Sunday, 27 September 2009

Wordle (Sept)

I've pinched this from Alice's blog - thanks Alice! :-)

Wordle is a fantastic toy - incredibly pretty and very clever. The best way of explaining Wordle is using their own blurb:
Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends.

So - this is the Wordle of my blog. I think that it only looks at the front page (i.e. what you can see when you go to, so it is going to be interesting to see how it changes - I will try to post one of these a month.

(Edit - I think next time I'll go for a different colour scheme!)

All credit for the image goes to Wordle: Images of Wordles are licensed Creative Commons License.

(I would drop the internet page straight in, but Blogger hasn't let me link to web images for months now!)

The preceding few posts

For those who are coming to this page from the top up, you will want to read the preceding four posts in bottom up order - they cover the holiday that we took at the beginning of September...

Paris days 3, 4 & 5

A very full day today! We left the Hotel Manet (after heading out to the patisserie which we refound again) and headed with our bags over to the Louvre. There we stayed for the whole day – the Louvre has a very good “left luggage” system if you have paid for your ticket – and walked our feet off! We didn't get very far through the Louvre, though – I really couldn't imagine anyone managing to actually see everything in one day! We saw the Greek & Roman statues (plus those which had been almost completely reimagined by renaissance and later sculptors), plus the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. I was vaguely disappointed by ML – to be honest, I think I prefer some of the re-designs that other people have done of her. VdM was a bit more impressive when we first came across her, but there were far too many tourist groups surrounding her! I'm a bit ashamed to say that I actually got a bit bored with the classical stuff – they were all so similar and a bit bland... However, the huge Persian statues just took my breath away – they were really mind blowing and I couldn't really grasp the size of them...
After Louvre, we met up with Vic and it was so nice to see her again! We headed to where she lived, which is an interesting little flat – two rooms only; a bathroom, and a kitchen/living/bedroom. This is apparently usual for flats in Paris – some are even smaller! I think that the size of the flats is one of the reasons that so many people spend so much time outdoors in Paris; wherever we went, at whatever time, there were people out enjoying the city; the parks, the cafes and the bars. We then headed out to Monmatre for supper, at a most amazing cafe. Their main selling point was their salads, which were huge. Unlike most British salads, these could not be termed healthy in any way shape or form; they had the right level of salad-bits, but also included the meat of your choice (I had chicken neck / gizzard, which was delicious), and topped with a thick layer of chips (and these were proper thick fried potatoes – fantastic!); there was no way that I was going to be able to finish mine! Then crepes on the way round to the Sacre Coure, where we also paused to watch a street artist creating a chalk and charcoal portrait of a young girl; he was fascinating to watch. He had quite a severe twitch, but actually used that to his advantage, waiting for the twitches to subside to do the fine work, then using the wildness of the twitches to put in broad strokes for the hair and skin. We headed home past the Moulin Rouge, which was brilliant to be able to see, but there was no giant elephant, nor was there a huge opera singing moon in the sky!

