A French Summer Holiday Continues: Perigueux, Villefranche du Perigord, Limoges and Lyon

21 Jun

I love it when other people find perfect holiday houses in picturesque locations and invite me to stay with them.

Stuart’s brother, James, is 70 this year, the best of all reasons to gather family together in the French countryside for a week of celebration. He and his wife Sue had tried and tested the accommodation previously and rebooked for our larger group. Stuart and I drove down from Ile de Re via Perigueux for the final three days of the holiday.

Perigueux proved to be a delightful overnighter. The historical centre, including the Cathedral, are well maintained. It’s a pleasure to stroll around the medieval and Roman heart of the city and out along the river where athletes train for international kayaking competitions.

The most unusual piece of architecture we saw is the huge brick and stone Tour de Vesone, the last piece standing of what was a temple complex built by Gallo-Romans and dedicated to the female goddess, Vesunna. The tower was the inner sanctum of a large temple where the most sacred rites and prayers were performed.

Perigueux is close to the Lascaux Cave paintings, hence our hotel was themed and decorated with the Paleolithic artwork.

The location of our family retreat was just outside Villefranche du Perigord in the Dordogne. An 18th century manor house on 50 acres with two stone cottages, ducks, geese, Collie dog and a huge swimming pool, it’s a ten minute walk into the village for baguettes and an hour from Bergerac Airport.

Lunch stop en route where I celebrated Rafa winning his French Open semifinal with a fresh, seasonal vegan salad.👍😁

The littlies loved the property and the big people blissed out. The hammock alone is worth a visit. Strung between two walnut trees it proved to be the best way to calm a fractious almost two-year-old such that she’d drop off to sleep and stay asleep!

On our last night we dined out in St Pampont at l’Envie des Mets restaurant, sitting on their vine covered stone terrace beside a weedy stream. The thirtysomething chefs are a cute couple who both cook and serve their set menu which they adapted to serve me two delicious vegan courses. Everything was fresh and apparently the wine was tasty too. My gift to James was being the designated driver!

Next stop on our French itinerary – Limoges. Most people have heard of and/or seen exquisite Limoges porcelain. We have now viewed literally hundreds of pieces. The national museum of ceramics is in central Limoges and named after the man who did more than any other to develop the local industry. Adrien Dubouche ran a factory and set up a ceramics art school then began the museum with his own money. It’s now owned and managed by the state.

Housed in a huge imposing three-storey building the thousands of immaculately curated pieces of ceramic ware, including tiles, plus smaller collections of enamelling and glassware, would make a dream destination for art and design students. The ceramic collection covers almost all eras, countries and styles, however they concentrate on European ceramics and porcelain.

The one thing missing is a lovely cafe to break the visit. I developed sensory overload within an hour and needed somewhere to sit and digest what I’d seen and read.

Happily that is being rectified as a cafe is under construction.

Apart from the museum I am sad to say I can’t recommend Limoges. It seemed to us to be stuck in a time warp and generally uncared for. We did find an excellent restaurant close to the museum. Le Bistrot Gourmand is a popular lunch spot for business people. They serve huge portions of beautifully cooked food and the service can’t be beaten. Stuart was especially pleased to find his all time favourite, chocolate mousse, on the menu. Sometimes there is something to be said for being stuck in the 70s.

Jeanne D’Arc, icon of the French far right in a rather sad state.

Our next appointment was dinner in Lyon with our gorgeous friend Maryse. We only stayed overnight but managed to fit in a lot of belly laughs, food and wine into one evening at Bistrot des Fauves.

As the train strike continued and the Lyon-Paris line was out the day we needed to travel, we battled the Autoroute du Soleil and Boulevard Peripherique to make our flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. What should have been a four hour drive took six but we made it unscathed.

The final few days of this ten-week trip are focussed on family in Edinburgh. The wee bairn is eight weeks old and already so changed from when she burst into the world like a startled, skinny, pink little rabbit. She’s been eating solidly since and has joined the ranks of baby Buddhas just like her four-month-old cousin in Melbourne.

Grandparenting is the bees’ knees, all the joy with none of the anxiety or sleep deprivation. We’re complying with our sons’ ban on photos online, so apologies for not being able to post any baby pix. You’ll just have to imagine what’s under this baby-shaped lump on my front. Trust me she is one very cute bub!

We’re All Going On A (French) Summer Holiday: Île de Ré

19 Jun

Have you ever watched one of those French movies a la ‘A Summer’s Holiday’ wherein family and friends decamp from the big smoke for their beach holiday?

Romance and family drama play out against a sunbleached blue and white background of attractive, striped Tshirt and white shorts-wearing, tanned people eating, drinking Ricard and Rosé wine and doing what comes naturally. I’ve always wanted to experience it and now I feel I have.

La Rochelle is a stately, white stone port city on the west Atlantic Coast a two-hour train ride from Paris. A long, thin sand bar island with its broad side facing north-south, Ile de Re connects to La Rochelle by a three kilometre bridge. It’s popular with Brits as well as French city dwellers and it’s clear why.

