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Archive for May, 2012

Getting to Venice from Paris was pretty much a full day’s travel. As usual, we went by train, first to Basel in Switzerland, where I paid for a couple of coffees with a €10 note and got two 2 Swiss franc coins in return, then to Milan and finally to Venice Mestre. This latter station is on the mainland, where as the iconic old city is on an island (actually, it effectively is an island) just off the coast.

We checked in to a cheap hostel (which called itself a hotel) near the station, witnessing a beautiful sunset display of light and shade in the sky, chatted to an interesting and talkative New Zealander, Edward, who was sharing our four-bed dormitory, and caught a train (along the lengthy bridge that connects Venice to the rest of the country) to Santa Lucia station to have a look round Venice at night.

We didn’t go far within the city and the dark, narrow alleyways were pretty quiet – a little eerie, even. The area next to the station was busier, though, with plenty of tourists and vendors – there various people selling the little balls that go splat on a surface then resume their shape and the helicoptery things that you catapult into the air.

The following day, we had made plans to look around Venice with Edward, but there was little sign of him when we went to breakfast – at a different hotel. Habiba saw him out of the window, but then he didn’t materialise. I went back to our hostel to look for him, but he wasn’t there.

We took a crowded bus into Venice and then a waterbus along the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.

We decided to go into St Mark’s Basilica and joined a queue. Unfortunately, after half an hour of shuffling along, it became apparent that we wer in the wrong line; we stepped across to the correct one. As we approached the entrance to the basilica, a French-sounding woman approached us (and apparently only us) and told us that packpacks weren’t allowed inside and that I would have to check mine in to a nearby cloakroom. I went to check this intelligence out and passed Edward coming out of the basilica. He explained that he’d come to the breakfast hotel that morning but hadn’t been allowed into the dining room because he didn’t want to have any breakfast.

Edward looked after my bag while we went inside. The inside was a spectacle of gold. Pretty much every bit of the ceiling was covered in mosaics with gold backgrounds. The floor tiling was interesting – circles and shapes that suggested 3D steps. One particular mosaic stood out: a lion with mad, anguished staring golden eyes.

We hooked up with Edward outside and started wandering around. We went back to the water and turned left past the Ducal Palace, passing over a crowded bridge that gave a good view of the Bridge of Sighs; when we came back the same way later the bridge was jam packed with tourists and tour groups all trying to get a glimpse of the famous bridge along which prisoners passed on their way to the cells.

We walked towards the castle walls and found them to be closed (it being Monday). We had lunch together – Habiba and Edward had surprisingly good value pizzas; I had a tasty but not so filling ravioli dish.

We headed to the Rialto Bridge and parted ways with Edward. Habiba bought some excessively juicy fruit that contained a ball of pips in their centres; I found them rather annoying to eat. Before we left, we headed to a souvenir shop that I’d seen the previous night and I bought myself a little aquamarine glass cat for €3.

The bus back to the mainland was less crowded, but still fairly busy. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Venice and took the train to Rome.

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Another book I’ve had for a long time and only recently got round to reading, The Well of the Unicorn tells the story of Airar Alvarson, a young man with some skill in magic who is evicted from his home and joins a group of rebels fighting against the land’s overlords and comes under the mentorship of an old sorcerer with ambiguous motives.

It took me a fairly long while to get through this early twentieth century novel, mainly because of travel. The writing is much more accessible than, for instance, the contemporaneous works The Worm Ouroboros or The King of Elfland’s Daughter, although it has a fair sprinkling of archaisms. Partly as a result of not reading the book consistently, partly because it’s never completely and unambiguously explained, I had some difficulty keeping track of the factions and the attitude of the protagonists to them. Airar and his fellow Dalecarles as well as nearby peoples are ruled by foreign Vulkings, but many welcome Vulking rule; there’s also an Empire, but what it’s an empire of was never clear to me.

As Airar gains experience, confidence and reputation, he gathers men and allies and becomes a leader. The story, then, is partly about this military struggle, but, more importantly, it’s about the clashes of personality between the freedom fighters and about Airar’s moral dilemmas (dilemmae?) and eventual tranformation into someone not unlike the rulers he strives against.

