in Switzerland. However we decided not to try it in New York City. While I’m sure there are heaps of places on offer, I had an unspoken feeling that there was a risk of becoming a storyline in a future episode of Law and Order if we used this service in NYC. That left, another website that offers beds and rooms (or even whole apartments) in private houses – but for a fee. It seemed like the best option overall. You get very cheap accommodation, and though you are staying in someone else’s house, because you’re paying for the privilege there would surely be a reasonable degree of freedom and courtesy on offer as well. Or so we thought…

Even using, staying in Manhattan was out of the question due to price. However we found a place in Queens, one of the other four boroughs of New York, that was only five minutes walk to the subway and then a twenty minute train ride to Manhattan. And the price was very cheap: just $35 a night for a whole room. This particular house had plenty of positive reviews on the website and was available for the dates we wanted, so we booked it months in advance to lock in the deal. Commuting to and from the suburbs didn’t faze us in the least; I mean we are from Sydney, where a minimum one hour journey to work (each way) is the norm! We arrived late on a Friday night, and after some dramas getting from Newark Airport in New Jersey to Queens (including a taxi driver who blamed us for not knowing where we were going) we headed straight to bed once we arrived.

Waking surprisingly early the next morning, we did some quick checking online using the room’s free wifi connection to see what our sightseeing options were. We decided to buy the New York Pass, a tourist ticket that offers entry to dozens of New York’s top sights and attractions for a one-off fee. It was pretty steep at $180 per person for the week, but when we added up the entry fees for all of the things we were likely to see and do it was a great saving. So we headed out into the morning sun to pick up these passes and see what New York had to offer. And discovered that Queens, or at least our tiny corner of it, was a rundown shambles of a place that had few, if any redeeming features. The road was crumbled and irregular, the only places to eat were variations on fast food joints, and we were stared at quite openly when walking down the street. We were dressed casually in normal traveller clothes, but somehow we stood out enough to draw the eye of many a passerby. We must have looked like we didn’t come from these parts, I guess. Oh well, we thought, at least it’s cheap and we headed underground for our trip to the city.

Getting out of the subway at 8th Avenue and 14th St, we headed north and found a simple yet tasty deli for breakfast. Continuing up 8th Avenue to the pickup venue for our New York Passes, we found the streets quite deserted on a Saturday morning. After a very long queue to pick up the passes, we headed to the famous Times Square for a look around. “Square” is not necessarily the right term to use for this landmark. Extending in a long skewed rectangle for several blocks towards Central Park, on the weekend it is a bustling market area that was beginning to get busy when we arrived. After spotting the Ball that drops at midnight on New Years Eve and taking some photos of the neon signs and billboards that dominate the plaza, we wandered up towards Central Park.

Partly we wanted to see Central Park, of course, and partly we wanted to sit down and decide what were the main sights to see during our week in New York. We walked for quite a few minutes before finding a suitable spot next to a baseball diamond, thinking we’d walked a fair way into the park (but in fact it was barely a tenth of it!). Our list of want-to-dos was long: go to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre during the day, and the Empire State Building at night; cycle around Central Park; do a walking tour of the West Village; a twilight cruise around the southern half of Manhattan, and a 3-hour whole island cruise; visit MOMA, the Met, and the Museum of Natural History; go to the 9/11 Memorial and associated Visitor Centre; go to the Intrepid Science and Space Museum; the Spy! Exhibit near Times Square; doing a Bronx or Brooklyn walking tour; and going to the largest Cathedral in the world on 112th St. All these things were included in our Pass, and the hardest part was working out when we could do them! There were plenty of other second-tier options as well, such as visiting Madame Tussaud’s, the New York Skyride and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which we pencilled in as maybes if we were in the area. Plus there were other non-Pass options, like seeing a movie or a Broadway show, seeing a live band and visiting some choice bars recommended by Glenn, and of course eating in some of the countless restaurants that inhabit the city.

Resolving to try and lock in a few of these when we returned to our room, we crossed Central Park to the Upper East Side and caught a train downtown to the East Village. This is a rather trendy area filled with bars and restaurants, and we had a particular Japanese restaurant in mind for lunch. Souen is a macrobiotic restaurant that offered excellent set lunch options, and we would happily return there again if we could! Afterwards we headed west toward West Village and Greenwich Village, but lost the desire to wander after a while and opted instead to head home early. To keep the budget intact we planned to self-cater most meals, so we headed to the supermarket nearest our local train station for supplies.

After such a wonderful time feeding ourselves via supermarkets in Europe, shopping for groceries in Queens was a rude shock. In all the countries we visited in Europe the supermarkets offered excellent fresh produce and quality foods. Even the low-priced Aldi (or it’s offshoot Hofer) and Edeka stocked good products, and if you went to a premium place like Kaufland or Carrefour then the options were nearly limitless. And the range of prepared foods in supermarkets in England (eg. at Sainsburys or Waitrose) was so tasty that we had trouble choosing our favourite meals. Such choices are a world away from the bargain-basement feel of that first supermarket in Queens.

