Night in Giverny


Rolling slowly down Rue Claude Monet on bikes in Giverny during Spring leaves quite the impression. Rows upon rows of flowers are in full bloom, white wisteria, yellow irises, pink and purple tulips, red poppies, all making for a kaleidoscope of colours. The tiny town of Giverny (pronounced ‘shiver-knee’ I am told) is appropriately packed with tourists who flock to line up, to wait, to buy tickets, to enter Monet’s Garden, where once inside they all try their best to take photos without too many others in the shot. The town itself has enough gourmet restaurants, slick cafes, museums, art galleries and artists studios to keep one entertained. Giverny is extraordinarily beautiful. 

The GF and I roll to a halt, look at each other and in unison declare, “We’ll stay!”

We need to find a room. 

This is difficult. A futile search finds the whole town full. Of course. Spring, sunshine and a Saturday, a perfect combination for those prepared. We are not. What to do? 

We need to find a drink.

This is easy. A table on the pavement outside Gaudy  awaits the GF and I. A bottle of rose quickly found, and the glasses clink as our eyes meet. People watching is one of our most pleasurable pastimes and this spot was above par. 

A flash convertible pulls up, and the spitting image of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman steps out and heads straight towards us.

“So I see you’ve found my favourite table at my favourite restaurant in Giverny”, he confidently states. Spotting our camera he offers to take our picture, which he does, about twenty shots in all. Our new friend is invited to help us with the wine.

Conversing in quick and fluent English, taking a phone call in Swedish and talking French to the waiters who seem to know him well, he is often up and down to mingle with the locals walking past. He is an industrialist (his description) and loves impressionist art and, more so, loves Giverny. 

“What? No room?”, on hearing our predicament. Another phone call is made, and with this our invites arrive for a dinner party, board include. 

Leaving the bikes at a local gallery to pick up the owner and the resident artist who are also dinner guests, we all jump in the convertible and drive a short way out of town to a magnificent property on the Seine.

The hostess leads the GF and I to our quarters to refresh, pointing out points of interest of the house which sprawls down the bank. An art book is opened on the bed, the page a print of exactly the view we are looking at, painted by the late Pierre Bonnard. It turns out we are to spend the night in the old French impressionist’s bedroom.

A river punt pulls up and docks on the bank, and our host, looking the part with a blue beret, disembarks accompanied by Mademoiselle, an octogenarian with immaculate taste.

The conversation flows, along with the wine and the food, and for the umpteenth time in my life I wish I spoke French. We learn that the local mayor of Giverny is at odds with the local shop keepers for wanting to cap the number of tourists in the town. The artist explains the new work being shown. The host winds up an antique music box, La Vie En Rose plays. Our new friend laments that his estranged wife wants him committed…..again.

The wonderful night winds down with the octogenarian tapping her glass to deliver words of wisdom,

“The key to youthfulness is to never dwell in your own sorrow, but to always smile, for everything will turn out for the best.”

The GF and I couldn’t agree more.

(All photos Instagram @nickisalwaysonholidays)

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Thrones of the Middle Kingdom: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nothing is certain in life except death, taxes, and the need for a public toilet on holidays. This can be a worrisome prospect when travelling through China, not only because of the confusion over signs and language, or the concern over whether you will be required to sit or squat, but mainly because of the urgency in which this need may occur. When asking locals for directions, ‘WC‘ is more user friendly than ‘toilet’ or ‘bathroom’ throughout the country. If you want to be clever, the Chinese pronunciation is weishengjian, not to be confused with weishengmian, which translates to ‘women’s sanitary napkins’. I had a mildly embarrassing experience once wandering cluelessly through a restaurant in Shanghai, my bladder about to burst, asking all the waitresses where the tampons were, much to their amusement. I will leave the reviews of the wonderful restaurants of the region in the competent hands of  Journeys of a Gourmand, https://journeysofagourmand.wordpress.com , and instead tackle the task of identifying the good, the bad and the ugly thrones of the Middle Kingdom.