Tis 10.34 PT and feels a heck of a lot later! We have packed so much in today, and given that that included a mega lie-in (as I was the last through the shower, I didn't get up till gone 10...!), that is really saying something. After a leisurely breakfast, we went out via a supermarket to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which was a beautiful park formed from the quarry where they took out the stones for building the city. (check facts here) We had a beautiful picnic lunch, and spent ages chatting before heading down into Paris to find the Velib, a fantastic system of “free” (i.e. You paid a refundable deposit and then a Euro for each of the first two half hours, then an extra two euros for the next half hour, three for the next, etc) cycles which you could use to get round town. Whilst I was initially very sceptical about riding bikes (I am not someone who enjoys cycling, and the experiences of my cycling colleagues have put me right off; all those who cycle regularly to work have been hit by cars at some point in the last couple of years), Vic persuaded us that it would be a good idea to at least try. We then went to try to find some free Velib's that had been put back correctly (shown by a green light as opposed to a red), which took us nearly an hour, wandering closer to our destination of Notre Dame. We then cycled down to the islands in the Seine – an interesting experience to say the least – although there are some brilliant cycle lanes, both on pavement and bricked off on the road, it was a trifle scary sharing the road with the Parisian drivers! Notre Dame, though, was definitely worth it! The most amazing architecture, it totally took my breath away. Vic then showed us to her favourite ice cream parlour, then had to disappear as she had to go to a friend's birthday party. We had our icecreams, which were indeed delicious (I had caramel and chocolate orange, and John had a tutti frutti and a grapefruit flavour), and walked around the Isles, taking in the sights, and having a cafe on the way (trying to find me a loo where I could actually sit down – we failed! The one thing that I really don't like about Paris – not being able to use a proper public toilet – I can cope with mess, I can cope with smells, I can cope with providing my own paper, I just can't cope with not being able to sit down properly!!). We then wandered up past the Hotel du Ville and the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art building which was deliberately designed to look as though the inside was on the outside. Whilst I appreciated what the architect was trying to do, in my mind, it just looked messy and out of place. I could see it working if the pipes had been in steel or chrome, but in blue and yellow plastics, it just looked like a building site that hadn't yet been finished (and having worked next to one for a number of years, I know exactly what an unfinished building site looks like!) We then wandered round trying to find another Velib station where we could get a bike and head up away from the main roads (the traffic by this point was horrendous, with policemen needing to direct traffic around roundabouts even though there were traffic lights and the traffic was going all in one direction!) Eventually we found a station which was working and had available bikes and started travelling up to the Gare de L'Est. This was another interesting experience – without the confidence of Vic to guide us, it was a lot more wobbly and having to stop suddenly at a change of lights didn't do John's heart much good! But we made it up to Gare de L'Est and found a Velib point within our half hour and without doing ourselves or anyone else an injury (plus a nice little uphill slope meant that we were ready for our supper!) This we found at L'Ecu De France by the Gare d L'Est – a brasserie facing the station. The big draw for this initially was that it (a) was close, (b) had a cheap set menu,and (c) looked like it would have decent loos (which it did, though I wasn't impressed at having to pay for them!!). The food was really rather good – John had rabbit in a mustard sauce, and I had a rare beef dish. This came out slightly different to how I was expecting – it was almost a “parma” beef – very thinly sliced and cured rather than cooked. It came out cold with thin parmesan slices on the top, with chips on the side. However, it was very nice, though it could have done with a green salad on the edge of the plate, even just a few leaves. The desserts, though, were to die for (and I would have killed if anyone had tried to take mine away from me!) I had the most amazing chocolate mousse, made in the same way that I do, which is to say that almost all of the air is beaten back out of the egg, and it ends up being incredibly heavy and rich, and sits in the stomach with all the lightness of a bowling ball... However, the chocolate levels were fantastic and every spoonful was heavenly! John had a creme brulee which was also delicious – the perfect lightness of the creme covered with a delicate and crispy layer of caramelised sugar. We then played an interesting game of “attracting the waiter's attention” to try to get our coffees. This was a game which we were playing against an avowed master – he had the perfect level of catching one's eye but letting you realise that he had far more important things to attend to than taking your order right now, but if you had hope then he would get to you eventually. Even when we did finally manage to call him over (and we did have to call – we didn't ever catch his eye in a way which meant that he came over voluntarily) he offered us the bill directly rather than asking us whether we wanted anything more! (and given that he had asked the table down from us, who had arrived about ten minutes after we did, whether they had wanted coffee about five minutes previously, we realised that we were in the presence of pure genius) Fortunately, we did get our coffee, and as it was served with a 70% slab of chocolate, it was definitely worth waiting for! And given that the entire bill, which included a bottle of rose wine, came to 46E, I think we did very well!

When we left the restaurant, we took a side trip via the supermarket to pick up presents for work colleagues (mainly biscuits) and are now back at Vic's flat. I'm probably going to get to bed fairly soon – unfortunately something over the last couple of days hasn't agreed with me, hence the vague obsession today with toilets! I'm hoping that it will blow over soon, but I have a feeling that this may last until I'm back in the UK eating UK stodge... Sadly, that is going to come all too soon – we are leaving Paris tomorrow afternoon, and I'm really going to miss it. Having started the Paris leg really rather preferring Brussels, now that Vic has shown us the real Paris, not just the sites that the tourists see, I can see why people love the city so much. I'm still not convinced that it is somewhere that I could live permanently, but I would love to be able to get to know it a bit better than has been possible over the last few days.


18.11 UK time – we are currently under the Channel on the Eurostar back to London. It has been a very full day today; a relaxed start this morning (as Vic didn't realise that we were awake and we didn't realise that she was awake!) - we didn't leave the flat till gone 12. We had a bit of a walk, then got the Velib down into Paris – unfortunately, after a lovely cycle, we then couldn't find anywhere to actually repark the bikes! It took over half an hour for us to find a cycle park and Vic had a bit more of a yomp round before we got a third space for her bike. Very frustrating as we had left plenty of time to make sure that we didn't get charged for the second half hour, and just couldn't find spaces. We then had a bit of a walk to find lunch – we went over to the Jewish quarter to find some gorgeous falafels – these were apparently the best in the area, and definitely tasted it! The pitta was stuffed with the falafels and salad – they didn't stint on any part of it. We ate in a small park off a side street listening to a trio of buskers playing. Then a trek through town to the (Parc by the zoo/natural history museum) and across to the Jardin Luxembourg, stopping at a Patisserie on the way where we bought some eclairs (finishing up our Euro coins) The Jardin was really beautiful – I'm so glad that we had a change to stop there. It was full of people enjoying the day, including a sax/trumpet band playing jazz, and children playing with boats on the lake (sounds very Victorian!). We then had a bit of a yomp to the Metro and back to Vic's flat to pick up our things, and a dash across to Gare du Nord in order to get the Eurostar. I don't think that we could have cut it much finer – we dashed through security and the platform concourse (getting a bit frustrated by everyone who was clearly there for the next train and therefore ambling through), got told off for running down the ramp-escalator, and got onto our carriage (which was a long way down the train!) just as they were starting to blow the first sets of whistles! The train probably pulled out about two minutes after we sat down, but I think that our stress levels were reasonably high by the time we realised that we could actually relax! We should be getting to London in just over half an hour, and we will then be meeting up with Simon to get my TKD kit back, and then getting the 20.37 train back to Bristol. As we won't get into Parkway till 20 past 10, and therefore home till about half past, I don't think we are going to have much of a chance to look through our photos tonight (just over 200 – not bad for a week!)

