Oot and aboot

Newcastle – a spontaneous day trip to Seven Stories, Baltic, and The Quayside Market

Abbotsford House – home of Sir Walter Scott, nestled in the beautiful Scottish Borders

The Georgian House – an Edinburgh townhouse beautifully preserved in the heart of the New Town

I had a birthday. Edging ever closer to 30 doesn’t scare me quite as much as it used to. It was not a big celebration, but it was a fun one. And good things are happening in my life (like this) and it makes me excited for more of it.

I hope everyone is well and happy xxx

A Highland adventure

The Habitat Café and The Watermill are two of Scotland’s best treasures and they’re BOTH in Aberfeldy and we visited both on our trip away from Edinburgh! We then had a rainy drive up the A9 before arriving in gorgeous, sunny Inverness. I finally got to visit Leakey’s Bookshop, after years of being told to by many friends!

The guesthouse staff were lovely and friendly, and breakfast was delicious. We hopped in the car and nipped down to Drumnadrochit where we went on a one-hour cruise of Loch Ness with the brilliant George Edwards, who has been guiding these tours for 32 years. He also discovered the deepest point in Loch Ness while diving in 1989, and it is named after him – Edwards’ Deep.He has photographed mysterious creatures in the loch and knows more than anyone about this massive body of water. His tour was recommended to us by our Australian mates and I am so thankful – it was a true delight! We went to Urquhart Castle and wandered its ruins. The weather was perfect.

Afterward we drove to Applecross via Lochcarron and I nearly wet myself on the crazy winding road – Bealach na ba – over the mountains. But we eventually arrived and found our accommodation – a tiny cottage in a quiet bay down the road from Applecross in a place called Camusterrach. It is completely and utterly idyllic, surrounded by other wee cottages with chickens, goats, pigs, and Highland cows. We went to Applecross Inn for dinner. It was absolutely booming, the food was a delight, and I met Graeme Macrae Burnett’s parents which was an exciting diversion! After we came home, full of fish and chips and cranachan, Sean and I went for a quick walk in the sunset. Scotland is so peaceful. I love it.

The next morning we headed off for Skye, via the Wester Ross Coastal Trail, this time taking the long way round rather than the Bealach. More amazing views and spine-tingling roads! We stopped in Lochcarron for a cake and some tea at The Waterside Café, winner of the regional UK best café award, before continuing onto Skye and finally to Portree. The sun was blazing for most of the day. We had lunch and a stroll around Portree peeking at all the gift shops and collecting some bits and pieces for dinner back at our cottage. We were home by 6.30 – enough time for a walk, a shower, a load of washing, and a lovely dinner.

We took one last spin over the Bealach on the way to Fort William for lunch and a stroll. We arrived at our lovely wee B&B in the Trossachs, on the spit of land between Loch Lomond and Loch Long. Tea with our hosts, dinner at the pub, and an early night. What could be better?

Our final day was spent traversing the Central Lowlands from Tarbet to Balloch to Doune Castle, where we listened to the brilliant audio commentary from Terry Jones (Monty Python) and Sam Heughan (Outlander). We stopped for lunch in a Doune pub, a lovely place called the Woodside Hotel, and then drove back to Edinburgh!

It was a busy holiday, but an enjoyable one. Next time I need to spend more time in the isolated places. The Applecross Peninsula in particular was wonderful. Would be great to get away there for a week or more!

 

Beautiful Berlin, perfect Paris

An enormous and spacious AirBnb, some attempted German whilst ordering breakfast, a wonderful walking tour of the centre of the city (the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler’s bunker, the Luftwaffe HQ, the Topographie des Terrors, and Checkpoint Charlie), a cheese pretzel, a crowded demonstration in Bebelplatz, and an enormous dinner of traditional German food filled our first day in lovely Berlin. And we got sunburnt.

A bookstore jaunt, a kebab, an ‘alternative city tour’ (street art [including the Stumbling Stones that we had found outside our apartment], squats, and the gorgeous Baumhaus an der Maeur), a downpour of rain that has probably given me pneumonia, a stroll down the East Side Gallery, and an explore around East Berlin filled the second.

On our last day it was a day for museums – the boys to the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin, the girls back to the Topographie des Terrors. After a strudel and a schnitzel for lunch, we headed to the German Resistance Memorial Centre before walking back along the Tiergarten and heading home to pack.

