Friday, January 9, 2009

Paris 5

French word of the day: baguette = turns out it doesn't just refer to "breadsticks", but also to "chopsticks".

Mum and I rose earlier than the others today, because we had designs on Père Lachaise cemetery.

No, in all honesty. We're both closet cemetery-enthusiasts. Probably something to do with us both being highly impressionable, and having read far too many wistfully beautiful fantasy stories throughout our lives. "A Fine and Private Place", anyone? (And don't tell me you thought Peter Beagle only wrote about unicorns).

When we were in Paris 5 years ago we visited Père Lachaise in the foggy drizzle, and ravens came and sat on the bare branches above us while we wandered. Magical. This time, we were planning on visiting Montmartre cemetery instead, but mum's knee had given out early that day. And besides, this time we were keen to leave flowers on Oscar Wilde's monument (everyone else leaves lipstick kisses for him)... and see the folk-legendary grave of Victor Noir. For those of you who've been to Canberra and the war memorial, think of the bronze statue of Simpson and his donkey, and how polished the donkey's nose has become from being stroked by visitors. If I now tell you that Noir's grave-statue has been adopted as a fertility good-luck symbol, you ought to get the picture.

Anyway, mum and I set out about 9 on the metro. We clambered to the surface at Père Lachaise and managed to orient ourselves - the enormous grey wall of the cemetery was surprisingly hard to see, even though it was right in front of our eyes. We bought a map of the grounds from a little street-stall near the metro exit (See? It's a popular tourist destination!) and headed across the road to the florist.

Alas! The florist greeted us, and upon quickly realising that we were stupid foreigners, informed us that the cemetery is currently closed because of the bad weather and ice. It's the balance of things, I suppose - we got to see snow in Paris, so we had to pass up the cemetery. I'll be back someday, dearest Oscar! [Dramatic flourish...]

What to do now, though? We climbed back down the stairs to the metro, and deliberated. I wasn't very keen on going to see the Champs Elysees (stared in the exorbitantly expensive window displays there once, don't need to do it again... and don't particularly need to see the look-who-we've-whomped triumphal arch again, either). Instead, we decided to catch the train back to the Ile de la Cite, and go and see Notre Dame from the park behind.

On our way through the shut-up flower markets, we passed the crowd queuing to enter the Sainte-Chapelle. This is a rather beautiful little church that I remember visiting the other time I came to Paris - once you enter you climb a spiral staircase to the second floor, which is filled with coloured light from the beautiful stained glass windows set along each long wall. When I'd visited in 2003, there had been perhaps one other family visiting at the same time as us. Today, though, the queue was so long that it stretched out of the courtyard and into the street. People were being security scanned before they went in. Has somebody written some bestselling book and made the chapel famous since we were here last? I couldn't think of another convincing explanation as to why there was such a sudden surge in popularity. Oh well. We decided we'd rather not spend an hour waiting, and carried on past the crowd.

We pottered along the street carefully - there's still a lot of ice on the footpaths since the snow a few days ago. Once we got to the front of Notre Dame, we let ourselves through the swinging gate to the park beyond, and wandered among winter-emptied gardens, and pigeons the size of turkeys. The cathedral is more spectacular from the back than from the front - mum says it puts her in mind of a huge ship sailing up the Seine. Huge flying buttresses hold up the nave, and you can see the stained glass from the other side. Then there are all the gargoyles, of course...

We strolled around the snowy park happily, along with all the other people who'd brought along their cameras in order to take some cathedral home with them.

By this stage we had an hour before midday, when we'd agreed to meet dad and Pip back at our apartment. We walked back down the shadowy, freezing cold side of Notre Dame, and back over the bridge to the Paris's right bank. At this point we got adventurous, and struck out without a map along the Rue De Rivoli - an area the internet guides had recommended as being affordable during the Paris sales. We dodged cars (I nearly got taken out by a taxi), and took a look in some of the shops advertising 50 and 70% off. One of the things we found was a short red jacket that matched exactly Pip's description of her "dream coat"; the description she'd given me the day before, while the two of us had tried in vain to find something that would match. Well, mum and I strode back to the apartment by way of baguette-buying, in order to bring Pip out to try the jacket. The Paris sales being as insanely busy as they are, we made lunch quick in case the jackets in Pip's size had disappeared by the time we returned.

Well, they hadn't - and the jacket not only fits her, but suits her extremely well! Retail mission accomplished. (Typing those three words makes me feel so dirty and materialistic... heh).

With the four of us regrouped, we set out in the afternoon for the left bank. This is the student quarter of Paris; the place where the council have replaced Paris's cobblestones with concrete in order to stop the stones being prised up and thrown at police during demonstrations. I only exaggerate a little bit. This is the part of Paris where you should go if you want to be able to afford to eat out. This is the best place in the world to see the sorts of young men who epitomise the tortured, existentialist art-student look; all stubble, long coats and troubled gazes.
You guessed it - I like the left bank.

We wandered the streets, which is a wonderful pastime all to itself in a place like this. I saw lots of second-hand bookshops and places selling vinyl records... wedged in alongside restaurants specialising in all sorts of multicultural foods. I noted some prime examples of French-style parking, too.

We passed a university campus - not the famous Sorbonne, but still quite incredible. It stretched for blocks, composed of old buildings with very fancy stonework, each one declaring itself to be something like "Minerologie" or "Palaentologie". I'd never seen a university with its own observatory tower before.

We strolled on. Past the Cluny museum that houses the "Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries. Through backstreets that were familiar to mum and dad - this was the area they'd stayed the first time they came to Paris, in the eighties. We walked past the hotel they'd stayed in, which is still there.

On we went through streets that seemed narrower than those on the opposite bank, or perhaps just not to well-to-do. Then rather suddenly the streets opened up into a huge square, containing one of the most vast and imposing buildings I've ever come across. I think what makes the French Pantheon appear so brutally BIG is the fact that the side walls are totally without decoration. Just plain stone that rises up and up above the buildings that stand facing it, until a narrow band of carvings that surround the top. And then the dome sits atop all of that. The other houses around the square look quite cowed by the structure.

I was mystified - I'd never heard of the French Pantheon before. What the hell was it? "A sort of crypt", mum said... and then infuriatingly "you'll see".

We climbed the stairs to the faux-Roman colonnade before the entrance - stone all carved like lacy leaves around the capitals; shielding reliefs of bosomy women wielding wreaths above each set of doors. We went inside, where it was only marginally warmer than the winter day outside, and bought our tickets from a man who was terribly excited to meet a group of Australians.

