“Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner, on the creation of her Museum, 1917
Whenever I walk up to the Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House in London, my spirits lift. Even if they are good to begin with, they lift. I call it my ‘happy place’. I find it impossible to be anything other than filled with joy when I am there.
The same is true of my favourite museum in the world; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. Even though I now feel I know the collection well, I like to go there each time I visit Boston, revelling in the courtyard, the cloisters and delighting in discovering a piece of art I missed last time or simply enjoying my favourite painting.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy art collector who created her museum in 1900 and opened it in 1903. She had travelled extensively and had a profound love of Italian art and architecture, so she had the building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace.
Walking in through the modern entrance and arriving at the old part of the museum, first-time visitors gasp with pleasure when they arrive at the courtyard. Even though it no longer surprises me, I still have a mental gasp as I look out onto the atrium-covered terrace, as its beauty staggers me every time. With a central square of roman mosaics, the courtyard is filled with Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures nestled among seasonal flowers and plants.
A cool, calming cloister surrounds the courtyard and it is almost a struggle to drag oneself away from it but delights and surprises are tucked away on three floors of galleries, so it does pay to move on when you can bear to.
The Spanish Gallery houses the best jewel; El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. I will never tire of being drawn in to this picture. I am transported to a cave in Granada or Jerez, and want to stamp my feet and clap along. It is so intense that I can almost hear the guitars and mournful wailing of Flamenco singing.
There are many more Sargent’s to discover, along with two ground-floor rooms stuffed full of glorious early 20th-century paintings and two floors that offer an A-Z of masterpieces from Fra Angelica to Anders Zorn. Play the ‘which one piece would you take away, and only one’ and you will struggle to decide. Will it be a haunting Whistler landscape or a priceless renaissance masterpiece?
If you do ever get the chance to visit Boston, prioritise The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Yes, you need to troop around Faneuil Hall and do the Freedom Trail, I’m not going to tell you not to. But give yourself a wonderful cultural treat and get to Fenway for art and not the Red Sox!
In the meantime, here are my few photos to give you a flavour of what’s in store!
I have sorely neglected my blog for many months. But there’s a good reason. I have been finishing up a project that has taken over five years to complete – my first novel.
I fell in love with Jordan way, way back in 1994 and the inspiration was so deep than when I turned to writing, I knew that my first novel must be set there. If you love the country, I think you’ll enjoy the descriptions of Petra and Wadi Rum, two places that stole my heart and still rate as my favourite in the world.
If anyone has been to Jordan – either recently or in the past – I would love to know what you think of the descriptions in the novel. If you haven’t been but are toying with the idea, then I hope it might provide a bit of inspiration to start off 2016 adventure-planning.
And if you have travelled there in the past couple of years, I would dearly love to hear what this gorgeous country is now like. Did you receive a warm welcome? Is Petra still the beguiling, mysterious, beautiful place it was? I hope so.
Above all, I have to start my first day as a published novelist with a plug – please do buy the book. If you like it, please recommend it to your friends!
Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.
Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.
“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!
It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.
The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.
“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.
“So how does he know it works?”
“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”
Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.
Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.
It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.
Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.
“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.
Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.
We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.
The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.
The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.
And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.
The Amber beer was cold and refreshing; our host’s smile warm and welcoming. Twelve hours into our two-week trip to Ethiopia and I was already feeling embraced by its people. From the minute we stepped off the ‘plane to be directed by a smiling airport official, I had a good feeling about Ethiopia; a feeling that told me this trip wouldn’t just be about the wildlife, landscapes and history.
With every beautiful smile and twinkly-eyed laugh, I fell a little more in love with Ethiopia.
By the time we reached Gonder and Mayleko Lodge, we were ready for that beer. While the domestic terminal of Bole Airport in Addis Adaba had proven surprisingly comfortable, thanks to its body-curve recliners that allowed us to snooze, 24 hours of travelling were taking their toll. A spacious cabin with big beds was just what we needed as we adjusted from British winter to African summer. A beautifully quiet place, 16km outside Gonder itself, Mayleko Lodge is a complex of about ten cabins, each with its own terrace – the perfect place to drink the owner’s favourite beer, Amber. A few minutes later, she sent over a plate of home made fries as an evening appetiser. Nice touch!