An early morning, a bright sunny flight, and we were in Paris. Shakespeare & Company is beautiful as ever. Our flat overlooks a sunny square (under construction, but it’s the ambience that matters!). We are staying next door to where Ernest Hemingway lives.

Another walking tour in brilliant sunshine. French onion soup and exquisite meals in a tiny wee bistro before a cruise along the Seine at night.  Cheeky midnight crepes to finish.

Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle are even better than I remember. Pere Lachaise weaves its magic once more while we walk its cobbled lanes. It rains today, and we stop for lunch – a croque madame for me! – before heading home for a quieter night.

I finally see Montmartre from the inside of a rickety little train that takes us all the way up the hill to Sacre Coeur. We wander down through the Place du Tertre until we find some lunch – one of the best burgers I have ever had, and a speculoos crepe to finish. We quickly stop past the Arc de Triomphe for a stickybeak at the dreadful traffic. More sunburn. Eurovision is played too quietly in a tiny, sweaty bar, surrounded by enthusiasts. Hooray for Portugal!

Our last day is quiet – for me at least. An amazing breakfast, a walk through the Jardin des Plantes, and then an afternoon spent resting and catching up on reading while we wait for the plane home. It is midnight and we are here at last.

A long weekend in England

Four days of the Easter weekend means the chance to drive somewhere far away! Huzzah! Bec and I headed down south with a stash of chocolate and many car singalongs.

First stop was Lyme Park – Pemberley in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice, of course!

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The next morning we headed to Great Missenden, a sweet little Buckinghamshire village that houses the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre! The museum was lovely, and so was the walk we had around the sunny countryside.

Onward, then, to Leicester – specifically, to the cathedral where Richard III has been reinterred. There is a wonderful visitor’s centre there as well, where you can see learn about his life, his reign, his death, and his discovery.

York! I have never been to York, though it has been recommended to me many times. York in the spring is absolutely charming. Evensong in York Minster is incredible. The crooked, poky York Shambles, and the haunted Golden Fleece, the ancient Clifford’s Tower and the wonderful York Castle Museum.

Happy days 🙂

The Brontes in Brussels

I love a good excuse to travel. This trip to Belgium came about entirely due to an earlier trip – when I went to Manchester for the Bronte Society conference last year.

One of the speakers at that conference, Helen MacEwan, is the founder of the Brussels Bronte Group, and she had mentioned to me the dates of their upcoming events. Saturday April 1st was a double lecture and Sunday April 2nd was one of their guided walking tours of Brussels. What better excuse to book some flights and a couple of extra days to sightsee?

So after our lovely couple of days in Bruges, I made my way to the Universite Saint-Louis (managing to order my breakfast in French, hooray!) and listened to Helen deliver a lecture on Charlotte’s legacy in Brussels, and what the Belgians thought of it. It was a wonderful, very interesting lecture – Charlotte is not known for her kind remarks about Brussels and, in fact, said some quite nasty things about Belgium and the Belgians. And of course, she was struggling with the agony of unrequited love while staying here – Monsieur Heger, a married man, ran the Pensionnat where Emily and Charlotte were staying and was the object of Charlotte’s affections.

Both Villette and The Professor were heavily inspired by Charlotte’s experiences, and both novels are filled with thinly-veiled autobiographical detail. Charlotte and Emily lived in Brussels between 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was there for longer – Emily was far more homesick, and refused to go back after returning home for Aunt Branwell’s funeral. The girls had originally gone to Belgium to gain a proper education in French and perhaps German in order to open their own school back at Haworth. Helen has written extensively and brilliantly on the sisters’ time in Belgium and I would strongly recommend her book The Brontes in Brussels.

We broke for lunch and I ate mine (ordered in French again!) in the Botanic Gardens overlooking a pond. There were the tiniest ducklings I had ever seen, as well as tortoises, two very self-important mallards, moorhens, and even a small marsupial that might have been a water vole or a rat…I’m not actually reading a Bronte novel at the moment. I’m getting through L.M. Montgomery’s backlist and am up to Rilla of Ingleside (yes, reading it for the first time – shame!) I was thoroughly enjoying it, while still managing to get distracted by the menagerie of animal life around me.

