Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Dash To Paris

Travelling the Eurostar from London to Paris, sister-in-law Chris and I were bracing ourselves for going through the spooky tunnel deep under the English Channel.

Jabbering non-stop as two excited women do, it was a case of ‘This wont hurt, did it!’ After all our trepidation, what an anti-climax!

We didn’t even notice we’d crossed the channel. We thought we were still in London, weaving under ground and over ground as you do on the Tube. But pausing to draw breath, we glanced out the window to notice that the landscape looked suspiciously French and shock upon shock, we were actually in rural France!

It takes just 20 minutes to go through the tunnel and just two and half hours by train to be transported from bustling St Pancras to relaxed Gare Du Nord, little more time than a journey from one side of London to the other.

Instant devotees of Eurostar, we decided the elegant train is the only way to travel! (Let’s forget that embarrassing faux pas last winter!) Who would bother with the ordeal of hostile Airport Security and the drama of flying or getting yourself to Dover to brave the ferry when you can glide into gay Pari, smooth and stress-free, fresh as a warm croissant?

We also realised that two women can travel together with ease! Mature-aged gal pals can be agreeable, considerate and co-operative in decision-making; fitting in with each other without fuss! Our little mid-week get-away just flowed.

Arriving on Wednesday afternoon, we jumped the Metro to our hotel. Chris had booked the Hotel La Bourdonnais at a reasonable rate of €180 per night. It was a comfortable, tres chic twin share with Parisian décor on a quiet street within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. Delightful!

We grabbed a late lunch at a nearby café. I had the strangest warm salad on a tortilla and Chris had a Caesar salad that bore no resemblance to the traditional recipe (Oh well, the French can do what they like with food! Who are we to argue!) But the meal was redeemed by the superb tiny Espresso of utter perfection, strong but not bitter.

"‘Oh what next?" we mused and decided on a cruise along the Seine. Tickets are just €8 and we could walk to the famous river to join the throng of tourists on board the Brigitte Bardot (as amply endowed as her namesake). Gliding in awe under a succession of bridges adorned with gold statues, pinching ourselves, with cameras snapping, we were gob smacked to take in the iconic sights of the opulent city we had dreamed about ever since high school French in suburban Melbourne!

You reach a certain stage of life and the world becomes a big, warm cosy home. You feel very comfortable as a Global Citizen, a savvy traveller, connected with humanity, no longer an alien, no longer a child, but a Grown Up with a credit card and a grasp on history and culture and universal human nature. There ain’t nothing you can’t handle, well except the language that is!

It didn’t take long in Paris to experience a creeping sense of inadequacy. Usually supremely confident in my communication skills with the ability to lavish charm on the locals, without fluent French I felt like I suddenly had a disability, empathising with non-English speaking emigrants, intelligent and respected in their homelands, but treated like idiots in their adopted country!

I could decipher French signs just fine, but when it came to uttering a few polite words I was too scared of making a fool of myself with poor pronunciation with the impeccable Parisians with their unforgiving high standards in all things!

But Chris, having honed up on French classes for months before her trip, was confident to try a few phrases on the locals: Bonjour, Je suis Australien, Ca Va? Merci, Pardon, Excusez-moi and the essential survival phrase: “Je suis desole”, exclaimed with exaggerated, high pitched intonation and a theatrical face full of remorse. It is guaranteed to gain pardon for any gauche behaviour such as stomping on a foot in the Metro, spilling your soup down someone’s back or being dumbstruck in giving directions to a lost soul on the street!

Yes two minutes in Paris and I was overwhelmed with the desire to learn the ultimate romance language! After the sunset cruise on the Seine we returned to our hotel room to doll up for dinner. I slipped into my red sweater with the sequinned shoulders and my purple trench coat while Chris opted for her classic black as we ventured forth in search of a cheeky little street cafe.

Lured by the man shucking fresh oysters from their shells, we drifted in and shared a plate of luscious aphrodisiacs (a sheer waste with my husband back in a cold bed in Ealing!) We lingered over the meal, chatting madly and wandered off into the night to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up before collapsing in our jarmies mid-sentence!

