What does the last of the housewives do?

Category: holidays

Streets of Istanbul

You know, I thought it would feel a lot more Asian here. Who knows why, what do I know about Istanbul, except that it used to be the throbbing heart of the Holy Roman Empire, and some stuff about the Ottomans. It actually feels very European, except that everyone in the world is here. There are less covered heads than in Burwood. The traffic makes you pleased not to be driving, but all of the beeping is very polite, the beep seems to be interchangeable with the indicator, with lots of letting people in with a centimetre to spare. Cars don’t have the ubiquitous scrapes down the sides like cars in, say, Florence do, so it obviously works.

We’re staying in the old city, so our merry band of elderly military engineers and their wives with don’t care hair went on foot today to visit the Tokapi Palace, which is very spread out, apparently because the Ottomans who built it were nomadic and didn’t like to feel cooped up, and entirely populated by tourists and their guides. I should mention our guide, Sinan, because he is an absolute legend and ask for him by name if you happen to be visiting Turkey. He’s not just an experienced tour guide, his degree and Masters were in tour guiding and he is currently writing his PhD thesis on burn out in tour guides for some reason. I’m sure we won’t be contributing to that, he’s told us that we are the very first tour group he’s had with no food requests. There are nearly ninety of us, and no gluten intolerance, no allergies, no vegetarians, no paleo. That’s the military for you. I did notice that Sinan wears one of those rings with a little secret compartment that you can fit a knockout drop into, I should take bets on whom it’s for.

I won’t go into the intricacies of the Sultan’s court, I just want to give a special mention to some of the exhibits. I can’t show you photos, because “no picture”. One room was the treasury, and had some of the biggest diamonds in the world in it. One was 86 carat and, in a setting surrounded by smaller diamonds, it was the size of a small pear. There were crowns and brooches with ridiculously massive emeralds and rubies, and other slightly smaller diamonds, but still the size of a sugar cube, and all just in glass cases with one very bored looking guard, the “no picture” guy. I would assume that the glass cases are bullet proof, but it wouldn’t be Mission Impossible to break them out. Though if you were caught, there’s a tasteful little fountain in one of the gardens where they used to do all the executions that I’m sure they could put back into commission.

And I’m sorry, WordPress is being a dick about inserting photos, so you’ll have to work out which goes where.


The other place worthy of special mention was the holy relics rooms. Again, yes bulletproof looking glass, and one “no picture” chap. With not a lot of fanfare, and a fairly small queue you had a display featuring: some very fancy containers for the Prophet Mohammed’s beard clippings and one of his teeth, plus some dirt he had walked on, and a whole lot of associated kit. But not only that. A pot belonging to Abraham. Yes, that Abraham. The turban of Joseph. As in And the Technicoloured Dream Coat. A sword belonging to David. As in And Goliath. Aaaand, the staff of Moses. You know, the one that parted the Red Sea. It looked rather flimsy, actually, a bit reminiscent of bamboo. They also had an arm and a bit of skull of John the Baptist, but that guy seems to have enough bits scattered over Christendom to build an entire Baptist Church congregation. So, is it fair dinkum? I don’t even want to Google it. These guys were the Ottomans, they did ransack Egypt, which is where that stuff would have been. I dunno. The actual staff of actual Moses? Did I really see it?

We also popped into the underground Cisterns built by Justinian, and not used by the Ottomans because apparently they prefer running water, not stuff that sits around for any length of time, it’s a Muslim thing. We were a party of engineers, after all, and it was very impressive. A couple of the columns holding up the roof had leftover Roman heads of Medusa at the base to prop them up to the correct height. You think they could have at least put her the right way up. Though I guess they weren’t expecting tourists from fifteen hundred years later to be gawking at them, they were supposed to be under water.

And Travelling David Tennant got to have another much needed Turkish coffee.

Then the highly anticipated Grand Bazaar. Which was a lot less chaotic than I expected, plenty of sweets, scarves, leather, chessboards, crazy hats that I’ll have to revisit for the Horror, and carpets, obviously. I did want to buy some of those thin cotton Turkish towels that we used at the convent in Florence if you’ve been following my travels, but Sinan took us to a shop outside the Bazaar for that. Four for forty five bucks, which was very pleasing. The shops at the Bazaar seemed quite expensive, and a bit of a wander around the streets near our hotel showed us little markets just about everywhere. But there were some rather terrific looking winter coats I’ll have to pop back for if I don’t see them anywhere else. If only you didn’t have to establish a whole relationship with a shopkeeper to buy something. You know how I feel about that.


