Friends, Dali and Tapas in Madrid

And so, our family visits over until next year, we have begun our slow trip back to Australia.  First stop Madrid which I have skirted a few years back but never visited.  Luckily, after the UN Climate Change venue suddenly changed from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, I found an Ibis hotel centrally located and not too expensive and strangely, it turned out to be literally a few blocks from friends’ place.  A visit anywhere is always more enjoyable and interesting when you can catch up with friends and locals.

Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas opposite our hotel

COP25 water bottles handed out at Madrid underground

We hadn’t seen Jonathan (my old boss from the early 90’s) and Mercedes for many years but it felt just like old times, just continuing from where we left off.  Our first evening at one of their favourite local tapas and seafood restaurant was a fantastic start.  The next morning, Mercedes and I caught up to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – the entrance ticket I booked online for 10am was a little too early for Anthony so it was nice to have company and be able to discuss various artworks with Mercedes rather than going alone.  I feasted on the many Dalis and Picassos and other Spanish artists such as Miró.  The museum was fairly empty so it was wonderful to be able to linger in front of favourite paintings and enjoy the details, especially the Dalis.

Dali – The Enigma of Hitler

Close up of Dali’s – The Enigma of Hitler

A visit to Madrid would not be complete without visiting the Prado, Spain’s national art museum which holds the best collection of Spanish art and one of Europe’s finest collection of European art.  Like the Louvre, it is impossible to see everything in a single visit.  Anthony and I met after lunch and spent a few hours meandering through this massive museum, selecting the artists and periods of personal interest – otherwise, it is easy to become overwhelmed when presented with so many works.  

Here is my favourite one of the day by Dutch renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Close up of Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Having spent my childhood in Saint-Quentin, in Picardie, northern France, I had to visit the grand monastery and palace which King Philip II of Spain ordered to be built to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the battle of Saint-Quentin against King Henry II of France.  The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, named after Saint Lawrence, the saint day of the deacon who was roasted on a gridiron for his religious beliefs, was built in the shape of a gridiron.  Scenes of the battle adorn ceilings around the monastery.  Pity I eventually found out photos were not allowed – the royal library is remarkable but sadly no photos allowed.

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Battle of Saint-Quentin, El Escorial

Unsurprisingly, El Escorial and surroundings were declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1984.

Sunday 8th December, yes the blog is very late, saw us taking a lovely drive out into the countryside with Jonathan and Mercedes, lunch in a small village restaurant followed by a walk in the woods.  

With Jonathan and Mercedes

With Jonathan and Mercedes

It is funny how we can be creatures of habit:  the hotel recommended a local tapas bar just a couple of blocks down the road on our 2nd night – it was so good, we just had to return to on our last night.  The same locals standing in their favourite spot, our table by the window waiting for us, obviously, the waiters and waitresses welcoming us like regulars.  We have the roasted artichoke with Pedro Ximénez vinegar and crushed cashew nuts again, talk about our plans for the future.  The food and atmosphere are fantastic.  An elderly couple, one of them with a walking stick arrive, the place is now full, so I give up my seat.  Time for us to leave.  “See you tomorrow night” one of the locals called as we left.  I felt sad we couldn’t explain we wouldn’t be back.  But maybe I didn’t want to try and explain it because it felt good to feel like we belonged in a place…  It really is time for us to go home.

At our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

Our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

And so, quick as flash, our 3 days in Madrid were over.  So much more to see and do on a future visit.

Next stop, Singapore for a few days, to see our godsons and our friend Alicia.  It is funny how we have been to Singapore so many times, but always to visit friends.  One day we’ll stay longer and do some sight seeing.  This time, it rained heavily so staying indoors was the best place to be anyway.  Connor at 13 years of age is going through the typical teenage silent phase while at 11.5 Connor is still as affectionate as ever.  Precious times with them all, pity Michael was away on business.

With Ronan, Alicia and Connor

We leave most of our luggage at our hotel for our return in 3 weeks’ time.  Vietnam next.

