Thursday, April 28, 2011

Belgium 17th April

Too early for poppies but lots of tulips everywhere
 Our tour of the World War One battlefields and graveyards began today. Our bus took us from Paris, through northern France to Ypres just inside the Belgian border. Here we found Tyne Cot cemetary.
This was our first experience of "Flanders Fields"
And it was somehow resonant that we did it on Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday, the day the Jesus rode into Jerusalem being greeted as a hero, yet knowing what was to come. His sacrifice  weighing heavily on his mind.

And here we were standing in acres of fields with neat orderly rows of head stones, stark white against the well manicured lawns. 
Almost every inch of the walls of the cemetary lined with the names of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the name of what they thought was freedom.
Names of soldiers as young as the young men we travel with. Their sacrifice weighing heavily on our minds.
Did they know what was to come?

a garden of headstones
 Many of the stones guard the resting place of unidentified soldiers. And the walls of the cemetary are engraved with almost 35 000 names of men whose remains have not been found.

the wall fully engraved with nearly 35000 soldier's names
What a terrible waste.

We are the dead.

Short days ago we lived,

felt Dawn, Saw sunset glow

Loved and were loved

And now we lie

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields, John MacCrae

Looking towards the entrance gate

German gravestones in Langemark

We moved on to the only German cemetary in the Ypres Salient area. They had just as many dead. There was a very different feel to the area. Note the difference in maintenance of the field. And yet the loss of these men was equally keen and sad.

Langemark gravestone

German soldier names engraved in the Langemark memorial
 We then drove into Ypres itself and settled in our school hostel just next to the gate.
Our bedroom in the hostel

Our hostel. Note the second floor sky light

Menin Gate

Menin gate lion

Inside Menin Gate
That night, at Menin Gate, we joined the daily ceremony of respect given to the fallen by the people of Ypres. 
No palm fronds here but poppy wreaths laid in honour. A moving Palm Sunday testimony to the men whose lives were sacrificed nearly one hundred years ago.

Our representatives and the wreath

so many names
The Menin Gate is the British memorial to the nearly 55 000 commonwealth soldiers who died without graves up to 15/8/1917. Soldiers who died after that date are commenorated at Tyne Cot. Built after WW!, it is the site of a daily playing of the last post ever since. The service is attended by hundreds of visitors and locals every day. 

Rome to Paris by train

Rome to Paris by train.
It's always such an experience to go to sleep on a train in one country and wake in a different one.
Last night we left Roma and travelled through Florence ,Milan and Switzerland and woke in France on our way to Paris. In doing that we have left behind rocky rugged volcanic countryside with what appeared to be random plantings of citrus everywere including alongside the railway tracks, grapevines and market garden plots in rich black volcanic soil in the middle of the city and we have arrived in the French countryside.
We are currently travelling through fields of green and gold canola, neatly planted and villages geometrically set out with neat french homes on garden plots with red soil. The sky seems a paler blue and in general the colour less intense. It is a different beauty. More ordered and pretty.  Winter seems more recent as we travel through the countryside. Trees with fresh green leaves appearing but still some frost in the air in the early morning.
What a wonderful trip this is. Today we arrive in Paris and head straight to Belgium. By tonight we will be attending the Menin Gate ceremony and one of our boys will lay a wreath at the war memorial. We will have seen some WW1 cemetaries and travelled across France from South to North.
More later.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Last day in Sorrento

In my next life I want to live in Sorrento.
Corso D'Italia Sorrento

Today was our last day in Sorrento and she turned on a beautiful day to say farewell. We only had the morning before we had to board the coach the return to Rome (3 hours ) and board the train for Paris which will take 15 hours.
Our Hotel Girasole, just out of Sorrento is set in gardens with, of course, multiple citrus trees. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but they actually have oranges and lemons trees and oranges and grapefruit trees. I knew it was possible to graft two together but I had never seen it before

Yes it's one tree

A small continental breakfast with fruit from their trees gave us the opportunity to head into town for a shopping expedition before heading off. We only had an hour and a half but I wish I had done more yesterday. They told me about the leather in Florence but on-one told me about the leather in Sorrento! Shops packed floor to ceiling with leather hand bags in beautiful designs and colours and quality almost impossible to afford in Sydney. 
We bought some beautiful hand bags but I'm not going to show you them because two beautiful young women might have their surprises ruined. I even managed to get myself a red back pack handbag. You can see that one here.