White sand beaches with tiny beachbreaking waves, vineyards, wheat fields, sea salt-making pans, donkeys, horses, masses of birdlife and bicycle trails make it an ideal summer destination for families and friends. Almost every third bicycle we ride by is pulling a baby chariot.

The north coast has several marinas with gorgeous old wooden sail boats, while on the southside pretty white limewashed villages dot the coast. Early June with its abundance of roses and wildflowers is the best time to visit Ile de Re as you pay low season prices for accommodation and the weather is good. During July-August the island sinks under the weight of Parisian families.

Jean-Louis bought our train tickets. Fortunately we chose to travel on one of the days train staff decided not to strike. I booked four nights of bed and breakfast accommodation in La Couarde Sur Mer. La Dune Bien Etre is the home of Christina who grew up in the area. With four bedrooms and a shared lounge-dining area opening onto the sun deck, it’s just twenty sandy steps over the dune to a seemingly endless beach. Four bicycles are included in the rental so we have our sightseeing transport for our four days. Christina serves continental breakfast and strong coffee at 8:30am and gives us tips on what to see and where to eat.

Some nights we eat in, cooking simple meals we’ve sourced from the local La Couarde market. Other evenings we bicycle down the road to restaurants and return slightly typsy. It’s almost the longest day of the year and the streets are deserted so we don’t have to worry about lights and cars.

Every day we cycle a different route and eat huge lunches in outside cafes. Stuart and Liz are greatly impressed with their moules at the Lighthouse Restaurant.

The day we leave the weather changes, heavy rain sets in and Christina’s offer to drive us to the La Rochelle train station via the city sights is greatly appreciated. Local buses take a circuitous, stopping route that adds half an hour to what should be a thirty minute journey. Liz and Jean-Louis are returning to London and we’re collecting a rental car to drive south-east.

Our movie ends happily and we place Ile de Re firmly on our list of relaxed, family, beach getaways (off season) and I resolve to keep an eye on flights from Edinburgh to La Rochelle. Everyone needs a little sun and sand between their toes at least once a year.

Paris Encore Une Fois: Roland Garros, Montmartre, Pigalle et Fontainebleau

17 Jun

Whether it’s left or right bank, Paris is the best place to indulge in our favourite urban pasttime, lolling in pavement cafes observing passers by and commenting on them sotto voce.

Endless pleasure can be wrung from watching fathers carry wriggling, whinging children to school, heavy coated Senegalese nannies marching sullen tweenagers to and from home lunch, and blonde Eastern Euro au pairs pushing expensively dressed toddlers in prams.

Next best is to piquenique in a manicured Paris park. Sitting on slatted benches beside lunching office workers and language students on their breaks provides us with juicy fodder for idle speculation. So much furious smoking, flirting, bitching and moaning interspersed with consuming takeout food and drinks. Not us, them!

Saddest is the solo elderly person, sometimes walking a small dog, more often not. The back stories I create for them are heartbreaking. I restrain myself from leaping up and hugging them.

Every stay in Paris throws up new neighbourhoods to explore. This time it’s Montmartre and Pigalle. Our apartment is a former shopfront with basement just off Boulevard Clichy. I admire the artistry of the shutters and wall art.

We’re sharing with friends from London. Stuart first met Jean-Louis on the Ealing tennis courts forty years ago. Jean-Louis met Liz, Stuart met me that same year and we holidayed at Jean Louis’ parents’ villa on the Cote D’Azure. The rest is our history.

We’ve jointly and separately walked and gawked both neighbourhoods over forty decades of visiting the City of Light, but with a week up our sleeves we have the luxury of time to revisit icons, as well as wander serendipitously.

The following are Stuart’s and my highlights. Jean Louis and Liz often followed a different itinerary. Our best strategy was to set a wake up alarm and get out onto the streets as early as possible and walk to the main sights. By 9am tour buses are starting to disgorge garrulous, selfie obsessed tourists and the best of the day is gone.

Montmartre Cemetery:

Quieter, greener and better maintained than Pere Lachaise, staff thoughtfully supply a laminated guide of the last resting places of the famous and infamous. Nijinsky’s grave almost leapt out at us.

The less well-known are just as touching. The obvious love and care that goes into providing lasting memorials moved me to tears.

The only entrance to the cemetery is down the stairs from Rue Caulaincourt to Avenue Rachel.

Montmartre Museum:

As the home and studio of several well known Impressionist artists, includingPierre-Auguste Renoir, this converted 300-year-old building has extensive gardens, fascinating displays and a garden cafe. The reconstructed, light-filled studio of artist and model, Suzanne Valadon is evocative of the last decades of the 1800s. The house overlooks the last vineyard in Paris. A visit easily fills a morning after you’ve paid your respects to Sacre Coeur. Opens 10am.

Louise Weber aka La Goulue (The Glutton) who was the most popular CanCan dancer of her time became a lion tamer.