It has been a really great holiday – so relaxing, yet we have managed to pack tons into it. Definitely don't want to go back to work tomorrow morning!

Paris days 1 & 2


Currently sat on the Thalys train to Paris Gare Du Nord. It's running a little bit (10 mins so far) late... Just like at home! We did manage to get up to the Atomium this morning – a bit of an interesting journey on the tram at the tail end of rush hour – we didn't manage to sit down for very long before getting up to allow others to have our seats. Given that the tram carriage could theoretically accommodate 120 people standing (according to the notice), I'd hate to be on there when it was really crowded! We went through a lot of residential areas – some nicer than others – before we got out to the Atomium (fortunately, it was the last stop on the route so we didn't have to worry about missing it!)

The Atomium itself (which did have a place to leave our heavy bag) was fun! A series of globes connected by escalators and stairs, set up to represent an iron molecule. It was the centre-piece of the Belgian World Expo in 1958, and was doing very well for a temporary structure! Inside the globes were a viewing circle (rather sadly today has been the first cloudy day of the holiday, so we didn't get as good a view as we could have done), information about the 1958 expo (some rather eyebrow raising positive propaganda, particularly around the Belgian colonies and the role of the B royal family during the war!), and a couple of lovely pieces about the role of the Atomium in the modern cartoons/bandes dessinees (accompanied by posters and slideshows). It probably took us about an hour and a half in total to go round – then we headed through the giftshop and out for a drink and the Metro back to Brussels. We got to the Gare du Midi at lunchtime (again, a very crowded Metro journey as all the schoolkids were on their way home), and stopped for a mildly disappointing lunch (the cafe had an offer on but neglected to say that only a couple of their sandwiches were actually in the offer until after they had heated up our (non-offer) baguettes!) Still, all salvaged by a very yummy Hagen-daz waffle with squirty cream and chocolate sauce (and where else but Belgium would you get the chance to choose between dark and milk chocolate sauce?!). We then mooched around the station until our train arrived, and we are now speeding through the countryside out of Belgium and into France!

21:48 Paris Time (PT). We are now in hotel Manet, which we found very easily. The Metro line ran directly from Gare du Nord to Place d'Italie, and from there it was only about 5 minutes down the road. The hotel is very comfortable (and has free wifi!). We are round the corner from the main police station of the district, and earlier this afternoon we did hear a lot of sirens However, it does now seem to have quietened down (I'm hoping that France has the same 'no sirens unless necessary' rule as the UK, otherwise it could be a noisy night!). After a bit of loafing in the hotel room (catching up on emails!), we headed out to see if we could find a light supper (whilst it is not as hot here as it was in Brussels, and we've even had our first spots of rain of the holiday, it is still quite muggy, and we have already eaten well today!) We very quickly found La derniere seance, which is a creperie tucked just off the main avenue (Seance here being the French for show/film show, rather than being an occultist themed restaurant. Just so you know.). They had a good meal offer going on, but we weren't quite hungry enough at 7pm, so decided to do a large walk round the block to build up an appetite and to see what else was about for tomorrow evening (John is very keen to try a Chinese given that we are on the border of Chinatown here). We passed a number of likely looking places, with the set menus getting better and better (we started getting very picky and not even considering places that didn't have a set menu!), and we think that we have now found our place for tomorrow. The spotting of rain did get a bit heavier, so we headed back to Seance for our pancakes. And this place was good. We were the only clientele there, which was very undeserving. The waiter was the perfect balance of attentive when we needed him, but fading into the background when we just wanted to chat. The pancakes, though basic (ham, cheese and egg for the savoury and sugar/chocolate for the sweet) were delicious – so much lighter than the ones we get in the UK. We also got a basic salad and a drink (John had his diet coke, and I went for a glass of cider – a lovely light and slightly sweet one, which rivalled most of the ciders I've had in the UK recently). We added to the set menu with a couple of drinks (John had mint/lemonade, and I had grenadine/lemonade) and an excellent espresso coffee each. The whole meal took over an hour and a half, and was just what we needed. I'd definitely recommend this place again!

And now, hopefully, an early night and a bit of a lie in tomorrow morning (as we are not B&B here, so don't have to be up in a specific time for breakfast) before heading out to the tourist areas of Paris.


First full day in Paris. We had quite a long wander round this morning trying to find the patisserie that we spotted last night, but to no avail! Still, we found another, which had lovely chocolate chip brioches, which did just as well for breakfast. Then off to the famous section of Paris! It was raining, which was a bit disappointing, but the grey weather did not last long. We came out of the Metro close to the Louvre, and wandered around the outside, taking photos, but not going in (that's tomorrow's plan...). We then headed down to the Place de Concorde and from there up the Champs Elysée. It was very sad that we had to do so much dodging of beggars (one on the Metro with a baby firmly clamped to her breast was better dressed than I was!). - I am probably incredibly hard hearted, but they just annoy me now (and I'm sure that I've seen at least one of them in Bristol!). We also had to keep on dodging souvenir sellers – it felt like almost every third person at the Palais du Chaillot was selling tacky Eiffel Towers. Still all parts of the hazards of being a tourist in a big city!