I brought Michael back to another store with Italian shoes and he quickly bought a pair of classic leather shoes for about $40 Euro. Bargain!
In amongst the crafts shops are green grocers with local produce spilling out over the pavement. 

Check out the local strawberries
And Raspberries
It was a nice place to stop for a beer. Then again it's always a nice place for a beer for Michael if it's a Guiness.

Better than the shopping though is that Sorrento seems to be a town of genuine artisans. There is even a community building and area for them and you can walk past the little workshops and see the inlaid wood boxes being made and talk to the manufacturers of Limoncello . Jewellers, porcelains and painters and lace and linen makers completed the picture with Murano glass available as well. There was a lot of coral and turquoise jewelery locally produced and all well priced. 
There were even hand smocked dresses in some of the windows.

  I would love to live here for a while. Better start brushing up on my Italian.
For lunch we met at a tiny Osteria close to the hotel. The owner was very proud of his food with good reason and we feasted on antipasti of asparagus, fennel, aubergine and magnificent buffalo mozzarella with scampi pasta, eggplant parmigiana and then large plates of various pastas and pizzas. the best pizza was Kathleens. The base was baked first and the layers of fresh tomato and buffalo mozzarella ( are you seeing a theme here? )were added. I think I need to learn to make this one at home.
This magnificent feast cost the grand total of $8 Euro each. I would highlyrecommend anyone to visit the Il Rotrovo osteria if you get the chance. It is tiny but well worth the effort.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I woke today to a beautiful clear sky and fresh air. It was quite cool but the promise of a warm day. After breakfast we boarded our coach and took the scenic route along the coast to Herculaneum. The driver stopped for photo opportunities because he said it was one of the clearest days in recent times. Traffic was heavy again and it took over 90 minutes to get there but it was pleasant and I have adjusted to the heavy traffic.

Herculaneum was amazing. For one thing, another town exists above it as Herculaneum remained buried under 20 metres of lava for hundreds of years

The port buildings that used to face the ocean

Obviously the playground of the rich in Roman times, I was amazed at the size of the houses, not to mention the ornate decoration. It seems every floor, wall and ceiling was decorated with tiles, mosaics and frescoes as well as bronze statues, marble reliefs etc. The houses are much better preserved than Pompeii because of the effects of 23 metres of lava and you can still see decoration on the walls. The rich colours used and the intricate patterns were quite beautiful. Michaelangelo 1500 years later would have felt at home. 

detailed brickwork

inside two story home
Two story home underneath modern building in Ercolaneo

The site is much smaller but we still couldn’t see it all in the time allocated. We took the audio tour this time which was very informative and allowed us to do things at our own pace. It is amazing to realise how much the coast line has changed in 2000 years. The sea is now some kilometres away from the ruins which were actually a sea port. Makes you realise how fragile our sense of permanence really is.

detailed wall decorations and tesslated marble floor

chaging room in the public baths

The students went to Mt Vesuvius from there and Michael joined them but I decided to go with Maria and Gina to the National museum in Naples which houses the majority of the collection of art works from Pompeii and Herculaneum, Let me tell you, Naples is a scary city. The traffic is so busy and the city dirty from all the fumes. We were quite happy not to walk the streets and just to get a cab t the museum.
mosaic from Herculaneum

mosaic portrait from

Once inside we were again awe inspired. Many of the frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum are now housed in this museum. I would challenge anyone in the 21st century to create mosaics as intricate as the ones foud in Herculaneum. Some of the tiles must only have been 2mm square. We saw many of the statues both bronze and marble and entered the secret room filled with erotica from all over the world. It was very tiring but a great chance to get a better appreciation of just how beautiful these cities were before the volcano.