Jacquemart-Andre Museum on Boulevarde Haussmann:

This private mansion museum is the love child of Edouard Andre and Nelie Jacquemart. They first met when Nelie painted Edouard’s portrait. Doesn’t get more romantic than that. Art was their shared passion, especially Venetian masters and sculpture. From the time of their marriage ten years later they began to collect art and showcased their pieces in this purpose built mansion designed by Edouard.

When Edouard died Nelie continued to collect, bestowing many pieces on the Louvre.

The current temporary exhibition (until July 23, 2018) has 40 or so borrowed pieces by the gifted, admirable Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). One of the most multi-talented of the Impressionists, US-born Suffragist Mary’s life reads like a novel. Open from 10am-6pm. Entry to the finest tea room in Paris is free.

Le Tennis:

Of course since it is the end of May our trip is wrapped around days at Roland Garros for the French Tennis Open Championship. This time Jean Louis and Liz bought the tickets and scored us first Tuesday on Philippe Chatrier (main court) and first Thursday on Court One. Our luck was in as Rafael Nadal’s twice rain delayed match against Simone Bolelli was held over to start our first day’s program. Rafa began well but rain stopped play yet again and all play on other courts was suspended. This is where our luck changed.

After forty minutes queuing to buy beers we were told as we tried to re-enter the stadium that a new regulation decreed we couldn’t take any alcohol into the stands. The match was about to recommence. Two Frenchmen slipped past after assuring ushers that their beer was non-alcoholic. Nothing for it but to skol our large beers and float back to our seats in time to see Rafa despatch Bolleli.

I was thrilled to see Rafa triumphed in the final chalking up his eleventh French Open win.

When we inquired on our next visit why this ‘no alcohol’ rule had been introduced we were met with ‘What rule?’

Sacre bleu!

Roland Garros is generally managed well (they have an expensive brand to protect), but there are far too many merchandise boutiques and insufficent food and beverage outlets. The only place you could buy a drink without queuing was the Champagne stand! At 17 euro for a small measure it’s a bit rich for me.

On our second day we had the misfortune to be scheduled Maria Sharapova, ‘The Shrieker’, against Croation, Donna Vekic. I cheered for Donna but The Noise prevailed. Happily Sharapova was downed by Garbine Muguruza.


Eating out in Paris is such a treat when you have the time to research or can rely on trusted advisors. These were our favourites.

La Fusain in Montmartre has only been open two months. It’s the creation of three friends, a female chef and a two front of house staff. With lots of light woods, pale walls and azure accents they’ve created a chic, relaxed dining experience. We’d checked it out earlier in the week and reserved for dinner. We weren’t disappointed.

In the past five years the response to my request for a vegan meal has changed dramatically. Incomprehension, scorn, and confusion used to be typical responses. Now I receive a ‘Bien sur’ and a tasty, healthy choice of starter and entre. Vegan desserts are less common but I can do without them.

Looking for an apero bar the owner of another Montmartre restaurant recommended La Cave des Abbesses. A couple of tiny tables on the footpath and a well stocked wine store in front, so far so French, but if you  continue to the back and walk through another door you’ll find yourself in a modest room with loads more tables and a bar. The stock of the shop is available to sample and the menu is share platters. We tried a couple of Bio wines, one white sparkling and one white still. What we most loved about this place was the fact that aside from us everyone seemed to be local family groups. At one point while three adults were getting stuck into their cocktails their three girls, aged six to ten, were sent off to buy a baguette for the table.

I’ve walked past Les Deux Magots in St Germain countless times, once with Cameron on our foot slog around Paris (he had fallen arches by the end of that Mother and Son trip). Its tables crowded with customers served by starched, smartly aproned waiters dashing about intimidated me every time. That and the weight of its literary and political history since 1884 also put me off.

It’s a different place at 7:30am when the coffee machine is first turned on and fresh croissants delivered. We were the second customers behind a trio of dapper, retired Parisian gentlemen who put the world to rights over their petit dejeuner. The price was steep, 4.70 euros for cafe Americano, but both the service and the people watching were impeccable.

I’m pleased to report that the cafe is superbly run by the great-great- granddaughter of the 1910 proprietor.

As fascinating as Paris is, a day trip into the countryside is always welcome. This week we chose Fontainebleau, a forty minute train ride southeast. Occupied by French royalty continuously for over 700 years, Fontainebleau Chateau and its 130 acres of forests and gardens appeal to me more than overblown, garish Versailles.

Entry to the park is free.

The town is scrupulously clean and appears well to do with expensive boutiques, restaurants and brasseries. Stuart had a very smart haircut by a female barber while I wandered the streets and marketplace.

That day was a designated train strike day, but the Fontainebleau line was unaffected in so far as the train ran. It felt distinctly odd as we saw no rail staff anywhere except a lone uniformed person on each station platform we stopped at. No conductors, guards, or anyone else.

After our tennis and Parisian cultural fix we four thought we should do what every French person aspires to do come summertime, go to the seaside!

La Rochelle and Ile de Re here we come!

