An introduction to Dutch Jenever

An all-too-rare blogpost; a gift to my followers for the holidays- a story of alcohol!

I am not much of a hard liquor drinker. I prefer my daily glass of wine (usually white these days) or a nice hoppy British ale.

Amsterdam was the topic of a recent episode of the TV travelogue ‘The Getaway’, guided by American comedian and late-night TV host Seth Meyers and his brother Josh. The program’s scenes made me want to revisit A’dam immediately but a couple of things in particular had me pulling out my pad and pen to make notes for future reference.

One segment showed the Meyers brothers trying jenever, the Dutch spirit that the Brits eventually mangled into the tipple they call gin. This jenever drink sounded intriguing so I made a note to track down somewhere in Amsterdam to sample it whether I ended up at the same spot shown in the clip or a different one.

Sooo, on my latest trip to Amsterdam, I got the name and address of a tasting bar that specialized in this unique booze. On my last night in Amsterdam, I took the tram to Dam Square, found the narrow alley named Pijlsteeg and the tiny tasting bar called Wynand Fockink, named for the distiller who started it up in 1679 (yikes!).

wynand fockink jenever bar

The bar had a serving window open to the alley – logical considering the bar inside had barely enough room to swing a jenever bottle; still, I went inside to see what was what.

There were a several shelves behind the bar, one with about 40 bottles, all the same size and shape but with different colored labels. Most of these were fruit flavored and sweet, so not ‘pure’ jenevers.

Two folks minded the bar. A guy seemed to be in charge of serving thru the window while a woman wiped down the bar and took care of the tulip-shaped cordial glasses bathing in a copper basin under a lazy, constant stream of cool water. Her name was Mirjam and she was my jenever guide. Mirjam’s first question for me after I told her I wanted to try some jenever was, “What spirit do you usually like to drink?” I told her that I drink vodka most often, and will have single malt Scotch on special occasions. This was an indication of which of the seven (only seven bottles out of all those?!) jenevers she would introduce. She chose four, each distilled in a different way, for me to try (I never did discover the personalities of the other three that I didn’t sample). Something on the list for the next trip.

I told Mirjam that I had tried gin in the past and did not like it; it smelled like perfume and tasted like pine needles. She said that was the juniper that the Brits had added in excessive (my word) amounts to the liquor when they decided to create their own version. Jenever has almost no juniper by comparison, which made it infinitely more palatable than, say, Boodles or Bombay. Sipping my way through my jenever lesson was extremely pleasant. Sure, those in the know willl remind me that jenever should be drunk, hands-free, from a full glass, with the surface tension only one drop shy of liquid splashing all over the table. I was just learning, ya know? Besides, four full glasses of jenever drunk that way and I might still be propped up against the alleyway in Amsterdam. Hmmmm… Anyhoo…

Mirjam in the shop

The first one was old (oude) jenever. This is made the same way as was done both before and after World War II. It had very little flavor, just a bit of fire at the back of my throat. Could be dangerous; you might not know you’d had too much until it was too late.

The second one was called ‘young’ (jonge) and is the version made during the World Wars when malt and other ingredients were not so easy to come by. A bit more personality and that same fire as the oude type. Maybe just a bit more of a sweet note, possibly from ingredients like beet sugar or molasses..

Next came de Vijf – a blend of three jenevers aged for five years, hence the name (vijf is Dutch for 5). One part of de Vijf is aged in French cognac barrels, another in port barrels and the third portion is aged in American oak. Lots of personality in this one and, I seem to recall, a bit of color as well. Better and better.

The fourth jenever was the Superior and to my untrained palate at least, the nicest of the four. Satiny smooth, not so much raw fire as the first two and still no real taste of the dreaded juniper berry. Just very, very nice.  The Superior is distilled for three years in bourbon barrels. To be honest, I’ve never drunk bourbon, though I know folks who do, so I’ve no idea how the taste of the Superior jenever compares, if at all, to actual bourbon. Not important but what was important was finding out where to buy some to bring home. Mirjam smiled and pointed over my shoulder. “In the shop”, she said. Well, of course!