– Anne

My mum’s 90th birthday

The main reason for our trip this year is now just a memory:  my mum’s 90th birthday celebration in York.  The event, which my sister and I organised, was over 12 months in the making and, from all acounts, a great success.  And a wonderful memory. 

Every one of my mum’s 5 grandchildren, together with their spouses and kids, made it to York, coming from France, Northern Ireland and various corners of England.  Our cousin came from Wales, great-cousins from Scotland and last but not least, my sister and brother-in-law came from Abu Dhabi.  While mum lives in Canterbury in Kent, York was chosen as it holds a special place in her heart, proud of her Yorkshire roots.

Although my mum agrees that she is seriously old now, I doubt it will change her habits much.  Can you believe that she still cycles everywhere, gives 2 to 3 hour guided tours of Canterbury cathedral, stands in the street collecting for various charity causes just to name a few regular activities.  And always up for a laugh:

Who would think the wearer of this fun jumper just turned 90?!

I have come to realise over the years that the most precious gifts one can give in life are time and memories.  Material things hold less and less value but time, and moments with loved ones, are so precious.  I am very happy we have spent these last few months in Europe, being able to say “see you next week” or even see you next month rather than see you next year.

The two sisters looking forward to The Event

My ever elegant sister, waiting for the first arrivals.

Pre-lunch drinks

Grandson #2, Matthew, reciting a limerick he wrote for his lola

We nearly forgot to take a group photo!

Evening at York Christmas markets

Getting together for mum’s 90th birthday was so much fun and precious.  Thank you for the memories, thank you for the fun times, thank you for you M’my.  

To my sister, as we say in good English, we done good!

Time to make our slow way back to Australia now…

– Anne

George Cross Recipient

Malta I believe is the only country to have ever been awarded a medal for valour, the George Cross in April 1942, for the Maltese people’s fortitude during the repeated bombing attacks on the island during the Second World War in 1941 & 1942. As we approach the airport in high winds, the sea appears to me to be iced over, the white waves looking all the world as the white streaks one sees sometimes in river ice.  This is part two of my birthday treat and the 102nd country we have had the privilege of visiting.

Looks like ice to me, but it is white caps

We are whisked away from the airport by a skilful taxi driver who darts through the myriad of roundabouts in what we perceive to be a Maltese style of driving where those on and off the roundabout merge seamlessly regardless of who has priority. Another new driving style for us to contemplate.

Our first impression is that the island is constantly under a building construction assault, cranes abound and new buildings appear to rising everywhere, sometimes shoehorned between the existing more dilapidated structures. Building maintenance does not seem to be a high priority here, perhaps the buildings’ owners have an eye to the future, demolish and build bigger. Having spent part of the summer in the wide open spaces of Iceland, we feel hemmed in and a little claustrophobic.

Sandwiched in-between, note the first floor cables

As we approach our hotel, we are struck by the cables, I presume communications, not power that are draped from building to building around the first floor level. No nice internal plumbing here.

Enclosed balconies, Sliema, Malta

Our hotel, the Malta Hilton, a very luxurious location for my further birthday celebration, is situated in St Julian, situated just north of the capital Valetta, but close enough for us to walk and then catch a ferry from the suburb of Sliema into the city of Valletta. 

Dolphin door knocker in Sliema, Malta
Streets in Malta
How to avoid those pesky stairs when moving furniture

As we motor towards the imposing skyline of the city past a couple of multi masted sailing ships, I am struck by how this view would probably have changed little in hundreds of years. The imposing walls, fortifications and church towers greet us as we arrive in Valletta.  We wander the streets taking in the history and beauty that this city offers. Blue skies and sunshine make this a great change from the cold we have experienced as winter arrives further north.