The mood was set when a burly security guard insisted we deposit our bags in the locker room. We had never had to do that before (although we have since encountered it several times in Ecuador). The range of highly processed food was extensive, the selection of fresh food limited and of rather dubious quality. Even the bread was disappointing. We knew already that American tastes favour sweetened bread, to the point where they add copious amounts of sugar to ordinary loaves of bread to make them sweet. We did not want that, so chose what we thought would be a sugar-free option: wholemeal bread (we were wrong). In the end we chose fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, ham and cheese to go with our (sweet) bread for lunch, and a couple of cans of chilli con carne for dinner. Even when we discovered a slightly better supermarket the next day, our options didn’t improve much and we ended up eating out more often than not that week.

Back to the house to make some plans for the following day, and what we thought would be a good night’s sleep. We didn’t interact much with our hosts the entire time we were there, in large part because their pattern of living was very different to most peoples’. The place was quite quiet until 9pm or 10pm, then they seemed to come alive and fill the house with loud talking, the crashing sound of dishes being washed, taking showers, and most surprising of all the sounds of their four-year-old son talking and playing until after midnight. Our sleep was interrupted that night, but it was a Saturday evening so we assumed (and hoped) that it was just a weekend thing.

The next morning, a Sunday, was our busiest and one of our best days of the whole week. Predicting that going early would beat the queues, we got up at the crack of dawn to get to the Rockerfeller Center when they opened at 8am. It was worth the effort: there were only a handful of other people queuing to visit New York’s highest observation deck at that time. The views were spectacular from the top, especially with the sun still low on the horizon, and we got some great photos in all directions that morning! Next mission was a visit to the docks on the west side of the island to pick up some tickets for a couple of island cruises later in the week. It took quite a while to walk there (there are no subways servicing that part of Manhattan) and back to Times Square, and we actually had to rush to make it to the start of our West Village walking tour.

This tour, scheduled for two hours but which in fact lasted almost three, was one of the best things we did in New York. James, the tour guide, was highly informative and entertaining as he walked us around just a handful of streets pointing out where famous actors, writers, painters and other artists lived or live. “Marlon Brando lived in this apartment when he first came to New York” (and then many others), or “Dustin Hoffman was living next door when the bomb went off” were some of the gems I remember! Interspersed with this was a surprising amount of info about the historical development of New York: from why the streets are numbered the way they are, to why a particular orientation of the bricks in your building indicated how wealthy you were during a certain period of time, to why people moved so frequently from apartment to apartment in previous decades, to how having an “active driveway” in New York today is a sign of extreme wealth. Combined with some rather negative commentary about New York University and a potted history of Washington Square Park, we were thoroughly entertained and informed and really glad to have been able to do this tour.

Because it ran over time we had to rush to our next appointment, grabbing a cab downtown so we could visit the 9/11 Memorial. While entry is free, you have to book for tickets for a particular timeslot so they can ensure an even flow of visitors and we just made it in time for our slot. They are still building the new World Trade Center towers but the Memorial is now finished, and it was a very moving and respectful experience. Where the bases of the original two towers stood there are now vast and deep sunken excavations, each faced with black marble and with water flowing constantly down the inside surfaces towards the bottom. From the edge you can’t see where the water ends and the effect is of an infinite and peaceful cascade. Around the edge of each section of the monument are the names of those who perished, and the rest of the park area is neatly landscaped with paving stones and trees.

Feeling in the mood for a drink afterwards, we followed up one of Glenn’s recommendations and headed to Ginger Man. This is a pub that is very serious about its beer, and I sampled a couple of very fine artisanal American drops while Kristen tackled some interesting Japanese beers (including one that tasted for all the world like a cold espresso coffee!). A great place, but we were aware that we still had a long journey to get home so after some snacks and a couple of drinks each we headed off. But we got a second wind on the train courtesy of some excellent platform buskers, and instead got off at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn in search of a live band and found a wine bar instead. We met a local woman who was up for a chat, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing New York, Australia, the world and other random issues.

The next day was deemed a rest day, and we stayed in our local environs in Queens. Technically it’s just a few hundred metres from the border with Brooklyn, but it was a rather depressed area nonetheless and we decided this was the day to sample American fast food. Maccas was the first choice, and (perhaps not surprisingly?) it was tastier than in Australia! Dinner was brought to us by KFC, and the less said about that debacle of a meal the better. It was American fast food at its worst, so bad that Kristen couldn’t even finish it. And I know the food was prepared fresh because I had to wait 15 minutes for it to be cooked! Walking around the local area, I discovered that I could have started practising my Spanish, because we heard more of that language than English on the streets. Overall it was a day to catch up on a few administrative details and watch a lot of television via our laptop, but yet again the night was disturbed by our hosts. Neither of them worked during the day, and once again the place was quiet until 9pm or so when the animal spirits stirred and the noise resumed. I slept okay that night but Kristen reported they were up, talking loudly and washing dishes, until after 2am. To get the most out of our New York Pass we had to get up early, so we were deeply unthrilled about the limited sleep.