Wynand Fockink shop

The shop was even smaller than the bar and there were several different size bottles to consider. I opted for the smallest – this was the beginning of my two-week trip after all; I needed to save room in the luggage for other still-unknown treasures. A clay bottle that looks to hold about 6 ounces. I was about to leave when I realized I wasn’t done – I needed to buy a glass so I could drink my jenever properly! Again, only one glass, with the Wynand Fockink name engraved on it, carefully packed in bubble wrap. I carried it in my backpack for the rest of my trip, perfectly and safely snuggled inside the metal-lined travel mug I always carry.

The fellow who was manning the window stopped by and confided that when the Dutch are in a good mood, they say that Dutch jenever is the grandmother of British gin and when they are in a bad mood, they say that British gin is the bastard granddaughter of Dutch jenever. Ha!

All thanks to Seth Meyers and my constant channel surfing looking for anything to do with Europe. Here is a link to an impressively detailed description of the hows and whats of Dutch jenever. There are several other websites if you need to know more. Proost!

superior jenever




Posted in All Suzanne's travels, Amsterdam travel, Europe food & wine, Netherlands travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Balloons in Plainville CT

I have only ever been ‘up close and personal’ with hot-air balloons once that I can recall. That was a serendipitous visit to Leeds Castle in England in 1990. I was driving to London after visiting the then-uncompleted Chunnel site when I saw the sign for Leeds Castle at an upcoming off-ramp. I didn’t have time to go inside the castle, but the grounds were hosting a large Balloons and Bentleys festival. At the time, I was much more interested in all the vintage Bentleys but there were plenty of hot-air balloons floating around and above the castle. (No usable fotos of this; it was back in the day when cameras used FILM).

Fast (or slow) forward to the USA in 2018… the Plainville, CT Fire Department has hosted a balloon festival every August since the early 1970s and this year I finally carved out time in my schedule to see what all the hoopla was about. I have only the Leeds experience to measure against but I’d have to say that little ole Plainville does an impressive job. Over the course of 3 days, the event attracts tens of thousands of spectators – more than the town’s population, I suspect; the volume of the crowd on Friday night put me in mind of a gigantic carnival or music festival. Logistics were well applied – lots of free off-site parking and loads of free shuttle buses to the town park hosting the (need I say it?) free event. Food vendors, souvenir sellers as well as music piped over all in addition to the half-dozen hot-air balloons being inflated, tethered and some even offering tethered rides taking folks a few stories up in the air.

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There was something slightly scary about the balloons being so closely scrunched together. Not only that, there was NO ‘no-go’ zone around the balloons to keep visitors at a safe distance. With the size of the propane flames that were keeping the balloons inflated – or taking them up and down in the sky – it looked and felt more than a little bit dangerous, especially as it got darker. But what do I know? Nobody else seemed at all concerned.

Disappointingly, some balloons, both at Leeds and Plainville, sported corporate logos but the most lacked any advertising. Adding to the magic of this night was a full moon that cleared the trees at the edge of the park as it rose but the high-powered floodlights that illuminated the field made getting a decent moon-with-balloon photo difficult. I tried.

Of course there are lots of other, perhaps more impressive balloon events in other places but Plainville did a great job bringing these gigantic propane-fueled bubbles to town. The crowds have ensured its success over the decades, so if you missed it this year, there’s always next year.

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A blog update from one very lazy blogger

I think about writing something for the blog very often. Ah… if wishes were horses.

Just a notice that the HOT LINK list on the right has been updated (finally) for 2018. In fact, a few of the links are generic and up-to-date and it’s just the label that needed changing. So, the LINK there now are all current. I expect to add a few more.

The blog’s draft folder is still packed with a couple dozen posts-in-progress. It’s the same old story – start a post, find some photos, get the photos cleaned up in Photoshop, write some more. Log off. Think about it; write in my mind. Pour a glass of wine. Read some of whatever European-set murder mystery is on top of the nightstand bookpile… You will notice that the blog post never gets finished, let alone posted.

The draft folder is probably 5 or 6 trips behind and there’s a new adventure on the horizon. No promises, but maybe I can go back to a previous idea of posting one photo with a little bit of travel story to accompany it.

In the meantime, get your passport updated, click through the posts under the All Suzanne’s travels and travel essays Categories, build yourself a trip and go someplace I’ve been or visit somewhere I haven’t been to (or written about) yet. Europe is still magical!