The Good

The toilets at the Grand Hyatt, located inside the SWFC building in Shanghai, are open to those staying at the hotel, eating and drinking at one of the restaurants or bars, and to anyone else who can hold on to their wiz whilst wizing up the 91 floors it takes to get there. It’s worth the wait. With a bathroom attendant to meet and greet you, the entry into this boudoir is as spectacular as the view behind you. Hair gels, face creams, cotton tips, hand sanitiser are all well stocked to keep you looking presentable. Their Piece De Resistance is the imported Japanese porcelain perfection. So many buttons for you to push in search of the one that pushes your button! This cubicle is so comfortable, that in the midst of contemplating life’s great mysteries I nearly forgot that the GF was nursing a martini at the bar. 

The Bad

There are certain towns in China that are certainly worth the visit, even though they lack a variety of accommodation options. Fenghuang is one such town where you will only find two star hotels with two star toilets. The rooms usually have the option of squat or sit, but both will suffer from shocking plumbing and be prone to overflow. No point changing rooms – as we did thrice to the bemusement of the hotelier – for the problem will usually be endemic to the whole street if not town. The most unfortunate of scenarios will include an insomnia inducing waft accompanying a drip drip drip throughout the stay. 

The Ugly

Unless you have your own mode of transportation, to truly see China sooner or later you’ll need to catch a bus. Therefore, you will need to go to a bus stop, a place you do not want to be with the ‘need to go’. Whilst travelling through Southern Yunnan we still had half an hour left before arriving and the situation was dire. Pulling into the bus station the situation was definitely diarrhoea. Both ran into the bathroom, and simultaneously ran out.

“NOOOOO way!” in unison. 

We held an understanding stare for all of five seconds.
There are no walls except a short one dividing women and men. There is no privacy and as with everywhere in China there is a crowd of people. After a wait in ‘line’, you take your position, a foot each on the two planks running through the room. My face was a centimetre from the old man in front of me, who was casual enough in this situation to be reading a newspaper. The guy a centimetre behind me was smoking a cigarette. There was room for about 15 altogether on the planks at one time. Another half dozen where waiting, watching very curiously as a foreigner crapped. 

I did the worst thing possible.  I looked down.

(All photos Instagram @briana.n.yoga & @nickisalwaysonholidays)

Albufeira


The six beachside restaurants in Albufeira are lined up looking out over the crystal blue waters of Southern Portugal. The scene is set with a traditional gaff topsail schooner slowly sailing across the bay. 11.30 in the morning and its already 30 degrees (86F for those yet to convert).The seats are filling up as tourists search to quench their thirst, and escape the ever warming sun. The GF and I sit down and order a couple of small beers that arrive cool and inviting, little beads dripping down the glass. Another couple sit in the chairs beside us and before their bums hit the seat the husband orders two ‘cocktails of the day’. These arrive all psychedelic, layers of yellow and orange and splashes of blue, garnished with a mini fruit bowl and tiny umbrellas that shout ‘look at me, I’m on holiday’.

The husband looks slightly embarrassed at the drink in front of him, but gives us a nod, a wink to his wife, and then to the world at large proclaims,

“Well if you can’t enjoy your holidays, what’s the point, eh?”

We both stay silent but nod our heads in agreement and give a smile. 

‘Another?” the GF asks pointing at our empty glasses. 

On point, the waiter comes over before I can reply and repeats the question. We nod.

Before the waiter gets a chance to leave, the husband grabs his attention with a short “senor”, then quickly downs the remaining 2/3rds of his cocktail and informs,

“We’ll be having some more, thank you very much.”

“Same again?” 

“Nah, let’s have a bottle of champagne”, announced loud enough to gain the restaurants attention plus a few of the tables next door.
The bubbles arrive with a pop and two flutes are filled just as our small beers hit the table. Fate would have all four full glasses in front of us at the same time, so, all making eye contact, we touch glasses, and give cheers.