We found another patisserie for lunch half way up the Champs Elysée (after wandering backwards and forwards for a while), and then finally found somewhere that sold coffee for less than 5E each! Then on up to the Arc de Triomphe and, after taking some photos and trying to avoid the coach tours, wandered down the the Eiffel Tower. The weather by now was glorious, so we decided to head on up (there wouldn't have been much point if it had been raining as we wouldn't have had a decent view). We only ended up going in the lift to the 2nd floor, rather than right to the top, as the extra 10E would have pushed us over the edge of our budget, and things are getting a little bit tighter than they should! But it was still worth it – the views were amazing, and we then spent a leisurely couple of hours going round the exhibitions on the first floor before descending via the stairs back to ground level again (which given the queues, would actually have been faster than waiting for the lift!). We then moseyed on up towards the Military College, stopping for a quick drink, and a replaying of “The Birds” with sparrows (they really wanted the crepe of the gentlemen sat at the table behind us). Then back on the Metro to the hotel and ready to go out for supper this evening...

My first real impressions of Paris are that it is very crowded and not very sociable – the folks in Belgium seemed to be a lot more laid back and more willing to (a) make room on the pavement and (b) let you cross the road; here the aim seems to be to inconvenience as many people as possible (qv the lady who stopped in the middle of a scaffolded area of pavement to take a phone call, ensuring that everyone who wanted to get past in both directions (i.e. she could see the oncoming pedestrians, even if you tried to make the excuse that she wasn't aware that there were people coming up behind her) had to step out into the reasonably busy street)) and that pedestrian green lights are things to be ignored wherever possible (particularly by bicycles – my old bug bear – and by moped) The architecture is all very nice, particularly around the famous bits, but it is also a bit samey – I really did enjoy Brussels changing face where the different architectural styles blended and complemented each other.

Recently got back from our visit to Noveau Viet Nam (no web page from Google - I will have to see if I can find one on the business card they gave us when I get back home) – an amazing little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. From the start, the evening was more than a meal, it was full entertainment, too. The waiter (who, aside from a c15 y.o. Boy, seemed to be the sole member of staff in the restaurant) was small, grey haired, walked as though he had slippers on, and seemed to be talking to himself a lot. Only when he repeated himself did you realise that he'd actually been asking you a question! However, this was not a detriment to the restaurant (nor was the shouting match with one of the other customers over whether he should have served the second bowl of soup with the first or waited (the customer thought that they should have been served together, even though he was having the soup as his main meal. Or so I gathered – my French isn't exactly amazing!)), but more a wonderful splash of colour. The food was, in a word, exquisite. The seafood soup with tamarind actually had tamarind rind floating in it, and was the perfect balance of sweet, sour and salty that you expect from a Thai dish. The duck with pineapple, on the name of it, a very traditional, and, some may say, bland dish was heavenly. The pineapple was evidently fresh, with a pure, across the top of the palate taste that you just don't get from tinned fruit. The duck was cooked to perfection, with just enough fat in it to flavour the meat, but not so fatty that it chokes (as so often happens with duck). The crystallized ginger desert was a little too much for me to finish, but what I managed was delicious (and I pinched a piece of John's nougat, which was more like a Turkish delight with peanuts in, coated in toasted sesame seeds). All this was for 11.90E each – could you get three courses in the UK for the same? On top of this, we had a delicious bottle of rose wine, and espresso that was to die for (and seriously, I would have killed if anyone had tried to take it away from me!). Also, complements of the house, we got a glass of a digestif – an anonymous liqueur that was better gulped than sipped, though if you sipped it, you got a better chance to admire the unusual mugs that it came in – they each had a prism in them at the bottom of which was a picture, especially selected for John and myself (so it was therefore a shame that we initially picked up the wrong mug!) of a naked person for us to admire... The picture only showed through when there was liquid in the mug....

Added to the food and the floor show that the waiter provided was also the side entertainers of the rose seller and the random book seller (we presumed he must have been a Jehovah's witness, but he obviously only assumed that one of the tables was worth saving as he only tried to sell his literature to two ladies sat in the corner), and also that of the parking lorry coming and lifting away a car, interrupted by, we presume, the car's owner (not too much Gallic shouting, so there is a possibility that they were only just passing the time of day!), and then followed by what I assume was another member of the car removal team pushing a parked car out into the oncoming traffic (the car was on some kind of sledge arrangement...). There was also the possibility of an amusing occurrence when the waiter went out through the fire escape to pick up some more beers from the cellar. The fire door was heavy (with a push bar arrangement to open it), and so he propped it open with the chair from the table by the door. Even that only just managed to hold it. Whilst he had disappeared, two more ladies appeared wanting a table for the evening. The waiter's 15 y.o son (I assume) appeared and asked them where they'd like to sit. As all the other tables for 2 or 4 were taken, they chose to sit by the fire escape and one lady took the chair which had been propping the door open to sit on. It very gently swung shut. Fortunately, before it clicked, the waiter called out, and they repropped it open, but it could have very easily become a farce... (must try to remember should I ever write a play!) All in all, it was a glorious evening, and, as it is unlikely that we will ever get to go there again, I hope that I can promote it enough that other people will manage to go for us!