After lunch we rejoined for a talk from Sam Jordison focusing on the Brontes in the public eye. This turned into a discussion of Haworth, and why the village made it into a series called Crap Towns that Sam has written about the worst places to live in the UK. He made a few points worth noting though – Haworth used to be such a health hazard, that it is no wonder the Brontes didn’t live longer. Now the town that killed them is cashing in on their legacy! It’s a harsh viewpoint, but an interesting one.

After the talk a large group of us went to the pub where I had a proper Belgian hot chocolate, before I met up with Sean again. We took a quick excursion to Waterstones to buy Helen’s book and then went back to Bier Circus for dinner – it was so lovely we just had to revisit. On the way home, Sean bought me a proper Belgian waffle – they are best with no toppings because the dough they are made with is so good on it’s own!!

The next morning it was the guided walk around the Bronte related places in Brussels. It started out the front of the Chapelle Royale, the Protestant Church of Brussels. Charlotte and Emily worshipped here on Sundays. It’s in the Place du Musee, which also houses the site of a former art salon that Charlotte attended. From here, we walked up to the Place Royale and the Parc de Bruxelles, both of which Charlotte would have been very familiar with, and both of which appear as disguised locations in Villette. Down the Belliard steps, just across the road from the Parc de Bruxelles, is the former site of the Pensionnat Heger. It has been completely demolished, and nothing remains, but the research by Helen and others has placed it almost exactly. A plaque was mounted in 1979 to mark the location. We finished up on Rue Villa Hermosa, one of the only streets left that would have been there in Charlotte’s time, and used to lead directly to the Pensionnat.

We had lunch in the garden of the Belvue Museum in the blazing sunshine and chatted, trying to keep ourselves from snoozing in the unseasonable warmth. Then Sean and I made two more Bronte pit stops – first, to see another, less legal plaque that was put up in honour of the Brontes about fifteen years ago and never removed, and second, to see the inside of the Cathedral of Saint Gudule. This enormous church was where a desperate Charlotte made confession on the night of September 1st, 1843, despite not being Catholic – another event that made it into the pages of Villette.

Afterwards, we had time to kill and gorgeous weather, so we drank more beers and tea, sat in the sun, ate frites and a massive meringue-and-cream confection, and eventually moseyed to the airport. Despite the holiday being busy, I really did feel rested afterwards. Perhaps it was the sun, or the beautiful scenery that did it. I would go back to Belgium in a second, regardless.

Belgium

The plane flight to Brussels Charleroi was cramped and uncomfortable and pretty much everything one expects from an encounter with Ryanair, but it was on time! We were on a shuttle bus into the city of Brussels at about 5pm. It’s was very light outside, and we discovered quite quickly that we’d packed too many clothes for the warm, humid weather. Once we’d had a chance to dump our luggage and stretch ourselves out, we picked a restaurant and aimed for it.

Brussels is rough around the edges, like all the best cities. The touristy area in the centre is beautiful at night, and I’m excited to see it in the daytime on the weekend. The beautiful parts of the city remind me of Paris – intricately decorated frontages, frescoes and balconies, little winding cobbled streets lined with restaurants and chocolateries. There are wafflehouses and giftshops selling lace, and pubs and bars with encylopaedic beer menus.

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We went to a tiny little tucked away restaurant called Bier Circus and it was worth the half-hour uphill trek from our hotel on the edge of town near the Bruxelles-Midi station. They specialise in cooking meals with beer in the food, but my chicken and mushroom vol-au-vents were, as far as I can tell, unscathed by beer. I’m not the biggest beer fan, but I was determined to try proper Belgian beer, so asked for advice from Sean and our waiter. I ended up with lambic beer with peach juice and I loved it so much I had another lambic beer, this time with cherry juice. It didn’t taste like beer, just a slightly sour fruit juice. It wasn’t very high-alcohol either, so was easy to drink. We had frites and stoemp (mashed potatoes with leek and carrot) and Sean very much enjoyed his meatballs and the various beers he tried. The restaurant was busy, and therefore a bit slow with the service, but had really pleasant and chatty staff. I would definitely recommend!

Stuffed full of food, we went for a walk through some of the aforementioned cobbled streets and ended up at the Delirium Café. It was so busy! Even for a Wednesday night it was full of studenty-backpackery types. I was absolutely knackered at this point so we only stayed for one drink, but it would be a place worth coming with a group of mates at the start of the night.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping to buy a couple of delicious rum-ball type confections, and when we got back to the hotel, Jaws was on. A quality way to finish off the evening.