A Date with Irene: Sailing the Inner Hebrides, Scotland

24 May

Sailing an 100 foot (including the bowsprit), 80 ton 1907 West Coast ketch around the islands on Scotland’s west coast for a week, with excursions by kayak and on foot sounds right up our alley.

Irene of Bridgwater has been the passion and hobby of psychiatrist Dr Leslie Morrish since 1965. Morrish rescued the vessel three times from death by neglect. Two of those episodes were caused by raging fires on board.

Irene is one of the last two British original wooden, gaff rigged coastal freighters in existence. She hauled bricks and roof tiles on the Severn and across to Ireland until she was converted to a cruiser. The Bessie Ellen is the other original coastal ketch. Morrish runs sailing trips around Britain (we booked ours through Classic Sailing) and across the Channel. The only concessions to modernity are the Gardener diesel twin engines he had installed. Her rigging is close to the original which means heavy work sweating and tailing to haul up canvas.

After experiencing two fantastic Channel crossings on Provident (a slightly smaller traditional sailing vessel) we were keen to sample Irene’s itinerary as we’d not yet travelled off mainland Scotland. I liked too that Irene is my middle name.

Oban was our boarding spot. A three-hour scenic train journey from Glasgow Queen Street Station  brings you quayside at Oban. One of Scotland’s prettiest working ports and a ferry terminal for many of the island ferries, Oban has plenty of appeal to justify a stopover. We arrived a day early to walk the hills behind Oban to see views from Pulpit Hill and Mc Cauig’s Folly and take the Oban Distillery tour. The whiskey distillery was established in 1774, four years after the pub. The town grew up around both.

We were lucky to be there for Thursday night ceilidh at Skipinnish. Three young musicians kept around fifty young people and us dancing for an hour straight. Everyone else was on a Kontiki coach tour! It was fun to be back Scottish country dancing.

We also had time to tour the ancestral home of the MacDougall Clan, Dunollie Castle, and take tea in the garden tea shop.

We kept a weather eye on Irene berthed at the quay, her distinctive pale grey-blue hull and two wooden masts identifying her amongst the fibreglass boats and one elegant Swan class, Farfalla.

Come five o’clock we’d boarded and met shipmates and crew. We are nine guests (Australia, South Africa and UK) and three crew, plus a dedicated cook, an expert kayaker, Rory and an expert mountaineer, Tim. All the guests are comfortably accommodated below decks in en suite cabins and there is a huge open dining lounge area where the freight would have been stored.

Our skipper, Hannah Plowman, is petite in stature, but a supremely capable English Yachtmaster. She is abley assisted by first mate Dave from Yorkshire and experienced Shetland Isles deckhand Martha. Martha’s Mum, Barbara, is the ninth guest.

Martha (left) and her Mum, Barbara, below

The most important person on board, the one we’re told we musn’t piss off, is Alex, the cook. Alex is Rumanian and has a particular style – Russian gangster meets giant teddy bear. We butt heads at the first breakfast over my desire to have both muesli AND toast and avocado for breakfast. I’m told I can have one or the other but not both. Don’t tell a Tickle what she can and can’t do. We are still tied up at the dock so at the first opportunity I go shopping at Tesco for Devon muesli and non-dairy milk. Problem solved.

Alex above with his vegan chocolate cake.

There’s a delay leaving Oban while the crew source a replacement outboard motor for the tender. It’s decided we’ll launch the canoes from the boat in harbour so those who want to kayak can practice their skills while enjoying a paddle around nearby Kerrera Island. It’s a tricky manouvre climbing into the dinghy then sliding across to slot into the double kayaks. Eveyone copes well with the paddle and for once Stuart behaves himself.

At 3pm we’re able to push off our berth. We motor across the harbour and through the sound between Mull Island and the mainland. Hannah takes the opportunity to conduct our safety briefing.

The sun is out and as soon as we hit a wide expanse of water all hands are called to raise the mizzen then two of the smaller jibs on the bowsprit. It feels good to work muscles hard again.

For a glorious hour and a half we are sailing!

We still have to do the man overboard drill though so as we make our way slowly towards our anchorage Bob, the pink bouy, is tossed overboard tied to a bucket. Martha is dispatched by tender to pick him up while we spot Bob and try to keep Irene in the same spot.

With Bob back on board we slowly progress towards the anchorage which proves to be unsuitable so it’s back out and around to find something wider where Irene can swing on anchor. It’s a late but delicious dinner. By 10pm the fresh air and exercise sends us to our bunk. The crew and our two specialists split the anchor watch between them while we guests sleep soundly.

We wake to a steady drizzle and a forecast of rain all day. This necessitates a change from Plan A to Plan B. Instead of kayaking Fingal Sea Cave we are sailing to Tobermory to anchor well off the pontoon. To lift the anchor after the hydraulic have raised half the chain we have four people on the windless. The pumping action raises the chain on a giant cog a few links at a time. With 60 metres of chain out the procedure occupies an hour. We swap in people regularly and everyone gets a good workout by the time the anchor is safely stowed and catted.