Departing from Gate 58

Half an hour to departure. I have deserted my children for two weeks to go to a dinner in Turkey. Oh, I'm sure they'll be fine, the grandparents are staying over and doing the extreme driving. I've left a page a day diary for them, what could possibly go wrong. All the kids have is a birthday party, a chapel service, an eisteddfod, Supanova, choirs, bands, tennis, basketball, Pirates of Penzance rehearsal, a learning showcase and about seventeen games of soccer. Plus the pool is being acid washed – not just for jeans! Apparently research shows that all of this will vastly reduce the grandparents' chances of getting Alzheimer's (thanks Kath!), so we're doing them a favour really.

I've left four kilos of chicken schnitzel in the freezer. I've also shown the kids how to defrost and cook it, they also now know the phone password for the smoke alarm monitoring service. I made four batches of biscuits over the weekend, but it was a long weekend and there was a teenage sleepover, so I had to spend yesterday evening making them again. Plus a jam slice. I made marmalade for my father in law and mixed berry jam for the Moose. I bought salami and Turkish bread for the Horror and shouted at the Muffet until she disgorged all of her dirty clothes so I could wash them. I also washed all the sheets and towels. My conscience is clear.

For the first time ever we are travelling with a tour. It's weird for us, the husband is used to doing months, sometimes years of research, torturing himself by obsessively watching Webjet to see if there's a cheaper airline than China Southern. Looking through Tripadvisor, reading travel guides, he likes to be prepared. Not this time. The dinner we're going to is the hundredth Waterloo Dinner. One hundred years ago the engineers at Anzac Cove finished building a jetty, noted that it was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and held a dinner in a dugout to celebrate. Army engineers have celebrated the dinner ever since, in fact the husband was at a Waterloo Dinner the night before I started giving birth to the Moose. So a posse of engineers organised this tour to mark the hundredth anniversary of this dinner. Apparently the original plan was to have the dinner actually on Anzac Cove, but there's about a hundred of us going and the logistics were too much even for the engineers. So we're having it at a nearby hotel, it's for this dinner I made the necklace in the previous blog.

Don't worry, there has been some preparation. Five days of the tour will be on the battlefields, so I had to read Les Carlyon's excellent work on Gallipoli, it was a gripping read and I highly recommend it. I've also had a crack at reading a book on the history of Constantinople, but I keep falling asleep after getting through another couple of pages of the Sultan oppressing the peasants, and everyone is called Mehmet. I'll have to have another go at it on the plane.

And I've been trying to teach myself Turkish with an app called Duolingo. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere, most of the time I'm just depressed that there's another word I'm going to forget in an hour or two. It's not close to European languages at all, so I was starting from scratch. I'd like there to be Duolingo for tourists, I can't help but feel that knowing how to say we haven't got any elephants (Biz filler yok, actually, no I can't remember how to say that) is not going to help me very much. I do hope to run into some turtles (kaplumbaga!). But all the bits that modify words tack onto the ends, and not always predictably, and I can't hear the g with a thingo on it, and it's all a bit gruelling. I don't want to have to use tuvalet orumcek var (the toilet has a spider), I'm just hoping that lots of lutfen and tesekkurler ederim will get me sufficient brownie points to be going on with.

OK, time for boarding. I'm actually rather looking forward to just sitting, watching some movies, roughing out my numeracy lecture, doing some crochet (don't worry, the plastic hook got through the checkpoint. The different perspective that motherhood gives one. All I've got to do is think of a way of avoiding the husband draping his giant legs on me and I'll have a lovely time. Don't tell me if my children are involved in any kind of anything, I don't want to know until I'm back.

Heading to BrisVegas

I’m running away for the weekend. My sister is turning forty and she was so disgusted at myself and my brother not celebrating our fortieths with wine and revelry that she’s having a party big enough for the three of us. She lives in a whole other city, so I’ve packed a bag and am escaping debating, soccer, basketball, more soccer, juggling lessons and Supanova (that gave me pause) so we can party til we’re purple. Spongebob reference. Not a blood pressure reference.

There are three options for getting to the airport. Taxi. Driving to close to the airport and paying a small man with a giant moustache an amount of money to mind and possibly wash your car for the weekend and hopefully convey you to the airport in a clapped out minibus. Or public transport. Husband wished to have the station wagon handy because it was full of necessary soccer balls AND the Odyssey because he is a braver man than me and is taking many kids to Supanova. I’m a bit tired of giving taxi drivers directions to the airport and showing them how to work their GPS and, you know, human interaction. I had the time, so public transport it is.

It’s quite simple, really. You walk up to the bus stop and catch the bus to Central. You descend an escalator, walk quite a long way underground, drag your bag up the stairs to platform 23 because there isn’t any other way of getting up there other than levitating and there’s a train every five minutes on a Friday morning. They do slug you $14.91 for the ten minute ride. At the airport station there are many signs suggesting you should take your luggage in the lift, if you can find it, but no one is taking any notice because the signs are in Comic Sans. I thought the Graphic Designers Guild had boycotted that font, must have used scab labour. The whole trip took less than an hour and was definitely the cheapest option.