And then we were into the bowels of the building. It is nothing short of incredible - an absolutely enormous space, designed rather like a cathedral on steroids. The pillars are decorated, the ceilings are carved to within an inch of being totally impractical; every wall is painted with an elaborate scene depicting the life of Joan of Arc, or St Geneviève. There are statues all around - big dramatic ones, carved either with allegorical women of improbable anatomy, or groups of soldiers banded together valiantly beneath their flags. On closer inspection, the sculptures on this level turn out to be monuments to various groups from French Post-Revolution history. The Pantheon, you see, was built as a gigantic monument to "The Great Men of France" - and also to house the bodies of the select few Great French Dead. Who are mostly military types or intellectuals. It's like a sort of secular cathedral. There's a fleeting nod-of-the-head to religion at the far end of the interior, where Jesus and company are depicted in a mosaic - but it'd be easy to miss them. The building was originally built as a cathedral, but was comandeered during the Revolution and turned into a mausoleum instead.

Hanging below the dome is the original Focault's pendulum, a scientific experiment that demonstrates the rotation of the earth, AND rather handily tells you the time of day. I couldn't help thinking that this was the Pantheon's equivalent of a cathedral's altar. This place is such a fascinating mix of subversion and self-importance. But don't get me wrong - a great deal of that self-importance is well-earned.

One of the sculptures on the upper level amused me greatly - it declared itself a monument to "The Generals of the Revolution". There were various figures wielding flags and guns above this inscription, surrounding a man on horseback - unmistakably Napoleon Bonaparte. Interesting to see Boney upheld in Revolutionary splendour, when you remember that this is the same man who sent France back to being as a monarchy - the same sort of monarchy he'd helped overthrow in the first place. I really enjoy discovering contradictions like this.

Down a narrow spiral staircase you can reach the crypt, which takes up the same floor-area underground as does the street-level building above. Down here the neoclassical grandeur is stripped back, in favour of bare sandstone walls and pillars, shaped into beautiful but stark corridors and curves. Silence prevails, and the only light comes from yellowy lamps in sconces along the passages. It's a bizarrely theatrical space... and utterly unselfconscious about it. The architect must have been totally shameless.

This is where some hundreds of "National Heroes" have been buried, to mark the honour or glory or advancement of human knowledge that each of them brought to France during their lifetimes. At first the idea appealed to me on some basic gut-level - a sort of anarchist monument that stuck a finger up at the church, and instead chose to immortalise human achievement. Testament to the humanist wonders of the tangible world, not the obscure mystical thingies of the supernatural world. Like a temple for atheists, or agnostics!

However, the attraction wore off considerably once I scanned the list of names of those interred here...
One woman, and one woman only. I checked twice. Apparently Marie Curie alone is considered worthy of a place among the Great Men of France, and the cynical part of me suspects it's largely because she and her husband together "make a nice pair", like trading cards.

Hmmmmmmm. To quote that other great French woman, Miss Clavel: "something is not right".

We eventually left the Pantheon, when Pip pointed out that she'd lost sensation in her feet with the cold. We set off along more Parisian backstreets, on our way to the Rue Moufftard to try and find the famous food market. There was no sign of any stalls, so we stopped for chicken and chips at a cheap cafe mostly populated by people who looked like uni students. When we finally set out again, we discovered the empty marquees of the market. We're not sure if the stalls had been taken down for the day, or not yet set out for the night - at any rate, we'd missed them. This is probably a good thing for our wellbeing - we have been binging on French cheese for a fortnight now.

It was getting towards late afternoon, and Pip was only getting colder. She and dad set out to catch the metro back home - unfortunately the ticket machine they found wouldn't accept dad's credit card, so the pair of them had to walk all the way back home instead.

Mum and I detoured back a short way, to a shop we'd walked past that afternoon. Mum had pointed it out to me for the wonderful ankle-length coats in the window, in amongst a variety of goth-lolita style dresses. Understand that while some little girls fantasise about one day owning a princess-y ball gown and a tiara (why d'you think western weddings are so extravagant?)... I have always pined after an ankle-length coat. Mum says "The Matrix" is to blame, but I'm pretty sure the obsession stems from somewhere deeper. Well... today I caved in to that particular Achilles heel, and now happily possess a black velvet coat that may get me mistaken on the street for a half-hearted goth. I couldn't be more delighted, which both amuses and appalls me. May this be the LAST time I ever go weak at the knees for an item of clothing!

Mum and I had no troubles with the metro, and met Pip and dad back at our apartment, warming themselves up. Shortly afterwards three of us left mum behind and went to scout for Chinese takeaway, which we found. The woman who sold it to us was terribly nice and didn't seem to mind spending a good 15 minutes engaged in charades of tupperware containers and chopsticks.

Back we went - ate - and slept, after I'd called my friend C back home.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

More excuses! <.<

Typing this quickly in an internet cafe in Munich, waiting for a sleeper train to Paris, then on to Bayeux to see the William and Harold tapestry. I have wanted to see it ever since I was 11, and overdosed on History of Britain. (Who could blame me, really? Simon Schama is awesome. What d'you mean, you've never heard of him?!)

Anyway, the main purpose of this update is to let you know (if you're still battling on, trying to follow this convoluted and much-neglected blog)... that I'm going to be offline for a fortnight at the very least, with no chance of updating here. Still, the balance is that I'll be in Brittany (rural France), and spending a week of downtime. I'm hoping to use this time to catch up with all the writing I have missed or only taken notes for. That's a big chunk that covers the south of England, Amsterdam, Norway, and then Berlin and Prague.

So I'll be even more silent for a while... but then I'll swamp this blog with updated posts. Be warned... and be well!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


(From now on, in an effort to actually appear at all relevant... I'm going to work backwards to catch up on what I've missed, instead of working forwards. Cami and Pat pointed this out to me, and it makes a lot more sense than what I've been doing! 'Tis up to you whether you have the patience to check back for older posts - Norway, Germany...)

German word of the day: schmetterling = "butterfly".

We rose late this morning, and dad and I consulted maps over breakfast. Meanwhile, mum looked up the slew of museums she was interested in, to figure out where to find them all. It's a very neat system in Vienna: practically every museum in the city is located on or around the same huge block.

Mum's list read thus: the Silverkammer, the Sisi museum, the Imperial State apartments, and the Schatzkammer (the Imperial treasury). Four museums in one day, which she really enjoyed, and which breaks our Berlin record. Pip and dad decided they'd quite like a restful day, so they decided upon seeing the Butterfly Garden and then spending the rest of the day in our flat. I liked the idea of seeing the Butterfly Garden, but I had also put 2 and 2 together (it makes 5) and remembered that the artist Egon Schiele had been Austrian. Sure enough, the guidebook in our flat told me the largest collection of his work was held in the Leopold museum, only a few blocks away.

