The Notting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival - Young girl parading on...Image via WikipediaNotting Hill Carnival 2009
Today Esther and I attended the Notting Hill Carnival. A Caribbean themed-festival in London’s famous Notting Hill region. It was a good deal more, how shall I put it? impromptu? than we had expected. Especially after the incredibly polished Carnaval de Nice that we witnessed in February. A cold wind along with grey English skies and dirty London streets made it almost a depressing sight to begin with, as we exited Westbourne tube station and wandered amongst home-made stalls billowing smoke from Jerk Chicken and others selling Jamaican flags. But eventually the late-summer sun rose and shone through the morning gloom.

Plus, we soon realised that this was a very different carnival from that we had been to in Nice. The heavy bass of amateur DJs on every corner and the scantilly clad women grinding next to strangers told us that this probably wasn’t the kind of carnival where annoying French petits Nicolas et copains were given free reign to squirt anyone and everyone with aerosol string while ignoring the elaborately created and colourful floats that passed them by. The floats were more or less rudimentary, in fact trucks with people on them would be a better description, but the outfits on the dancers were a lot more elaborate. However, to be fair, the web-site had advertised that the carnival, which was to be held over two days, was to be composed of Sunday’s “children’s carnival” and today’s “adult carnival”.

But amongst the Caribbean girls in colourful, imaginative and also quite revealing outfits; dancing with their bums out and occasionally a strange man walking, um quite close, behind them; there were occasionally to be spotted the odd Anglo-Saxon girl as well. Which brought the incredibly juvenile question to mind: “why is it that pasty and pink-hued English women, notwithstanding that they might otherwise be very attractive, so rarely seem able to pull-off any sort of ethnic costume?” Be it saris, African prints or as in this case skimpy-and-wingéd numbers of a Carnivale theme. Is it that, accustomed as the English are to the frumpy outpourings of Topshop, English women find themselves awkward and uncomfortable in such overtly sexy clothing. Hmmm, I hardly think so. Although maybe Topshop has some answering to do in regards to why the word “frumpy” occurs with such regularity in regards to British fashion. Perhaps then it’s that peculiarly English class-snobbishness which abhors curves as so aptly described in the 1930s by Stevie Smith's poem "This Englishwoman":

“This English woman is so refined, she has no bosom and no behind”?

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Elaborately clad girls having a break from dancing
As funny as I find Stevie Smith’s little ditty, I don’t think that’s quite it either. Maybe it’s just about finding the correct colours and costumes that work with pale skin and having to make that extra effort when trying to fit in to another culture...?

Or maybe the question has more to do with the ease with which, gawping, camera in hand, a male at a street parade is able to cast judgement on the fat girls and the old girls and the frumpy and out-of-place girls who have made the effort to dress up in a costume and are obviously enjoying themselves [Touché].
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Four Fantastic Hotels

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Tea on the rooftop terrace, Hotel de l'Horloge
1. Hotel de l’Horloge, Avignon

Fantastic hotel in a fantastic location. This hotel is situated in the Place de l’Horloge - in the centre of Avignon, in the heart of Provence. It is a good base from which to do tours of Provence and the city of Avignon itself is a beautiful city retaining lots of its old medieval character.

The rooftop terrace rooms are outstanding, the hotel is one of the taller buildings in Avignon and the views across the red-tiled roofs of Avignon out over the rest of Provence are incredible. Avignon is also a great city to amble about, even without the Palais des Papes the city has enough medieval character to charm you over and there are delightful shops all about, from designer boutiques to shops selling Provençal soaps and lavenders etc.

I also found the service standard and professionalism of one member of staff especially memorable and I wish I had enquired as to his name so I could mention it in this blog post. When we first arrived, it was very late due to train strikes on the way from Bordeaux and we were a party of four with my aunt and Esther’s mum sharing a room - obviously it would have be twin beds. However, for some reason, it could even have been my own negligence although I thought I remembered that detail, the hotel had received no such request. It was late, the phone was constantly ringing, the computers were down and there was only one member of staff on duty. To put my relatives up in a room of a lower standard than that which we had paid for - “out of the question” - so sweat running from his forehead, the man from the concierge went upstairs himself to find an available room with twin beds and of comparable or better quality than what we paid for. Outstanding. Although, as to the management decision to put only one member of staff on duty on a busy Friday night, not quite so well thought-out.

A fantastic stay in a fantastic city!

2. Silky Oaks Lodge, Cairns

This is a great hotel in the far north of Queensland - cane country. The hotel itself is just outside of a sleepy agricultural town called Mossman, twenty kilometres up the road from Port Douglas and 50 odd kilometres further North of Cairns. It is in fact situated in the Mossman Gorge in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest.

