Oh the places we went!

For the past couple of months we have been scampering around visiting places on our must-see list because a deadline looms: our Paris adventure is coming to an end! Very soon we will be on our way down-under, homeward bound. There are so many experiences to remember and stories to tell about living in Paris for the last four years, but for now let me show you the highlights of our last minute visits…..

As soon as the first hint of spring could be felt we got started on our list with a day trip out to Chateau Chantilly.


I was especially keen to see the room famous for its monkey drawings. These are the drawings that inspired Annie Bouquet (the tapestry artist I met when I was working on the Stitching up Paris book) to create her special collection of monkey tapestries. The artist Christophe Huet did the paintings in the mid 1730s for the Duc de Bourbon in the spirit of poking fun at the duc and his pastimes. The walls are completely covered with enchanting images of monkeys dressed like humans and engaged in human activities.


The chateau has a very interesting art collection – well worth the visit. This is the staircase in the Hall of Honour, apparently used as the filming location in a James Bond movie, I snapped the pic because of the fabulous ram’s head….association with sheep…knitting…you get the picture.


Cool but definitely spring-like for the weekend in Nancy (and Metz) to see the art nouveau glass collections at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Nancy and the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Fancy in Nancy sums it up: exquisitely beautiful colour and form,  these exhibits wowed me. (I felt a connection with knitting yarn colours, especially the fashion for multi-coloured speckled effects and varigations – a really inspiring visit to Nancy.)


Next up a bit further afield – a long weekend in Stockholm staying on board the Malardrottningen Hotel, once a luxury yacht and now permanently moored in the Gamla-Stan district, the old town  of central Stockholm.P1080881

With fabulously warm sunny weather (after a less than warm spring in Paris), we were out and about exploring all over the city and long into the evening. We loved every minute.



Top marks for presentation to the Vasa Museum

Back to France and away to the countryside for the day – Burgundy vines near Beaune in the heart of the wine region were greening up.P1080983 A Wisteria draped nonchalantly over an ordinary stone wall pretties up the picture no end.P1080972

The Hótel-Dieu hospice de Beaune


The day we were in Beaune just happened by chance to coincide with a rally of vintage Citroen cars. Very interesting.P1080939

Of course spring means flowers and for us this year that meant the famous Chelsea flower show in London. We had wanted to do this visit for a long time and we made it – in great weather and with loads of other people.P1090086

Plenty of pretty pinks and purples but interesting to note that beige, brown and peachy coloured flowers seemed to be in fashion – fine by me!P1090103


The garden art was fantastic – hares seemed to be popular – some made of wire, others of bronze and fabulous sculptures made of driftwood. P1090090P1090093P1090097

Probably just as well they were too big for a suitcase…..

Back home and the spring showers that Paris is famous for were a bit too much


The boarding platform for the Batobus is somewhere down there!P1090133

Along with the pleasure of making friends comes the wrench of saying goodbye. We’ve had weekend excursions and picnics and lunch dates in the most wonderful locations to say goodbye to our dear friends. The rain and mizzle kept us company most of the time!




L’Abbaye Royaumont, Asnieres sur Oise

Now it’s time to finish the packing.



An Irish connection

P1080696My beloved is one among an estimated 80 million people worldwide who have Irish ancestry. Such huge numbers result from the mass exodus of Irish folk in the mid 19th century. They left behind a country wracked with famine, starvation, poverty and distress and set out for places near and far, as far away as New Zealand even, to try and make new lives.

My DB hasn’t been immersed in tracking the Belton family geneology, but the urge to see the place from where his great-grandfather set sail for NZ in about 1865 was our reason for heading to the town of Wicklow in County Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland as our first priority. The day of our visit the sea was as blue as the sky, swells burst into pristine white foam onto the rocks below the stone ruins of an ancient castle near the mouth of the harbour and the hills behind are as emerald as legends tell. It’s a beautiful place and must have tugged at the heart strings of every Irishman and woman who left.

Like working our way through a song sheet of Irish ballads we visited Kilkenny, Killarney (it wasn’t Christmas), Bantry Bay, Galway and Dublin of course, stopping off along the way to see special sights recommended to us by locals. At Glendalough in County Wicklow we found the Belton name on a tombstone, possibly no relation, but proof that the name existed in those parts.