We set out together and reached the Hofburg, where mum departed to find her cluster of exhibits. The rest of us found the butterfly garden nearby, which turns out to be housed in a beautiful art-noveau glasshouse. We found the entrance after a bit of deliberation, and our camera lenses and glasses steamed up the moment we stepped inside. The interior is stuffed full of tropical trees and shrubs and creepers, with a pond built in the center and a walkway overhead designed to look like a half-fallen tree. The feeding stations for the butterflies are artificial flowers that get sprayed with honey each morning, but there are also hundreds of different breeds of real orchids blossoming all around the room. There are glass cases along the walls filled with chrysalises hung on sticks, some of them just-hatched, the butterflies hanging upside down to let their new wings dry out. There are dozens of little quail scurrying around the floor of the faux-jungle, and bronze statues of someone's idea of "native people" hidden in the greenery. It's quirky, but the effect is quite spectacular under the glass-and-metal roof. High up on the walls are plaster sculptures of gorgons and things; totally incongruous. I wondered if the building had been designed for something else, originally.

There weren't an awful lot of the insects to be seen, but at a guess I'd say they breed more of them in summer, when most tourists come. The main type on show, and the most conspicuous butterflies were those beautiful iridescent black-and-blue ones... that Pip tells me aren't actually Ulysses because their "tails" were wrong... but they were captivating nonetheless.

We spent about an hour there, and then I left dad and Pip, and struck out for the "MuseumsQuartier" on my own. I had a map with me that I'd sketched out roughly that morning, showing me how to get to the Leopold, and how to get back "home" in the afternoon.

The building itself is quite striking from the outside. It was only built as recently as 2001, and it is basically a giant white cube with a few windows dotting the sides. I went in, and discovered that while the outside looks good, the inside is hellishly confusing. You deposit your coat around a corner before buying your ticket... then enter the museum-proper to buy your audioguide from a different desk around the corner... and then have to go up to a different level to find the loo. The way the stairs are designed means that you have to stride through two or three dislocated rooms per level to find the stairs that'll take you up one level further. The closest thing to a map you can get at the info desk is a list of who's work is shown on each level; it's like they're guarding the secret of the floorplan. No photos, no coats, no bags, no sideways looks. I've no idea whether it's the desired effect, but the gallery's architecture and general atmosphere leaves you in the perfect frame of mind to appreciate Schiele's paintings: alienated and confused. Hmm. Clever?

I would have had lunch before venturing into the exhibitions, but the cafe was veiled in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and I decided I really wasn't that hungry any more. Back down the stairs I went, to the floor where Egon Schiele's name was listed.

His paintings were more amazing in the original than I had anticipated. I had been intrigued by the reproductions I had seen, and come to know his art by, but up close... the colours are so vivid, and his lines are so incredibly precise. The first room I entered showed his early works, mostly landscapes - with dilapidated old buildings drawn without any straight lines, and painted with watered-down oils so that it looks like every wall is damp and mildewed. The only bright colours are he used are painted along the washing lines. His trees look like bowed-down people.

Further on, there was a sizeable collection of the paintings he's famous for: his nude figures and self-portraits. At this point, anyone who's reading my blog and has firm ideas about nudity and eroticism being improper... had better skip the rest of this post. If you read on you may injure yourself, and the links aren't "safe for work".

The reason I have been captivated by Schiele's figures since I came across them is their full-on intensity. Not a single person he painted is ever "idealised", and the most contorted and ugly of all his paintings are his self-portraits. He is wholly unflattering. Angles replace curves; arms and legs get pushed and pulled all over the place. Every line is placed as though it were on a split-second whim, and yet the anatomy is perfect every time. He painted skin in purples and greens and poison-yellows, and yet it's still, convincingly, skin. Egon Schiele's figures are emaciated, or they bulge and blush in all the most embarrassing places... and their faces are coy or painfully self-conscious or even wildly angry... and yet they're so much more "real" than people painted by other artists. I've been a prude before, and some of his paintings can still make me wince... but it's precisely the fact that his art is so uncompromising that makes me admire it. I suspect the man himself was a total nutter (angry - egotistical - terrified by but driven almost entirely by sex and death). If his uncle had succeeded in dissuading him from art, I wonder whether his next choice of outlet would have been homicide or raving lunacy. But he was brave. Or maybe just arrogant.

They were displaying his 1910 Nude Self Portrait, which I'd seen reproduced before. It's a lot bigger than I had thought, and the colours more vibrant. It's also very hard to look at, in the original; those violent red genitals and those crazed eyes. It is entirely unsettling, and incredibly powerful.

On the opposite wall was a painting I didn't remember seeing before, called "The Hermits". It shows two men wearing black clothes and draped around each other in such a way that you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. My audioguide pointed out that their faces were likenesses of Schiele, and his artistic idol Gustav Klimt (you know him: he painted THIS). Klimt is shown with his eyes closed, and as though he were resting on Schiele's shoulders. Schiele's eyes, on the other hand, are wide-open and angry... and as far as I could tell, the garland he's wearing is a ring of thistles. There's a lone rosebush painted in the background, and it's all wilted and dry. I was fascinated by the picture; it seemed so totally arrogant in its assumptions about Klimt and its declarations about Schiele's own originality... and at the same time, the artist seemed so totally terrified by his own brilliance. I gather Schiele painted it in one go, in a towering mood, and refused to change it in any way, ever again; to him it was painted totally "in the moment". After seeing this painting, I begin to understand the whole idea of expressionism. Makes me wish fervently that I could put that much feeling into my own pictures - but then I think, "at what price"?

There were lots of other paintings that amazed me, and one or two that appalled me. Judging by his paintings, he seems to have had a real fear of female sexuality before he married... and a kind of scorn for it afterwards. The earlier pictures of women have malevolent, angry expressions and lewd poses; the later pictures of women have homogenous faces, and look more like objects than individual people. He painted a lot of scenes of mothers with children; most of the mothers portrayed are either dead, inhuman, or blind. I can't help but feel that this is a man who had seriously disturbing psychological issues; but even in the midst of being disturbed by many of his subjects, I'm awed by his creativity and freedom of expression. Mind you, that got him into trouble, as well. He was accused and then found not-guilty of "sexual impropriety with a minor" or somesuch wording; and when that charge was dropped, he was sentenced to three days in prison on charges of obscenity. Somehow, the second charge seems to have honestly surprised him...