The Well of the Unicorn of the novel’s title is a pool of symbolic power (and probably not actual magical power – although, like much in this book, its true nature is ambiguous); when one drinks from it, one loses all desire to battle and war; it therefore functions as a way to absolve crimes. Although it’s an important theme and presence in the book, it’s an off-page one, described only through the tales of those who have drunk of its waters.

The Well of the Unicorn is an interesting and serious book with a well realised main character, great dialogue that has bursts of quite amusing banter and a believable world. It’s let down by the somewhat rambling story, the difficulty of comprehending the overall picture of the war and some slightly dubious protrayals of homosexual characters (although it earns points for having multiple gay protagonists). The ending is somewhat abrupt, but it’s ultimately a very effective conclusion to a very good fantasy novel.

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The train to Paris was fast – it only took 80 minutes, just about long enough for us to get settled in and watch the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones. At Gare du Nord, we waited about half an hour in line to buy some tickets for the Metro then made our way down to the home of our next host.

Pierre was the latest in a growing line of great hosts. As soon as we arrived, he treated us to a lunch of salad and home-made pizza. He was a friendly, gentle guy with a great collection of fantasy and sf, lots of Japanese stuff and board games including both English and French versions of A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica.

We didn’t do much for the rest of the day – except in the evening, when we went to meet Habiba’s friend from university, Andy. He turned out to be a sweet, talkative guy with a flamboyant dress sense; he told us a lot about the art world. We had dinner at a small, pub-ish restaurant; they had burgers; I had one of the French meals Pierre had recommended earlier (he didn’t have too many recommendations as he prefers Asian cuisine): duck confit with potatoes. It was very tasty – salty and crispy round the edges.

The following day, Pierre took us on a walking tour of Paris. We started at a Roman amphitheatre, went on to the Panthéon, where various personages from French history are interred, through Luxembourg Gardens, site of the French Senate, on to Notre Dame, stopping for lunch at another small restaurant (I had poached eggs in chive sauce for a starter and steak for my main course; Habiba had a prawn salad and lamb kebab; Pierre outdid us by having bone marrow on toast and steak tartare (ie, raw minced beef, which he mixed with a raw egg yolk and and various condiments)).

After lunch we went into Notre Dame, visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, had fancy ice cream, walked along the Seine a little way, passing Pont Neuf, into the Louvre courtyard – site of the famous glass pyramid – into the nearest part of the Tuileries, the long park in line with the Champs Elysées – the Arc de Triomphe was visible in the distance – by the Palais Garnier – the opera house – to the Moulin Rouge theatre and the nearby area of sex shops, and to Montmartre, where we went into the Church of St Pierre (no relation; Pierre explained that the name – Pierre, or Peter – was related to the fact that the church was on a hill, St Peter being the ‘rock’, the name thus related to words like petrify) and finally to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

This latter is fantastically beautiful inside, especially above the altar, where there’s an enormous gold and blue mosaic of Jesus. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone – there were even plenty of flashes going off. I got told off by an African woman after I took my last shot.

The following day, Habiba and I went to the Arc de Triomphe, walked down the Champs Elysées and finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for some time – not that long: we elected to go up the stairs to the deuxiemme étage rather than take the ascenseur. At the second level, we took the other lift up to the top. From there the view was pretty breathtaking. It’s astonishing to think that a building over a hundred years old still dominates the skyline in central Paris. The city lay low and flat below us; the only rivals to the tower were Sacré-Coeur on its hill and the business district way off in the distance.

On the way down, I was possibly nearly pickpocketed by a little boy with his female relatives – they looked to be Roma. He was darting about in the crowd, probably just playing, but at one point he had his hands on my back pockets. When we were down and out we realised that Habiba was going to be late for her eight o’clock date with Andy – she got there late, but successfully hooked up with him.

I headed back to Pierre’s where I met a couple of his friends, Bertrand and Agnes (pronounced ‘Ann-yes’) – the latter of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and we played A Game of Thrones late into the night. The game proved to be like a smaller scale but more complicated version of Risk.

On our final day, we didn’t do too much sightseeing; I had promised to go to the Louvre, but going to bed at about 3 am argued against it. We did have a little dinner party in the evening with both Pierre and Andy, though. The following day, we headed to the not-too-distant Gare de Lyon to embark on a very long journey to Venice.