From this point on we did a lot less each day, partly due to lack of sleep but also due to Kristen becoming sick for a couple of days. With our weekly metro passes we had unlimited access to the subway and buses, but even with this you still need to do a lot of walking between attractions, subway stations and more subway stations to get around. Normally not a problem, but very tiring when sick. On the Tuesday we headed first to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Though very well laid out and with an extensive and representative range of modern art, there were only small sections that we actually enjoyed and appreciated. It has a small but well-chosen selection of Impressionists, for example, and a handful of the social realist paintings sparked our interest. But many of the works from the 20th century left us cold, especially the abstracts. One particular work, Painterly Realism of a Boy with Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension by Kazimir Malevich, made Kristen extremely angry. It consisted solely of one black square of paint and one red square of paint on a white background – that was it (see it here). How on earth could something so simple be considered a work of great art? It was a giant wank, quite frankly, and to us it was an example of just how ridiculous modern art can be. The fact that similar paintings can sell for millions of dollars just underlined the point (a day or two later I read that another abstract work, considered highly significant and also consisting only of some variations in colour, was going to auction and was estimated to be worth US$50 million). We left the place after a couple of hours, satisfied that we had seen it but without any increased love for modern art.

After a cheap lunch at a decent pan-Asian restaurant near MoMa we visited a couple of our second-tier choices, Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, because they were close to each other and “free”. They were both interesting enough, but we wouldn’t have done either of them if we’d had to pay the exorbitant entry fee in cash. As the weather this day was wet and windy we didn’t stay in town for long, instead opting to return home in the hope Kristen would feel better the next day.

On Wednesday we got up early again and headed into town for breakfast. Choosing to wander the East Village but not knowing where to go, we wandered around a bit before settling on Veselka. This Ukrainian restaurant is a bit of an institution in New York, so it turns out, and the authentic food was very tasty and filling. Suitably replenished, we headed out to complete the main mission of the day: shopping. For the preceding six months we’d lived with clothes that were suitable only for warmer climes, and with South America just around the corner we needed some cold weather gear quickly. We’d deliberately left shopping for such things until New York because we knew it would be cheap, and we weren’t disappointed. Armed with the addresses of several outdoor stores we traipsed around SoHo for hours, in the end buying everything we wanted in one session.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant we headed to a bar-café for an hour, then it was off to the docks again for the twilight boat tour. The weather was better than the previous day and the sun was out as we set off, heading south towards the bottom of the island as the sun was setting and providing ample photo opportunities. We rounded the island and set off up the East River for a while, then back for a closeup of the Statue of Liberty before returning to the dock as darkness fell. This was another highlight of the whole week, and strongly recommended to anyone in New York if the weather is good. On this day we also met a stranger on the train, got chatting and discovered that his wife used to live on the street we were currently staying in in Queens! He recommended we walk along the Brooklyn waterfront for its fine views of Manhattan, and we resolved to do just that the following day.

We headed home for the evening, for what we assumed and hoped would be a quiet night. Wrong. We’d had some more late night noise issues the previous evening, but this night was extra special with the young boy breaking out his recorder and electric keyboard for a solo jam session – at 11pm at night. The noise continued until after 2am and neither of us could sleep, but nor did we feel we had the right to tell someone to be quiet in their own home. It was so bad that we used that forced awake time to search the internet for other accommodation, as we didn’t think we could stomach two further nights of disturbance. But as noted earlier there simply aren’t any cheap places to stay in New York, and those few that were vaguely within reason got very bad reports on various travel websites. We simply couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars a night on a really good hotel, so it was a case of “suck it up sunshine” and just persevere.

The next morning (despite our tiredness) we headed to Brooklyn with the plan to walk along the waterfront, as suggested, and then over the Brooklyn Bridge to the city. Unfortunately virtually the whole waterfront is under development right now and mostly we could only see a huge construction zone. Kristen was still feeling a bit weak after her illness, and with half of the Brooklyn Bridge under covers for renovation we decided against walking over it. With most of the morning gone due to our Brooklyn excursion, lunch beckoned again and we decided to return to the bar-café we’d visited the previous day and in the end spent quite a few hours there chatting and planning. As this was the last night we could do anything late in New York we were keen to find a bar or club with live music, but neither of the friendly bar staff could offer us anything concrete to aim for. After much umming and ahhing we decided to simply head to Brooklyn again and follow our noses, hoping to find something of interest. We briefly visited another of Glenn’s bar recommendations, Barcade (a large bar with dozens of 1980s video games around the walls), but it wasn’t the right vibe for the night so we didn’t stay. After an appallingly dismal burrito meal at a nearby restaurant (nearly all of which was left on the plate), we reached the conclusion that there was no point flogging the horse and simply retired for the evening. But “retired for the evening” doesn’t mean we had a quiet night. Back at the ranch, and the locals were again keeping up their nighttime shenanigans. The young boy again brought out his musical instruments, and the adults were talking loudly, and all this was coming in clearly through our bedroom window. Just one more day, we consoled ourselves, one more day…

Our final day in New York, and again we rode with the masses on the morning train to Manhattan. We had a couple of options to fill our time that morning (The Met? The Museum of Natural History? The Intrepid Technology Museum?), and eventually chose to start the day with a visit to St John the Devine Cathedral followed by the Museum of Natural History, as they are both relatively close to each other and also close to subway stations. The ride there was probably the most entertaining part of the whole morning. The young man who announced the next stop and the usual safety warning about the closing doors spoke with the most unusual voice. He emphasised words in a very distinctive way when speaking: “please stand clear OF, the closing doors OF, the train. The next stop IS, 57th St.” Each emphasised word was almost shouted followed by a strange pause, it was like he was channelling Bill Cosby! The line we were on was the only one that went to the Bronx, and we never encountered this speech pattern on any other train, so perhaps it’s a very regional dialect?

