Friday, 23 January 2015

Paris, Brussels and mixed emotions

Katrina's unexpected highlight, that's her at bottom left!
Well as highlighted in my last post it was time to come to Brussels again - more official meetings. This time Katrina told me in no uncertain terms that she was coming along for the ride, so I made the offer "How about we go via Paris". Well as neither of us had been to Paris this was met with rather rapid acceptance and some expressions of joy. Even though it is mid winter in Europe the prospect of Paris was, for some reason, just the ticket.

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When work finished on Thursday I went home, finished packing and at 1030 we flew out for Paris via Amsterdam.  Lo and behold around 8 we landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport, after a little mucking about we were on our way to Place de Liberte via Nord station. After losing each other in Nord we found our way to the right platform and the train duly arrived. So along with what seemed like half of Paris we boarded, amidst much jostling and shoving and set out on the last leg of our arrival in Paris. Just after we left Nord I discovered what all the pushing and shoving was about - my wallet had been lifted!  All my cards and some cash gone in an instant. GRUMBLE - welcome to Paris.

Gratuitous shot of  Notre Dame
We found the Gendarmes and began the lengthy process of reporting the theft. Which at this point amounted to no we can't take the report you have to go to the station at (wherever it was) and make your report. So we popped out onto the Place Liberte and were immediately confronted by the "je suis Charlie" memorials stacked on and around the statuary in the plaza. From there with the help of a local we found our way to the office of the Apartment rental company. They were lovely fed us coffee on arrival and passed me the office phone so I could call the bank and cancel my cards. While I was making that call my credit card was used - a test transaction methinks as the amount was 8 euro. Mind you the staff did tell us that guests arriving minus wallets, passports etc was almost a daily occurrence and that our losses were well to the low side. Luckily Katrina still has her cards and wallet. As an aside they recounted one guest who lost her passport turned up at the US embassy the following morning to request temporary travel documents, and found herself in a queue of about 40 people seeking the same service, for the same reason.

From there we went by taxi to our apartment (Museum View Apartments), which was across the road from the Natural History Museum, with views into the bone rooms of the Palaeontology building. The rest of the day was spent dealing with the police reporting, which resulted in a large wodge of papers for me to take home for use in helping get replacement cards. So that was day 1 in Paris - well except for the cycling up and down the Seine as we went about our business.

We got around Paris using the bicycle network. You pay a sum per day and get access to bikes from racks scattered across Paris. They abound around the main metro stations and tourist areas. All very convenient with cycle paths and lanes abounding. So you take a bike ride it and then leave it attached to the docking stations near your destination and provided individual "hires" are under half an hour you pay nothing above the daily fee. As an effective way of getting around Paris I can highly recommend this one, it has the added benefit of being much harder to have your pocket picked when cycling.

Yes it's a Dodo, at the natural history museum.
Bicycles have access to the transit lanes, so you generally only have to deal with taxis and buses, which show remarkable tolerance and patience for the poor bemused cycling tourist. I have to say that Paris abounds in alternate transport, cyclists, scooters (push and petrol powered) and roller bladers abound. The general motorised traffic moves fairly slowly because of the abundant traffic lights and narrowish streets. All of which makes for a much more pleasant cycling experience. Mind you Parisiens seem to have missed the EU notice that smoking is harmful to your health.

As close as we went to the tower.
So what did we see - Eiffel Tower - check, Cluny Museum (Lady and the unicorn tapestries) - check, Notre Dame - check, Military museum and Napolean's tomb - check, Museum of Natural History - Check and the Zoological gardens - check.

Being midwinter Paris came across as grey and brooding and given events of the previous week was on high alert, with heavily armed Police and Army deployed everywhere we went. They were usually in groups of three or more and looking rather serious. Everytime we entered a tourist venue it was off with the camera bag, so that security staff could look through it. This very quickly became part of a single process where I would present the bag for inspection and insert/remove winter woollies into the bag as necessary.

Just some of the detail in Notre Dame
We were blown away by the beauty of Notre Dame Cathedral and somewhat in awe of the ability to conduct a service with so many tourists swirling around. Many of them seemingly oblivious to the Mass being conducted and the worshippers. For a building verging on 1000 years (in parts) the grand old dame is holding up well, although the ravages of time are unmistakable. Katrina stayed at Notre Dame for a service and concert, which just happened to be given by a Sydney based choir. Very happy girl. Although she did forget the cap she'd knitted especially for Paris and left it on a pew.