If you’re going to the far north of Queensland chances are you’re going to see the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest and this hotel has good access to both. It is in fact in the rainforest and your rooms are self-contained bungalows amidst the trees, some of which are up on stilts so as to literally be in the rainforest. The restaurant is on a balcony overlooking the Mossman river and there is also an adjoining bar and some old board games including chess. You can swim in the river, play tennis or go for walks in the bush or along the river. If you’re only interested in the reef then maybe you could find better hotels in Cairns or Port Douglas, but Esther and I found it easy to organise a trip on a boat leaving from Cairns to see the Outer Reef and the hotel staff are more than willing to organise any tours or day trips you might have in mind for you with pick-up from the hotel.

3. Crowne Plaza Gold Tower, Gold Coast

A spectacularly ugly sky-scraper along the edge of Broadbeach, Surfer’s Paradise. But the advantage of staying in an ugly hotel is that once inside your view isn’t spoilt by the ugly building that you’re in and the Ocean View rooms in this hotel are incredible. In late January when I stayed here with Esther we left the balcony doors wide open all night, we fell asleep with the sound of the surf in our ears and awoke with the sun rising through the morning mists of the Pacific Ocean ready to hit the day.

The words “Ocean View” can’t properly convey the serene atmosphere that reigns in the rooms of this hotel. Soaring above the Gold Coast these rooms have views of the Pacific Ocean, sounds of the Ocean - the surf and the gulls and the salty sea air of the Ocean whilst remaining at an appreciable remove from the traffic and the day-to-day din of the streets below.

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A wintery Letchworth Road
4. Mercure Letchworth Hall, Letchworth

I was originally not sure if I would include this hotel in my list, only because Letchworth in North Hertfordshire is such an unassuming and out of the way location. But the reality is, I had to stay here for work and it really was a charming country hotel. The hotel is a converted old country manor house called “Letchworth Hall” which in fact well predates Letchworth Garden City. Being built by Sir William Lytton in 1620. Arriving from Australia in the middle of one of Britain’s severest winters for many years, the roaring fireplace in the main hall adjoining the bar was a delightful place to sit down with a pint after having to commute home through the snow (and in my particular circumstances for commute read “walk”).

Although there’s not a great deal that Letchworth has to offer, the hotel sits amongst idyllic surrounds, overlooking English fields criss-crossed by hedgerows to the south and only a short walk from the old English village of Willian, a tiny village consisting of a church, post-office and two pubs that has probably hardly changed since being first assessed by William the Conqueror’s “Domesday” assessors.

The icing on the cake: the hotel has a swimming pool and gym and isn’t of the miserly variety that charges for access to its wi-fi.
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Life in Finland

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Rowboat waiting to be used.
Happily, I am now in Finland. I am staying at my uncle’s house in the country, in central Finland, not far from a small and mostly concrete town called Jyväskylä and quite far from the decidedly more exciting cities of Helsinki and Tampere. But these things don’t really matter because it’s the countryside, the lake and the woods that I’m really here for.

I rise in the morning, generally around 9 because I since the end of the school term I’ve had a voracious appetite for sleep (about 10 hours a night!). I have a typical Finnish breakfast, porridge, cold meats, bread and coffee. Back home in Letchworth my morning shower routine was forever plagued by the twin scourges of English plumbing hard water and piddly water pressure, if only I had the luxury of a shower head now. Although the water is soft enough here in Finland, due to this summer being so particularly warm the well in this old house is running low, so I’ve been encouraged to use the sauna and a bucket of water from the lake to wash myself in every morning. Nevertheless, the smell of old pine and birch leaves is still a pleasant start to the morning.

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Picking Gooseberries
It’s great here. Various family members warned me before I came that there’s not much to do here in this old house, but I bought a pay-as-you-go mobile broadband “dongle” from the Finnish telco “Elisa”, so I have the internet, I can keep writing my blog and in reality it’s like a little piece of paradise here.

The house is by a lake, (or should I say “lakes”, Finland is just about all waterfront, there is a network of 187,000 odd lakes in Finland, 10% of the surface area of the entire country, and they almost all drain into the sea eventually). I spend my days rowing, fishing, picking berries, going for walks in the woods and swimming, I’ve even been cutting firewood for the winter. I’ve grabbed fish from the end of a line and felt the sting of slimey lake-water on the open blisters of hands unaccustomed to rowing all day - this is the kind of living that satisfies all the needs of the body, and gets the endorphins flowing. The days are long, the weather is sunny and warm, with balmy summer evenings and with a few exceptions like Finnish sausages and oats for porridge which are store bought, we eat the food that we gather and catch ourselves. Ok maybe you could add coffee and chocolate to the exceptions and come to think of it milk and orange juice and maybe ...