The Cathedral looked very unattractive from the outside, and when we arrived we wondered why on earth we bothered to visit. Neither of us are religious and we’d seen more than enough churches in Europe, yet we were drawn by the fact it is apparently the largest Cathedral in the world. The inside was much more impressive, and the size truly vast. After a short wander around we hit the train again and headed south to the Museum of Natural History. We had high hopes for this place as we are both very interested in nature and the world, and the reality of the “museum” was massively disappointing.

In the movie Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller has to negotiate numerous display tableaux that come to life after dark. So we knew that such “still life” recreations were part of the museum and were not surprised to see some. But we expected there would be much more to the place, not just an endless series of frozen and rather dull window displays. Even the descriptions aside each were very short, and in the case of some of the native American scenes rather racist as well. It was clear that few if any of them had been modified since they were installed, and the whole place looked like it was frozen in a time warp where the 1960s and 1970s idea of a “museum” prevailed. It was entirely passive, not interactive, and even the handful of computer presentations in one small area failed to raise much interest. We left after barely half an hour, disappointed but glad that we hadn’t paid in cash the exorbitant $25 entry fee each (it was included in the New York Pass) for such a stultifying experience.

With some of the morning still to go, we decided to finally head deep into Greenwich Village and see what it has to offer. The walking tour of our second day was great but covered just a very small area, and this time we wandered from 14th St southwest. The shops here are “boutiques”, not stores, and the whole place is lined with trees and reeks of wealth. We really enjoyed wandering this area, as it felt so different to the other parts of Manhattan. We were also idly hunting around for somewhere to lunch and settled on Spasso, a charming bistro on the corner of Hudson St and Perry St. What a find! The food was exceptional and pretty cheap for its quality, and we wished we could have stayed there all afternoon just relaxing in the sun with a wine or three.

But as it was our last day we felt we should move on and keep sightseeing, and headed north again towards the High Line. This former elevated railway was disused and dilapidated for decades, before a movement for its renewal grew in the late 1990s and 2000s (supported by such local luminaries as Edward Norton, who now sits on its Board). It is now a landscaped public space that is very popular, if narrow, and offers great views of southern Manhattan. We’d heard about it during our West Village walking tour and were interested in seeing it, but it slipped off our radar during the week and it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across it. From it we spotted another landmark alluded to during the Village walk: the ultra-modern apartment building that houses, amongst others, Nicole Kidman’s New York pad. From there we headed home again for an early night, as we had to be up at 2.30am the next morning to prepare for our early flight to South America.

Overall we didn’t do anywhere near as much in New York as we had expected, and probably didn’t get great value out of our New York Pass. But that was due to a number of factors: limited sleep thanks to our hosts, poor weather on some days, Kristen being sick on others, and being based in Queens which added at least an hour a day to our plans. As the week progressed we also remembered our usual desire not to rush, something we have avoided doing for the entire year until we got to New York. But because of the Pass, plus the fact that this would be our only chance to visit New York for at least several years, we felt obliged to run around a lot trying to fit everything in. By the end of the week we were over that urge and frankly rather keen to leave New York, and we were simply looking forward to getting to Quito so we could relax.

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When I first visited France for a month in September 2003, I deliberately made Paris my final stop. I suspected – correctly, I think – that if I had started in Paris then I may have gotten so swept up by life there that I wouldn’t want to leave. In the end I spent five days in the City of Light, and I deemed it just enough time to get a taste of the place without feeling that I’d left too soon. I ranked it as one of my favourite cities in the world after that visit, and I definitely wanted to go there again during our worldwide rambling this year.

Maybe it was because we found London so great, maybe it was because we wanted to simply relax a bit after the excitement of the previous week and a half, but neither of us were particularly excited by our week in Paris. It’s not that we disliked it, however we left feeling relatively indifferent about it in a way neither of us expected. While there are some lovely parts to be found, there are some decidedly un-lovely aspects as well. The trains, for example, while frequent and efficient (as they seem to be in almost all large cities except Sydney), were often downright ugly and depressing. I found the contrast from my first visit quite stark: perhaps without the rose-coloured tint of my first visit I could see Paris more clearly, perhaps Paris has changed, or perhaps I’ve just seen more of the world now than I had back then?

Despite our feelings about Paris overall, with a whole apartment to ourselves for the entire week we still greatly enjoyed our time there. In fact for the first two days we didn’t even leave the area immediately around it, as it was so comfortable and inviting! We found the apartment through the website, which allows people with private accommodation to rent to offer their apartment or house (or even just a room within it) to travellers at very affordable prices. During the preceding week we’d enquired about renting dozens of apartments in all corners of Paris, but discovered that just because something is listed on the website it doesn’t mean it’s actually available when you want it. Nevertheless with just a couple of days to go we got a few positive responses, and finally chose a bright and spacious place just outside the Ring Road that encircles central Paris.