Having been recently briefly disabled, again appreciate how difficult it must be to get around if you have mobility issues. Some of the trip could be done, the bus, the train. But no lifts at Central. Some lifts at the airport, but not always obvious where. And a lot of walking. My ankle is currently functioning, but I am looking forward into settling into my economy seat and resting it gently on the top of my head. If only I’d done those yoga classes.

A postscript: have arrived, been appropriately leapt upon by nieces, the ankle is elevated and there is a fruity red in hand and the delicate scent of lamb shanks in the air. Have had the FBI report on my children’s day via the Moose’s phone, the Muffet’s blazer is still missing, Moose won his debate despite knowing next to nothing about drugs in sport, and the Horror has fairly reluctantly been gratuitously nice to someone today, a character building exercise for him. So all I need to worry about is what punk hairstyle I’ll be going with for the party tomorrow night. Fauxhawk? Random colours? Upset my hairdresser and have the sides of my head shaved? Who knows what the morrow will bring?

Two Versions of Versailles

Our last day of touristing. We were finally going to have to get on a train. I’d foolishly been researching how to get to Versailles and been a bit taken aback by how complicated it seemed to be. That plus the fact that I panic when confronted with the spoken French language. I can make it out when written down, but when spoken they may as well just be gargling honey at me. But we popped into St Michel Notre Dame, asked for some return tickets to the Chateau, was sold same and directed to the adjacent platform in perfect English and told to wait nine minutes. Easy as tarte tatin.

We arrived in the weak sunshine, ignored the enticements of the travel guides and followed the tourists. You turn a corner, and it rather stands out. The golden gates were only restored in 2008, but they give a taste of the sheer quantities of gilding you find within.

Once again the children were free, and I shelled out the extra three euros to take a look at Marie Antoinette’s digs at the other end of the gardens. We wanted to do this first as I’d noted that the weather was set to get a little unpleasant in the afternoon, and look at all that garden. The gardens are open to the public and despite the chill there were quite a few locals in there going for a jog in their all weather gear or riding a bike. And wouldn’t you, if you lived nearby? All the statues were hibernating for the winter.

Once again we were amazed at how much the French love a formal garden. The Moose was trying to estimate how many Groundskeeper Willies would be needed for the sheer amount of topiary going on. We came up with a round thousand.

We got a bit Harry Potter in the maze in an enormously long line of disciplined trees.

Petrificus totalus! It felt like a really long walk to the Trianon group of buildings at the other end of the gardens, but it must have been less than an hour. Louis the Fourteenth built them for his mistresses, the first of which was Madame de Pompadour. Marie Antoinette ended up living here for a bit, finding the excess of gilt and all the straight lines in the garden a bit wearing up at the main palace.

The kids noted that there were a lot of pictures of Marie Antoinette in the Petit Trianon, but none of her husband. We couldn’t visit the top floor, the King’s Apartments, there may have been some of him up there. Anyway, it has all been restored, so who knows how it was originally decorated. It was a rather cosy little house, we could well imagine Marie Antoinette and her mates hanging out here, drinking cups of tea and buzzing about the English garden she created. That’s what we visited next, she made a whole little fantasy area complete with ideal farmhouses and a tiny little farm, as a bit of an antidote to the enormously pompous geometrical hedges and lines of rectangular trees and sweeps of statues and wide gravel walks up at the main house. I wonder if Walt Disney ever came here?

It was outrageously cute and just a bit artificial. I kept expecting Mickey Mouse to pop his head out of a rustic window under a mossy thatched roof. There were even chocolate box animals.

And, wondrously, we had the place completely to ourselves! It mustn’t be on the one hour tour.

The donkey looked like the one in Shrek, the sheep had twisted horns, the rabbits looked like the Velveteen Rabbit and the goats put on a head butting display. Just for us. That wasn’t in the brochure. We then wound our way back to the main waterway via some Marie Antoinette grottoes and artificial rock formations. The woman should have been designing theme parks instead of irritating the locals.

So that was the first half. We grabbed some baguettes just as the cold cold rain started, then sprinted up the gravel walkways to the palace. This was the real deal, a palace dedicated to showing the peasantry exactly who was boss and how many artworks and gold leaf you could actually cram into a building. Early on we got the Hercules Room. It had a most magnificent fireplace, in which it would be a pleasure to travel by Floo Powder.

Facing this was a massive painting by Veronese of The Meal at the House of Simon. You may remember me mentioning him in our visit to the Louvre, he was responsible for the biggest painting there, the one nicked by Napoleon, the Marriage at Cana. Veronese must have charged by the square metre, but at least this one was given by the Venetians as a sweetener to a deal for support against the Turks.