The next day we opted for the L Open Tour. I am a big fan of the ever-reliable city tourist bus having done New York, London, Dublin and now Paris from the top of a double-decker, rolling serenely like royalty with a clear view of the sights, the expert commentary booming through your trusty little ear plugs. For just €29 you can be guided around the city for an entire day, with the greatest of ease!

Blessed with sunny blue skies, the chill in the air was bracing and kept us alert! We jumped off at the Louvre and spent two hours wandering the famous art gallery in search of the miniscule Mono Lisa.

Despite signs forbidding cameras, the placid guards have long since given up attempting to stop eager visitors taking sly snaps of the priceless works of art!

Next stop was the Notre Dame cathedral and we sat quietly awe-struck in that magnificent, sacred place dating back to the 12th century before succumbing to tummy rumbles and seeking out French cuisine in a nearby café and after some ordinary soup savoured the famed Tarte Tatin, an upside down apple tart, which was delish!

However I wish we had wandered across the road to the Latin Quarter and stumbled into a more exotic café in the funky cobblestone laneways on the edge of St-Michel on the Seine, the bohemian student precinct near Sorbonne University. Ah well! Next time!

Back on board L Open Tour we are captivated by the dramatic Place de la Concorde, formerly the Place de la Revolution, the site where 100,000 aristocrats lost their heads in 1789 when King Louis XVI was overthrown. When Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804, he set about transforming the city with splendiferous monuments including the Arc de Triomphe. But as we chugged along the tree-lined Champ-Elysees, it was the Tour Eiffel on sunset that captured our hearts.

When you do the bus tour, be sure to time your tour to arrive at the mesmerising icon in the late afternoon and be prepared to ascend to the top, rug up and wait it out until the sun fades to a golden hue and the whole pristine city lights up!

Chris was determined to make the most of her once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Eiffel Tower and stay on the top of the 320 metre high engineering masterpiece, despite the encroaching chill, the crush of the crowd, sore feet and a parched throat, until one by one the lights came on across Paris.

“Oh look, there’s a light! There’s another one!” she exclaimed with child-like wonder, snapping another view and another view around the 360 degree vista of the magnificent city! We were indeed rewarded for our patience stretching two hours on the summit with a magical view of the twinkling lights of Paris imprinted on our brains forever; a real eye full at the Eiffel!

Too hungry to make it to a café, we grabbed a snack at the tower kiosk and fought off the eager peddlers of tacky souvenirs to make it back to our hotel room for a quiet night in, mulling over the delights of the day.

Checking out on Friday morning, I mustered the courage to mutter ‘Mer-Cee Boo-Koo’ in my best Aussie drawl and detected the exchange of subtle smirks between the sophisticated young desk clerks. That’s it. I am enrolling in French classes! Comprenez-vous? D’accord!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Jaunt Around Ireland

I could boast that I collected charming Irish men on our trip but the unembellished truth is I relish chatting with the locals, connecting heart to heart. And you learn more about a place and its people in a curious chinwag than in hours poring over travel guides.

So first there was Michael, then there was Liam and finally Eanna. Oh those Irish lads could sweet-talk the socks off a gal. ‘Tis true, the Irish accent is so melodious and seductive, they could be prattling about any old mundane topic like wind direction, stone fences or the invasion of Oliver Cromwell and I’d still be captivated.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t have my cherished D & K on board (the veritable bible on Ireland) as we cruised out of Dublin in the sturdy Nissan hire car, heading south to the rugged coast of the glorious Emerald Isle. Husband, Andrew was in the driver’s seat with Self by his side, Delightful Daughter, Justine and Aussie Adventurer, Sis-Outlaw, Chris sitting pretty in the back seat. Jussy’s boyfriend Andy was all set to join us further down the track.

For starters, I sketch my intuitive little mud map of the proposed itinerary, keen to hit the bases Andrew & I had missed on a delirious trip way back in 2001. It was back then I decided I had Irish blood, which got vigorously stirred, even though I couldn’t prove it. My heart went POW on Irish soil, Irish music, Irish history and Irish folk. In the interim, research into family history had confirmed my Irish convict heritage and now I’m so proud to be green I could burst.