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Another eclectic trek around Europe – Part One

The older I get, the harder it is to put together a trip to Europe when there is no big-deal (to me) event which self-selects a range of dates as a starting point. A couple of years ago, I was able to put together an amazing variety of fixed-date events and put them into the right order so I got them all squeezed together into about a three week period.

This time was harder. No bucket-list-type happenings, so I kept going back and forth, adding and dropping and changing destinations for dates and length of stay and which places to go and when. Had it not been the case that the trip got postponed twice, mostly due to aging cats and their problems, this trip might not have happened even now.

Finally, I made a plan I could flesh out. If I am very ambitious and motivated, there may be some actual blog posts with photos forthcoming. Alternatively, here is a run-down of the trip so far…

— the usual couple of days in  London to start things off. This time, I was able to get to a local rugby match on Friday, 6 October. Tickets started at 30 pounds but as I queued up at the ticket window, a fellow was quietly flogging a single ticket which I got for 10. Brilliant seat high above the end zone and an exciting match to boot (so to speak). Earlier that same day, I’d gone to the British Museum to see a special exhibition of Scythian artifacts – an ancient nomadic culture from Siberia. Warlike, horse-mad and fond of making things from gold, at least for their one-percenters; many of the finds have only appeared recently with the thawing of permafrost. Additionally, I paid a visit to the Lewis chessmen, part of the museum’s permanent collection (meaning that I could take photos). Last year, I read a book presenting a theory that these 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces, so named after their discovery buried in the sand on the northwestern island of Lewis in Scotland, were carved by an Icelandic woman named Margret the Adroit. The BM labels the chessmen as ‘probably  Norwegian’. Oh yes?? A great historical and cultural mystery, to be sure, even if, like me, you are not even a chess player.

— From London, next stop was Basel, Switzerland. This was mostly a stopover on my way to the Alps. With two days to fill, I took the easy way – an introduction to the city by bus followed by a walk back to the river for a crossing on a rope-guided ferry holding no more than a dozen passengers. Since the power for the boat comes from a well-positioned rudder and the force of the current, the (100-yard or so) crossing, which takes all of about 10 or 12 minutes, is serenely quiet. The only sound might come from a passenger on the far shore ringing a bell to alert the boatman. (I did ring the bell. One clang. He was on his way over anyway). Perhaps I’d have managed to see more in my younger days but that was it for Basel. My room had no TV, so staying in was an even bigger surprise than usual.

One side note on Basel… this was the first time I’ve ever stayed in a hostel and it bore no resemblance to any hostel accommodation I’d ever seen advertised. I got a private room and ensuite bathroom, electric kettle and hot drink fixings. The breakfast buffet was simple but complete. The theme for breakfasts on this trip has been cold meats and cheeses, cereal and yogurt (I tend to skip the cereal), soft-boiled eggs, toast and bread with a choice of jams, tea or coffee and juice.

— From Basel, a couple of hours on Swiss Rail brought me to Zermatt. This little town is heaven for anyone who craves outdoor, especially winter, activities. Even in October, there were downhill ski runs in use and a bit of snow-making kept a Bobcat busy grooming the slopes. This is where the perfect weather I’ve had this trip was at its most spectacular. I took the multi-stage gondola to the top of Gornergrat. This is one of, if not the best place to view the Matterhorn and the surrounding Alps. Gornergrat’s summit sits at almost 3100 meters, or more than 10,000 feet. An absolutely cloudless sky, bright sun, no wind and a temp just at freezing. It paid off to be wearing my base layer long-johns under my jeans and my puffer jacket and hat meant I was perfectly comfy for the 80 minutes I spent up there taking photos of the entire snow-covered panorama. I took the last gondolas down at sunset and the thoughtful Swiss turned off the lights in the cars so we could see the Matterhorn’s silhouette. I’m still taking too many photos to be called normal but there are probably some really good ones to fix up for a post or this blog’s Facebook page.

On the  second day in Zermatt, I went to the top of an even higher mountain to visit an ice tunnel in the glacier named ‘matterhorn glacier paradise’. It’s filled with ice sculptures in grottos and outside there is another stupendous Alpine view. This day, the Matterhorn was slightly less photogenic wearing as it was a crown of cloud obscuring only that one peak. I was told this cloud hides the top of the mountain about 70% of the time so I was even more thrilled to have gone up the day before when everything was clear. This Klein Matterhorn’s summit, at almost 3900 meters (more than 12,700 feet) was noticeably harder on the breathing than Gornergrat. Move slowly, the sign said, you are in the alpine zone. Got it. A careful hike to the top of the viewing platform, more photos and views to Italy and France’s Mont Blanc made this experience visually AND literally breathtaking.