As the sun softened and the beer softened us, my friend Kate and I contemplated our trip with huge grins. The flights had been booked back in December, and nearly three months in which to plan and anticipate had added to the excitement of setting off on our first big trip together. Finally, we were here, in the cradle of civilisation and coffee.
With one day to see Gonder, we were keen to get going the next day, thinking it would be a rush to fit everything in. Not so. It’s a lovely place, full of 17th Century palaces, but most of them are grouped together in one site, making it neat and easy to see everything. The complete lack of hassle immediately marked Ethiopia out as different from many other African countries we’ve been to. I’m not really one for a guided tour, although I’ve been on many of them. I don’t absorb historical facts well, so for me, the enjoyment of a place is much more aesthetic than factual. We entered by the ticket office, expecting to be followed round by guides touting for business. But after a polite enquiry and an equally polite refusal from us, that was it. No-one pursued us and no-one looked at all put out that we weren’t hiring a guide.
It was a gorgeous complex of palaces to meander round, mostly crumbling. It was wonderful to imagine the grand court of Emperor Fasiladas meeting, greeting, scheming and partying. While we focused on photos of the ruins, Ethiopian tourists posed for photos. And while they were immaculately dressed, we were in traveller’s gear of baggy t-shirts and deeply unpretty walking trousers; not ideal when they asked us to pose for photos with them! There’s nothing like a stunningly beautiful Ethiopian woman to make you feel frumpy and dishevelled. It wasn’t the first time that I wished that I’d packed some make up and I came to regret deeply the absence of hair conditioner in my wash bag.
Quitting the palace complex we hailed our first tuk-tuk. There’s something about a tuk-tuk ride that makes me feel ‘yes, I’m away’. The noise, the dust, the drivers (and in some countries the crazy traffic) signal ‘other world’ in one gloriously loud and frantic snapshot.
The tuk-tuk driver wound up a short hill to Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the area’s most richly decorated. Every square centimetre of the walls and ceiling inside are covered in religious murals – wide-eyed cherubs above and bible scenes on the walls. It was fascinating.
But this was my favourite photo from the site.
All this history made us hungry for shade. And lunch. The tuk-tuk trundled uphill, struggling and bumping, to The Goha Hotel. It was recommended because of the view; perched on the edge of town, it’s truly panoramic. It was full of tourist groups and was deeply disappointing because of this. I think it was just too European for us on our first day of sightseeing. The view, though, was superb.
Suitably rested, we realised our beginners’ mistake; don’t let your tuk-tuk go when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Negotiate a price for the day instead. Still, the long hot walk back into town meant that we chatted on the way to a few people and had lots of nods and smiles.
Thirsty for our first real Ethiopian coffee, we eventually found a tuk-tuk and asked for the EEPCo Coffee House (praised in the guide book as the one with the best coffee in town). Much to our amusement (and that of our tuk-tuk driver) they had no coffee. So we went round the corner to Habesha Coffee Shop. I loved the fact that although we were the only women there, no-one gave us a second glance. I’ve been in plenty of African and Middle Eastern countries where we would have been objects of intense interest. Ethiopia was wonderfully refreshing in this respect.
The coffee was stunning – as strong as an espresso but beautifully rounded and deep without a hint of bitterness. And no grounds, unlike Turkish coffee. Ethiopian coffee made the traditional way is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk and probably ever will.
Next stop was the ceremonial baths, which in Fasiladas’ time was a summer house and party central. These days, it is the focus for Timkat (Epiphany, on 6 January), when hundreds of people are ‘re-baptised’ in a raucous, joyful celebration. In the quiet season, the pool is empty and a gentle wind breezes around the walled enclosure, leaves fluttering to the floor. It was a serene, lovely place.
The highlight of the day wasn’t the sight-seeing, although everything we saw was superb. The highlight was getting on a little minibus, crammed in with local shoppers and workers. We couldn’t chat, as we had no Amharic, but there were many smiles and nods and laughter. I think my bleached, cropped hair was a good source of entertainment but mostly I think it was just that tourists tend not to hop on the bus.
It was a pretty fine start to the holiday but the best was yet to come. The Simien Mountains beckoned…
Finally, I’ve had a chance to edit some Sydney photos. I realise that out of the many I took, only a few merited editing. It’s one of those cities where the finger is on the shutter almost constantly when the bridge or Opera House are in view. Whittling down the many to the elected few is a tough task.
So here they are – my Sydney Selection 2014.