Our train trip back to Sorrento took over an hour but would have been longer by road. Gypsies walk through the train playing music and passing the cup for donations. Many of the Italian travellers are quite stylishly dressed but few of them had smiles today. They all looked tired at the end of a long day.
Tonight, hopefully a nice meal at a trattoria close by. Last night’s meal in the hotel was abysmal so I am still to taste a good example of the napolitan style food.
Post script.
The meal was WONDERFUL.
Would highly recommend Le Pizza del Poeta.
Maria, Michael and I went together. We shared antipasti of Bruschetta made with tomatoes, buffalo Mozzarella and basil and a dish of Cuttlefish salad with Rocket and walnuts. Stunning.
You don’t need salt in Italy. The food is perfectly seasoned and many of the meals we have had have simply respected the fresh ingredients like we Aussies like to do.
Mains were pasta with Mushroom sauce for Michael, Fillet steak with mushroom sauce for Maria cooked to perfection medium rare.I had asked the waitress which dish the chef was most proud of on his menu and ordered that.It was a simple scallopine with fresh tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella and it was deserving of his pride. The best scaloppini I have ever eaten. Sides were a potato dish nd egglpant in tomato. Also delicious. We did not have room for dolci. It was all accompanied by a bottle of Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio and a large beer for Michael.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday in Notre Dame

After  a morning at the totally OTT palace of Versailles today I made my way into Notre Dame cathedral for the celebration of the passion . What a contrast.
There was a huge line outside the cathedral which surprised me. My accomplice today was one of the students travelling with us and he was delightful company. When we got to the front of the line we realised there were two entrances and the line we were on was for looking around the cathedral whereas those who wanted to attend the service were free to walk right in. Good Friday attracts the curious because it is the day the relic of the crown of thorns is displayed. I passed on that and found a seat to join the service half way up in the centre but unfortunately behind a very tall woman with fuzzy hair.
We then had time to sit and absorb our surrounding s and try to immerse ourselves into the mood of Good Friday.
The cathedral is unlike any other I have seen in Europe. So gothic. Dark, sombre and without overt decoration. It’s height and narrowness evoke man’s effort to reach heaven destined to fail without the intercession of Christ.
I don’t know what I was expecting but I didnt get it. I guess I expected lots of incense and over the top music. What we did get was very dark and sombre and perfect for the setting.
At 18.30 precisely a low grumbling note started. It couldn’t have come from the organ. It sounded like a double bass. But so low that you could hear the frequency of the sound and it reverberated through your body. It was a lot like the Tibetan monk’s chant. Totally unworldly and unnerving This note continued for minutes unembellished as the priests processed in. All forty of them. All men. ( of course ).
The masses traipsing around the edges of the cathedral were mildly interested and wanted to enter so they could photograph or video which I have to say was a distraction but the wardens did their best to reduce the impact.
After the priests reached the altar a plainsong chant opened the service. We then heard from Isiah and sung a psalm before standing for the reading of the passion. There was not a crucifix in sight but a pillar with 7 candles on the unadorned altar. The passion was chanted in plainsong with seven responses from the congregation. As each response was sung a candle was extinguished until at the end there were no lights on the altar.
In that setting, with that dark space, the effect was simply  moving.
Unfortunately we had to leave at that point and didn’t participate in the rest of the service. If it had just been me I might have stayed but had to get Anthony back for our farewell dinner. But that was strangely appropriate because even though the service was beautifully simple I was having trouble connecting. Was it the language or the bustle of the day preceding? I don’t think so. I think it was the size of the cathedral and the enormous number of men on the altar. Certainly not staying meant the whole experience was not complete but incomplete has resonance for now.
So that is where I will leave it.
More on the trip in sequence soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Start where you are!
Sitting in a pasticceria/bar in Sorrento. We are in the part behind the railway which seems more like where the locals gather away from the tourists. Waiting for the vodaphone shop to open to try to get an internet stick for Maria. The sun is coming out for the first time today and it is still cold. 13 degrees was the predicted. A brusque waiter appears after about 15 minutes so I order an espresso. He looks at me with suspicion. You really want an Italian coffee? Of course I reply. 5 minutes later a short black and a glass of mineral water appear for the princely sum of $1 Euro. I love Italy.
this morning we went to Pompeii.