The owner wasn’t able to meet us when we arrived at 9pm, but his father was waiting and explained all the features of the apartment and gave us the keys. There was even a welcome half bottle of wine, which was a pleasant surprise! The apartment had a good-sized kitchen with large island bench, fridge and all the condiments and utensils we needed, free internet, free phone calls to landlines in Australia, a printer and a huge flat-screen TV which we could plug our laptop into. In those first couple of days we luxuriated in having a proper “home” all to ourselves, and Kristen cooked a number of fine meals which we enjoyed on the sunny balcony 🙂

We did of course do some sightseeing in Paris, and our first day out and about took us to the Tuilleries garden, around the outside of the Louvre Palace, into Notre Dame Cathedral, and through some of the Left Bank streets to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we had lunch in the park. We found a nice shady spot on the grass, but were quickly told that the lawns in the sprawling garden complex were for looking at, not sitting on! A very pretty place nonetheless, and justifiably popular with Parisians whenever the sun comes out. In the afternoon we headed towards Montmartre, walking past one of Paris’ “hidden” vineyards and then enjoying the afternoon view from the front of Sacre Coeur. We discovered an excellent fruit and veg shop in Montmartre and bought a number of tasty items which were turned into yet another fine meal a la Kristen. Tres bien!

Over the following days we did visit some other tourist sites, such as walking around the base of the Eiffel Tower, going up the Arc de Triomphe, and viewing some of the amazing art held by the Musee d’Orsay. We also embarked on a hunt for a decent coffee, which is a harder task than you might think. We’d discovered during our roaming of the French countryside in the wohnwagen that French coffee often leaves a lot to be desired. The coffee culture of Australia and New Zealand is years ahead of France, and apart from some nice drops in Italy and London it had been months since we’d found reliably good brews. A bit of web searching revealed that we weren’t alone in our assessment, and in response there are in fact a few coffee shops dotted around Paris that aim to bring Antipodean standards to the French capital. One of the best of these is Coutume, so we tracked it down and were thoroughly impressed.

Coutume is pricey, but it’s very high quality and has a serious dedication to coffee. Kristen tried an iced coffee made with the Aeropress, a fairly new and simple invention that combines the best qualities of percolators and drip filters to give exceptionally pure and un-bitter coffee flavour. We were not surprised to find that the people running it on both days we went were Australian! We got talking to one of them, and she recommended an up-and-coming restaurant in the northeast of the city which we did visit the following day. It was interesting to try some nice bistro food, but it was our only restaurant experience in Paris and in fact only our second in all of France (almost all our other meals during our three weeks in France came courtesy of Kristen’s Kitchen).

The highlight of our time here was visiting the Palace of Versailles, the massive building and gardens of the former French monarchy located just outside Paris. The palace is huge and very impressive, especially the famed Hall of Mirrors which stretches along one entire side of the building, but for me the gardens were even more spectacular. Divided into quadrants each with a different design and theme, and with numerous fountains and statues dotted about, it was amazing to think that much of what we saw was created more than two centuries ago. We did a complete tour including all parts of the garden, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, and even managed to watch one of the musical fountain displays that were a special event on the day of our visit.

Without such a nice place to stay, I think our Parisian adventure might have been quite disappointing. As it was it made a pleasant interlude between the excitement of London and stunning beauty of Switzerland, but neither of us will be in a rush to return anytime soon.

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It’s hard to believe we were there just five weeks ago. We’ve gotten behind in our blogging during that time, but since we left London we’ve been to Paris, Versailles, Zurich, Bern, Lauterbrunnen (twice), Lucerne (twice), New York, Quito (twice) and the Galapagos Islands! Despite all that jetsetting, we both agree that our time in London is going to rank as one of the high points of this epic year of travel. It’s a city I could return to in a heartbeat, and I would even consider living there if the opportunity came about…

Some of the reasons why we loved London so much are as obvious as they were enjoyable. I have family living there, and we were able to catch up with my cousin Mark (who grew up in Sydney) several times during our eleven days in and around London. We got to know my uncle’s sister, Sonia, very well while she very kindly hosted us for most of our time there, as well as her children and grandchild. And we got to catch up again with Mike, a Londoner who we first met on that epic day in Penang near the start of our journey. Apart from spending wonderful time with Helga and JP in Graepel, dinner with CJ in Bangkok and a single day’s catchup with Andrew and Kara in Croatia, we have been starved of familiar company most of the year.

A less obvious but very real attraction of London is that English is its first language. We clearly love travelling to different countries – often the more different the better! – and usually make an effort to learn at least a bit of the local language while there. Even knowing just simple courtesies like hello and thank you can greatly enhance the travel experience, and in countries like Laos, Thailand, France and Germany we knew enough to get around fairly comfortably using the local lingo. But in all places we were a very long way from being able to hold a conversation or talk for more than 20 seconds, and it always took considerable thought and effort to remember the right words to use. In short it’s draining (though rewarding) to try and speak in foreign tongues, and after six continuous months of having to do so England shone like an oasis in the language desert. Imagine speaking without translating in your head first, being free to indulge in small talk and able to understand the conversations around you! We didn’t realise how much we would appreciate these simple pleasures until we got to England and started to live them.