Well. Mixed as my feelings are, my conclusion is that I like his art. And I certainly got a lot of thinking done in that exhibition. Before I returned to our apartment, I also headed upstairs to see what the museum had of Klimt's work. "The Kiss" is hung elsewhere, but I saw his "Life and Death", which is beautiful up close. I also came across a very sad story about Klimt's early work. You see, there was a lovely (though tiny) painting of a girl in a lace dress hanging on one wall, painted so realistically I had assumed it was a photograph. Turns out it was instead an example of Klimt's early work, long before the decorative, gold-leaf style everyone recognises now. When Klimt was just becoming popular for this traditional, idealised style, he and another artist were offered a commission by the Vienna university. They were to paint allegories of philosophy, jurisprudence and medicine for the uni's faculty ceilings.

Klimt set to work, and had a sort of artistic revelation halfway through his preparatory sketches. Suddenly he had abandoned the traditional, acceptable style he'd become known for, and began painting his nude figures like real people - old as well as young; at different stages of health; some pregnant. He filled space with dozens of figures painted this way, his brushstrokes almost impressionistic across their skin, their poses strange and energetic. He started filling the gaps with the spirals and golden patterns everyone recognises from his later work.

And when he was finished, and presented the paintings... a group of 87 professors from the uni signed a petition demanding that the shockingly non-traditional works not be displayed. When the higher-ups argued, the debate went public. Tens of thousands of people came to see the modern, "ugly" paintings. Newspapers accused Klimt of deliberately trying to provoke people, and made nasty comments speculating whether anything uglier had ever been painted. In desperation, Klimt bought back the paintings, and didn't exhibit anything publicly for the next 5 years. I can't think of anything that would be so soul-crushing to a painter who truly thought his developments would be appreciated by the public. The paintings were eventually destroyed in a fire on the last day of World War 1; it's like a last jarring twist in the whole painful story. All that is left of the works are black and white photos.

So. Austrian art history is a mix of amazing, upsetting, and inspiring. For all of Schiele's personality quirks and flaws, and Klimt's unacceptability among the public of his day, the two have become Austrian national artistic heroes. There is a lot of speculation in this museum about "what might have been" if Schiele had lived past 28... or if Klimt hadn't been so crushed by the public scandal his art provoked. But I kinda suspect the element of mystery is part of the artist's appeal. I mean, poor Schiele watched his pregnant wife die of the Spanish influenza, and succumbed to the same disease three days later. If that kind of personal tragedy hadn't occurred, and he'd painted on into his old age, would his intensity have burned out? Would his work have become unfashionable?

I have rambled; all depart!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Prague to Vienna

German phrase of the day: g'spritz = "with bubbles in".

Got up very early this morning, so as to have plenty of time to pack - and then found I'd overdone the earliness. As I was sitting around wondering what to do, I got a message from Pat to say that his first ever show on internet radio was due to start in a few hours. He's been asked to DJ for for a few hours each week, because the American "graveyard shift" is actually an ideal time for an Australian to be awake and broadcasting.

On realising groggily what his message meant by "first show", I got almost as nervous and excited as he sounded. Unfortunately, he was due on-air just as we were due to be out the door and walking to the station for our train to Vienna. I fenagled a little bit of extra time from my family so as to be able to hear the first 5 minutes of his show - hooray for family! It's kinda lucky I did listen to the first bit, or Pat wouldn't have had any warning that his mic wasn't working. Lack-of-hooray for technical problems! He wrestled with unfamiliar software while I tried to update him on what it sounded like. There was absolutely nobody "official" online to cover him while he fixed his mic, so he tells me he just resorted to playing music for the entire two hours, without pauses for talking. Baptism of fire.

I had to leave him battling technology, however... because it was a fair step to the station with packs on, and we couldn't afford to miss the train we'd booked. We made it in good time, and wandered to the correct platform. The station's only been changed into Prague's main station in the past week or so, and the new bits are built under the old station. There are points where you can look up to balconies and domes above, which belong to the now-abandoned old buildings. They'll redevelop it into a shopping mall or something, but I secretly like the idea of commuters scurrying around nervously beneath a big echo-y ghost station.

When we boarded our train, my engineering father realised it was a Pendolino. To us mere mortals, that means it's been designed to tilt into each corner so that the passengers don't notice the discomfort of being flung around by inertia. Mum has decided that the ideal way to travel is "with an art-lover and an engineer" - because you get random insights that you otherwise wouldn't. I think she said that after I pointed out to her that the manhole covers in Oslo had an interesting coat of arms on them. >.>

Anyway, our very comfortable train took us through rural parts of the Czech Republic, and through the slummier bits of outlying cities, both of which types of scenery were fascinating. The buildings here are so different, and so old. We passed rows and rows of allotments - Europe's answer to the vegetable patch and garden shed. A lot of the sheds seemed to have been done up into 4-metre-square holiday houses, with cute little windowboxes and decorated awnings - so that families can spend the weekend gardening, away from the city. We passed harvested fields where flocks of little brown deer ran alongside the train.

Eventually the country houses began to look different, and we crossed into Austria. Just after we entered Vienna, our train crossed over the Danube - and to my delight, it's really, truly blue! A sort of shimmery cobalt blue, like a crinkled silk scarf.

We disembarked not long after, and tried to find the right bus stop to take us near our apartment. We failed, and had the kind of four-way row only members of a family can have... where everybody's a little bit at fault at once, and nobody's going to admit it. We caught a taxi to our apartment instead, and got there safe and sound in the end. The next challenge was that our "greeter" spoke only German - and we speak only English, with a bit of French and Japanese between us. He took us up to the second floor and gave us our keys, and then we embarked upon a strange game of charades. I had made the mistake of trying to thank him in German for picking up my pack, and so the poor man decided that I must speak more German than I was letting on. He addressed several of his explanations to me, and then to mum when I proved no use. Still, we managed to understand several reasonably complex pieces of information - like the fact that the supermarket was around the corner, past the first set of traffic lights. I guessed traffic lights must be "Ample", like "Ampleman" in Berlin. I don't even know how to spell it accurately; I've only ever heard it spoken.

The man eventually managed to pass all the information onto we four stupid foreigners that he needed to, and seemed relieved to be gone. I felt sorry for him - I suspect he'd been expecting people who had at least a cursory understanding of German. We all slumped into the sofas in the living room, exhausted. Dad and I recovered long enough to go out and scout for places for dinner, and then the four of us vegged out until 5.30, when all the restaurants opened.

We settled upon the "Knossos", because it was close, and because even our knowledge of Greek is better than our knowledge of German - thanks to the cultural mix back home, we at least know Greek food-words. Turned out to be an awesome choice - Pip and I ordered the "fischplatte fr 2 personnen", and we were presented with a mountain of calamari, mussels, and other mystery-seafood surrounding an entire baked fish. Not very pricey, either! It was so early that we were the only people in the place, and I think the man who served us was the manager. He was very jolly and friendly, and jumped into our photo with delight. When I fumbled and dropped my fork mid-meal, he materialised from around the corner with a new set of cutlery and a sly grin.