‘Kil’ is Gaelic for church so it pops up as a prefix in many place names, including our first destination. In Kildare we visit the Irish National Stud and tour the Japanese Gardens (I know, weird cultural collision!) and take the Journey through Life, groping through the Tunnel of Ignorance, stopping briefly at the

Hill of Learning, Justine stands hopefully on the Engagement Bridge, Andrew and I squabble on the Marriage Bridge, I almost fall off the Hill of Ambition, we all avoid the Chair of Old Age and have a good blubber on the Hill of Mourning!

At the Horse Museum we learn that the Irish love horseracing, especially the famous Grand National Steeplechase, as much as they love Guinness and the craic. We admire the impressive stallions in their fertile fields before hitting the gift shop and hitting the road!

Kilkenny, built around its 12th century castle on the River Nore, is a lively town full of picture-postcard, brightly painted pubs. Lured by the promise of hearty veggie soup, we find a quiet corner, only to glance up to see that Neighbours is playing out crass Aussie drama on all four big screens! The soup turns out to be yesterday’s veg pureed into mush so we fill up on hot chips and scour the shops in search of tacky souvenirs. I make an excited purchase of some musical wooden spoons but after a pathetic attempt to master them decide to give them to Young Andy, who is after all a talented drummer so should have no problem keeping the beat during our next sing-along!

That night, after enough pub fare, Chris manages to source an upmarket gourmet Italian restaurant and we dine in style and then slide down market to a rowdy little pub to hear a solitary crooner and meet some country lads whose vision is somewhat dulled by an excess of Guinness and they mistake me for a Young Hottie! I have to be coaxed back to Fanad guesthouse before I’m intoxicated with flattery!

It was in Kilkenny I was inspired to open my laptop and delve into an old file on my mum’s Lane family background. The story goes my great, great grandmother, Ann Carroll was just 17 when she was transported to Tasmania in 1849 with her mother Ann Carroll senior (nee Birnes), who was convicted of stealing a sheep and potatoes to feed her family. She was a widow and, like thousands of Irish Poor, reduced to stealing to survive during the Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852 when more than a million people died from starvation under British subjugation. Now this heritage could explain my rage against injustice and zeal for human rights! The feisty convict Ann Carroll and her children hailed from Queens county. To my delight I discovered that rural area, just outside Dublin north of Kilkenny, is now called Laois.

The teenaged Ann married Charles Ainsworth, an English convict transported for the petty crime of stealing tools, who after serving his 10-year sentence took his young Irish bride and together they ran a pub called The Man of Ross in Hobart. Now this might explain my love of traditional pubs! They had four children but Charles and his son, Charles Ainsworth Junior moved to Victoria on the mainland of Australia and the young Charles married Eliza Swanston, the daughter of a Scottish woman! Ah! There you have it. The trifecta! I’ve got working class Irish, English and Scottish blood coursing through my veins! My grandmother Millie Ainsworth was one of 11 children who grew up in Victoria and married grandfather William Lane. And then there was me mum, Valerie Lane and then there was me!

When chatting to the locals you realise just how fiercely the Irish love their homeland, their small town communities and their families and how it must have been heartbreaking to be banished to a convict settlement on the other side of the world; the worst kind of soul-destroying punishment the British rulers could have inflicted.

But the Irish Uprising of 1916 eventually led to Independence in 1922 and the Republic of Ireland was made official in 1949. But the Irish still suffer. They might be an emotional race of people, musical and creative, and as endearing as a Labrador puppy and favourite old uncle rolled into one but cold, hard accounting is not the Irish forte. I heard on the evening news that the Irish economy is haemorrhaging as the government borrows €70 million a day and the front page of the Irish Daily Mail screams the headlines that the country is losing 500 qualified young people a week, as they emigrate in search of work.

Day Three, we take the long way round via Tipperary to reach the bustling city of Cork and arrive at the legendary Blarney Castle where a peculiar backward kiss on the upper tower is meant to bestow the Gift of the Gab, an effusive eloquence that will allow you to talk your way in to or out of anything, except the beguiling Blarney Woollen Mill, full of sumptuous knitwear and Irish delights.