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Aren't boats fantastic?
But you get the idea - between the vegetables and berries grown in the garden and the fish caught in the lake it feels like we’re just “living off the fat of the land” to borrow an expression from Steinbeck. Even Esther has been won over by the magic of this place, notwithstanding the presence of leeches, spiders and ants, and having to bath in the sauna with a bucket of water and no shower. Which is saying something for someone who’s almost as city-girl as Carrie Bradshaw.






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The Search for the Perfect French Restaurant (3 of 3)

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Travelling "First Class" on the TGV

The gripping finale to a tale of adventure, intrigue and gluttony.


Part 3 of 3

Chapitre Trois - in which our adventurers head to Paris, encountering on the way trains en grève and the angry gods of Eyjafjallajökull in far away Iceland rain down a cloud of ash upon Europe, leaving our gourmands-errant stranded in Paris and unable to return to England.

We left Avignon with four “First Class” tickets to Paris on the superfast Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGV). A train which has clocked speeds of upwards of 574 km/h and in whose first class cabins we were expecting, to quote from the Rail Europe website “drop-down tables suitable for laptops”, “powerpoints” and “extra legroom and larger seats equipped with power recline”.

Arriving in the cathedral-like Avignon Gare TGV we found a ourselves amidst some form of popular unrest. The CGT and SUD-Rail workers had stopped work in protest over planned redundancies. We could forget about “extra legroom” - we were given new tickets on a train at a different time and everyone was bundled together, sitting on the steps, sitting on our suitcases in the aisles, in fact if you were sitting at all you were lucky. The French word complet doesn’t seem to me to sufficiently convey how packed it was. Thus for two and a half hours, whizzing by at 200km/h we sat in the aisles and on the steps of the train. Sporadically, from my standing position on the train steps I was able to lean over some seated passengers and armpit over their heads shove my camera against the window. I have some photos of the countryside we would have enjoyed.

On our last evening before flying back to London, we found that we still hadn’t found le repas parfait, only had some tantalising glimpses of existence, a nice tagine at Au 35 Rue Jacob, outstanding chocolates, croissants, viennoiseries, cafés aux laits - but the perfect meal? Not yet. We had one meal left, we thought we’d try Le Pré Aux Clercs in St. Germain des Prés.

Le Pré Aux Clercs is a nice restaurant in a nice part of Paris, bookstores are open till midnight and there are cool looking Jazz clubs on every street corner. The restaurant was bustling, a good sign and the service was good notwithstanding being a group of noisy Anglophones, something which doesn’t always predispose one to receiving excellent service in France. But there was something missing, the food and wine were both very nice - but the place lacked the je ne sais quoi necessary to make le repas parfait. So, happily we walked home on a full stomach and contented, but I still felt a tinge of sadness that we had never found le repas parfait.

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Admiring Le Louvre
The next morning we packed our bags and readied ourselves to leave. My aunt and Esther’s mum went to a cafe to have one last café au lait as only the Parisians can make them and Esther and I crossed the Seine to Le Louvre to have one last look at my favourite building in the Universe. As we were admiring Renaissance architecture at its finest Esther received a call from her mum: apparently there had been a volcano in Iceland and flights were being grounded. Esther and I laughed together in the Paris sunshine of the Tuileries as we returned circuitously to our hotel

“Imagine if our flight was cancelled from this volcano. First strikes and then a volcano.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be funny.”

Well, I suppose it was a bit funny, in retrospect. Rumbling away in far off Iceland an angry Eyjafjallajökull had spewed forth an ash cloud through fire and ice that had grounded flights all over northern Europe. It would seem that Hephaestus the old god of artisans had sought revenge on the fact that human industry no longer made sacrifices to him and thus sent a cloud of ash to ground the European aviation industry.

Returning to the hotel we found out that our flight was delayed, indefinitely. We were in fact fortunate that my aunt’s sister (also my aunt) had warned her about the volcano because I’m sure it would have been chaos had we found out about it upon arriving at the airport. So there we were stranded in Paris. When we went to the nearest Air France office the staff there were less than useless, more or less directing us to a local SNCF office. The SNCF offices in turn were already full of angry Frenchmen whose train tickets had been cancelled due to the strikes. Hearing rumours that Calais was fast filling up with stranded Englishmen, we instead bought tickets to Dieppe, hoping to be able to procure passage on the Dieppe to Newhaven ferry.