After dinner we returned to our apartment, and I fell into bed early.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Prague 2

Czech phrase of the day: pristi stanice = "next station".

Pip and mum and I set out this morning for the Muzeum metro station. Mum wasn't actually coming with us - she was there as "backup" while I bought two 75 minute tickets for Pip and I. The plan was that Pip and I would go to Prague zoo while mum and dad went off and explored more of Prague.

We got our tickets, said goodbye to mum, and descended the escalator to the "linka C" platform. We footled about a bit trying to find the machine to validate our tickets, and eventually figured out it was back the way we'd come. No big deal, though, and we caught a train within 5 minutes or so. Every European country we've been in thus far puts home's public transport to quite hilarious shame. The idea of buying one ticket for multiple forms of transport seemed almost novel to me at first.

We got off the train at Nadrazi Holesovice, and boarded bus 112. At this point I got the route name confused with our destination, and we got off at the second stop instead of the sixth, in the middle of Prague-flavoured nowhere. Whoops. Pip said quite calmly that she wasn't bothered, because she'd been expecting me to get lost. Harsh, but fair.

Another bus came along quite soon, though, and this time we caught it to the end of the line. Mission half-accomplished...

Into the zoo we went. Wikipedia had told me that Prague zoo is rated the 7th best in the world (it's on a wiki, therefore it must be true!). First stop for us were the ring-tailed lemurs, which have been Pip's favourite animals since she was little (she had a teddy-lemur, not a teddy-bear, y'see). They're beautiful, sleek little animals, and their enclosure was quite amazing - it's on an island that you reach by going through a double-door airlock sort of thing (so that lemurs can't slip out the door with you by accident). At one end of the island there's a square greenhouse-looking thing which is the animal's sleeping quarters. At the top of that, though, there's a little cat-flap attached to a ladder, that lets the lemurs come outdoors to frolic around on their island. There are trees linked by ladders, all with park benches underneath so that visitors can sit and watch. There are no fences between lemurs and people. If a lemur felt so-inclined, it could come and cuddle you. Being winter (and feeding time), the lemurs had more sense than to be roaming around outside in the cold, but I still think their island is a cool idea.

We went to see the penguins as well, one of which decided to entertain us by swimming at lightning speed around the water tank in its enclosure - so close that I got splashed each time it porpoised for air. Awkward though penguins are on land, their shape makes sudden and wonderful sense when you see them swim.

There were a lot of other high points, as well. I'd never seen garials before - Indian crocodiles, almost extinct in the wild. The squirrel monkeys were my favourite animals of the day - they were in an octagonal hut with glass sides, and it was feeding time for them as well. They were rocketing around their enclosure, springing off the windows in front of our eyes with both feet, and stealing each other's broccoli. One launched itself for what it thought was a branch, seized another's tail, and they both fell out of their tree.

We saw gorillas, flamingos, big cats (there were only two inches of glass and air between us and a ton of tiger)... and we sang songs to the mountain goats, who were unmoved. Mountain goats are hard to impress.

We tried to see the red panda, but I remain firm in my belief that they don't exist - zookeepers just pretend they do so that visitors will always have a reason to come back and peer hopefully into the nocturnal gloom. The "twighlight" corridor had a semi-enclosed bat cave, and Pip and I flinched as little furry bodies went whizz-clicking past our ears.

There were even Przewalski's horses, with their thick noses and noble expressions; Prague zoo's main claim to fame is having bred the first Przewalski's horse in captivity. They went extinct in the wild, though some have now been re-introduced from zoos around the world. These ones were mostly staying indoors, save for the one who stood stock-still outside. Pip and I reckon he was probably working day-shift for the visitors.

We waved to the kangaroos and the emus on our way out. Czech visitors were taking each others' pictures with these weird and unfamiliar animals, with delight. Reminded me that everything is new and wonderful to /someone/ in the world. I rather liked the thought.

Pip and I made our way back after feeding all our remaining 2 Kraus coins to a ticket machine. We got back to our apartment by 4, and this time without making mistakes!

There was a pause of about an hour while everyone told stories of what we'd done throughout the day. Among other things, mum and dad had set out for a monastery in the old quarter, to see a beautiful old library that mum had seen a picture of, once, in an email. They had not only found the right monastery; they had even been taken on a tour of the library.

At 5, after all our recounting, mum and dad and I set out for the concert we'd booked the day before. Pip doesn't like classical music (especially if it has no words), so she stayed behind to do schoolwork. We retraced our steps from the previous afternoon, got a little lost, and finally made it to the Klementinum Baroque-era "mirror chapel". Part of mum and dad's day of wandering had included a guided tour of this place as well, so mum pointed out the old organ at the back that Mozart had once played, and the second organ at the front that replaced the altar under the communist regime. She also explained the ceiling paintings to me while we sat and waited for the performers to arrive. The panels are scenes from the Ave Maria, and some of them are quite entertaining in the careful way the visual has been constructed, so as not to subvert accepted theology of the time. For instance, one of the panels depicts the line "Hail Mary, full of grace". The painting shows the holy trinity shining "grace" onto Mary, who is then reflecting all her newfound shiny-ness into a mirror held up by cherub. The beam of light is reflected from there, out of the frame, to the rest of humanity. The elaborate zigzag is apparently carefully designed to show that Mary hasn't got her OWN grace to throw around - that would be an heretical suggestion - she's just "channeling" grace. Like moonlight is only reflected sunlight. The painter was being ve-e-ry cautious not to get things wrong.

Alas, no photos allowed. Do try to imagine it, though.

Anyhow, eventually the performers filed in. One of the particular drawcards of this concert had been the use of baroque instruments - and sure enough, the lead violinist was carrying a baroque violin with him. Boxier than modern-day instruments, and with a shorter bow. Our eyes boggled when a man walked in with what looked like a lute-cross-giraffe - the neck was about a metre long, and there were two fingerboards. When he played, he only used the shorter strings - the longer strings were "sympathetic" ones, that just buzz along with the others to create extra sound. The rest of the orchestra contained handful of secondary violinists, two violas, and two double-bass players.

First of all they played the Corelli Christmas concerto, and very well. I don't know the piece awfully well, but it's lovely. The next piece, however, was the reason we'd decided upon this particular concert in favour of the others we'd been offered on the streets. They were going to play the entirety of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

I know the Four Seasons is probably the most hackneyed of classical pieces ever.
I don't care.
I still love it to bits. It was the first piece of classical music I ever really sat up and took notice of, and I've never since met a Vivaldi piece I didn't enjoy. The best recording I've come across is by the Tasmanian Chamber Orchestra, and I have listened to that so many times that now I can actually compare performances - something I can't do with any other classical piece, because I just don't have any theoretical understanding of most music. I was thrilled to bits by the idea of hearing my favourite piece performed live in Prague!