There was room after stateroom, chock full of paintings and marble and so much gilt. I do like the idea of wallpapering a room in green velvet damask. Where can I get some?

The Muffet wasn’t terribly impressed with the Hall of Mirrors, she thought with that kind of description it would be 360 degrees of mirrors, not just “a hall with some mirrors in it.”

Well I thought it was very impressive. It wasn’t until later that I realised the audio guide hadn’t mentioned that this was the room in which the momentous Treaty of Versailles was signed. You’d think there would be a bit of a song and dance about that in there, but no.

Nothing was private for the monarchs, even their bedrooms had a public area, with a gilded fence in front of the actual bed. My photo just can’t convey the overwhelming amount of scarlet and gold the Sun King managed to cram into his sleeping quarters.

They even ate their dinner with the adoring aristocracy looking on. The original dinner service was swept away by the French Revolution, but luckily the English King at the time had had a copy made and here it is. I really hope that’s also how their serviettes were folded. Amazing.

Napoleon Bonaparte moved into the Trianon buildings while he was being Emperor and tidied the place up a bit after its sufferings in the Revolution. He had commissioned a painting of his coronation at Notre Dame from the French painter Jacques-Louis David, the original of which we’d seen at the Louvre. It was here before being moved to the Louvre, but what is here now is a replica of that piece, also painted by David. I dunno, does that make it a replica? Or the same piece, painted twice?

A few more staterooms later and we were gilded out, the kids too tired and cold on the way home to even want to find some exciting afternoon tea. An early dinner at home and I haven’t heard a peep from them for a couple of hours. I’m sure we can find some kind of sugar coated pastry for them in the morning, they’ve earned it.

Skip to the Louvre, My Darling

It was great weather for ducks today.

So we went inside, as I had cleverly planned, having kept a careful eye on the weather forecast. The Louvre is almost as close to our apartment as Notre Dame, so it is almost possible to skip there. Our plan was to see five famous things, then wander aimlessly about. It is a plan that has served us well in the past.

First up was the Venus de Milo. Here is what the poor woman has to put up with every day.

If she had any arms she’d be all like…

A least she doesn’t have Chinese tourists taking photos of each other fondling her willy, as a statue earlier in the hall was suffering.

And here’s a painting we saw in another gallery, on the ceiling actually, of her discovery. I wish we could still fly. Perhaps you have to be naked.

Further along we saw busts of, reading right to left, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. I don’t know who the one on the left is.

I like the busts, they look like portraits, not like most of the Greek and Roman statuary about the place that’s all about their gods. It’s like you can say hello to these ancient thinkers.

We then followed the tourist hordes to see the Mona Lisa and I was once again underwhelmed. At least, being winter, we could see her up close, I have memories of her being about postage stamp sized. I think because so many of the paintings around her have been restored and are bright and vibrant and also by masters of the art that she suffers a bit. Opposite her is the Marriage at Cana, of which I have also not taken a photo and seriously that thing is enormous. You pretty much have to lean up against La Gioconda to take it all in. It was pinched by Napoleon from Venice, and he had to cut it in half to transport it, then have it sewn back together. I liked it a lot.

We rambled through some biblical stuff pretty quickly, we’d had a lot of Giotto on Italy. This one intrigued the Moose and I, the saint appears to be flying an angel like a kite.

We were always pleased to see St Sebastian, always looking fairly resigned to a little peeved to find himself full of arrows. We got in to the Delacroix area fairly quickly, and the Moose made me take a photo of his famous pick.

Delacroix witnessed the Paris uprising in 1830 and was moved to paint it as an allegory of Liberty leading the people, but apparently now it’s an internet meme. C’est las vie.

I do always love the small stuff we see along the way, like this mini mosaic around a fireplace in the hall housing the Crown Jewels.

Here’s one of the royal teapots, carved from semiprecious stone. No wonder the citoyens were annoyed.

We moved into a Middle Ages statue area, where there seemed to be a bit of an obsession with death. Perhaps because so much art was commissioned on the occasion of people’s deaths.



Muffet was annoyed when the Moose started intoning “Pié Jesu Dominé. Dona eis requiem”. I don’t know how he could help it, actually, I nearly did the same myself. So we went to find her pick, chosen from the Louvre website.

He’s an Egyptian scribe, and looks fresh as a daisy, ready to take down your every word as he has been for the last four thousand five hundred years. Almost as old was my pick, the stele upon which is inscribed the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest lengthy pieces of decoded writing in the world. It was a code of law written in the Akkadian language, and such stones were set in major towns so that all should know what the law of Hammurabi was. On the back of the stone is a depiction of the sun god handing the laws to Hammurabi. You can’t be thought to be making these things up by yourself.