Everywhere we went the beauty of the landscape made an impression; from ancient ruins and tombstones decorated with celtic motifs now encrusted with lichen, to vast green slopes that fall steeply down to the sea. Some aspects of the natural landscape are strikingly similar to NZ’s and made me feel right at home. As we tootled through the countryside I saw so much in the colours and patterns that will inspire my knitting and remind me of this trip.

County Kerry’s Dingle peninsula could not have been more beautiful, we stopped and looked and took photos again and again until we reached the car ferry at Tarbert to hop over to County Clare (Darling Girl) and head for the mighty Cliffs of Moher. Gazing out on a perfect afternoon the Aran Islands were easily visible in the distance. And yes these islands give their name to Aran knitting motifs but the story that there are family patterns by which fishermen drowned at sea could be recognised is plain fiction! Aran sweaters, socks, hats, mittens, ponchos and throws fill the tourist shops, some are handknit and others clearly not – some not even made with wool. Sacrilege!

Keiry KerryNear Cork we stopped to kiss the famous Blarney Stone and, because no trip is devoid of some knitting or yarn related exploration, we made a special visit to Hedgehog Fibres. Here the rapidly growing team of yarn artists create their modern magic with dye pots and woolly fibre. On the invitation to fossick through the bins of available yarn, I didn’t hesitate. There are a few hanks of speckled yarn in my stash to remind me of our wonderful trip to the Emerald Isles and already a pair of socks on the needles – guess what colour?


Emerald knitting

A walk on the beach

Time to get up and start holidaying

Good morning Leucate – time to get up and start holidaying

In my younger days I dreamed of visiting places half a world away from my home way down in the southern part of the Pacific Ocean. I pored over travel brochures for Continental Europe and wished myself onto the pages where the blue Mediterranean Sea lapped the shores of elegant beach resorts in the South of France and tiny fishing villages on the Greek Islands. It all looked so exotic, interesting and dare I say it, better than my beach.

I wished hard enough and now 35 years on I’ve been fortunate to visit several of those beauty spots in the Mediterranean holidaying on Italy’s sublime Amalfi coast, at Dubrovnik and Korcula in Croatia, Istanbul in Turkey and before my blogging days on the Greek island of Mykonos. I’ve had tour stop-overs in Barcelona and Nice, a sunny weekend in Marseille and I’ve just spent 2 weeks on the south coast of France near the small village of Leucate, about halfway between Narbonne and Perpignan, basking in the sunshine and swimming in the Med.

The gorgeous blue Med seen from the outdoor cafe at MuCEM.

The gorgeous blue Med seen from the outdoor cafe at MuCEM.

The Mediterranean is undeniably special. It is beautiful, it is steeped in history -the Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean in Marseille does an excellent job of explaining the fascinating history of the region and the importance of the sea – it is shared by millions of people from twenty nations bordering its shores, and enjoyed by millions more who come to visit.

It is also polluted and over fished. It is in danger from the humans who use it and abuse it. Not all pollution is visible, but plenty is in the form of everyday rubbish plastic bags and bottles, polystyrene boxes, cans, wrappers and junk of all sorts.Rubbish

Last year on our Croatian holiday I was aghast to see the amount of rubbish slopping about in the water and littering the beach. It wasn’t the first time I had noticed the mess in the Med. I started taking a bag to the beach each day, filling it in no time with picked up rubbish. Rubbish bins were few and far between at the bathing areas in Dubrovnik and Korcula. Even more appalling was the deliberate disregard some beach users had for the care of the beach.

Litter left behind

Whoever left their wine bottle and glasses chose this beautiful spot to enjoy their evening and then CHOSE to leave their rubbish behind – how inconsiderate!

This summer I was happy to see that Leucate beach was noticeably rubbish free. Top marks for responsible beach users and the local city council’s rubbish bins every 100 yards all the way down the long beach that were changed every morning. From our apartment right on the beach front we caught the glorious sunrises and then with the sun – and us – fully awake took our daily stroll barefoot along the length of the beach, the sea as blue as those travel brochures promised years ago. The only time I found rubbish to pick up was one morning after overnight gales whipped up the sea and washed plastics and junk ashore. In between swimming, reading and lots of knitting we wandered through the local village, shopped at the market stalls and climbed up the hill above Leucate village to the ruins of the old chateau from which the locals fended off invaders through four centuries from1258 to 1659.