I wasn't disappointed, either. The first movement of Spring was wonderful - the lead violinist had a jaunty little grin on his face the whole time, and sent his solos whirring among the high notes. The part I think of that movement that I have always thought of as "birdsong" sounded like a whole forest full of little birds teasing each other, and the part had been split up among all the violinists so that there were echoes, and calls-and-repeats. I realised there was something strange about one of the bass instruments being played - I had assumed it was a double bass, but something about the way it sounded was more like a horn than a stringed instrument. I don't know what the physical difference was, though.

Summer and Autumn were taken rather too quickly - the lead violinist was good, but overambitious. If he'd slowed it down a little he wouldn't have dropped notes accidentally, and the sound wouldn't have been quite so blurry. It would have made a difference for the poor accompaniment, too. Still - I was impressed by the fact that he'd tinkered with the arrangement. He added trills and curlicues in places they usually don't go... and he took some of the original "frilly" bits out. Sometimes to dubious effect, sometimes to brilliant effect.

Winter made up for the wobbly bits of the middle two sections. The Largo was different to any other performance I'd heard of it, before - something had been added to the arrangement so that the lute was playing notes not in the original (I think)... and the effect was that the movement had a happy, wistful feeling to it... not the slightly mournful feel I'm used to. Finally the whole piece was over, and everyone applauded very enthusiastically (including me!). True to Prague's "special extra for you!" personality, the orchestra played us a quick Bach piece right at the end before we left, by way of a "merry Christmas". I was elated.

We left the pink and green marble of the little chapel, and made our way back to our apartment in the dark. The Christmas markets were still bustling, and we bought greasy schnitzel-on-a-bun for a makeshift dinner. Back at "home", I read my latest book ("Iron Council") for a few hours before sleep.

I. Really. Like. Prague.

Friday, November 28, 2008


We had a delightfully lazy late start this morning, before sitting down to discuss what to do for the day. I had been dying to see the Uffington White horse, which is a giant neolithic chalk-drawing of a "horse" in a hill in the Somerset countryside. Mum and dad were keen to see it as well, for reasons I will get to soon - but Pip decided she'd rather stay in the gatehouse for the day, and get some schoolwork done. So three of us set out in the car about 10 o'clock.

28 years ago, in 1981, mum and dad were slumming it around Europe together. One day they set out enthusiastically in order to go and see the white horse. It hadn't occurred to them until they arrived at the site that a chalk drawing under several feet of snow would be invisible. They then tried to go and see Wayland's smithy to make up for the horse, but mum gave up in disgust after the first half k or so, once her boots had become caked in mud and doubled in weight. So - dad had once seen Wayland's smithy, and none of the three of us had ever seen the horse. We had high hopes as we drove along this morning, following the brown signs that pointed to the viewing spot.

I began to get edgy as we approached Somerset, along English backwater roads - there was a thick white fog beginning to settle on the hills above us. By the time we arrived at the start of the walk and paid the parking machine, the world seemed to have shrunk to about 50 metres in diameter. We opened the creaky gate into paddocks full of ghostly sheep, and set out along the trodden-down grass footpath that disappeared into the mist.

There was only one other man there when we arrived, and he set out in a different direction across the fields. I watched his shape become faded and indistinct, and then he disappeared into the mist. Once we passed the gate, we could have been walking through neolithic England for all we could tell from our surroundings. It was just us and the sheep, and what we hoped was the right footpath.

On we went, through another gate and further hilly paddocks. We passed a couple looking for a lost beanie, and then they too were swallowed up by the sheep-filled fog. Our footpath wandered around the spur of a hill, and then quite suddenly the ground was falling away incredibly steeply on our left, into a gully that seemed bottomless and full of grey mist. Apparently during summer the locals hold "cheese races" here. No, really - they're ever bit as silly as they sound. Someone rolls a wheel of cheese down this hellishly steep valley-side, and people throw themselves after it to try be the first to catch the cheese. They start out by running, but pretty soon everyone's rolling and falling over each other, bruising sides and breaking limbs. Is it any surprise that in the history of cheese-racing, the cheese has never been caught? This strikes me as one of the best demonstrations of why tradition ain't always a thing worth keeping.

Anyway, we rounded the top of the slope very cautiously, and came through a final gate, and suddenly - aha! Bold white lines at our feet where the grass and topsoil had been cut back from the chalk of the hill underneath. We were standing above the horse, right up close. The fog had lifted just far enough that we could make out the entirety of the horse when we stood at its middle, although with the distorted perspective it took us some time to figure out which end was its head. However, once I realised I was looking at its eye, suddenly the design "clicked".

I walked from the horse's nose right down to the tip of its tail, trying to figure out how anyone could carve something so precisely without the help of computers and satellites. Because the thing about these sinuous lines cut into the hill is that from the surrounding countryside, they resolve into the foreshortened shape of an animal that looks part-horse, part-dragon. The horse was made to be seen from a distance; its lines don't make quite so much sense up-close. The cuttings curl around a bunch of low hummocks; you can't even *see* the entirety of the horse when you're standing at the site. I was keen to see the design from the hills opposite, but that depended on the weather.

The fog still seemed very thick to me, but dad was adamant that it was beginning to lift as the sun came further up. We decided we'd put off trying the horse's lookout until later in the day, when the fog would have had the best chance to disappear.

We left the horse, and it ebbed silently into the greyness as we walked away. It was a slightly sinister feeling to turn one's back on something so ancient and obviously powerful - I got to wondering if those lines would still be there if nobody but the sheep stuck around to watch them. The valley the horse lies above is sometimes called "the manger", because of a local legend that says on moonless nights the horse wanders down the hillside to graze. I got the half-delighted creeps.

Further up the next hillside is an old hill-fort called Uffington castle. It's also neolithic, so don't be fooled by its name - all that remains is the circle of the fortification's earth wall and the deep ditch surrounding that. As we walked, groups of sheep broke away from their flock and followed us a few feet behind. Each time we turned around they'd freeze and look shifty, but if we carried on a little further there'd be faint "baaaa"s behind us and the little squelches of hooves on muddy grass. One group of sheep charged down the ditch and pelted right up the other side behind dad, baaaing victoriously once they reached the top of the wall. They lost interest in us after a while, and joined the flock of sheep grazing in the centre of the fort.