London is also a city of endless possibilities, and we simply loved getting in amongst it and tasting what it has to offer. Below is a snapshot of some of the things we got up to:

  • Visiting pubs in Russell Square, Angel and Southbank. What better place to meet up with Mark than at a pub (or three)? London is a city that knows how to drink, and you’re never far from a watering hole to quench your thirst. Our catch up with Mike was also a potted tour of some of the nicer pubs around Southbank, including one that dates back to the 1600s.
  • Walking around Regent St, Carnaby St, Bond St, Oxford St, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. Window shopping in New Bond St was a walk down luxury lane, we stumbled across a great coffee shop off Carnaby St that was worthy of a return, and discovered that the deckchairs set up in Hyde Park are not free.
  • Checking out Notting Hill Carnival with Mark, only to find that it’s more crowd than carnival. The whole suburb was a seething mass of people looking for somewhere to go, and it wasn’t long before we ditched it completely and headed off to Jashan’s. Located in a less salubrious part of north London, it’s an excellent Indian restaurant that is several cuts above the usual curry joint.
  • Sonia took us on a very interesting tour of Hamstead Heath and Millionaire’s Row, and then contrasted the mega-rich properties of that area with a quick look at downtown Tottenham.  The local school behind the huge Whitehart Lane football stadium is prison-like in ambiance, with solid bars topped with razor wire and a full-time on-site police officer (Sonia’s daughter, Carla, works there and can tell some hair-raising stories of life there). The point was to show how different in character yet how close in distance these two areas are, and it was a thoroughly illuminating (and at times depressing) experience. The day also included a wonderful visit to Kenwood House for morning tea and a stroll around its gardens.
  • Op-shopping in Muswell Hill, the prosperous neighbourhood where Sonia lives. We also spent a great deal of time at the Sable D’Or café in Mussie, sampling its fine coffee and super-fast internet frequently on our way to or from the city.
  • Visiting Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally”, which is also quite close to Sonia’s place and Muswell Hill. This is a monstrous building superbly located on a hill with sweeping views of London, and surrounded by extensive gardens that are open to the public. The views from the top of the hill are wonderful and highly recommended for any visitor, and the Palace was the site of the first television broadcast by the BBC in 1936. It remained London’s primary TV transmitting centre for the Beeb until 1956.
  • Eating at Jashan’s again on one of our last nights in London. It’s a family favourite, and we shared a great meal with nearly all the Assirati clan 🙂
  • Discovering the joys of the Harrods food hall – late! The treats on offer here make the David Jones food hall on Market Street look like a cut-rate corner deli. Needless to say we were in heaven, and we managed to have nearly every meal on our last two days in London catered courtesy of that fine establishment!
  • Visiting the Imperial War Museum and strolling along Southbank. Even though nearly all of them are free, we didn’t do much in the way of museums while in London. However everyone we met said that the Imperial War Museum was a must-see, and we managed to visit it before leaving. It was quite overwhelming, in fact, and it’s a place that you could easily return to time and again to learn about different aspects of Britain’s wartime legacies. We followed it with a slow perambulation of the lengthy Southbank, which was thronged with people enjoying the evening.

The other major event we had planned for our time in London was outside of it: our pilgrimage to The Fat Duck. Kristen has already written extensively about that meal, so I will focus on the other aspects of the four day “holiday within a holiday” we took around our visit to that restaurant. It actually wasn’t meant to be four days, but we were enjoying ourselves so much that we tacked on a couple of days extra and simply relaxed in the wonderful environs of our hotel. The Oakley Court Hotel is a country estate near Windsor, conveniently located close to The Fat Duck and very prettily situated on the banks of the Thames. You can stroll along the water’s edge on manicured lawns, sit in the stately rooms of the main house or enjoy the sun on the outdoor terrace. All these things were fine attractions and we certainly did make use of them, but the clincher for our decision to stay there was that Oakley Court was used as the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter in the cult 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could we not take up the opportunity to stay in the Rocky Horror house??

Our two days at Oakley Court extended to three, then to four, and on the last day we went to nearby Windsor to visit the Queen. Well, almost: Windsor Castle is the home of the Monarch and open to visitors most of the time. It’s a splendid castle with commanding views of the surrounding countryside, and we also went on an optional “behind the scenes” tour of the Great Kitchen. This short journey to less-visited parts of the castle was more about the fire of 1992, and what the subsequent renovations revealed about the hitherto hidden history of the castle, than it was about the kitchen, but it was very interesting nonetheless and gave an insight into the below-stairs life of the castle. We spent several hours there in total, visiting all the key sights including the State Rooms, the Doll House and St George chapel. Highly recommended, and thanks to Mike for suggesting it.

There was so much more we could have seen and done in London, and we seriously considered or intended to see a West End show, visit the Tower of London, go to The Clink, check out Camden Town and see a live band, amongst other activities. These are things we will have to save for our next visit!