 It was cold and wet and windy. Gusts of dust mean I will bring part of Italy back with me as dust in my lungs. It is easy to understand how the citizens of Pompeii asphyxiated to death. Still a wonderful experience to see this well preserved city.

 The frescoes surviving are still colourful.Amazing considering they are more than a thousand years older than the ones we saw in Rome 2 days ago.

 The engineering of the Romans continues to amaze me. A tour of the baths with steam pumped into cavities between the walls to warm the room is inspiring.

 The organization of the city and the modern conveniences like the fast food restaurant make us realise that nothing is really new.

The city was buried for almost 2 millenia before it was found almost by accident. The closest to an original Roman city in layout with streets oriented East/West and North/South. Our guide concentrated on the sexual life of Pomepian citizens and pointed out the brothel with the frescoes identifying what position was offered and whether it was a transvestite or woman available. Phallic symbols in the streets around point the way to the important house. Obviously our adolescent male students are very interested in this information.

Further on we see some of the plaster casts of the citizens caught on that dreadful day. The one of the dog in agony and the pregnant woman trying to survive are poignant reminders of our shared humanity.

 But the weather gets the best of us and Michael Maria and I decide to leave after lunch. A very convenient train takes us from Pompeii to Sorrento through tunnels in mountains in about 15 minutes! A journey that took 3 hours yesterday took 15 minutes. What a relief.

We arrive in the streets of Sorrento at siesta time. Many of the shops are closed which is probably just as well as there are designer shop fronts to admire with no option to buy. We wander down the alley ways with tourist shops selling their bright wears. I have honestly never seen so many lemon trees in my life. They line the railway line and occupy any square foot of space. Thick skinned and sweet. No wonder Sorrento is the home of Limon cello. Many of the tourist wares are reflective of the glut of lemons. Ceramics and linens decorated with pictures of lemons. Numerous bottles of lemoncello in amazing shapes like the boot of Italy and the classic cello shaoe. Tea towels and aprons beckon. But there are also beautiful linens and silks, pashmina scarves and LACE. I have to get back to the lace shop. My old love beckons me.
  There is a colony of artisans in Sorrento and you can walk past them working in their workshops. The most beautiful craft here seems to be the inlaid wood boxes available in many shops. There are wonderful jewelry boxes and music boxes. I am so tempted. They cost about $80 Euro but the workmanship is so wonderful and they are not mass produced. thankfully I have another few days to consider this and a very small suitcase to consider.

afternoon gelato
Eventually we return to the hotel on foot, noting the proximity of a laundromat as we pass. One hour for email and showers. Michael is having trouble with the internet and so I miss out. Thankfully Maria has extra time and I use her computer. Catch up on a little news from home. Dinner in the hotel was abysmal. The pasta tasted like macaroni with campbells soup as a sauvce and the fish and chips were ust wrong. Thankfully the afternoon’s gelato meant I was full so was able to push awat the food.
I wonder to myself if the look on the waiter’s face is shame at the poor representation of his country’s food or disdain for the Aussies who he assumes don’t know any better. We decide to get our washing done and sit in a dodgy looking bar while we wait. I have a Negroni. Have decided that even though I like bitter drinks, campari is a little too bitter for me. Michael has what is called the Italian Connection. A mix of Amaretto and brandy. I could drink that one over and over. Beautiful. It is only when we got up to walk back to the Laundromat that I realize that a Negroni packs a powerful punch Especially when you didn’t eat dinner. Hopefully I will sleep well tonight.
Tomorrow we vsit Herculaneum and Vesuvius.