View from the pier at Port Leucate along the beach towards Leucate

View from the pier at Port Leucate along the beach towards Leucate in the distance

We have seen the Med at its most picturesque and shuddered at its trashy spots. Despite the rubbish it remains as beautiful and alluring as the pictures that inspired my travel dreams. I’ve satisfied my yearnings to see it, swim in it and travel on it; now I appreciate that big blue Pacific more than ever.

For a collection of Mediterranean photos visit my Flickr photostream here.

It’s hotting up in Paris

Happy half-marathoners

Happy half-marathoners

It’s hot, so hot the weather is the news.  In the last five days in Paris we’ve been sweltering in temperatures ferociously close to 40 degrees C (104F) as a result of hot air blowing in from the Sahara baking Europe.  The first week of July is early for our first official heat wave of the summer – that means high temperatures are recorded for 3 consecutive days – and the public health authorities were very prompt in launching “heat wave safety” alerts.  The temporary beaches alongside the Seine are not set up yet and Paris hasn’t yet emptied out for the summer holidays; that won’t happen until August when many small businesses close up for a few weeks.  The summer sales are in full swing so the shops are busy, but thankfully air-conditioned.  Shopping is definitely a cool thing to do.

Right now we are fondly reminiscing on our recent weekend in Hamburg to cheer on the runners in the Hamburg half marathon.  Not only were our dear Kiwi Hamburger and her boyfriend competing, but the weather was a comfortable 20-ish degrees with sunshine and puffy white clouds.  The parental cheer leading squad stationed themselves on the looped section of the run so we cheered them through 4km and then 9km before jumping on the U-bahn to head out to the finish and wave and cheer them through the last kilometre.  A happy posse of proud parents and tired but happy competitors were reunited after the finish line.

As for knitting in this weather, I’ve had to temporarily abandon one knitting project, Penguono a colourful kimono-styled jacket, for a lighter project that won’t cause me to self combust.  My new Rattan shawl project is a treat for me in several ways; I’m knitting with Zealana Air yarn from New Zealand, the pattern designer is from NZ and I’m knitting as part of a virtual KAL, a knit-a-long, led by Libby the designer, so I’m feeling the kiwi vibes with this one. Rattan However even with this gorgeous light-as-a-feather yarn I couldn’t knit on the hottest days, my sweaty hands just could not manipulate the sticks and thread at all.

Thankfully the hottest days have passed and we have some respite before the next blast from the Sahara.  A little knitting is on the agenda again and hopefully the stores will replenish their stock of fans.

Stay cool.

Destination Champagne

When we arrived to live in France a visit to Champagne was near the top of our must-do list.  I wanted to see the home of French Champagne; the land, the towns and villages, the famous Champagne houses and walk along the Avenue de Champagne, dubbed “the world’s most drinkable address” by Winston Churchill.  As it turned out, we stayed two nights at Magna Quies, a family run Bed and Breakfast at number 49 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay.  We were not disappointed; every aspect of our stay was as good as its perfect location.

Along with the other guests on Saturday evening we enjoyed a convivial apero time sampling champagnes made by the family of our most charming host Francois.  They undertake every step in the process themselves from growing the grapes on their land just to the south of Epernay to harvesting the grapes and making the wine to offer their guests for tasting and sale.

A short stroll along Avenue de Champagne towards the town centre took us past names from the list of who’s who in the world of Champagne; Perrier  Jouet, Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon just a few of them.  There are tours to be had, samples to be sipped and souvenirs to be purchased if you wish.  We rationed our time to two tours, one at de Castellane in Epernay and the other at Pommery in Reims; both were thoroughly enjoyable, informative and of course involved tasting some of the effervescent stuff.

Having escaped Paris the easiest way on the fast train to Reims, we hired a car from there to make our way to Epernay and allow us the pleasure of exploring the countryside at our leisure over the long Easter weekend.  Epernay proved to be a good choice; we ate delicious food with extremely pleasant service at both La Grillade Gourmande and La Banque.