Belgium Day 2

It has been a very full day today! C 21.18 BT and I'm completely exhausted! We slightly overslept this morning as I forgot to change the alarm clock to BT – though this was not a bad thing, as we'd had a bit of a broken night – the walls here are very thin, and someone coming in to the room next door sounded like they were trying to break into ours! However, we still got downstairs in time for breakfast – a very bready meal of croissant, a baton and two small toasted bits of bread (bad luck to anyone with an allergy to wheat!) but with a good selection of jams (including bilberry and quince!) and some nice soft cheeses. There was also a tiny slab of chocolate each and a small biscuit which we squirrelled away for a snack (and pinched from the lady who had finished (and gone) from the table next to us).

Then off out into Brussels for our day of touring. We decided to take the tram as much as possible – although John's tendon was better than yesterday, we still didn't want to risk it too much! Fortunately, the tram runs from a couple of streets along from the hotel, so we didn't have to go too far, and it dropped us off right outside the Magritte museum. There was a little bit of confusion initially, as we did not realise that we had to get a separate ticket as well as showing our Brussels card, so we got sniffed at by the security guard who then went back and took a while to actually print off the tickets showing a E0 value! The museum was built slightly oddly in that you went down to the basement to pick up the audio phones (which we didn't use), and enter the exhibition via the lift, which took you up to the third floor. You then worked your way down through the three floors of Magritte's life, ending up at the gift shop. The museum itself was very interesting – mainly his paintings, although there was a good chunk of other work that he had done, including adverts, posters and even some music. They had also carved some of his sayings into the wall in French (with the Dutch translations next to them) – these were fun to try to translate (we did find after we had got through the first floor that the museum had printed off leaflets with the sayings translated into every language conceivable, but I still preferred the challenge of trying to see if I could decipher them myself (particularly as some of the translations weren't exactly accurate)). I definitely preferred his surrealist paintings, and it was particularly interesting to watch themes develop and change through his life. (an early picture in the exhibition included a tree trunk with two open doors, showing a house and a jingle-bell, with a stump standing on an axe next to it. In one of the last pictures that we saw, the same tree, minus the stump next to it, was in full leaf. There were numerous pictures of leaves turning into birds, and one of the last of these, very sad, was of the bird/leaf with a caterpillar eating holes in it) I am not very good at artistic criticism, but I am good at remembering pictures (even if I don't remember the names of them) that I have seen earlier on. We did have to do a lot of circular movement through the various galleries avoiding all of the different groups and tours, but this wasn't a great hardship, and we did manage to stay away from most of the crowds.

Unfortunately, the gift shop was a little bit disappointing – we are hoping to give each other t-shirts as our cotton anniversary presents to each other, but the ones in the gift shop were not only expensive, but also not of any of his more interesting works. (not even “ceci pas une pipe” or a bowler hatted man...) So we decided to leave it (John did pick up a mini-book) and see what the other museums had to offer.

Our second museum of the morning was the Museum D'Instruments Musicales (sp?) which allowed us to go through multiple floors of instruments (mainly in glass cases), but with an audio / headphone system whereby you could stand in particular points and hear the instruments around you being played. Very peculiar in some cases – I'm not sure that I particularly liked a lot of the Chinese instruments, but then I know that my ear isn't tuned to the harmonics. I did enjoy (naturally) hearing the various double reed instruments, which did include a double-reeded version of the saxophone. We did skip the level that promised to be keyboards and strings, partially because there had been a lot of keyboard and stringed instruments in the “Western” section (and quite a few in the “native” section, but also mainly because it was lunchtime! The museum did have its own restaurant, and we decided that as we'd had a bit of problem finding a suitable evening meal yesterday, we'd try to get our main meal at lunch and just have a snack in the evening (very handy as the restaurant itself was a bit pricey and I don't think we could have justified spending that for a snack lunch!) The restaurant was right at the top of the museum and gave gorgeous views across Brussels. We even managed to spot the Atomium hiding in the distance, and I got a lovely pic (I hope that it does come out ok when on the computer – it is a bit difficult to tell from the camera screen) showing the juxtaposition of the Cathedral with the more modern buildings around it, and with the Atomium in the background. Then, after lunch, back down to the gift shop, which, again, was sadly lacking (I was very disappointed in their musical instrument representation range – fridge magnets, badges etc all pretty much just showing guitars, violins and the occasional modern drum set – no oboes or classical percussion).