We both had a pretty awful sleep, but we soldiered on this morning and packed up, checked out, and went to the station to grab some breakfast. We ended up on the long train to Bruges. The normal route would take just over an hour, but ours was more like two hours and fifiteen minutes. It didn’t matter though – the sun was shining and the Belgian landscape is quite beautiful with its meadows and streams and farmhouses and little towns.

Bruges is obscenely beautiful. It was a short fifteen-minute walk to our hostel and we had a cup of tea and a look at a local map before heading out. We followed a recommended path toward a beguinage, a complex to house beguines – religious women who are not exactly nuns. It was peaceful, sunny, and covered in daffodils. We wandered down to the Minnewater, before heading on through the winding cobbled streets, passing the smallest bridge in Bruges, the Halve Maan Brewery, and the tiny little Stoofstraat (Bruges former ‘red-light’ alley). People ate ice creams in the sun and walked their dogs (including a nine-month-old chihuahua named Lola that I made friends with). There were canals and tiny bridges, lovely gardens and cafes, and plenty of people. We went to the 2BE bar and saw their permanent exhibition of every Belgian beer in the Beerwall (I think the current count is over 1700 beers) and had a drink before heading to Burg Square for waffles, a small sunbathe, and a quick look inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

We came back to the hostel for a brief rest and then headed out for dinner. Unfortunately Sean’s pub crawl was cancelled, so instead we spent a lovely night eating Flemish beefstew (me), ribs (Sean) and lots of frites and beer. We checked out a wee pub called t’ Poatersgat which is possibly most the affordable in Bruges, before heading back to the hostel to sit on the peaceful rooftop terrace. We headed inside only to get a message from Flick back in Melbourne, and we were able to Skype with her before we went to sleep!

Bruges is obviously geared toward tourists, but unlike a few other places geared toward tourists, I haven’t seen too many places trying to rip people off. The Belgians are really friendly and all speak perfect English as well as Dutch and French and probably a million other languages. They are very proud of their traditions and embrace them, with so many places selling chocolate, beer, and lace. There’s even a chocolate museum and a museum about frites (French fries) in Bruges.

The next morning we headed out on a walking tour which took us to some of the places we had seen previously, but others that were brand new, including a couple of locations from the film In Bruges and the oldest bridge in the city. It was not quite as warm as the day before, but still too hot for a jacket. The photos continued to be beautiful without me even trying. Bruges is a most photogenic city!

We stopped to buy chocolates before heading back to the hostel to collect our things, and then we trained back to Brussels. We’ve booked a hotel here for the next two nights and have just come home from a delicious ramen dinner. We had an ice cream and a drink afterward and people-watched – the city is very busy tonight! Sean has continued on to a pub crawl and I’m deciding whether to have a bath, read a book, or watch television…choices, choices!

 

 

Nice things

St Andrews was grey and wintry and gorgeous. I went up for the Stanza Poetry Festival – only a fleeting visit where I wandered down the the shore and the ruins and had no time to see any events!

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I’ve been busy with work for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation – see my pride and joy, the Pride & Possibilities journal here. I’ve been to book clubs, wine nights, late nights at the National Museum of Scotland, lectures on the Bronze Age by Historic Scotland, and a gathering for lovely Sophie who has headed back to Aus. Basically, life has been full and wonderful. I went to another brilliant Jane Austen Society event in Dunfermline and I’m off to another tomorrow. I’ve been learning to run. It’s hard and awful but it’s doing me good and I can feel the benefit when I’m not swearing and gasping for air. I went to an event at Waterstones with Hannah Kent. She signed my copy of The Good People and I met Monica McInerney in the signing queue! I’ve been trying to read even more than usual, and my to-be-read list is growing longer every day. We’ve been tuning in every week for the new season of Broadchurch and re-watching Game of Thrones. I’ve seen two amazing pieces of theatre – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and 9 to 5 – and last night I saw the new Beauty and the Beast in all it’s gorgeous, cheesy, nostalgic glory.

How lucky we are to live in this city. How lucky I am to have a job, and a flat, and some money to travel. Here are some photos of beautiful Edinburgh.

I’m sorry this blog sounds braggy and disgusting, but honestly, it’s so easy to be dragged into melancholy and sadness by the state of the world these days. It feels nice to reflect on the nice things, when we can, instead.