Hannah asks for volunteers to climb out on the bowsprit net to untie the sail ties on two of the jibs we’ll need to raise. Anne and I clip on to a stay, go over the side and I deal with the forward jib while Anne unties the second. All proceeds smoothly. The bowsprit net becomes a favourite spot to hang out. That’s Tim demonstrating fine balance.Tobermory, the main harbour of Mull is visible from afar. Its colourfuly painted terrace buildings hug the harbourfront. Cold rain is coming down heavily with no sign of letting up. The souwester I bought for the Sth Atlantic crossing gets used for the first time. Tim leads us on a coastal walk past trees clad in centuries of moss and we count six waterfalls tumbling down rocky hillsides straight into the sea. We return to Tobermory with time to spare before the tender collects us for lunch on board. Pub it is! Hot coffee and Tobermory whiskey improves the complexion of the day.

After lunch I retire for siesta while some guests opt to kayak along the same coastline in the rain. At 4pm three of us head back to shore for hot showers (the only ones we get during the trip) and to sample two of the three pubs. The Mishnish even has a log fire. It’s hard to tear ourselves away.

Tonight Alex has prepared roast beef with all the trimmings. Rumanians are fond of their beef, meat is served at almost every meal. Alex tries hard to please those with different dietary requirements but you can tell he considers vegans to be crazy. We’re staying on anchor at Tobermory again and hoping like hell the rain stops before morning.

It’s Stuart’s 67th birthday today. He shares his birthday with two others on board, 31-year-old Tim and 28-year-old Hannah. It’s going to be a big cake day.

We wake on day four to more drizzle. Anchor’s away early for a long slog to Coll. The weather improves en route and conditions are ideal for kayaking around the low rocky and sandy outcrops. Seals, dolphins and sea birds are plentiful and some kayakers spot a basking shark.

The fine weather is back but there’s very little wind. We spend our last day motor sailing to anchor on the western side of Kerrera Island. This is a grand opportunity to lie in the net under the bowsprit and watch the sea rush by underneath.

The sea is a mill pond. One group kayaks down the coast while our group hikes up past grazing sheep and lambs to the highest point for a panoramic view of Irene at anchor, Oban and the ring of islands. Tim has a high quality drone he uses to video and photograph Irene, the kayakers and us. Its range is 8 km and the images it captures are amazingly beautiful and high quality.

Back on board I feel the need to get wet. Our fresh water supplies are running low therefore showers are not possible. Nothing for it but to go over the side for a swim around the boat. The Atlantic is cold but I’ve been in colder and once back on deck the warm rush of blood coming back to my extremities has me tingling all over.

I’ve had a bit of a sore throat since Tobermory. Probably a virus I picked up at the pub. After dinner on deck watching the orange orb of the sun slide behind distant hills I go below for an early night. Hannah had asked for guest volunteers to stand anchor watch and Stuart and I put ourselves down for the dawn watch, 4-5am.

Unfortunately sleep had to wait until my system rid itself of every morsel of food I had eaten since lunch time. It’s incredible how much vomitus one body can create. I tried to be quiet about it then cleaned up and crawled into my bunk and crashed out.

Up on deck at 3:50am the dawn is a pale imitation of sunset. The anchor has been secure in plenty of water all night. Once off duty I went back to sleep until it was time to haul up the anchor. Pumping the windlass using people power is the only job on Irene I really dislike, but the more people who rotate in to do it the easier it is.

It’s a quick motor around the point of Kerrera to enter Oban Harbour and on the third careful approach Dave steers Irene perfectly onto the dock where she’s tied up snugly. The trip is over.

Limited time, tides and wind conditions didn’t allow us to visit the islands we had expected to, such as Eig, Muck and Rhum. They’ll have to wait for another summer.

Many thanks to the enthusiastic, energetic and fun-loving crew of Irene who went above and beyond to meet our expectations and keep us safe.

And a big thank you also to our fellow shipmates whose companionship made the week much more interesting and enjoyable.

If you’d like to know more about Irene visit Irene of Bridgewater.

Tim Hamlet is a highly experienced and qualified mountaineer. You’ll find him at Hamlet Mountaineering and Kayak Summer Isles.

Kayak specialist Rory’s company is Arisaig Sea Kayak Centre.

Sintra, Portugal: Palaces, Castles and Coastal Walking

16 May

I’ve visited my last World Heritage site. There, it’s on the record. Admittedly I am a slow learner. My weakness for ‘top ten’ destinations has led me astray. No more. Henceforth and forthwith I shall be seeking out only third tier destinations, places of charm, beauty, historical and cultural significance, that don’t feature in any lists or weekend supplements and that definitely do not attract coachloads of selfie stick waving tourists.

Sintra, Portugal, was the last straw. We stayed slap bang in the picturesque historical centre for four nights on the advice of a Portuguese masseur I met in Edinburgh. I had chosen the apartment partly because it promised ‘parking nearby’.