We walked back in the direction we'd come - and then up to a path leading along the ridge behind the horse and the hill fort. This was the way to Wayland's smithy, an ancient barrow or passage tomb (like Newgrange, only long and thin). The path had turned to sticky, caking mud, but mum was quite happy - she tells me it wasn't a patch on the thick mud of the first time she visited. There was a very old hedge growing on either side of the path - I'd say this was one of the few hedgerows that wasn't torn up when modern ploughing equipment became popular in England. It wasn't until farmers had demolished a lot of them that people realised hedgerows were important ecosystems for little birds and animals.

The path went rather a long way with empty fields on either side, and was above the level of the mist. Not long after we'd found the start of it, a big strung-out group of pairs of schoolchildren passed us with maps, asking us in Harry-Potter-esque accents if this was the way to the horse. I think they were in some orienteering challenge; the front few pairs were running as hard as they could through the mud in order to get somewhere, /anywhere/ first, and further down the line the boys were leaping from behind piles of soiled hay and ambushing each other with manure-pats. I overheard one redheaded boy say "blimey, there's supposed to be a CASTLE around here somewhere - we can't possibly miss that!"

After a few kilometres we reached a ramshackle little gate and a path beyond, that led to a circle of trees in the middle of a field. And in the circle... there was the dolmen, with the earth built up behind it. Surrounded by flat ground carpeted with red leaves. For those of you who had really boring bedtime stories, or didn't grow up reading Susan Cooper's books, or "Puck of Pook's Hill"... Wayland is the mythical blacksmith who could shoe any horse. His legends are older (I think) than some forms of the King Arthur legend, and he's in the same sort of vein as Herne the Hunter - wild and potentially dangerous beings who sometimes offer help to humans, but who are not at all obliged to. The legend associated with the barrow at Uffington is that some nights, Wayland would manifest there. If you left your horse tethered to the entrance stone, and left the smith the right amount of gold... you could return in the morning to find your horse shod.

Of course, the smithy is really "just" an old passage tomb that's fallen in. And the legends are terribly old and fragmentary. But I like to let my sense of wonder run away with me: there were holly and ivy planted together just by the gate - ten points if you can explain why that's significant, and 50 points *with reference*. And... I found horse prints in the mud as we were leaving. Wheeee!

We left after not-very-long, because there were a few more things we had to fit into our day yet. To hurry mum and I up, dad strode ahead of us and met us halfway back with the car. The fog had lifted a long way, so the three of us detoured via the closest Uffington horse lookout - and found that the school group had ended up triumphantly at the same spot. And there, stretched rampant on the opposite hill, was the horse-dragon! Some of the school group were cheering, while others took turns rolling down the smaller hill. I felt like cheering, too. I'd grown up seeing pictures of this place, and now I'd seen the real thing. It's not the best vantage point (the horse's head is a little hard to pick from this angle)... but I was deeply and happily satisfied.

We drove back through Somerset, stopping for lunch at the Rose and Crown - the same pub that mum and dad had eaten in on their ill-fated sightseeing day 28 years ago. Rural England seems not to change at all, really. I had creamy potato soup, and my parents shared a "ploughman's lunch". The bearded man sitting at the bar had a very new puppy tethered to his stool on a leash, and he was slipping her biscuits while he sipped his pint of beer.

We drove on again, through more miles of green and hilly countryside. I saw a few more chalk-pictures in the distance as we passed; these were more recognisable as horses, but far more "tame" and modern; not so wild and fierce as Uffington's. Uffington's horse was to these, as the flesh-eating horses of Greek legend were to Thelwell's ponies.

Our road passed farmhouses, sheep, farmhouses, and then monoliths - we'd driven into Avebury stone circle. It's just like that - you drive complacently along, and then suddenly there are a ring of house-high rocks surrounding the road you're on. We drove out the other side, parked, and returned on foot to take a proper look.

Avebury is comparable to Stonehenge - just bigger, and without further rocks balanced on top. Mum says she's always thought of Avebury as being a sort of "female" counterpart to Stonehenge's "maleness" - and I see what she means, now. (Yes, my mother and I are folklore-mad hippies only a few steps away from joining the druidic cult and going skyclad. Don't let it bother you - dad and Pip never have).

Anyway, Avebury consists of a huge ring of standing stones, many of which are balanced on their pointiest ends and seem to defy any laws of physics that I'm familiar with. They're all different shapes, too - though just rough-hewn, not carved. I was enthralled; each one seemed to have a different "character" to the last. You can walk right up to the stones, even touch them if you're brave or disrespectful enough. As we wandered through and around the circle, the sun was going down and the stones were washed in pink and orange light. By the time we wandered back to the car, the stones were baleful silhouettes over our shoulders. I don't know how anyone could bring themselves to sleep soundly in the houses in the middle of that circle, at night. Rah. Where might you wake up?

We had blown our timing (though the day was worth it!), so the drive back was through the dark. It was alright at first, but then the navigation got tricky (so many roundabouts!), so I sat in the passenger seat to be "seeing-eye-Ele" again. We took a few wrong turns, so by the time we were back on the final stretch into Bath - again, that awful stretch down the hill without streetlighting - the fog had blown in again, twice as thick as the morning. We must have driven at about half the speed limit in those last miles, but we didn't care. Mum and I were both in terror-struck fugue states, I think.

We got home safely, though, and sat and wobbled for a bit until mum's nerves recovered. Pip was pleased to see us after spending the day doing homework. Dinner was pizza (which seems to have become our fallback). Mum and Pip and I stayed up late watching rather a good BBC adaptation of the Arabian Nights, while our boots dried out on the apartment's heaters. I regained feeling in my feet for the first time in several hours, which was quite a relief.

Trust my dear sister to blow the day's carefully crafted mystique, mind you. I tried to explain the Uffington horse to her by showing her my photos and sketching what the design looks like... but unfortunately my sketch looked more cute than majestic. Pip promptly named the horse in my picture "Cindy" and drew a horseblanket and scarf over the top of it, so it wouldn't look so cold in all that fog.

O tempora, o mores.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Breakfast was served at 8 in the dining room, on a table spread with beautiful crockery and every condiment known to humanity. We fell upon the fresh fruit salad like hungry wolves (vegetarian wolves, k?). After that came a plate of smoked salmon on scrambled eggs, and toast with French jam after that. I had another pot of tea all to myself; I have declared to the rest of the family that I'd like my Christmas present to be a two-cup teapot. Pip declared we'd each receive one gift agreed upon by the other three family members this year, you see.

After breakfast we packed our things ready to move to the gatehouse for our second night, as originally planned. We then set out to walk to the city centre, but went the wrong way. That meant that dad got a chance to see Bath's rowing club, though. Somewhat different to his home club! Once we realised we were in a different park to the one we thought was shown on the map, we chucked the idea in and caught the park-and-ride bus into town. The idea behind those is rather clever, actually: to save congestion in the middle of the city, there's a dirt-cheap bus service that runs from huge carparks on the outskirts of the city - commuters can park for the day and catch the bus to work instead of trying to park in town. I've seen this in quite a few English cities, now.