Approaching Valletta from the water
The dome of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Looking down one of Valletta’s main streets
View over the Grand Harbour from the saluting platform, upper Baracca Gardens Valletta
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist painted by Caravaggio in 1608
Sleeping Lady, a Neolithic masterpiece unearthed from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

There is such a scarcity of open space that we resort to walking along the coast towards the old firing ranges at Pembroke.  Here we find open space, plants and wildlife, plus the old warning signs about red flags and range in use.  Panoramic views to the sea are probably protected by old unexploded ordinance that keeps the developers at bay.  We do stay on the paths, no bundu-bashing here. We make our way to towards the Madliena Tower, one of many fortifications built along the coast.

Not many people walking on the old firing range
On our walk back, we stumble across another grand old abandoned building and immediately notice the Australian crest. After some research, Anne found out that the Australia Hall was a former entertainment hall built by the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society in 1915 as an entertainment hall for wounded soldiers. The building mysteriously burnt down in 1998 and was subsequently sold for one tenth of its value… Our uneasiness around property development practices here grows.

Australian Hall, Malta

To get a better picture of the country, we decide to take a hop-on hop-off bus trip around the northern part of the island seeing Balzan, Mdina, Mtarfa and Bugibba.  We spend most of our time in Mdina, a beautiful city with great views back towards Valletta.  There is not much free land anywhere on the island, either buildings or farmland.

The Mosta dome, third largest unsupported dome in the world
The City walls of Mdina
Inside Mdina
Two clocks different times to confuse the devil over the time of Mass.

I have always been interested in reading the local newspapers to get a feel for what are the issues that the press and perhaps the people have an interest in. 

Malta as been in the world news recently, before and after our visit, with an arrest in relation to the death in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia who was assassinated by car bomb. She was an outspoken critic of both government, opposition politicians and those in authority. She raised her questions about accountability and transparency and what is referred to as the “culture of impunity” at the highest levels.  It appears that her blog and its revelations split the island’s population with many for and against her stand. Her death was met with condemnation from both the journalist community and bodies with the European Union concerned with some of the reported activities in Malta.

On our last day I am fortunate enough to discuss my thoughts and feelings about Malta with a local.  They acknowledge that there are some problems, perceived and real, around development and they concede that there can be what we might call “accomodations” to get things done, which does happen in various forms worldwide, but they explain to me that Malta as a country that has no natural resources, the government has had to focus on encouraging investment and business immigration, tourism and financial markets development to provide for its people’s health and education funding. 

They finished by saying that when they are sitting in a restaurant having lunch in one of the three cities looking out over the splendour of the Grand Harbour and Valletta that there is no finer place to live in the world. Who am I to judge such a place with such a scant knowledge of the issues.  Go and see for yourself and make your own decision.

– Anthony

A dabble along the Danube

I, Anthony, must apologise for the interruption to  blog transmissions.  I am not really sure why it has taken so long to produce this blog entry, but is has been over a month since I started writing it.  We have been busy travelling, but that is not a real excuse as we have travelled and blogged successfully for over five years.  I started the blog a couple of days after my birthday and can therefore only assume that reaching this milestone has had a greater effect than I anticipated.  Well, finally here it is…….

Breathless, with suitcases in tow,  we pause at the top of a yet another flight of steps. A peal of church bells ringing out, possibly to celebrate our ascension from the river to within striking distance of our hotel perched high over the city.  We have covered 2 km. / 1.2 miles in three hours, including standing in the cold for an hour, our route blocked by an implacable policeman. He was one of hundreds if not thousands deployed across the city today seemingly to make our hotel arrival one of the more unusual we have had.  This is all thanks to the visit of President Erdoğan of Turkey. Our taxi driver said the traffic jams were worse than when President Putin visited last week, the whole citadel has been closed off until President Erdoğan departs. I hope they do not linger over coffee.

Waiting for President Erdoğan to finish his coffee.
Lánchid Bridge over Danube and traffic held up by President Erdoğan

Oh where are we? Forgot to mention that! we are in Budapest Hungary, visiting here for the first time and taking our tally of countries visited to 100. Last month with my 65th birthday fast approaching and both of us sitting on 99 countries visited for an extended period, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and as a birthday present treat myself to a new country or two. So a meander along cities on the Danube for a week seemed like a plan which included staying the the Hilton Budapest which was built incorporating parts of a ruined 13th century Dominican monastery, has great Danube views, is within the walls of the old castle on the Buda side of the river and yes the castle is a UNSECO world heritage site.