And my banter proves no match for the lovely, gregarious B & B lady who treats us to a hearty Irish breakfast and an astute comparison of Irish football, Aussie Rules and that other game, rugby.

We prise ourselves away from the lavish table to set off for what would be the most magical, out-of-the-box day imaginable! It seems the Irish remain cheerful and enterprising in the face of economic gloom. When we arrive in the exquisite tourist town of Killarney, we are enticed by a colourful line-up of jaunty horse-drawn carriages ready to trot tourists through the beautiful national park.

I cannot resist the mellifluous Michael who has all four of us up on that cart in a flash and merrily setting off along the track. Michael knows more about the 25,000 acres of pristine forest, the mesmerising lakes and centuries of local history than humanly possible! We end up at the ruins of Ross Castle and the gentle sun sparkles across the vast expanse of placid Lough Leane, across to the velvet hills of scattered islands; an entrancing vision of tranquillity.

That afternoon we drive the magnificent Ring of Kerry and absorb the breathtaking scenery of the unspoilt Iveragh Peninsula. As if that wasn’t enough magic for one day, after booking in at the splendid Carrilea House and chatting with owner Eileen and her four little daughters, we treat ourselves to the original Riverdance which, as luck would have it, is playing at the Irish National Entertainment Centre! We are left buzzing and speechless by the exhilarating genius of the dazzling dancers and collapse happy after a day full of wonder.

Saturday sees us driving to Tralee and on to Tarbert to take the ferry across the River Shannon to get to County Clare and tour the rugged west coast on the Atlantic Ocean.

The wild and desolate vista from the Cliffs of Moher is softened by the verdant hills dotted with grazing cattle and sheep and pretty cottages. When we reach the tiny historic township of Doolin, the day has turned blustery and bleak. We step out of the warm car and the freezing wind is forbidding and unforgiving, sending us on our way to look for accommodation at the inland town of Ennis.

It makes sense to hole up in a cosy B&B at this funny little town set on the River Fergus so that Justine is all ready to rendezvous with boyfriend Andy who is arriving the next day by train. On Sunday morning, Justine heads for the station and Irish luck is on our side as the new day has dawned calm and sunny for our intrepid trip across to the Aran Islands.

At Bill O’Brien’s Doolin Ferry service, I meet the son, Liam who enchants me with stories about the Matchmaking Festival where every September hopeful bachelors come looking for eager wives. But the delectable Liam is already taken, having gotten himself hitched just weeks before to an American bride!

Chris, Andrew and I board the robust ferry, which carves through the choppy Atlantic to reach the smallest of the three islands, Inisheer. We are greeted by local lad, Eanna who tours us around in his van. The tiny, picturesque island is just two miles long and two miles wide and home to just 300 people, who live a traditional lifestyle, speaking Gaelic, playing music, fixing the endless rows of limestone fences and entertaining tourists.

Eanna says in a soothing accent that: “It is a nice, easy way of life” and no amount of money would allow outsiders to buy property here and intrude on the close-knit community of families that go back generations. However Eanna and other islanders venture to Galway by light plane, boat or car when they want to escape the peace and quiet and Liam tips us off on the best pub for craic.

And Galway is just where we’re heading after we meet up with Andy and Jussy. The vibrant harbour city is jumping and we locate the Taaffes pub and bravely weave our way through the crowd to sit just inches for the two old boys who are pumping out tunes on an accordion and thrashing guitar. Amidst the ear-splitting exuberance, Chris is serenaded by an amorous drunk and narrowly escapes a beer bath from a boisterous lad doing a jig with his pint. It is hilarious fun and we wonder how the rowdy Sunday night revellers can face work Monday morning!

From Galway we traverse lush countryside to stop-over at Mullingar in the Midlands at a B&B with the charming Richie and Margaret. For the final day of our trip, we explore Dublin, taking in the sights from the green tourist bus, laughing at the driver’s well-worn jokes, hanging out at the famous Temple Bar and drinking Guinness while singing along to Dirty Old Town.

There’s something about Ireland that makes you want to wallow in your whiskey, sing and dance and celebrate the pathos and struggles and the passion and joy of life.