From 11am to 4pm Sintra’s streets are crammed with French, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Indians. Eurovision, which was on that same weekend in Lisbon, may have swelled numbers, but I think the overcrowding is typical. If you still insist on going this is my advice:

Don’t take a car, catch an early train from Lisbon. The city fathers in their wisdom changed the traffic routing one month ago thereby creating a circuitous one-way system through narrow, cobbled streets that has caused chaos.

When we arrived by rental car late at night (as arranged) and tried to locate our apartment from the detailed instructions we’d been emailed they made no sense. You guessed it, the one way system changes rendered our instructions useless. We did the sensible thing, parked the car and persuaded a taxi driver to take us as close as he could to our address.

We got up before 8am and moved the car, but still had to feed the metre every four hours until we stumbled on an undercover car park that let us park the car for two days (doesn’t operate on weekends – go figure).

Sintra old town with its steep, cobbled streets and thousand year old national palace is atop a hill, surrounded by a further series of hills. The other two walkable major sites, the 10th century Moorish Castle and the hymn to Romanticism, the 19th century Pena Palace, are a bracing one hour walk up hill and forty minutes down.

Sintra National Palace below.

Castle of the Moors

Palacio Da Pena

The most impressive palace and gardens though are those of Monserrate (constructed and further developed between1790-1949), the legacy of three Brits with deep pockets, Gerard de Visme, William Beckford and Francis Cook.  I don’t advise walking to Monserrate as you’d have to navigate narrow streets with no footpaths and huge tour buses whizzing past. The number 435 round trip bus ride costs 10 euros and leaves from the train station. If you do nothing else go here and explore the house, have a snack at the tranquil cafe and stroll the extensive gardens. It is the least busy attraction, you could even enjoy having a picnic on the lawn, the staff seem very relaxed.

I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything in Sintra’s kitsch souvenir shops, but in Sintra New Town I found a hypo-allergenic wool shop run by Maria Luisa who knits all the sweaters she sells. I bought a tiny, green button up matinee jacket for our Melbourne granddaughter. Melbourne’s capricious winter is fast approaching.

Hill walking in Sintra prepared us well for the next phase of our holiday, Atlantic Coast walking. We stayed forty minutes drive down the road near Azoia and Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of the Iberian Peninsula.

Tall, handsome, German, Pascal, a former media lawyer, has created a secluded, quietly luxurious, small country hotel. Quinta Da Cabo has just eight rooms and spacious common areas, a huge pool, tennis court and gym. We stayed in the Ferdinand Magellan suite which stocked biographies of the famous Portuguese navigator and sea captain general in three languages. I chose Laurence Bergreen’s 2003 account of his most famous voyage, ‘Over the edge of the world’. The book tells the story in some detail but also raises many questions. How I wish I could have interviewed every one of those 18 survivors (from 320) of the first full circumnavigation, as well as Magellan’s wife, who died in Lisbon the same year as Magellan was murdered on Mactan Island in the Philippines.

Our first half-day walk started with coffee and cake overlooking the ocean pool at time warp Muchaxo Hotel’s bar, Guincho Beach. We headed northwards on a well marked trail almost to Azoia then back to Muchaxo for lunch. We watched kite surfers soaring in strong onshore winds and a class of novice surfers tackle fearsome surf. These beaches are not for the faint hearted. We passed only a handful of walkers all day. Wildflowers are spectacular at this time of year.

Next day we took Pascal’s advice and walked from Azoia to Praia Grande and back on a mostly coastal path. One of the highlights was an almost vertical staircase connecting the clifftop to the beach. About halfway down/up a viewing platform allows you to see massive dinosaur footprints in the cliff face.

We had the best lunch of the trip afterwards in Refugio da Boca in Azoia. Portugal respects the fine tradition of the long lunch with white table linens, attentive service, several carefully considered courses, and copious quantities of alcohol. Somehow we managed to digest lunch in time for sunset drinks and vegie burgers up the hill at Moinho D Quixote. This eclecticly decorated bar-restaurant and the nearby Refugio are reason enough to stop off at Azoia.

Our final day spent in Cascais was another perfect blue sky day. We were content to stroll the seafront, smile at the lifeguards guarding precisely nothing and no one, and hunt for lunch in the back streets. We found a family-run Sicilian restaurant serving the best aubergine and tomato spaghetti I can remember eating.

Once again Portugal proved to be an excellent choice for an early summer walking holiday; scenic, quiet trails, great hospitality and plenty of sunshine and sea air.

It’s set us up nicely for our next adventure, sailing the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.

Becoming Bi-Hemispheric Grandparents: Melbourne and Edinburgh

11 May

We now see our lives as BBG and ABG, i.e. Before Becoming Grandparents and After Becoming Grandparents. Rather like life before kids and after it’s a quantum leap. And it all happened twice within two months.

The significance for our travel can’t be underestimated. Sure we already plan a lot of our travel around visits to our sons in Melbourne and Edinburgh, but now that we have a granddaughter in Melbourne and another in Edinburgh we’ll be spending even more time whizzing between northern and southern hemispheres.