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Champagne break

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Though we both love a drop of quality champagne, visiting the area that it comes from wasn’t high on our list of places to visit when we started our wohnwagen journey around Europe. It was only when we realised that ‘completing the loop’ by heading back to Graepel via France and western Germany was the best option that we put it on the agenda – and even then it was only an add-on after our must-do stop in Burgundy. I’m glad to have visited it, and can see that the serious enthusiast with cash to burn could certainly get a lot out of staying there, but for a casual tourist I would only recommend it if you’re in the area and have time to kill.

We stayed in the heart of the wine-producing region, Epernay, in the comfortable and relaxed campsite on the edge of town. The countryside immediately surrounding the town is covered with vines, but after Burgundy it was surprising how little of the larger area around it is devoted to wine. The town is prosperous and some parts, such as the prestigious Avenue de Champagne where a number of grand wine houses are headquartered, reek of wealth. But it was interesting to drive around and see that just a kilometre or two away are rather depressing tenement-style apartment buildings, and overall Epernay itself left me with the impression it is a town of mixed prosperity.

Of course we did indulge in some wine-related tourism, primarily by doing a cellar tour of one of the larger houses, Mercier. This modern and high-tech facility has always been at the cutting edge of technology (as the commentary made clear repeatedly during the one hour tour), and it was entertaining to hear the stories of the company’s past while driving on a laser-guided train through several kilometres of underground cellars dug into the chalk beneath the Avenue de Champagne. It culminated with a tasting of several of their wines, but they didn’t impress us much and we certainly wouldn’t spend any of our hard-earned on buying a bottle. Mercier is one of the larger Champagne houses and now is owned by the drinks conglomerate LVMH; a case of quality marketing triumphing over quality product? That could be the story of Champagne in general, for despite discovering a couple of excellent local wines we also found a few duds, including some labels that have a high reputation and command equally high prices. Like Burgundy and Bordeaux, Champagne has treasures to be found but also dogs to be avoided, and without a trusty guide and/or oodles of time and money you’ll never know which is which.

In any case, our fondest memories of Champagne have nothing to do with wine. Our visit coincided with what was supposed to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers for many years, and on two nights we spent time on a blanket under the stars staring up at the sky in the hope of seeing some shooting stars (we did!). Epernay was where we tried the famous “Royale with cheese” at McDonalds (inspired by the movie Pulp Fiction, if you didn’t know) while using their free wifi. We convinced ourselves that it was the wifi that brought us back several times, honest! Epernay was where we had several torrid tournaments of Pass The Pigs, a simple yet highly addictive travel game that Kristen won with infuriating regularity. And it was where Kristen finally started to document (via photos) some of the roundabouts of France, which reached a creative highpoint in Epernay for some reason (eg. the one styled like an Olympic kayaking course, or the one with snooker balls and cues elegantly on display).

Epernay was a welcome rest point on our long journey back to northern Germany, but it was not the highlight I expected. Nevertheless we dragged our stay here to three nights as we were becoming increasingly reluctant to face the facts: our time in the wohnwagen was fast coming to an end…

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Magical Merseault

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It began with a gift. Back in the late 1990s James gifted me a wine appreciation course for Christmas, prompted by my budding interest in food and wine. Good fortune saw that the course was run by Sharon Wild, then as now a very enthusiastic wine educator. That educational experience was exciting and illuminating, and as Sharon Wild has a particular passion for the wines of the world (not just from Australia) it opened my mind to endless possibilities. It has inspired a lifelong obsession for great food, wine and restaurants, and led me to dozens of wine regions around Australia, New Zealand and France.

Kristen shares this obsession, and in fact it was our common interest in food, wine and travel that saw us take our first holiday together just a few weeks after meeting each other. In late 2009 we hopped in the car and spent more than a week touring some of the great regional restaurants and wine regions of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and we came back from it knowing we would certainly do more touring of that kind!

So when we decided to return to Graepel in northern Germany via France, we made sure we would see Burgundy on the way. I didn’t get to visit this famous region in 2003 when I first went to France, and have long harboured a desire to see it. I’ve savoured a few wonderful Burgundian wines over the years, both red and white, but only at restaurants in Australia and only with the advice of a sommelier. I’ve always thought that learning about the intricacies of Burgundy (and it’s a very complex field for a relatively small area!) would best be started, at least, with a first-hand appreciation of its landscape. We ended up staying at a campsite in Merseault, a town known for its chardonnays for centuries, and we both agree that it was the most-special place we pitched the caravan. Throw in superb wines and excellent local foods, and for me our four days in Merseault are equal with Plitvice Lakes, Bled and our time in Aups as the best stops during our entire two months on the road.

The campsite, La Grappe d’Or, is so perfectly situated that it must be one of the best places to stay in Burgundy – full stop. Located about a kilometre north-west of the village of Merseault, it is on a slight hill with all the pitches terraced so that each has at least a partial view of the vineyards between the campsite and the town. Ours was a particularly special view, with a wide expanse of vineyards visible and the beautiful roofline of the town clear in the distance. It is a great example of how camping can sometimes offer the best travel experiences, regardless of price! The pitch itself was very large and spacious, and we spent plenty of time at our outdoor table soaking in the vista. With a glass or two of local wine, of course!