Our third museum of the day was the Musee de Bandes Dessines. We did manage to get ourselves confused – there was a little shop which was a comic strip museum, but was not the one with free entry with a Brussels card... On closer inspection of the map, we discovered that we actually had a bit of a way to walk, and headed on down the hill. The Musee de BD was actually tucked away down a little side alley, and almost looked like it was shut (there was a delivery lorry outside the doors, which had one of the 'grating gates' shut, and the lorry driver standing in front of the open door chatting with his mate). But when we walked inside, the building opened up into a beautiful Art Deco foyer. The Musee was dedicated to all kinds of Belgian comic strip art, with a small introduction on how a strip is created, and a few short early films playing of the Smurfs (not exactly a Belgian strip, but rather fun all the same). Then there was an exhibition of some of the original strips that the Musee holds (they have over 7,000, but only show c 200 at a time to ensure that they don't get too light damaged), and finally an exhibition of some of the famous Belgian strips, including, of course, Tintin, and also a series called Troy, which is about a set of trolls, heavily influenced by the Asterix strips (and openly acknowledged as such by the creators – they have even put in some direct homages to Asterix). We didn't get all the way round this exhibition, as not only were my legs starting to hurt, but I was also feeling a bit cartooned out and was starting to fall asleep! (I think it might have been different if we'd been seeing more than a page at any one time of the strips, but it became very difficult to concentrate, particularly as only the main parts of each section of the exhibition were translated, so I was mainly reading French, when there wasn't a coherent thread running through)

We decided, after a successful visit to the gift shop (I got a French Tintin, and John not only picked up a gift for his manager, but also a BD history of Belgium, which will be very interesting to read. No decent t-shirts, though!) that at 4.30, we weren't going to get out to the Atomium in time, so instead we decided to take a look and see if we could find one of the advertised choclatiers (we had a couple of adverts which gave us a 10% discount) to pick up some souvenirs. After a bit of walking (and wandering round the non-advertised ones for price comparisons), we found one, and picked ourselves up a bit of a bargain (I hope!) - 6 large boxes (we think with 30 pieces each in them) of hand made chocolates (made on site – we actually watched the choclatier working away) for E81 (including the 10% discount). Whilst that still isn't cheap at E13.50 a box, for Belgian chocolates, it isn't too bad...! We are going to have to reassess our budget, though – we did really rather break E100 today! (we did also get a free cool bag and some postcards – we definitely needed the cool bag – it was another scorcher of a day with nary a cloud in the sky – it is difficult to imagine that it is September!)

Then we had our snack supper of a very nice toasted panini with camembert, lardons and honey (one thing I do like about the food here is that a lot of it comes with a good pile of salad as well - very welcome when it is so hot – at 6 pm it was still 28 C, and even at 8 it was 25C.), and headed quickly back to the comic shop as the Belgian history had some pages duplicated and others missing – it was a good job that John flicked through it whilst we were waiting for food to come out!

We then headed over to our final museum of the day – the Toone exhibition. Purely chosen because of the name, this was a little café / museum / theatre devoted to marionette puppets which was hidden away down a very narrow side alley. It was a lovely old building, with the puppets hanging down from the ceiling and posters everywhere. Unfortunately, both the museum (the parts that weren't part of the bar/café) and the theatre were only open on a Saturdays, which was a bit disappointing, as the brochure had implied that it was all open all week, rather than just the café/bar. Still, we got ourselves a glass of wine each, and had a bit of a rest, then headed back out into the city. As we had a bit of time to play with, we decided to take advantage of the free transport on the Brussels card and travelled on a couple of buses out to the Royal Museum of History and Art, which also had a large park. It was a very grand, Victorian building, with acres of parkland and boulevards of trees in front of it. The museum itself was obviously shut at this time of the evening, but the green spaces were being taken full advantage of, with people playing, dog walking and running everywhere – again, lovely to see it being used! After we had had a wander and I took a number of photos (the museum buildings had a gorgeous archway from which was suspended a Belgian flag. Oh, how that flag teased me as it threatened to billow in the wind, then flopped down again!), we then went over to get the tram which runs along the streets close to the hotel. It was surprising how hot and stuffy the tram was, even at 8.45 at night with all the windows open, and I was glad when we got to our stop and we could get off.

We are now back up in the hotel room, and I do not think that it will be long before we go to bed – it is 22.23 BT now, and we have another incredibly full day ahead of us – we are going to go out to the Atomium tomorrow morning after checking out of the hotel (could be interesting with our very full bags!), stay there till about 2, then head back to the station to catch the train to Paris. Fortunately, the same tram that we got back to the hotel then runs through to very close to the Atomium, and there is also a Metro stop there which will take us back to the Gare, meaning that we aren't going to have to walk too far with heavy bags. I'm vaguely hopeful that there will be a cloakroom at the Atomium, but I'm not banking on it!

Holiday Diary Part 1 (Eurostar and Brussels day 1)

As I wrote a daily diary whilst we were on holiday, it seems to make sense for me to put a good chunk of it up here, rather than rewrite it, and take another couple of months to get everything sorted out! Note that these posts were written as we went along (often a couple of times a day)...

There are photos to accompany the next few posts, and I will get them uploaded, but I am currently blogging from my in-laws garden (I love netbooks and wireless connections!), and the photos are on our PC back at home...

So - let us begin with:

7th September (Monday)

We are currently on the Eurostar to Brussels – very excited – I've never been on the Eurostar, nor to Brussels (nor to Paris, our destination on Wednesday) before. Loads of new experiences to come!