Military order pouch, 100 years war, bearing the arms of
Marshall Bertrand Du Guesclin
Carving under the seat base of a choristers chair
Other highlights of Paris were the unicorn tapestries in the Cluny (next to the Sorbonne). They are truly spectacular and nothing quite prepares you for their size. They are BIG. Katrina was completely absorbed. I was quite taken by the old chorister seats lining the walls of a couple of rooms in the Cluny. Nice practical woodwork, but the underside of each seat displays a carving which would not be seen when the seat is lowered for use. The carvings are a mixture of trades, games and activities, a wonderful touch and I imagine if left to it the choristers would fight over who got which chair.
Some of the Armour that's not really on display
The Military museum was very good. Halls and galleries to be lost in. I spent most of my time in the Royal armour collection and the medieval/renaissance armour collection. I have never seen that much armour displayed in the one place and some of the pieces are simply stunning. By the time I got through them it was a quick walk through the WW1 and WW2 Galleries before visiting Napoleon's tomb. I ran out of time to see the relief maps and saw no sign of any Napoleonic gallery. Although that's not really an issue for me as the Brussels military museum has a more than adequate Napoleonic display, which I have been lucky enough to see more times than I can immediately recall.
The sleeves and Pants?

The Military museum is housed in the veteran military hospital grounds.A small portion of the grounds are still used for their original purpose of housing veterans and attending to their welfare. A rather interesting juxtaposition I thought.

Napoleon's tomb - it's massive!

The zoo although small was nice, having been inaugurated in 1794. The animal houses are quite decorative. And it had my favourite big cat - the Snow Leopard, which were quite animated possibly because of the cold and the females hormones.
"Well come on and play"

 So rather tired and footsore we set sail for Brussels by the Thalys express train, which fortunately for us was delayed meaning that turning up five minutes after check-in closed was overlooked in the bigger issue of the two hour delay.

So Paris despite the pickpocket, the weather and so on - the jury is still out. It didn't do a lot for me, but maybe I'm just jaded. Lots of things to see and do, but then again there are so many other places that the completeness of my life does not require or demand Paris.

And so now we are in Brussels, and after a week of meetings catching the plane home for Muscat in the wee small hours of Saturday morning.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Belated posts and New Years

Well hello 2015 and farewell 2014. Can't say what happened to the second half of 2014, other than I must be a bit slack. There is a bit to tell.

In August, at the end of Ramadan Katrina and I jumped a flight to Salalah. It's the Southern end of Oman and the climate is just a bit different. In general Salalah is much more tropical, coconuts not dates, bananas, mangoes etc, etc and there are roadside fruit stalls everywhere. Fancy a fresh coconut? some pawpaw? Luverley bananas......

When we went it was the Khareef season. That's when a low lying mist rolls in off the sea and turns everything in the region a wonderful lush green.  It's also a welcome relief from the summer heat. Mind you everything gets constantly damp and while its not raining the roads are constantly wet, the wipers forever on and apart from the green everything is greyed out. Sigh.  But we found Salalah to be ok and there was enough to see and do for the four or five days we were there. Ancient ruins, rugged scenery and coastlines, and its where frankincense originates from.
Camels and the water near Salalah

The Khareef effect

Frankincense tree

Police barracks at Mirbat - where the last rebellion faltered.

Fresh fruit in Salalah

Katrina and the ruins

After that the balance of the year was fairly quiet the only other things of note were that I had another Brussels adventure, which I coupled with a trip to Manchester and a visit to Meaghan, Jamie and the girls and we had a weekend away in Bahrain - our second visit there.

Our living area
Other than that our other big news is that we moved house!. Our little villa in Al Hail has been swapped for a not quite so little villa in Al Hail! We moved in the weekend before Christmas and then ended up hosting a bunch of people for Christmas day. Much fun was had by all, let me just say that a bunch of 50+ ish adults and table top wooden santa bols do not mix - much danger but much fun. And don't believe it when you buy the wash - outable, draw on - able tablecloth. It is not a kids toy! We adults (maybe the definition adult is a bit questionable) had a great time with it!.

Guest living area
Having been in the house for almost a month now it is mostly set-up. We have 6 bedrooms which comprise of one master bedroom, one master guest room, one (yet to be furnished) secondary guest room all on separate floors plus a dressing room, a hobby room and a storage room. We also have a study, dining room and two sitting areas, plus a balcony and smallish backyard/garden. The good news about the balcony - and the rest of the front of the house are the ocean views. The panorama from the roof is spectacular.
Katrina and the VIEW

So now its mid January and I have another Brussels adventure next week. So we are going to leave on Thursday night and have three days in Paris before cutting across to Brussels for a week of work. 

Soo see ya - can't promise the next blogg will be any more frequent!