The view from our hotel bedroom overlooking the Danube and Parliament

While I chose the location to visit, Anne has done the research and developed a plan for our stay here and the next cities we plan to visit over the coming week or so as part of my birthday indulgence. I really should do more preparatory research as, as we leave the airport, I spy a collection of Russian commercial planes, TU154, TU134, IL18 Yak 40 and others I do not recognise. It is a Malev Hungarian Airline museum, a missed opportunity, next time as we always say.  Hungarians drive with a confidence that belies in my view some of the potential consequences, but as always it seems to work for locals.

The front of St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
Széchenyi Thermal Bath, a grand spa in the heart of Budapest.
Chimney Cakes made from sweet dough and grilled or baked, large but delicious!
Millennium Memorial and other monuments in Heroes square.
Before and after restoration of building in Budapest.

We were lucky enough to pass the Museum of Fine Arts which had two special exhibitions, one called “Rubens, Van Dyck and the Splendour of Flemish Painting”  and the other “Rembrandt and his Pupils”.  Too good an opportunity to pass up. Both exhibitions are well curated with a wealth of background information on the eras in which the artists lived and the cultural, political and religious influences that shaped their world in the late 1600’s. The exhibitions may not have all the artists most famous works, but are drawn from many galleries around Europe especially from the Principality of Liechtenstein. We are able to wander through uncrowded galleries and admire their works and those of their protégés. I learned about Rubens time in Italy and his work during the counter reformation period when back in the Flemish region.

Museum of Fine Arts with great special exhibitions

The tiny portraits of those who died here adorn the wall of the building now housing the “House of Terror” museum which was used by both the Gestapo during WW2 and the the Soviet backed security authority which was known as the AVH and was feared across Budapest. Neither of us have a desire to enter, but are moved by a woman who places a candle above one of the portraits and then stands for a few moments in remembrance. Although it is now history, these people died in my lifetime. 

House of Terror Museum plaque wall
Wall plaque at the House of Terror Museum. A life lost in 1959.
Memorial to Péter Mansfeld a teenage martyr of the Hungarian Revolution, executed the day he turned 18.

For my birthday Anne has booked lunch on the Pest side of the river at a Michelin starred restaurant called Borkonyha Winekitchen where we spend a few hours working our way through a five course degustation menu which was matched with Hungarian wines. I am introduced to new grape varieties including Furmint and Cserszegi fűszeres that I had never heard of and providing an education in food and wine matching,  I cannot think of a finer way to spend my birthday, thank you Anne.

Local wines matched with every course at Borkonyha Winekitchen restaurant

Our second port of call along the Danube is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which when we visited Prague some years ago did not even exist as a country and therefore is new to us.  After a short train journey we find an interesting and compact old city dominated by Bratislava castle. 

Graffiti on a railway station en route to Bratislava

The river is as impressive as before but the old city is primarily located on one bank.  As we wander around the city on Remembrance Sunday we come across a memorial covered in wreathes and poppies.  A reminder of all those Slovaks and Czechs who fought with the Allies in WW2.

Local WW2 memorial after remembrance day ceremony.

We enjoy the architecture of the old city and while our stay is short we would come back if we were headed this way.

The Church of St Elizabeth “Blue Church” Bratislava
Cumil bronze statue, man coming out of manhole
“Witch” sculpture outside Bratislava castle
Michael’s Tower and old town in Bratislava
Bratislava castle

Our last stop on the Danube is Vienna for one night and the weather was with us again allowing an afternoon stroll through the city, cold but bright.  

Hofburg Palace
Chimney sweep image, Vienna
Christmas decorations in Vienna
“No Kangaroos to see here” Austrian Tee shirt

A perfect end to the first part of my birthday treat and now we are ready for the second part.

– Anthony