Must start with a pano of the view from The Macleay, proving my point (from the previous post) that paying a wee bit extra for a view is very much worth it.
[warning: this post is tip-heavy – I apologise to anyone not planning to go to Sydney any time soon. Photo gallery will follow once I’m done editing!]
After a wonderful trip to Australia in 2011, I wasn’t sure when or if I would get back there, so it was a great bonus to go for work the other week. Flight paid for, I was able to tag on some annual leave so that I could catch up with dear friends.
It was a nail-biting, sweat-inducing couple of weeks leading up to the trip. I fell foul of the great Passport Office scandal and got my passport 24 hours before flying. So I packed in a hurry and scuttled off with great relief. [Quick LHR T4 tip: if you’re looking for breakfast, don’t settle for the nearest café (something straight out of tourist central). Instead, walk right down to Gates 11-17 and you’ll find Comptoir Libanais – great food, wonderful services, andquiet.]
Onto Sydney….the great thing about returning to a city is that you’ve usually done the headline tourist tick offs, so your second visit can be about getting under the skin of the place, exploring neighbourhoods you didn’t have time for before. I think the best city trips are the ones where you get to wander at leisure, soaking up the culture and atmosphere that is unique to that particular metropolis. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a pavement cafe in so-called ‘Winter’ (20°C, blue sky with fluffy white Simpsons clouds, which is a summer’s day to Britfolks) watching the locals comes and go.
My first time round recommendations are:
Unless you are truly phobic about heights, do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. It’s absolutely brilliant – knowledgeable and interesting guides and a cracking view. Money well spent and pictures in my head that I will treasure forever.
Early evening (or anytime!) drink at The Opera Bar – perfect views of the bridge and the Opera House while you slurp wine. Tip: order your wine inside, where’s there’s a better selection, rather than from the outside bar.
Botanic Gardens – the gardens are utterly gorgeous and added bonus comes from watching the super fit suckers do lunchtime boot camps.
Sydney Fish Market – photographers’ paradise.
Here are my second time around recommendations:
I was staying in Darling Harbour (avoid on your trip unless you are a sucker for cheesy tourist activities like Madame Tussauds) for the business bit of my trip and had an evening alone. I don’t like the big, noisy tourist traps of Darling Harbour, so turned to Concrete Playground to find a bar that was more ‘me’. I found The Small Bar – does what it says on the tin, folks. It’s small. It’s a bar. It was fantastic – great wine and simple but decent nosh. Note to whoever run Concrete Playground: sort your search function out – the map is amazing but sometimes you want to get straight to your bar of choice, not a geo location!
If you’re beyond backpackers but before big budgets, I have the ideal place to stay. The Macleay in Potts Point (28 Macleay Street) has proven perfect two times running. If you’re willing to pay $20ish extra a night, you can snag an Opera House and Bridge view. It’s well worth it, as waking up and going to sleep with two icons is a magical reminder of where you are. The hotel staff are really friendly (from coffee recommendations to a cheery ‘hello’ when you come and go), it’s spick and span clean and the rooms have mini kitchens in case you do get to the stage where you simply can’t afford to eat out. There’s a Woolworths opposite too. For any Brit who hasn’t been to Oz, Woolworths is a supermarket, not the failed ‘sells a bit of everything cheap store’ we knew and loved. My only quibble would be that Wi-Fi isn’t free. Is this the same in UK hotels? I think it’s time people sorted that out – it should be part of the price not an optional extra.
Speaking of Woolworths, you can buy your travel card there, so that you’re sorted from the first hour of arrival. Daily cards are $22, so if you’re in town for more than three days, buy a weekly card at $63, which covers all ferries, buses and trains, including journeys like the Manly Ferry ($14.80).
Potts Point is a great place to stay. It’s well connected by the 311 bus to Circular Quay, Surry Hills and a five minute stroll up to Kings Cross connects you to buses for Watson’s Bay, Bondi and of course the metro. It’s the posh elder sister of Kings Cross, filled with art deco buildings, cutesy coffee shops and beautifully groomed gay guys with sweet dogs. And there’s a great walk down McElhone Stairs, to Woolloomaloo Bay, up through the Bot Gardens and onto the Opera House, which I recommend as the ideal first day orientation.
[note on the 311 – at Circular Quay there is conflicting and confusing info about where to catch the bus back to Potts Point. Ignore the info booth guy, who doesn’t have a clue and head for the corner of Pitt St and Spring St – that’s where it starts!]