It was in fact a pleasant and mostly uneventful journey to Dieppe, past Normandy meadows filled with cows and occasionally sheep. Arriving at the train station in Dieppe, LD Lines had organised representatives to be present at the train station to organise a bus to take us from our hotels to the ferry at five o’clock the next morning. This self-same representative dropped us off herself at our hotel, Mercure Hotel La Présidence. So we strolled along the waterfront at Dieppe admiring the ancient castle, and we headed into the market area and bought some cheese and butter to take back with us to our house in England. After a long day we retired to our hotels defeated and resigned ourselves to the hotel restaurant - having no energy to hunt out the perfect jolie brasserie for our stay.

Finally, where we least expected it, on a circuitous detour to a town we never would have visited were it not for the intervention of an angry Icelandic volcano, we found ourselves seated at a round table enjoying le repas parfait. Sitting by the sea, enjoying a bon vin, although I didn’t care to take note of the name, discussing and laughing about the crazy circumstances that led to our arrival in this town and happy in the knowledge that we were safely on track to arrive home, we finally realised the most important components of le repas parfait as the waiters brought beautifully dressed plates to our tables with vegetables sliced thin as paper, sauce drizzled around the plate and tender pieces of beef, duck and chicken on our respective meals. I don’t recall the names of the meals, because the perfect meal is not about filet de boeuf à l’ecorce d’orange or vermicelles dores aux baies roses, le repas parfait is about company, comfort and not having a care in the world.

Chateau de Dieppe (France)Image via Wikipedia
Dieppe Castle
To be sure, the restaurant La Présidence is a Michelin-recommended restaurant, run by head chef David Limare formerly of La Cote Saint-Jacques (3 Michelin stars) and the Responsable de la Restauration is Patrick Pollet member of the Disciples Escoffier. These details do help a little.

Savonlinna


Olavinlinna, SavonlinnaImage via Wikipedia
Olavinlinna through the trees


This Summer Break Esther and I are in Finland and the other day we took a day tour to see Savonlinna castle. It has been a glorious summer here in Finland, according a local we spoke to, the longest stretch of unbroken warm days in Finland since 1925. But there had also been a large storm last Tuesday which had resulted in our path being littered with a swathe of fallen-down trees.

Driving through Finland, you will notice one recurring theme: lakes and trees. About 75% of the land mass in Finland is forest and 10% lakes. Nevertheless, after seeing a lot of trees, stunning vistas of lakes and many cute red and yellow painted wooden houses in the woods we finally arrived at the town of Savonlinna and after finding a parking spot we walked to the castle which is actually called Olavinlinna - St. Olaf’s Castle (linna is Finnish for castle).

The castle itself is a magnificent sight to see as it’s tall towers with penants flying from the top emerge from behind the trees. It sits on an island in the midst of a lake and was originally built by the King of Sweden as a fortress to safeguard the eastern-most reaches of his kingdom. It was built at a time when the neighbouring Muscovite King Ivan III had only recently annexed the Republic of Novgorod and thus Sweden and Russia had a common border.

Destruction of Novgorod by Ivan IIIImage via Wikipedia
Destruction of the Novgorod Republic by Ivan III
The guided tour of Olavinlinna is the only way that you are allowed access to the tops of the towers. But it is worth it as the views over the lake and surrounding forests are spectacular. One thing that I quite appreciate about the Finnish countryside is how self-contained most towns and settlements are; unlike in Australia and in fact every other country I’ve visited, Finnish towns aren’t surrounded by a ring of a ugly suburbia that gets progressively thinner and more scraggly the further it extends from the centre. Even really tiny Finnish towns seem to have many apartment blocks and the border between town and country is quite stark often with apartment blocks seeming to rise out of the middle of the forest. This leaves the wilderness quite pristine and untarnished by ugly suburban housing.

Our guide was a young Finnish man who’s shaved or bald head gave him an uncanny resemblance to Tobias Fünke of Arrested Development fame. With the only exception being that this tour-guide was sporting the long yet thin and scraggly beard typical of medieval-recreationist types. Also, whilst his vocabulary attested to a good familiarity with English, he spoke incredibly slowly - even by Finnish standards - and I couldn’t but wonder if he was being ironic when at the beginning of our tour he advised us that if he was speaking too fast we should just tell him and he would speak even slower for us.

After leaving the castle we had dinner at nearby Valo restaurant. Which serves a delicious Stuffed Chicken Breast with Chanterelle Mushroom Risotto which I happily recommend.
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