We saw a copy of this in the Pergamon museum and it did look very similar to the original. But I like to know I’m getting the real deal.

It was a big day, but the last of the museums and what a one to finish on. It was fairly cold and sleety outside, so I knew what they really wanted was a long walk to what everyone tells me is the best icecream in Paris.

No lines here, but a very difficult decision re flavours. I got figue, a rich pink seedy scoop of divinity, very pleased I didn’t stick with my usual raspberry. Glad I don’t live here, I’d be broke and fat very quickly. Although, what with being a flaneur and all, possibly just broke.

The Catacombs of Paris

We went underground today. Underground tunnels full of human bones, what could be more kid friendly than that?

We had wanted to see some original catacombs in Rome, but ran out of time. So Paris is our last bone sighting chance. We managed to get out the door before ten am this morning, only to encounter a line. A line! We had to wait a whole forty five minutes. Apparently in the summer it would be more like four hours, we’re never going to be able to come back in the summer, unless it’s to eat pastries and icecream.

We hired the English audio guide, being travel wise now, it’s always worth it. What a story it told. Paris, millions of years ago, was under the sea which means that if you’re a Roman looking for some decent stone to build your temples and baths out of in Paris, you just had to dig down ten or twenty metres to find as much excellent limestone as you want. Not only Romans, but everyone who came after them enlarged the underground quarries and helped themselves. This explained to us why the seven hundred year old gargoyles adorning the cathedral of Notre Dame have little seashells exposed in the weathered bits. Nobody really cared about managing the quarries, they’d just pop underground and carve out as much as they wanted. The inevitable happened in the late 1700s, a large chunk of street and houses in Montparnasse suddenly crashed into the abyss. This started happening fairly regularly, with one section of pavement dropping twenty five metres. You can imagine that at that time Louis XVI had a lot on his mind, but this was so urgent that he set up a Quarries Inspectorate to start stabilising the site. They’re still in operation today. One of the workmen on this site spent his lunch hours carving out little models of a castle in which he’d been once imprisoned.

The work proved so popular that he started carving out some steps so that visitors could access them. He didn’t finish the steps because the roof caved in and killed him.

About ten years after the stabilisation works had begun, Paris had another problem. Its cemeteries were overflowing. They tried digging up some old bodies that nobody cared about and stacking them in charnel houses. This was a temporary solution that rather annoyed the householders around the charnel houses, with reports that fresh milk or soup would go off in a couple of hours and my dear, the smell!. And then the Cemetery of the Innocents started overflowing into peoples’ cellars, and that can’t have been pleasant. So there was a problem of a whole lot of dead bodies that nobody really cared about any more, and nearby there was a massive set of limestone tunnels deep underground. In 1786 parts of the quarries were blessed and the transfer of all of the bones in the Cemetery of the Innocents started, travelling by hearse preceded by priests in the dead of night. And here they are.


It’s estimated that there are the bones of six million Parisians down here. More cemeteries were emptied into here, the transfer didn’t stop until 1859. Almost none are marked or noted, but they are arranged very neatly.

The bones of such luminaries as Rabelais and Pascal and Charles Perraut (author of Cinderella and Puss in Boots) are certainly in here somewhere. The effect is at first shocking, then a bit overwhelming, then it’s kind of nice that everyone’s in here all together. Very Socialist. There’s a little corner arrangement for a whole lot of bodies dumped on a street during the French Revolution.

There are quite a few plaques around the place with deathly poetry in French and Latin. There’s a monument to a poet with one of his teen angst poems on it, about how life was futile and nobody loved him. He died suddenly in his twenties after being thrown from his horse, so never got the chance to burn that kind of thing. His bones aren’t behind the monument, they’re in with everyone else.

Eventually we wend our way out of the bones and into some caverns with information signs about the rock formation and fossils that nobody reads. There is an example of the kind of rock formation that leads to cave ins, this one has been coated in concrete to stop it reaching up to street level.


That’s the kind of thing for which the Quarry Inspectors are always on the lookout. Constant vigilance.

It made a nice change from churches and museums. But I did pop into Notre Dame to get my book.

We only had to wait in line for a couple of minutes, during which time I chatted to an Asian man who, after learning that I was from Australia, complimented me on my English. Tourists.

More Stairs, this time French

I should start by mentioning that our Paris apartment is up a flight of one hundred stairs. I haven’t personally counted them, but a friend who stayed here a couple of years ago did. No lift.

It does mean that once we’re out of the house, we’re reluctant to go back until dark. So it was about morning tea time by the time we wandered over to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for another crack at the stairs. There was a much smaller queue, they only let a few people up at a time, and we amused ourselves by watching French driving. I’ll put a picture I took a little later in the day, of a bus trying to turn into a very narrow street and being blocked by a girl on a bike who rolled her eyes and moved forwards a few inches every time he rather politely beeped at her.