It has already been an interesting start to the holiday – we came up to London on Saturday morning to stay with Uncle Simon; I had a TKD seminar in Stevenage to go to on Sunday, and it was a convenient stopping point, as well as being lovely to be able to impose on Simon and get to see him and Anneli (quite possibly for the last time for any length of time before we go to NZ – we are going to be seeing Simon briefly next Sunday as he has very kindly offered to look after my TKD kit whilst we are away). We had a lovely time on Saturday – a very easy journey to London and across to Finsbury Park, with a walk up to Ali Pali after lunch (rather sadly the sun that had so beautifully illuminated the transmitter aerial whilst we were having lunch (Simon has a great view from his window!) had disappeared by the time we got out); we were probably walking for about an hour and a half through the shops of Crouch End and back up to the Palace Park. It was so nice to be able to see the green spaces being used by so many people (Simon pointing out that there weren't that many of them about, so therefore people did use those that they had access to).

In the evening, we went out to an Iranian restaurant, which was interesting – they use a lot of fruit in their cooking – John had a chicken risotto with orange, and my risotto came with pomegranate seeds (it had been billed as “with forest fruits” - we weren't sure how foresty pomegranates are...) - very nice, but really rather oversweet for a main course – although the plate wasn't piled overly high, I found myself completely full by the time I'd gotten half way through! (and it was a genuine full – I wasn't feeling hungry again by the end of the evening) After the meal, we headed over to a chapel in Islington, which, although being used as a church during the week, has regular comedy club nights. It is a gorgeous venue, although the acoustics were a bit bad for two of the comedians who had a slight tendency to rush their words – the manic comedy probably fine if you were at the front, but we were sat up at the back in the gallery and there was a lot of echoing by the time that the words (and songs – we had two musical comedians) reached us. But the other two billed comedians and the compere were excellent – not holding your sides funny, but a great laugh. It was slightly surreal realising that this was a place of worship (even though I have no great feelings either way), and the visiting comedians also thought so – they all made either reference to church services or did a brief “Sorry, God” as part of their act. But then my thought was that if there is a God, then that deity (I'm not going to do the incredibly patronising s/he thing – why would a God have a gender?) would rather enjoy the fact that people were laughing and enjoying themselves – places of worship are far too solemn!

The evening was slightly marred when we got back by my discovering that I'd left my dobok back in Bristol – this was at about 1am, and there was no conceivable way that I could get home to Bristol to pick it and then back to London and then Stevenage in time for the training the next day. This did lead to a rather broken night's sleep (even though my fairly fatalistic conscious brain had concluded that, aside from the text that I had sent to Kerry asking whether she had a spare one I could borrow, there was nothing I could do about the situation, my sub-conscious was going to beat me up about it all night!), before I received the text the next day from Kerry saying that yes, she had a spare dobok that she had got for another club member, and it happened to be in my size.

(I believe we are currently going through the Channel Tunnel – no announcement about it, but we were definitely on the south coast about 10 minutes ago (a carved white horse on the hill), and we have been going through a tunnel ever since...)

The TKD course was brilliant! It was led by Grand Master Choi (pronounced Che, which did confuse me for a while...) and Grand Master Wheatley (an Irish chap who had very floppy hair – not quite a comb over, but enough that it went completely wild with a life of its own when he was demonstrating moves!) - and was a very intensive class. There were approximately 230 of us there, from yellow belt up to 6th Dan black belt, and all ages from about 8 through to mid 60s (one of the 6th Dans was one of the people who introduced TKD to Ireland in 1968). The theme of the course was power – how to get more power into both our attacks and our blocks (which would then be a form of attack in themselves, though I'm still quite intrigued by the idea of being able to break someone's leg or arm with a block. I could definitely see it happening when the Grand Masters were doing it, but couldn't see that it would ever be that I could get to that stage! But you never know – I'm still very much a beginner at all of this!). There was also a touch of the philosophy, and a little bit of the politics. It was really rather exhausting – even doing the very basic patterns with the power that they were expecting us to left me breathless and my heart thumping (which was what they wanted – they effectively said that one should be so exhausted from doing one pattern that you shouldn't be able to then go on to do another straight away). It was also quite difficult to sit cross legged (particularly with both my ankle and knee strapped up) as the carpeted floor was actually quite uncomfortable for 20 minutes at a time!

(Now have crossed the Channel – that really didn't take long at all! Possibly 20 minutes!)

But I think that I learnt a great deal, and it was definitely worth the £45 just to gain the insight and the workout! Hopefully I will be able to carry it forward into my everyday TKD (although I'm going to have to put a lot of personal practice in as I'm not going to be training now till the beginning of October – we have so much travelling to do and it all happens on a Sunday!) I'm starting to stiffen up a bit now though, particularly in my back!

Then off down to St Pancras this morning – a very easy journey from Finsbury Park – it's only two stops down the line – and onto the Eurostar.

You can tell that we have crossed over into France now – the sky is blue and there are only wispy clouds The fields are a post-summer brown interspersed with a few green crops (possibly cabbage?) The other (teeny-tiny) clue was that the announcement as soon as we came out of the tunnel (advertising the Brussels metro system) started off in French then into Dutch (possibly Flemish) and the English translation came third... Not that I'm complaining – I would really love the opportunity to improve my French this week!