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In the Belgian capital, we Couchsurfed with a Heidi, a woman of about our age. Arriving in the city and making our way around, it seemed like most people were French-speakers – Walloons. Heidi and her friends were Flemish-speakers, though – Flemish being Belgian Dutch.

Heidi was very sweet and turned out to be a great host. On the evening we arrived, she and her friend, Wim, took us to a birthday party. It was nice enough and everyone spoke English, though parties are not my thing and I find parties where I don’t know anyone pretty alienating. It was also very smoky and I was a little shocked that many people were smoking inside with three young children around.

The next morning, Heidi took us around Brussels. We went first to a nice park near her home then took the tram to the city centre. She showed us some of the cartoon artwork that adorn random walls and demonstrate Belgians’ pride in the work of the likes of Hergé.

We went to see the Mannekin Pis, about which there are various stories to explain its existence. That day he was wearing a blazer, trousers and a boater.

Next, we had a look at the Grand Place, a square bounded by various beautiful buildings including the elaborately Gothic and statue-festooned City Hall.

Later, we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, Kokob. It was the first time I’d had Ethiopian cuisine and it was good, if a bit messy. The pancakey injera bread with which you scoop up the food was very filling. Afterwards, we did a little more walking around, stopping by the Palace of Justice to take a few photos of the skyline.

The following day, we were on our own. We didn’t get out of the house very early, but I suggested going to the Atomium. I didn’t figure out a good way of getting there, so it took us a while; we took one tram, realised we couldn’t get into the park nearby, walked a while and took another tram. Habiba didn’t enjoy the process much.

The weather was not great, either, so walking around Osseghem Park was only a moderate pleasure. The Atomium itself is an imposing sf-esque structure that I found fascinating to look at. It’s like no other building and it’s great to walk around it and see how its profile changes. Standing under the spheres around the edge and looking up is also quite fun. If you look closely enough, you can also see your reflection in the metallic balls – although only as an aluminiumy smear. We didn’t go inside – which I now slightly regret.

The next day, we did some earnest sightseeing in the city. We got up early and headed to the flea market for a walk around. Then we went to MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum. When you go in, you’re given a set of headphones that you plug into various boxes around the museum; each is related to a particular display and you can listen to music made by the instrument you’re looking at. First impressions weren’t that great as many of the boxes didn’t seem to work well on the lowest floor. Further up the building, the sound quality was better.

The bottom floor was dedicated to machines that make music – from old player pianos and music boxes to early electronic instruments. The next floor had traditional instruments from cultures around the world. Further up were historical instruments from Western classical tradition; there were lots of harpsichord-like pianos, many elaborately decorated or painted with scenes from mythology and so on.

Afterwards, we had chips/French fries – a Belgian specialty – for lunch, checked out the Mannekin Pis again – this time he was nude – and went to St Michael and St Gudula’s Cathedral. This was a typically Gothic edifice; however, it differed from many other similar places we’ve visited by being quite bright and not at all crowded inside. It was less adorned than others; there was a series of modern fiery paintings of the Crucifixion. The brightness might be explained by the fact that we were experiencing one of our few sunny spells of our trip to Brussels. There were steps down to a basement level where some of the ruins of the original structure were on display. It cost a euro to go down, with an honesty box for the money; I paid when I came back up, having decided it was worth it.

Next, we went on a walk, the route for which was on a map Heidi got for us. We passed an area where everything had been painted yellow (or maybe bright green – it’s hard for me to tell) and three similarly coloured cars lay wheelless and full of plants. We passed through a couple of parks – Brussels has more than its far share of green spaces, apparently – went by the European Commission in the pouring rain, dropped into a supermarket to escape the weather and buy teabags and toothpaste, walked through the Parc du Cinquantenaire, which contains its own Arc de Triomphe and a big road that runs right underneath, surfacing for no particular purpose in the middle of the park, then on past the European Parliament and back towards the tramline home via the park between the Royal Palace and the Belgian Parliament.

That evening Heidi had a dinner party with ourselves and three other guests. We ate some very tasty Belgian fare that she prepared, along with the some leftover stew of Habiba’s from the previous night. In the morning Heidi accompanied us part of the way to Gare Midi. We said our goodbyes to another great host and started on the journey to Paris.

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