Notre Dame is way down the list for number of stairs, but more than our flat, of course. I’ll have to make a table. There’s a bit of a tease where you buy your tickets a flight of stairs up from where they first let you in. There’s a gift shop there with a book of biblical calligraphy that I simply must have, but one was only in there a few minutes before they ushered you up the real stairs. I have to go back. I shall go back. Anyway, gargoyles. This one was my favourite, he was eating a creature that was simultaneously biting him on the leg.


We could have looked at them for ages, every single one is different. But they do shuffle you through.
I would rather have liked a look at Saint Chapelle on the same island, we could see it from the top of Notre Dame. But you had to pay to get in, the entrance was underground and the kids said they couldn’t do two in a row. And then it started raining and they were hungry. So we wedged ourselves into a real Paris bistro.

It’s a little bit of a torture to me that my children are not terribly adventurous eaters. I’ve looked at lot of restaurant menus, and there just isn’t anything in French restaurants that they’re going to eat. So our first dinner I made the Horror cry with joy by taking them to a sushi restaurant. It was really good, very authentic looking, unlike the one we saw in Munich that also served chop suey and tomato soup. And since then I’ve been cooking at home. Lunch is slightly easier. At this bistro the Horror had a croque Monsieur with no ham, Muffet had one with ham, and the Moose had a plate of chips. In his defence, the chips in Italy were horrendous, so he hasn’t had any for a while. I had a ham and cheese sandwich on a delicious baguette. The Horror turned his inside out so he could pretend he was eating a toasted cheese sandwich.

Thus fortified, we walked to the Eiffel Tower along the river bank. It’s not a particularly exciting walk, the river is mostly lined by blocks of the city approved Paris apartments. So I had to put up with a fair amount of scuffling and squealing and general high jinks, which has led to me accompanying my dinner tonight with a generous helping of Medoc plonk. It was really only my problem, there were very few pedestrians out on this drizzly Monday. We did pass a building covered with plants.

And then we were there.

Trips to the top in the elevator were booked out, but we were happy to take the stairs. They were only opened to the second level due to the drizzle, but that was well and truly high enough for us.

Look, there’s the pool they jumped into at the end of Rush Hour 3. It looked a lot closer in the movie.

When we descended we crossed the river to take a closer look at the pool and blow me down if there wasn’t a genuine double story French carousel with horses with real horse hair tails and accordion music playing with no one on it. How could we resist?

Home again home again jiggety jig, but all the time looking out for what the kids are hoping to turn into a Paris ritual – the macaron tasting. The first night we bought a box of sixteen from Maison Larnicol around the corner. We took them home and solemnly placed them in the middle of the table, put out plates for all of us and poured ourselves a glass of water – to clear the palate between tasting. We would then choose one each and try to guess which flavour it was. Tonight’s were from de Neuville, more expensive so we only got twelve, but we preferred them. The tastes were stronger and the texture a bit chewier and the flavours less exotic.

At least they’ll end up being connoisseurs of something.

We’re in Paris

The last piece of the intricate puzzle that is our European Odyssey that we started putting together about six months ago is settling into place. We’re down to four, the main man having gone home to fill the depleted coffers for a bit. I thought we’d have a relaxing day today, look about us a bit. I popped out with Moose this morning to see the place in the daylight and blow me down if we didn’t come across some guerrilla art.


A couple of chaps were careful placing numbered origami cranes around the statues while another chap photographed the whole thing. It was just delightful. When I’d finally dug the rest of the family out of bed a couple of hours later it had gone. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was expecting from Paris.

The kids wanted to see Notre Dame, just around the corner from our place, so we went there first. We’re only a block away from the river, so they spotted it straight away. “Can we climb it?” asked the Muffet. I don’t know what’s got into that girl. We had a walk through first, and that was very successful as it was everyone’s favourite style of church (Gothic, though I have a soft spot for the madder Baroque), and there was a sung Mass going on.

We decided not to climb it today as there was a queue, we’ve been spoilt by being winter tourists and not having to queue for anything. Except the Pergamon in Berlin, just before New Year. That hurt. We’ll go back again, the kids want to see a gargoyle close up and it’s only five minutes walk.

I thought to get a feel for Paris we’d walk along the Rive Gauche for a bit, then stroll down the Champs Élysées. We arrived in the Tuileries about lunchtime, so got some French hotdogs and rather more French crepes for lunch and sat in the thoughtfully provided chairs by the pond to consume them.

There was some argument as to who spotted the Eiffel Tower first. It certainly wasn’t me.