In the countryside it was too early in the season for there to be any green on the vines; their bare branches stretched out like tentative beachgoers exposing undressed limbs to the first rays of really warm sunshine.  Even if the vines were bare the countryside was still beautiful with perceptible green buds emerging here and there, and golden forsythia heralding the end of winter hibernation.  We followed the well signposted Champagne tourist route tootling through tranquil villages stacked with small champagne producers that are the only interruption to hectare upon hectare of grape vines covering the rolling hillsides between Reims and Epernay and along the Marne Valley.  At Hautvillers the cluster of village buildings that includes the Abbey where the cellar master Brother Pierre Perignon – Dom Perignon – perfected his technique for making sparkling wine was picture-postcard perfect.  From a lookout point just beyond the village the river Marne sparkled below in the sunshine and the lateral flow of the Marne Canal followed its straight and narrow path.

Abbey at Hautvillers

Abbey at Hautvillers

It seemed an incongruous mix that this area, famed for its alcoholic beverage that is the ultimate symbol of celebration, fun and fizz, was so close to the setting for one of the most important battles of the first World War; the Battle of the Marne between 5 and 12 September 1914.  We learned on our tasting tours that the production of Champagne continued, albeit with difficulty, during the war years.  Any celebration deserved Champagne, and there was nothing better to boost morale than bubbles.

The Battle of the Marne memorial at Dormans was well worth the stop on our Champagne route itinerary.

Reims is the main city in the region, even though it’s not the administrative capital of Champagne.  The trickiest thing about Reims is to pronounce the name! Say “Rance” with your best nasal twang and you’ve got it.  Reims Cathedral is where the kings of France were crowned.  It was damaged by fire in 1210 and rebuilt, severely damaged again during WW1 and repaired once more.  The restoration of the spectacular cathedral is an ongoing project, as is the evolution of the equally spelndid interior.  For its 800th anniversary modern stained glass windows by German artist, Monsieur Knoebel, were installed in the apse.

Here’s to Champagne, it’s something special: cheers.

Tasting at la Maison Pommery

Tasting at la Maison Pommery

Fresh air – it blows out the cobwebs and is good for the soul

I get to wear my own hand knits in the snow

I get to wear my own hand knits in the snow

I’ve been away.  Two weeks out of the city and into the fresh air of the Alpes for a week of energetic skiing at Chamonix, a couple of days exploring Geneva before venturing further north for brisk walks beside the Alster lake in Hamburg.

I love the buzz of city living, but escaping to the outdoors is such a refreshing and invigorating change!  Even though it was later in the season than our previous visits, there was still plenty of snow on the vast ski fields surrounding Chamonix.  First day up on the mountain the early clouds prised themselves off the mountain tops and there in all its snow covered glory Mont Blanc sparkled in the early spring sunshine, and stayed that way for the next few days.  On our last day light cloud returned but through it (and our goggles) we enjoyed a great view of the partial solar eclipse as we rode the chairlift – a fantastic sight.

I’ve confessed before that I’m not a proficient skier, nor have I been an avid fan; it has always seemed to be a lot of clobber and discomfort to slither down a slope with little, if any, control and a bit more than a healthy dose of fear.  But this time was different.  For a start the boots seemed to fit better, the ski bindings weren’t such dang-fangled things to get in and out of, I felt more familiar, even a little bit confident. Starting out where I left off last year everything fell into place so that I conquered the slopes designated red for difficult on the Balme field.  (Maybe conquered is a slight exaggeration – there were a few spills.)  It was exhilarating and remarkably picturesque skiing in the sunshine along ski lanes winding down a forested valley.  Oh the serenity!, and I was tickled pink to have added a few new skills to my (old dog’s) repertoire of tricks.

Parapenters soar and swirl above Chamonix town

Parapenters soar and swirl above Chamonix town

We farewelled Chamonix and made the short train, train, and bus trips to Geneva.  After a week of energetic skiing in the mountains any remaining cobwebs were swept away with lashings of freshly chilled lakeside air as we walked along the promenade for a glimpse at some of the international organisations located there: World Trade (WTO), European HQ for the UN, International Red Cross, and the World Meterological Org (WMO) amongst them.

WTO building, Geneva

WTO building, Geneva

The famous fountain spouts a tall plume in the lake

The famous fountain spouts a tall plume in the lake right beside the city centre

Leaving my DB in Geneva for his meetings at WTO, I headed off to Hamburg for some quality mother-daughter time with my Kiwi-hamburger.