Anyway, we arrived in the centre, and set about trying to find a post office. We must've asked directions 4 or 5 times, but the building was incredibly elusive. Finally Pip and I saw "POST OFFICE" written in grand sandstone letters on a large building, but on closer inspection it turned out to have been turned into a department store. The girl behind the perfume counter laughed when we asked her where the "real" post office was, and with her directions we finally found it squashed into a little alleyway. Pip and I went and window-shopped while dad stood in the queue. Lots of dubious fashions on display - good for a gawk! Pip and mum were also very happy to see the streets Jane Austen wrote so much about. I'm in a little bit of disgrace here, though - I've not read any of Austen's books yet. I have the feeling Pip is going to force-feed me "Pride and Prejudice" when she's done rereading it.

Next stop was Pultney bridge, which has shops built out along either side. They're each only about 2 metres wide inside - there was a cafe, a florist, and a shop that sold tiny dolls-house furniture pieces (from almost any historical period you could ask for). We climbed down the stairs to river-level, to discover that the streets running along the river have a sort of arcade hidden beneath, flanked with columns. That's all in disrepair, now, though - I think it could be made into an attraction with shops and cafes if the local council (or whoever) were to fix the area up. It's only blocks away from the famous Abbey, which we went to walk around next.

We walked on, until we came to the Roman Baths. This is the site where the Romans discovered what they (and the locals before them) believed to be a sacred spring, and promptly built a temple and hot baths on the site. To tour the site is fascinating - Pip, mum and I all hired audioguide machines, which gave more information than most of the signs up around the place. The main hot bath was done up in the 19th century, when the Roman ruins on the site were unearthed - now it's got statues of Roman emperors lining the balconies above, and is a little over the top. Still, when you get down to the lower level, the original Roman pool remains pretty much intact - lead lining, original drainage system and all. The water's fairly scummy now (it leaves an orangey-red residue along the drainage ditches, and in the deep pool it's a tarnished green colour) - you can't bathe, but Pip and I dipped a finger in. It's as steamy as ever.

Nowadays you can see most of the rest of the Roman temple complex as well - it's below street level, so you just have to imagine it as it would have been when it was open to the air. There were some fascinating things on display, like the "curses" thrown into the sacred spring. These were a sort of "favour" asked of Minerva/Soulis, the goddess thought to be responsible for the spring - you scratched your request onto a thin sheet of lead or pewter, and threw it into the water. The translations are often very funny - someone asking help to find a lost glove, for instance. Lots and lots of people asking for thieves of their various belongings to be damned for all eternity, or to have their ears fall off. The funny part was the seriousness with which these requests for retribution were delivered, and over such petty things as a stolen cloak.

We three females spent a long time wandering around looking at all the displays - Roman mosaics, tools, luxury items, headstones... and at the remains of the baths. I'd read about the Romans inventing heated floors, but to see an original example in front of me was kinda cool. Hot air was blown around stacks of clay tiles holding up the paved floor, thus:

Finally we left, for poor dad's sake - he'd found the place interesting, but hadn't wanted to read every sign like we three had (whoops). The exit to the baths takes you out through the Pump Room, of Georgian novel fame - which is now a very pricey restaurant. The interior was sumptuous, but still managed to be elegant in a distant sort of way; that seems to go for most of Georgian upper-class fashion and architecture, from what I can see. I must admit it doesn't do awfully much for me... seems too far up itself.

The Pump Room's other, err, "attraction" is that since the baths' sacred spring was rediscovered in the mid-19th century, visitors have been able to sample the site's "healing waters". The room gets its name from the pump with pushes water through a highly-decorated fountain at one side of the room. A woman stands in front of it, filling glasses and offering them to visitors. According to my audioguide around the baths, the Duke of Wellington once described the taste of the water as being "like warm flat-iron"... I have to agree. It tastes so awful, it MUST be good for you!

We left the Pump Room, and wandered around the streets of inner Bath, which are without exception built of honeycomb-coloured sandstone. We stopped for lunch at a shop that sold pasties, and we ate those sitting outside, battling the savage pigeons for the crumbs. Next it was off to the Assembly Rooms, which are another mainstay of Jane Austen's books, mum tells me. The ballroom was what impressed me - huge, very high to allow room for the chandelier, and with crisp-white plaster mouldings across the ceiling. The walls were painted eggshell-blue. I tried to dance a waltz across the room with Pip, but she wouldn't be in it. Apparently in Austen's time the dance was thought very improper. Tee hee.

The Assembly Rooms also house the Fashion Museum, which Pip had been very keen to see - a collection of outfits and accessories dating from the modern day back to the mid-1600s. Dad was mildly interested, so he took a quick look through - but we all agreed that the three of us would ring him when we were done looking, and he could go to a pub in the meantime. So that made everyone happy! The exhibits were interesting, and a lot of fun - many of the pieces were displayed out of chronological order, so that comparisons could be drawn between each piece. Pip and I went through reading each sign, and picking out our favourites. I fell in love in with one dark blue riding habit from the 19th century with a zig-zag pattern around the hems, but Pip was more interested in the evening dresses. The cabinet showing a history of women's underwear was particularly interesting, and there were replica corsets and crinolines around the corner that you could try on over your clothes. I can't believe how uncomfortable some of this getup must have been...

Eventually we came to the end of the exhibits, and met dad out on the footpath with perfect timing - no phonecall needed. We headed back for Apsley house on foot, so as to see a few last sights of the city. The "Circus", for instance, which is a ring of terrace houses that represent some of the first town-planning in the country. After seeing York, Lincoln and Sheffield, I wasn't too surprised to learn that town-planning was a relatively new idea. Each of the buildings in the Circus has a frieze running above the doorway, and each frieze contains carvings of bizarre symbols (snakes eating their tails, crossed spades and spears, all sorts of plants in bouquets) that might be coats-of-arms, and might be completely arbitrary. I wish I knew which, but there were no explanations! Our other architectural stop was the Royal Crescent, another famous arc of terrace housing for the very, VERY rich. Again, Georgian design left me feeling cold. Everything about it seems so... repressed.

We reached the local supermarket as it was getting dark, bought soup for dinner, and toiled up the hill with fairly sore feet. We moved our things into Apsley House's gatehouse, which has been turned into a self-contained apartment. Not as plush as the 5-star rooms in the house itself, but every bit as comfortable. Lovely and warm, too. We had dinner once dad figured out for us how the stove worked, and then we slept.