However we did do a lot of exploration too. Greater Burgundy is quite large, encompassing outlying areas near Auxerre, Chablis and Macon. But the most famous part is the Cote d’Or, centred on a narrow strip that runs north-south between Dijon and Chagny, with the ancient town of Beaune in the middle. The area from Dijon to Beaune is known as the Cote de Nuits, and that from Beaune to Chagny as the Cote de Beaune. Merseault is in the middle of the Cote de Beaune, so it is that area we got to know best. Some of the highlights of our time in Burgundy:

  • Visiting the town of Beaune, a lovely place with immaculately maintained medieval buildings and the undoubted hub of wine tourism in the region. On our first afternoon we popped into the Tourism Bureau to get some info on walks in the area, and Kristen immediately spotted a book she knew I would be interested in. Interested? It was perfect fodder for my obsession for Burgundy, with each of the appellations (and there are 100 of them!) described in detail with tasting notes, geographical information and even maps of the named vineyards (premier crus and grand crus). I got the book and spent a lot of time absorbing it during our stay! We returned there a few days later to visit the weekly Wednesday market, which was smaller than we expected but still a fine source of local cheeses, meats, vegetables and mushrooms. We ate very well during our time in Merseault.
  • Walking around Merseault and the neighbouring village of Monthelie, and towards Volnay. Guided by my new book and a walking map from the Tourism Bureau, we wandered these streets and country lanes armed with our cameras and a sense of wonder. Utterly beautiful and relaxing, and without question the most attractive part of the Cote d’Or. The closeness of the villages, each of which is a separate appellation and noted for having distinctive wines, was a revelation. With the aid of the excellent wine shop in our village, plus a couple of place in Beaune, over four days we tasted several different chardonnays from Merseault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. There were subtle but noticeable differences between them, which is quite incredible given they are all less than 10 kms apart! We only had a single bottle of red wine, a premier cru from Monthelie (grown about 1 km from our campsite), and Kristen rated it her favourite wine from our time in Burgundy. We were fortunate to only have good to excellent wines the whole time, and at prices far below what we would pay in Australia.
  • Cycling through the vineyards of the Cote de Beaune. Using the excellent bikes rented out by our campground, we followed the well-signposted cycle route from Merseault down to Chassagne-Montrachet. Rolling up and down the vineyards and through the pretty villages of that area was utterly delightful, and the local tourism authorities have done a great job in making it easy to do. We also had a look at the handful of grand cru chardonnay vineyards located between the villages of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, the famed plots such as Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet sitting majestically on the slope of the hill above the plain. We will probably only ever taste the lesser wines of the area, but it’s still very instructive to know how close they are to plots that produce the world’s best chardonnays. One of my favourite parts of our time in Merseault, from a long list of favourites!
  • Making a pilgrimage to the legendary Romanee Conti vineyard. This is where my new guidebook came into its own, because this famous vineyard is not actually signposted. The only acknowledgement that you’ve found the right place is a small plaque stating:
  • “Many people come to visit this site, and we understand. We ask you nevertheless to remain on the road and request that under no condition you enter the vineyard”
  • Like the Montrachets it is highly unlikely we will ever get to taste one of the pinot noirs from this vineyard – they sell for thousands of dollars a bottle, if you can find one – but they are considered by those who know to be some of the best wines ever made. What I found more interesting is how close to this vineyard are other less highly rated (and massively less expensive) plots. A great example of how a visit to a wine region can enhance your understanding of it far better than any map or book could do. Located in the heart of the Cote de Nuits, we drove to get there and also walked amongst other nearby grand cru vineyards such as Eschezeax and Clos de Vougeot. We agreed that the Cote de Beaune is far prettier than the Cote de Nuits, and were even happier with our choice to stay in Merseault!
  • Enjoying local foods from our village, especially the terrines from the local charcuterier. While we loved the terrines we tried in Aups, these were of even higher quality and included such gems as rabbit and walnut terrine, fois gras, chicken and asparagus terrine, and a superior version of fromage de tete. With a simple salad of mixed cherry tomatoes and a bottle of chardonnay at our outdoor table while watching the evening sun on the vineyards, it was as close to perfection as one could hope for J
  • Cooking with a truffle! At the Beaune market we spotted a few dirty lumps on the counter of the mushroom stall, each with a slip of paper indicating price underneath it. We thought they might be truffles, and indeed they were. The price was much more affordable that we expected – about A$10 for a lump the size of a golf ball – so we took a punt and decided to get one. It was a summer truffles, which is nowhere near as pungent as a winter truffle, but it was fresh and black and it was not like we could get one at Coles back home, could we? We googled the best ways to cook it and settled for scrambled eggs with fresh truffle and girolles, cooked by Kristen. The truffle flavour was not very intense but it was a delicious dish nonetheless, and an experience we are unlikely to repeat anytime soon. We decided that we wouldn’t bother trying fresh truffles again unless they were winter ones, ideally prepared by a chef who knows how to coax the best out of them.

Four days was enough to sample the area, and also all we were able to give it this time. But returning to Burgundy – especially to that special campsite on the edge of Merseault – is one of the things I look forward to doing when we come back to Europe!

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