The kids are tour fit now, so a stroll of that length was no problem at all for them. You can see the Arc de Triomphe very clearly from the Place de la Concorde. “Oh, it looks like the arch of Constantine” remarked my well travelled children. It was very pleasant to stroll with the happy Sunday afternoon crowds, occasionally popping into a shop, spotting the odd six foot tall lacquered praying mantis women on the arms of creepy old men, and watching the children’s surprise as the Arc got bigger and bigger and bigger. “Of course we can climb it”, I assured them. When we finally got there we spent a few minutes watching even seasoned locals battling to leave the dreaded roundabout someone foolishly put around the thing. I guess there’s really no other solution to getting around it, there was a lot less traffic in Napoleon’s day.

It was an easy climb after St Peter’s Basilica, though the kids argue that the Campagnile in Florence was the hardest of all. The view is terrific, particularly as you can see how beautiful a bit of thoughtful town planning can be. Of course it helps if you have an emperor willing and able to knock down the medieval heart of the city to implement it.

Inside the top of the arch is a little display with a map of Europe with all of the arches of note on it. You clicked on it and a picture and description came up. We had actually seen a few of them, but we were particularly pleased to click on Iran to see a reproduction of the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. We saw the original in the Pergamon Museum just a few weeks ago, though it feels like an age.
After a stroll back we rather felt that we deserved some macarons.

We had four each (they were rather tiny) and ate them very formally. We would each choose one, bite it, and try to guess what it’s flavour was. We didn’t get all of them, almond is a flavour that can overwhelm anything else, and I was pleased to swap my run of the mill flavours for one each of lemon peel, rose and bergamot, not popular with the younger set. We think we like them, but aren’t quite sure yet. Well, I am, of course. We might try a different shop tomorrow, or maybe go for some glaces. You just never know.

Visiting the Vatican

Another one of those overwhelming sites, we took our guide Sonya Tavoletta along to the Vatican. You really have to either take a guide or do a ton of research before visiting the Vatican museum. Sonya tells us that her least favourite tours are with people who want to tick off seeing the Sistine Chapel and have little interest in the fabulous wealth of art the rest of the place holds. We began with a painted statue of Augustus at the entrance, of whom I forgot to take a picture. Suffice to say he looked very gaudy. Sonya told us that a group of German artists studied many antique statues and used the most modern analysis to discover the tiny pigment fragments on them. They then recreated the statues and painted them as they would have been originally. Apparently everyone hated it.

We saw the Apollo of Belvedere, used in the Renaissance as the highest example of an artistic male figure.

I preferred the nearby Laocoön. Much more dramatic.

I also found this giant pine cone very dramatic. It was a decoration in Nero’s megalomaniac palace, situated nearby.

You want a learned discussion of the museum, you have the interwebs. Even though we’ve seen many many museums by now, this was jaw dropping. Not just for the displayed art. Have a ceiling.

Have an unremarked table, just parked in a corner.

I feel a velvet patchwork coming on. This ceiling made my brain attempt to twist its way out of my ear.

Imagine standing underneath that and trying not to fall over. Again, fairly unremarked because everyone is rushing to get to the Raphael room. Which is pretty fantastic. What I thought was interesting is that he painted the whole room, with a Christian scene on one side and an ancient philosophers scene on the other. I can see why the School of Athens is the one everyone knows about. I was so impressed with it I bought the shopping bag.

See, everyone is chatting, walking, drawing diagrams for each other, arguing. There’s a lot going on. Whereas in the far less remarked Christian scene everyone is just worshipping God, which, if you read the New Testament, is pretty much most of what you have to do to be a Christian. But it doesn’t make for a very exciting painting.

The next thing everyone rushes to after Raphael is the Sistine Chapel. Which means that they hurry through the many rooms of the modern artists. Not just anyone, there was a whole room of ignored Matisse. A couple of Francis Bacons. Look at the crowds in front of these three Salvador Dalis.

Admittedly the Sistine Chapel is incredible. I’ve been there once before, twenty five years ago. It was in the height of summer and also during the restoration works, so we could see some very dark bits of ceiling, a whole lot of scaffolding, some tiny bright bits that had been restored and we were pretty much shoved through like cattle. This time was different. Before we went in Sonya sat us down with a giant book she pulled from her small bag to take us through the individual paintings we would see when we went in. Do you associate Botticelli with the Sistine Chapel? Neither did I, but he did a whole lot of Old Testament scenes around the walls way before Michelangelo got in there. And very nice they are too. We were able to stay in there as long as we wanted, listening to the guards shouting “silencio!” and “no photo!”. It was pretty fantastically amazing, much better because we had been prepped. I did find that whole wall of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement a tad fleshy, even with the sad brown underwear added later, his male statues are fairly lithe but I find his painted nudes a bit on the meaty side. Sonya told us that he’d just been asked to paint the twelve apostles, but he liked painting nude males, and you just can’t paint the apostles nude. The apostles are there all right, but definitely not front and centre.