Later – about 9.30 pm (Brussels time (herein referred to as BT). It has been a brilliant day. A little bit of mild stress as we got going towards the B&B as we couldn't find our initial road to start off with (following Google Directions), and John has a slightly inflamed tendon, which wasn't helped by our bag bumping into his feet. It probably took us about half an hour in the end to get to the Hotel Rembrandt. After being greeted by the hotelier (who understood my French – very pleased about that :-) ) and finding our room (up a very teeny lift – we elected not to take the winding staircase with our big holdall!), we headed out into the streets of Brussels to find our lunch (though as it was now about 3.00, we probably couldn't term it “lunch” any more!). After a little bit of wandering, we found ourself a waffle stand and had a couple of Belgian waffles. Hunger assuaged, we then found our way to the Place Royale, a square which not only had the tourist centre, but also the Magritte museum and the Museum of Instruments (both closed as it was a Monday). We picked up our Brussels cards (prebought), which will give us free entry to the museums, plus free rides on all the public transport in the city. We spent quite a while studying the maps that came with the card, then, as we started to leave the tourist information centre, we were told that they had an exhibition of Brussels up the lift. So, of course, we had to go and have a look! There was a clever greenscreen room where we could overlay a shot of ourselves with scenery of Brussels and then email out to people. As it didn't let you put a message on it, we weren't sure exactly what it would send, so we just sent a couple of shots to my email... We then met a very enthusiastic guide (again, he understood our French, but switched to English after asking whether we were Belgian!) who wanted to show us everything that was there... He was very eager that we understood what was available in every room, then would go away, only to come back again a few minutes later as we moved on to the next (I suspect he might have been a trifle bored!) Rather sadly (as there was actually quite a lot more that I wanted to see – whilst some of it was a bit odd, there were some lovely pieces, particularly a series of what looked like lamps hanging down from the ceiling to about waist height, which you lifted up, and some started playing music (at a quiet level – you did have to hold them up to your ear to hear), others played short films), he did come back at about quarter to six to tell us that the exhibition was about to shut, and that the lights were going to go off automatically in about five minutes. He did then want to show us other bits of the museum, despite the fact that they were closing! It took assurances that we'd go back the next day (though fortunately, he isn't working tomorrow, so if we aren't able to get there (we do have five museums planned!), he isn't going to know) before he accepted that we were going to leave!

We then had a lovely wander about, looking at some of the glorious architecture of Brussels. It is a a real mixture of styles from 17/18C through industrial blocks to modern (pretty). There hasn't been an apparent attempt to blend the architecture, but the mish mash really does work, I think mainly because the modern stuff really is pretty. Unfortunately, we are a couple of weeks too early for the Mont des Art which is a square which is being completely redesigned for a grand opening on the 20th Sept. It is already looking amazing (though the lift / escalator area, which, although you could go through the doors, you couldn't go down in, was all in glass, and even though it was getting on for evening, it was like a greenhouse in there!), and it is a bit of a shame that we won't get to see the completed area. We started to feel that it was getting on for supper time (given that we'd only had a waffle each since breakfast at Simon's at 9), and started looking for restaurants. For some reason, there does seem to be a preponderance of Italians round the area that we were walking through, and, as I'm avoiding too much wheat for the sake of my stomach, I really didn't fancy pizza nor pasta. Neither was I particularly enthused by the Lebanese restaurant which had on its menu “meat kebabs”. I really do prefer to know what kind of meat I am eating! So we ended up at Moshi-Moshi, a Japanese restaurant which had the majority of its seating outside. It was a glorious evening, probably still about 25 degrees (I wasn't feeling the need for a jumper at all, and I normally start feeling the chill on my arms once it dips to 20 C). The food was delicious, and we were able to have a (complementary) starter, main course, dessert and three glasses of wine (John had two...) for E45 including a E5 tip. The desserts were interesting to say the least – Green tea ice-cream, which was wrapped in a very odd suet-like case (probably a flour base), and what was described as a spongy gateau with a green tea sirop inside. However, it probably had a high gelatine base to it – it wasn't exactly a sponge cake, but more of a sticky sweet. Interesting flavour and texture! I'm glad I've had it, but I don't think I'll have it again...

Then, after a look at their national monument; a very tall pillar which celebrated the creation of Belgium in 1830, plus the tomb of the unknown soldier for 1914-18, the war memorial for 1940-45 and a tribute to those who had died in the cause of peace; we started to make our way back up to the hotel. There are loads of urban murals about, and I've tried to get some pics of them – I'm not sure whether they are graffiti or council sanctioned, but they are glorious! We headed through a lovely Park (not sure whether it was a park of peace, or just dedicated to it), which had hidden Victorian and modern sculptures, as well as some very noisy magpies coming in to roost!

Back in the hotel room now, having made a fuss of the hotel cat and made our rough plans for tomorrow. These do include 5 museums (Museum of Instruments, Magritte, Comics, Atomium and the Toone museum (which appears to be dedicated to puppets) in the evening). Whether we get them all done remains to be seen, but it is a good plan! And now, even though it is merely 10.15 BT, it is time for bed...

Monday, 21 September 2009

Will blog more soon...

I know this blog seems to have stalled, but we didn't really have much time in August or the beginning part of September for me to get online!

Upcoming updates will include:
Edinburgh Fringe
Holiday in Brussels/Paris
NZ update

Hopefully before the end of the year!