“Good to be alive!”, the husband states in an attempt at small talk. We agree with a smile, which he takes as an invitation for conversation.

“Hope this weather holds for the next ten days. Just perfect”. 

More agreements from us and general chit chat follows on how good the day is. He’s not lying, the Algarve has really turned it on.

“Like I said, ten days in heaven for us. How long did you say you’re staying?”

We hadn’t. 

“Actually, we are just riding through”, I reply giving a nod to the bikes resting against a post in front of the restaurant.

“Very tempted to stay a night or two,” the GF adds.

“You should be treating your girl,” the husband adds, throwing back the glass of the bubbles, which is quickly refilled by the waiter who really is being awfully attentive.

We don’t reply, and are willing to leave the small talk at that, enjoying ourselves in the heat and serenity that sitting on the side of the ocean brings.

The blissful pause does not last long.

“Must be mighty hard on those bikes”, the conversation is about to resume. “Where have you ridden from?”.

“Lisbon”, the GF answers briefly.

“Blimey, all the way up there! You need to give your lady a break,” this with a stare directed accusingly at me.

“Lisbon was 6 weeks ago”, the GF in my defence.

“What, 6 weeks?? Seems an awful long time. It isn’t THAT far. You could drive from Lisbon in an afternoon. You could’ve seen every square inch of Portugal in that time. You could have done plenty. 6 whole weeks, you could’ve, could’ve done anything!”

The lecture ends.

“To be fair, we needed the first week just to recover from travelling the previous six months through India,” the GF nonchalantly pips in.

“India!” the husband exclaimed.

“Oh do shut up!”, the wife speaking for the first time throws at her husband.

Dropping the F-Bomb


The F-Bomb has been dropped. Yep, after nearly three weeks in the seat we finally got a flat tyre. I was never prepared.

When we first bought the bikes, having told the assistant we were planning on spending at least several months on tour around Europe, he gave us plenty of helpful tips on bike maintenance. To be fair, his customer service was immaculate, and I was happily upsold into anything he suggested to make our trip a success. I asked many questions and confidently he assured us both that with a blue thingy to remove your tyre, a pump and a couple of spare inner tubes we had all we needed to fix our bikes on the road. The only thing he couldn’t sell us was an out of stock 15mm for the bolt holding the back tyre. The GF easily picked one up at the thieves market in Alfama the next day.

Before we rode out if the shop, I innocently asked how to change a flat tyre. The assistant erupted with laughter, slapped me on the back and called to his colleague.

“Ha! Imagine starting a bike tour around Europe and not knowing how to change a flat tyre on your bike.”

“Ha! That WOULD be funny!”, the colleague chipped in.

I didn’t think it was funny at all, but decided not to push the point at this period of time. 

Nor did I think it wise to push the whole ‘flat tyre’ point whilst on tour. I figured just speaking about anything to do with a flat tyre would only throw the possibility of it occurring into our universe. I’m a karma kinda guy this way.

So it was to my shock and awe that the GF asked me where the 15mm was whilst packing. This was her terrain. 

“Umm. In the bag near the blue thingy?” I guessed.

“Nope.”

“With the wrench?”, surely I was getting closer.

A smirk spread across her face.
“What’s the difference between a 15mm and a wrench?”, she asked me straight out.

“14?”

She laughed hard, and when re-telling the story to her family, they all laughed harder.

Anyway, travelling is all about learning new things and I now know a 15mm is a wrench, the 15 pertaining to its size. I also can’t help but admire the way the universe works for it was the GF that got the flat tyre, not me.
Photo @ nickisalwaysonholidays 

4 Nights in a Nudist Camp

It’s not that we are afraid of a little rain, it’s just that we ARE afraid of a lot of rain. Precipitation was not part of the plan on the bike tour. The GF, determined to keep peddling like a true champ, took a look at my face and suggested a coffee stop. We pulled into Sagres on the SW tip of Europe, ordered two beers and contemplated our next move.