Sonya left us then, so we jammed in with the Japanese tourists for a spot of lunch, then zipped through our favourite bits again before heading straight for a climb up the dome of the Basilica of St Peter. I do recommend this as a first look at this amazing church. It’s really the only way to see a big chunk of it at once.
Here’s the Throne of St Peter.

You can climb right to the top, inside the dome.

You get a doozy of a view from the top.

You can also walk around on the roof, peeking down at the lost umbrellas nestling on the minor domes and getting right up close to the giant statues on top.

It was my husband’s last church, he’s on his way home now to earn some money. He was very glad this one was at the end, not at the beginning of the tour. Which began a heated discussion amongst the kids on which church has been their favourite and why. Ah, the indoctrination is working.

Colossal Rome

The easy thing about Pompeii was that even though people had been living on the site for possibly thousands of years, since the Etruscans, there was really only one story there. Bam, moment frozen in time. In Rome, after all the famous bits of emperors and triumphs and glory and acres of marble, people continued to live there. In droves. Even in Roman times you had a building standing for a couple of hundred years then it was swept away by flood or fire, then something else was built on the foundations, or incorporating the ruins. The mind bending effect is of all history all at once. You keep seeing things like this.

Just a bit of two thousand year old wall sticking out of a building a few hundred years old, adorned with Vespas.
We extracted a very prolonged squeak from the Horror by taking him on a little walk, then turning a corner to see this.

Once again we’ve used a tour guide recommended by Monika Iris, her name is Sonya Tavoletta and she’s been a very knowledgeable guide, and not just for the Roman stuff. This morning she took us through the Colosseum, even telling the boys things about it that they didn’t know, and we were especially amazed by the pulley mechanisms they had going so they could pop such things as whole trees out of the floor to run a wild animal hunt.

She took us on a walk past the Palatine Hill, giving us a whole lot of good information about Augustus, the Republic, later Emperors and pointed out some medieval farm buildings that had made use of the site after it had been abandoned and before the archaeologists started getting interested in the place in the nineteenth century. A lot of sites had been preserved when they were turned into churches, and there is not a more impressive example than the Pantheon.

Gave me the shivers the first time I saw it twenty five years ago, and gives me the shivers now. The magnificence inside is what the whole Palatine Hill and all the other relics jutting out about the place would have looked like in the days when labour was almost free. The Moose is working up debating points for why slavery should be reintroduced, but I think it’s just because he wants to live in a marble palace. The Horror and the Muffet were more interested in gelato than the glory inside the Pantheon.

The smaller kids prefer their ruins ruined, but I highly recommend the blueberry gelato. The Horror is just surprised to find how much like mandarin his mandarin gelato tasted. He liked it in the end. Muffet like her ruins also infested by cats, something that’s guaranteed when you operate a cat shelter in the Theatre of Pompey.

The Muffet visited the shelter and it reminded me of what my house would smell like in the eventuality that I do become a crazy cat lady. This particular cat was sitting metres from the spot upon which Julius Caesar was stabbed repeatedly by his business associates. Here is the spot even closer.

Just a fenced off area surrounded by busy streets which we’re finally learning to cross. You find a small gap then march across confidently, heads held high, not making eye contact with drivers. Last time I was here I’d find a nun to cross with, but we’re not staying that close to the Vatican this time.
Back to the Forum in the afternoon, past the shop that sells ecclesiastical duds to the Pope.

I guess you have to get your cardinal’s gear somewhere. There were a few shops nearby also selling stuff with which to fit out your church. Or personal altar.

I did love the Forum, you could spend all day there. It’s another site that could greatly benefit from the German touch. Sonya had given us enough information to be going on with, and there were the odd information signs. I do love the foundations of identifiable buildings, but I also love the random bits of marble lying around.

In a personal example of how Roman design still influences us today, I think that if you visit my new bathroom you’ll find this very design on the decorative border tiles around the room.

You could spend days mooning about the Forum, but they boot you out in a multilingual fashion at four, so we meandered back to our slightly run down hotel past the Colosseum to drink it in a little more. It’s an amazing thing to have hanging about the place.

Sonya’s son attends school about ten metres from the thing, which immediately had the Horror petitioning to be left here in her care. It’s hard to compete with. We have seen many school excursions popping in to ancient churches and museums, a very far cry indeed from a visit to Homebush.

If other parts of Italy, the Renaissance has been then strongest historical echo, but here it is overwhelmingly the classical Roman past. I wonder if that is how it seems to the residents? I’ll have to ask Sonya tomorrow, when she guides us through that other looming presence in Italy, the Catholic Church. More specifically, its physical centre, just a couple of Metro stops away. Always something new to look forward to.