For anyone who has heard tell of Kings Cross being a really dodgy, scary place, it’s not. Well, I guess if you’ve never stepped out of your tiny hamlet in rural Britain to head for London, it might be… but to most of us Brits, it’s Soho-lite but tiny and without the theatres. Nowt to fear – just a bit scuzzy.
While we’re in Kings Cross/Potts Point, there’s a great little side street filled with cafes and eateries, Lankelly Place. Friends who live round the corner took us to a friendly little Japanese sake bar. Try the grilled miso eggplant – gorgeous!
Potts Point has no end of great breakfasts on offer and having tried a lot of them, I’d say the best is easily La Buvette. Full of locals – always a good sign – and a fab range of breakfasts. It’s billed here on Facebook as veggie but I’m sure I saw meat options on the brekkie menu. Everyone says Fratelli Fresh is the best but the menu at La Buvette had more choice and was definitely livelier with locals on a Sunday morning.
Top tip for coffee drinkers who take it black: Sydney has possibly the strongest coffee in the world. It’s great quality but sometimes the strength can wallop you. I took to asking for a one shot long black and it was perfect. [Thanks, Bree, for that tip – why didn’t I think of it before!!!]
My first day off I took the ferry to Manly. Pretty much any ferry leaving from Circular Quay will give you fantastic views of the bridge and Opera House, so make sure you sit outside at the back rather than the front – tourists tend to pile on at the front, as that’s where the view is when you’re sitting in dock but of course the minute you leave, you lose the view!
I was in a jet-lag haze when I went to Manly, so I can’t really tell you much about it. It’s a lovely long beach so I meandered along thinking that surfing looked like a lot of effort for very short rides. I’ll leave it to someone else to stick some recommendations in the comments!
That evening I met with an ex-colleague. How we laughed when we remembered her anxiety that taking a break might harm her career. Within days of being in Australia, she had multiple job interviews and is now working for a super hot PR agency. We went to The Winery in Surry Hills. Absolutely lovely place, full of fairy lights and a wine list to die for. Gorgeous. I think the food options are a bit limited, so the next time I was in Crown Street for a night out, the Japanese restaurant, Zushi, next door proved a much better option. Amazing food and very reasonable (this matters when you’re a Brit who is shocked by Aussie prices! Sorry Bree!).
The next day my dear friend Bree arrived from Brisbane and we bimbled around and caught up on 18 months’ worth of life – Surry Hills and Paddington were the destinations de jour. This included essential shopping at Dinosaur Designs, purveyors of simply delicious resin jewellery and objects. That evening, we trooped off to The Opera Bar for a drink and then headed over to the new bit of the MCA for another. Great views from both!
Bree took me to two superb art galleries on Friday. Carriageworks in Redfern is a disused rail carriage workshop and is an absolutely gorgeous space. I would love to see a dance performance here.
The White Rabbit Gallery was a recommendation from our friends in Kings Cross. A collection of contemporary Chinese art, curated into three different shows per year. I’ll be honest – even better than the art was the Chinese tea room on the ground floor. A bewildering and utterly fantastic array of tea, stunningly good dumplings and friendly staff. I highly recommend a visit.
Something I can’t recommend as it was an exclusive… my lovely friend Bernadette had organised a charity auction for the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation last year and friends of hers had won ‘dessert by Annabel Crabb’. For non-Aussies, Annabel is a political columnist and has a highly successful TV show called Kitchen Cabinet, where she has lunch with a politician and brings dessert. The date fixed for the prize was the Friday we were in town and the only time we could see Bernadette and Peter John, so we were invited along. A fantastic evening. Annabel was charming, funny and entertaining and I for one will be reading her forthcoming book, The Wife Drought. And here’s the dessert she brought to dinner….health warning, cut veryslim slices, as this contains 750g cream cheese and 250g mascarpone!
Finally, a name check for my friend Peter John’s incredible book, which won an award when we were with him on the Friday evening. Public Sydney: drawing the city is ideal if you want a gift for someone who loves architecture and loves Sydney. Ten years in the researching and five years in the making, it ‘sets a new benchmark for navigating the historic layers of Sydney’s original CBD‘.
I loved my return to Sydney. If anyone needs a kick-ass communications strategist for a year, I’d definitely be up for a sabbatical in your glorious city!