Number two granddaughter kept us waiting a little, giving us time to try a few different activities in Edinburgh during our 18-day visit. We stayed in an aparthotel just off the Royal Mile on the Holyrood end, ideal for ambling about the city and only 30-40 minutes walk from T & J in Duddingston on the southern edge of Arthur’s Seat.

Parents in-waiting DDay minus two.

Here are five recommendations for FREE, interesting activites in Edinburgh after you’ve tried the stock stuff.

1) Give Blood. Yes, you read that right. Being a traveller doesn’t rule you out from donating blood for the National Health Service. You mightn’t be able to get a walk-in appointment however you can always make a time for the next day. The whole process, including a self-reported questionnaire, takes only 40 minutes. I had a lovely chat with two ladies taking blood from me and one other donor. Linger over tea and bickies afterwards if you like, but if you’re feeling fine you can pop straight off. Nothing beats that virtuous glow of knowing your blood could be making a difference for someone in strife. https://www.scotblood.co.uk/donation-locations/edinburgh-blood-donor-centre/

2) Sign up to volunteer at a gardening day with the Duddingston Field Group. They organise care for the Duddingston village community market garden and apple orchard, replant the forest and remediate the path. They schedule regular Sunday working bees broken by a hearty, homemade lunch provided for the volunteers. We’ve volunteered with them before. This time I tackled the weeds in the strawberry beds and helped move bird nets onto another bed. Very satisfying to know the strawberries will be enjoyed later this summer. Contact them through their facebook page, Field Group Duddingston. They provide gardening gloves and tools, just take some drinking

water and sun protection.

3) Like all Scottish state museums the National Museum of Scotland has free entry to its regular exhibitions. And what a lot of awesome stuff they have on their five floors. Took me three visits to cover it all and I still had to queue behind two twelve-year-olds to operate the robot hand. Also love the vegan wraps in the airy cafe on the second floor.3) Maybe you’ve slogged up Arthur’s Seat but have you hiked up to watch the sun set and the moon rise? Maybe you won’t be as lucky as us and get both but you can always guarantee a spectacular selfie sunset. Take warm clothes (it’s windy up top) and a couple of torches to get back down safely.

5) Best of all though was the hour we spent watching Scottish Members of Parliament in session in the gorgeous new chamber. Sorry, no photos allowed inside. Once you pass through the usual security check request a free ticket to enter the chamber during session. We were in the 4-6pm slot and the matter under discussion was a motion brought by the Conservative Party to increase financial accountability of the NHS. The Tory benches were nearly full and the Labor Party had a good showing, but the Scottish National Party members were nearly all absent. The Health Minister took the heat virtually alone and performed well. We were impressed at the relatively respectful manner of the debate. If the language got florid or the speaker didn’t address other members through the Presiding Officer (Speaker), they were swiftly reined in. Very different to the rowdy shenanigans in Australian parliaments. An exhibition in the lobby explains the Scottish Government system post devolution and there’s a cafe serving shortbread baked on the premises plus a gift shop with higher quality souvenirs than most of the Royal Mile tat.

Dogs swim in the Parliament pools and kids of all ages play parcours around the Parliment House walkways.

Now on to food and drink. Best cocktails were at Fireside at The Arches by Waverley Station. Live music, an open log fire and seven pound double G+Ts. Adore. Only operates Friday and Saturday evenings.

Best vegan meal I’ve had in a long time (since my birthday dinner at Shakahari Too in Melbourne) was at David Bann’s eponymous restaurant in St Mary’s Street. David provides delicious vegan fine dining for a reasonable price served by charming staff who believe in their product.

Whilst we were lucky with the weather in Scotland we’re greedy and after checking the forecasts picked Portugal for a week of fair weather walking in Sintra and surrounds. Bye bye baby girl, be good for mummy and daddy.

PS If you are wondering what’s happened at Gypsy Hill we have big news, we’ve moved in! Our off grid home is finally here.

Festival de Jerez XXII Dance Workshops: Muñoz, Leal and Guerrero

16 Mar

Alongside the treasure trove of world class and premiere performances, an equally compelling reason to go to Festival de Jerez is its master classes. The two-week program offers weeklong daily classes in dance at all levels from absolute beginner to professional. In addition you can study palmas, castenets and, new this year, Spanish language.

All Festival “maestros” are top artists ranging from the young like, 26-year-old Gema Moneo, to older professors such as Javier Latorre. The only way to judge beforehand how good they actually are at teaching is by word of mouth. As you might imagine, excellence on stage isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of ability to teach. That would be like expecting Dame Judy Dench to both write and direct a play in seven days.

Other factors to consider are style, physique (e.g. tall men would do well to study with tall men) and of course the palo and props, if relevant.

With this in mind I went with known quality, Angel Muñoz, for Solea Por Bulerias (basico) for week one. Angel’s choreography is peerless and his genuine affection for pupils wins him devoted students who literally follow him around the world. Well, Stuart and I did travel to Rome last May just so I could take his weekend tarantos workshop! The only issue for me is that Angel’s boundless energy can sometimes be overwhelming. These days I’m more able to dial it down.