There was no let up in Project Invigoration!  She had me up at 6am and out walking around the Alster lake en route to Boot Camp.  To be clear, she ran as her warm up and did the group boot camp with trainer Ollie from Original Bootcamp – which did seem to be quite fun despite the occasional groans and grunts coming from the participants – while I followed at a brisk walk.  Inspired by the early but definite signs of spring we weren’t the only ones out and about.  On the weekend the track around the Alster is a highway for runners, the grassy verges are alive with dogs chasing balls and sticks, while the lake ripples with yachts racing along, every now and then their sails ruffling noisily and then snapping taut again as they tack back and forth into the bracing wind.

After two weeks of fresh air and lashings of outdoor exercise I’ve been well and truly invigorated and inspired by the beauty of nature.

Lille and Roubaix: science and innovation, art and industry.

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

I’ve been through Lille many times.  From my seat on the trains whooshing in and out of the station en route between London and Bruxelles or Paris I had gazed disdainfully at the grimy, graffiti covered buildings near the station and decided I was glad to be passing through.

I’ve had a change of heart.

Lille, and Roubaix a little further out to the north east, were once wealthy cities thanks to the textile manufacturing that boomed in the wake of the industrial revolution, but with so many other beautiful towns and villages neither are likely to hold the top spots on a list of France’s must visit places.  But when Lille was my destination she turned out to be beautiful and interesting – rather more so than I had imagined, and Roubaix has a genuine treasure in La Piscine; the Museum of Art and Industry.

The Old City of Lille centred around the Grande Place, now called Place du General de Gaulle, tells the story of its history through the beautiful old buildings surrounding the square; the ups and downs of its fortune, who was in charge and who was fighting whom are reflected in architectural styles and monuments. From the outside facing onto the square the elaborate Flemish renaissance styled Old Bourse (the Stock Exchange) attracted me; a glimpse into the interior courtyard had me curious enough to venture through the arched doorway to check out the antique book sellers setting up their stalls under the vaulted balconies. 

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

My inner science geek sparked up when I spotted the wall plaques honouring French scientists, mathematicians, engineers and inventors whose work contributed to the health and economic well being of the region; in fact to people everywhere.  Amongst the notable names I found Louis Pasteur’s, for his work on fermentation, Ampere mathematician and physicist for his work on electromagnetism, Claude Louis Berthollet for his work on the bleaching property of chlorine and its application in whitening cloth and Philippe de Girard, engineer and inventor of many things including a machine to spin linen; all important in the textile manufacturing industries around Lille.  No women’s names that I could see but times have changed since the plaques were put up in 1854 – at the same time the University of Science and Technology at Lille was established.

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Following the Old Lille route in the City Walks guide book led us to more gems like rue de la Monnaie, location of the mint built in 1685, and 18th century weaver’s cottages in rue Peterinck.  The picture of old Lille as a thriving city with knowledge and a practical inventive spirit to fuel the textile industry is apparent as you walk the streets.

The main purpose of our trip north was to visit La Piscine, the Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix to see the Wool War One exhibition.  A 10-minute ride on the Greater Lille metro system Line 2 from Lille’s main train station then a short walk from the Roubaix Grand Place metro stop, its easy peasy to find.  As we meandered through the entrance hall the wall-sized grainy black and white photographs of chaps in their 1930’s styled bathers elicited a smile and a thankful thought that fashions have changed.  Then, the wow factor: the pool room.  The huge sun like stained glass window at the far end beams a golden glow over the sculptures that line the poolside.  It’s no longer an actual swimming pool, but back in 1932 this art-deco styled public bathing facility was described as “the finest swimming pool in France”.  The conversion into an art museum was completed in 2001 to house the collection of the Roubaix National Museum, and it is a sight to behold.  The former changing cubicles are beautifully restored, the light coloured tiles polished clean and the spaces used as novel display cases for different collections including superb Sevres vases and ceramic works.

Interior, La Piscine - Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

Interior, La Piscine – Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

I oohed and ahhed at the textile samples on display; these were just a small offering of the rows and rows of hefty sample books from bygone eras in fashion that are held in the fabric library.  (The library is open for research by appointment and there is an on-line catalogue too.)

Samples from the Textile Library

Winter 1920 Ribbon Samples  from the Textile Library

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Lille and Roubaix might not be tourist hot spots, but they’ve certainly gone up in my estimation; science and history, wool and textiles, art and industry, a feast of interesting topics, and the beer was good too, (application of the science of fermentation of course!).  As the saying goes you can’t judge a book by its cover and seems you can’t judge a city by its railway station. More photographs of our visit here.