“A tent in the rain is pain”, I rhymed.

“Wet feet ain’t neat”, the GF replied chirpily. We are cute this way.

Out came the I-Pads and house hunting we went. A few minutes searching the www and an apartment was located 20km up the road being both in our price range and above our current standards, constituting a bargain in our books. A quick check of the BBC weather satellite map. It seemed just possible, by jumping back in the saddle now with the apartment being close enough and the clouds far enough away, to beat the next downpour. We will have the feet up in no time. 

 
Situated inside an Eco-camp ground, with a restaurant and bar on-site, just a kilometre off the beach, the apartment seemed the perfect ark from the forth coming flood. So, finish up the brewskis, put the helmets on and away we go.

Almost.

“Ummm…it says here the Eco-camp has a ‘nature zone’ “.

“What, like a zoo?” I ask innocently.

“Nudie bums”, my GF corrected me.

Well, when in Rome…..(or Salema for that matter)

(Look! Everybody is naked!)


Monday at the Nudist Colony

Weather report: Rain

To be fair it was the first night out of the tent and in a bed for over a fortnight so we over slept and then some. The gray, drizzly weather was a blessing for these conditions. We spent much of the day in the apartment re-familiarising ourselves with a working stove and cold fridge. Went to the on-site bar at dusk, no people there except the (fully clothed) wait staff.

Tuesday at the Nudist Colony

Weather report: Heavy rain

Would of hated to of been in a tent today. The Eco-camp looked eerie quiet. Nobody about except some workman fixing a broken drain (fully clothed).

Wednesday at the Nudist Colony

Weather report: Cold snap and rain

Getting a little stir crazy. Sampled a broad selection of Alentejo wines. 

No nudie bums, except for one in the middle of the night, me, crashing into the walls disorientated trying to find the bathroom.

Thursday at the Nudist Colony

Weather report: More rain

Couple of night caps at the bar before we head off in the morning. In the men’s room an old bloke stood fairly close whilst urinating. Is he the nudist??
 

(All photos @ nickisalwaysonholidays )

Mount Tai : Weekender from Shanghai/Beijing 

In China, where sacred mountains are a dime a dozen, the one that matters most is Tai Shan” 

China Travel Guide,Lonely Planet.

One of the wonders of the world’s modern cities is the amount of available means to leave them. With the new high speed train running between Shanghai and Beijing, being able to exit these mega metropolises is even easier. A perfect weekend away for the ardent adventurer is to get dropped off at the stop in between the cities at Tai’an in Shandong Province, the gateway to Mount Tai. This magnificent mountain is the site of an amazing pilgrimage that predates Christ. Be warned, there are over 6000 steps to the peak on this journey, the route helped along with cliffs and caves covered in carved Chinese characters, traditional poems to read on the way.

The Train

The rush to get onto the carriages of Chinese trains is similar to scenes at a shopping complex during a once in a lifetime sale. The Chinese will RUN, PUSH and BARGE all that is around to commandeer a space. This base instinct, a survival of the fittest mentality, is futile for all seats are pre-reserved with well trained ushers on hand to control any up-spurs. The train as well as being super fast is super comfortable. The dining carriage offers drinks if you are that way inclined, however it would be wise to keep the barman’s attention focused on restocking his tiny fridge whilst the contents are being emptied. Unless of course you’ve been in China long enough to be accustomed with drinking warm beer.

Tickets for the fast CRH trains can be bought at offices around the cities or through C-trip online who also deliver. Don’t bother lining up to buy tickets at the station, the wait is longer than the trip.