Our singer was Momi de Cadiz and the guitarist David Navarro. Both worked hard from day one to give us gorgeous music to dance to. David’s original falsetta is particularly lovely. By day seven we had nine minutes of incredible choreography including a bulerias finale, quite an achievement. Angel laughed at me because I counted his remates – there were six – and complained I could never remember which one was coming up next. Angel’s English has improved in leaps and bounds in the nine years I’ve known him, so much so that when he explained something critically important in English a French woman called out in Spanish, “Can you please say that in Spanish so I can understand”.

For week two I selected Leonor Leal (born in Jerez) por bulerias (basico). Her alegrias workshop a couple of years back was a real break through experience for me.

Leonor is like a female version of Manuel Betanzos in her fluid use of upper body. Another generous, humble, kind artist, she teaches from the heart. She is also particularly responsive to individual student’s needs. She saw several people couldn’t understand the musical structure of a bulerias song so she brought in butcher’s paper and coloured pens and wrote out the lyrics then marked up exactly where the closes/remates and calls/llamadas could potentially be placed. These were taped to the mirror so we could refer to them.

Leo is exactly the kind of beginner bulerias teacher everybody benefits from. She allowed us to video her each day, hence all the cameras.

A flamenco friend invited me to the Jerez launch of Leonor’s children’s book, “Catalina sin pamplinas” (‘Catalina without frills’), illustrated by Guridi. Sitting on the floor surrounded by kids listening with rapt attention to the story of the flamenco dancer who travels the world to perform was just magical. I hope this is the first of a series of adventures for Catalina.

A special shout out too to our guitarist, Jose Torres Vicente. Leonor’s command of English is good but Jose’s is even better. When he saw we were struggling to understand something he would offer an English explanation. It’s so valuable to work with an articulate guitarist experienced in accompanying dance. Eva Rubichi was our singer, what a tiny powerhouse she is!

I had planned to take just one course per week but when I saw Eduardo Guerrero was teaching alegrias (one level only second week) I was sorely tempted. I’d enjoyed my week with him at Manuel Betanzos’ academy in Seville last year. We had been just four students for tangos (basico) and whilst it was tough I thought I did ok. I wrote to Eduardo saying I would have liked to take his course, but as it was medio I felt it would be above my level. Eduardo convinced me it would be ok for me so I registered late and went in prepared to give it my best shot.

I lasted three days. I didn’t leave because the choreography was too hard. I left because I don’t agree with Eduardo’s approach to teaching. As a teacher myself (journalism back in the day) I have a fair idea of how to support adult learning. One thing no one needs, in a two hour twenty minute class of 25 people, is to stand idle for half an hour while every person demonstrates individually that they can dance a step sequence to Eduardo’s satisfaction. This happened more than once. I tolerated it, but when Eduardo got brusque about us moving into precise rows of five people to repeat a sequence across the room and actually pushed me his time was up. I think teaching can be like parenting. We tend to replicate the model of parenting we experienced and without self awareness and knowledge we may repeat inappropriate behaviours.

Class photo of Eduardo’s alegrias medio. Although they take attendance they still tried to present me with a class completion certificate in absentia.

Dropping the class gave me more time to spend lunching in the Andalusian sunshine with Stuart whom I hadn’t seen in two months and who was only in Jerez for four days. We had Scottish friends from Australia, Heather and George, visit twice too. They hugely enjoyed seeing Ana Morales perform in their first ever flamenco experience.

Here we all are pre-Villamarta show with Suzanne at La Cruz Blanca.

I’ll finish with well deserved praise for Javier Latorre’s choreographic workshop group who performed gratis in Sala Compañia on the final afternoon of the Festival. A large group of dancers from all over the world, 18 in all, they acquitted themselves well and, combined with solos by Javier and two other accomplished dancers, gave us a memorable show. ¡Ole con ole a todos!


Other Festival flamenco dance teachers I heartily recommend are:

Andres Peña

No one comes close for pure soul and flamenco sensibility

Manuel Betanzos

Demands 100% commitment but in return you receive Manuel’s energy, choreographic flair and body work

Olga Pericet

Consummate professional, great drills and choreography

Manuel Liñan

Surprisingly grounded and thoughtful with mercurial choreography

Mercedes Ruiz

Warm up is a little too long, but otherwise a great teacher for women with a relaxed style

Pilar Ogalla

Excellent bata de cola teacher with feminine upper body style

Alicia Marquez

Excellent bata de cola teacher with a great sense of humour

Rafaela Carrasco

Calm and considered, she uses a repetiteur (in my case a dancer called Luna) which means you can see the footwork more easily wherever you stand in class

Increasingly Spanish maestros speak at least a little of other languages however it is well worth the effort to study Spanish before you start taking class in Spain.

Photo above was taken during a water break in Leo’s class of Colleen, a gorgeous new friend I made from Canada.