The Trail

China prides itself on its long history and the trail to the tip of Taishan is regarded as ancient. The climb up up up Mount Tai, passing through Taoist monasteries still in operation today. Expect to see pilgrims burning holy incense and monks chanting or just pottering around. You need to enter these monasteries in some instances as the steps keep ascending through the numerous gates of the ancient religious buildings. There is no escaping the hoards of tourists who will also be on the trail. Expect to stop for photos with excited mainlanders who rarely see ‘foreign devils ‘. At the start of the climb this posing can be fun, but just like your legs, will become tiresome as the day progresses. If you are lucky to find a local with enough English, you could ask for a translation of one of the many poems carved into the rock face.


The Peak

Give yourself an hour or two to wander around the peak, packed at the main gate and entrance, but still large enough that you can walk around the mountain and find a hidden spot to relax in solitude. The views are spectacular on a clear day. It was here that Confucius proclaimed, ‘The world is small‘ and also of historically significance, the place where China’s first emperor united the ancient kingdoms, around 200 BC. The peak is also a great place to have a Qingdao, relax the legs, take in some fresher air than found below and contemplate. Contemplate the walk down that is!

(All photos @ nickisalwaysonholidays)

Picnics of the World

“Well — I’ll get them to put you up a tea-basket, and you can picnic all to yourselves, — that’s the idea, isn’t it?’

‘How fearfully good! How frightfully nice if you could!”

Women in Love (D.H. Lawrence)


(The most romantic grass in the world?)

For all the travelling around the world feeding my face at fancy restaurants, I still find a picnic hard to beat. Growing ‘hangry’ searching along a dining promenade, my mind will wander to the perfect park or patch of grass that awaits at the most spectacular scenic spots. Getting the right amount of romance and Rose Wine onto the rug takes a little knowledge and patience, but with preparation the picnic is the true winner in alfresco dining. Let me review some of the great picnics of the world.


FRANCE

Sunset at Sacre-Coeur 

Getting you out of the restaurants in the dining capital of the world is admittedly a hard sell, but a visit to Montmartre and the Sacre-Coeur is a ‘must do’ when visiting the French capital. Why not pack your rug, and pick up supplies along the uber cool Rue Des Abbesses on your way towards this most romantic of picnic spots in the city of love. Belon No.2 oysters from La Mascotte are shucked and ready to go, grab a chicken and a tabouleh salad at the rotisserie across the street. Don’t forget the Brie de Meaux sold at any number of the delicatessens on the strip, and add some fresh bread from the award winning La Greneir a Pain. Continue to the green grass at the Square Louise Michel below the iconic building. Watch the sunset over Paris and pop a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Rose to wash down the feast.

AUSTRALIA

Brunch on the Mornington Peninsula (outside Melbourne)



A short drive outside the city of Melbourne takes you onto a number of stunning beaches. Bushman’s  Bay on the Mornington Peninsula is the clear picnic spot winner. The walk is full of wildlife, kangaroos hoping through the eucalyptus forest, kookaburras laughing, the place nearly always devoid of people. On the way, pop into Ten Minutes By Tractor for their 10X pinot rose to accompany lunch. Down the road, Red Hill Cheese produce the apt named ‘Picnic Point’ range. A quick stop in Flinders is where you can get the rest of your supplies. Local prawns by the half kilo, and the heavenly Flinders Bakery heavy fruit loaf with poppy seed. As extravagant as the provisions are, the real reason to picnic at Bushman’s Bay is for the secluded rock pools that you can swim in after the meal. Now what Michelin restaurant supplies that! 

(Rock pools at Bushman’s Bay)

PORTUGAL


Afternoons on the Banks of the Tagus

Portugal is the picnickers paradise with so much produce perfect for the rug. Simplicity is key. Pick up a can of Conservas Santos sardines. Eat with local sourdough and fresh tomatoes. The new Mercado da Ribeira market has all you are looking for. Grab a wheel of  Evora cheese. Include some local pate and of course a bottle of Mateus Rose, a Portuguese classic. On any given weekend the party atmosphere on the river may well extend past the picnic. Not to worry as there are many pop-up bars serving sangria and mojitos to keep you fuelled.

Got a favourite PICNIC ? Please let me know in the comments below.