Since I travel alone most of the time, I tend to eat dinner from supermarkets back in my room and only eat in restaus for the occasional lunch. In Zermatt, I treated myself to an actual dinner out. There were a couple dozen folks wandering the narrow main street checking out posted menus. In the area closer to the train station/s, there were one or two places doing a good business but a lot of other places much less busy. I overheard one fellow mutter ‘too expensive’ after reading one menu. I felt like turning and reminding him that this was Switzerland and EVERYthing is expensive here. I decided this would be my once-per-trip dinner splurge – the name of the hotel / restau is Walliserkanne and the interior is fairy-tale Swiss. Plaster walls, wood beams, chunky wooden tables, candles. Also a very attentive waiter and – the real reason I chose the place – raclette. This is that wonderfully gooey puddle of  melted cheese that you mop up with chunks of potato, cornichon and tiny pearl onions. I started with a bowl of fresh pea soup and a nice piece of crusty bread, butter from obviously deliriously happy Swiss cows and the first of two glasses of white wine. At the end of the meal, I ordered a double espresso, one of my guilty pleasures when on the road. The waiter repeated ‘double espresso’ and added ‘double quick’. It took me a second to register his joke. My meal ended with a complementary / complimentary snifter of Poire William, a light, fragrant and fruity pear brandy as a digestif. Lovely!

And now I need to post this and get out and about while there is still enough of the day for some more sightseeing. Stay tuned for Part Two and the ride on the Glacier Express, my one night in stupid-pricey St Moritz and a two day revisit to Zurich. If I’m motivated, there may even be a Part Three.

Besides, my new tablet has an apparently factory-set feature of ignoring the space bar so the constant parsing of two or three words from one is getting REALLY annoying!


Posted in All Suzanne's travel essays, All Suzanne's travels, Euro sports, Europe from the air, European art, European museums, London travel, rugby, Swiss travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Monday night jazz in Hartford, CT

Only one photo here but this is a definite highlight of summertime in central CT, USA.

For six Mondays between mid-July and mid-August, the rolling lawn of Bushnell Park, behind the State House becomes the perfect amphitheatre for this series of FREE jazz concerts. People bring chairs and blankets, dogs, kids, frisbees, all sorts of picnics – with wine or beer (we are a very well-behaved bunch of music lovers!) – and mood lighting which more often than not just bug candles doing double duty. People stroll in after work hours and settle in for any or all of the three and a half hours of great instrumental jammin’ and jazz singing from the groups and soloists.

This year, a couple of concerts got moved due to bad weather, a standard ‘plan B’ so things don’t have to be cancelled… walk or drive up the hill to Asylum Hill Congregational Church. This is another well-known music venue in town, not simply the location for the annual Boar’s Head Festival they produce just after New Years (an amazing celebration of Christmas that you should experience at least once). I skipped the indoor concerts only because I wanted the enjoyment of lying around outdoors – and I seem to recall that the church doesn’t let alcohol inside.

Monday night jazz Hartford CT 2

Monday night jazz Hartford CT


This last evening in the 2017 series was perfect weather – clear skies, very comfortable temperatures and hardly any skeeters, bug candles notwithstanding. When sunset was past and darkness settled over the crowd, lighted smart phones popped up like so many static fireflies. A flock of swifts wheeled in formation overhead but I was hoping to see at least a few silhouettes of little brown bats – they should have been out gobbling up their body weight in mosquitoes. Maybe next year.

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Falkirk, Scotland beyond the Kelpies

As I described in a (very) old post, I went to Falkirk specifically to see Andy Scott’s Kelpies sculptures and perhaps some of his other works which can be found in a variety of locations around the town. In the end, I only had enough time for a couple of non-Scott stops, one roadside photo op and only the Kelpies by Mr Scott. These gave me a sense of what Falkirk locals find important to their identity, above and beyond Andy Scott’s exciting sculptural works…


Falkirk Muir monument



A roadside plinth commemorating the Battle of Falkirk Muir in 1746, part of the Jacobite uprising, made for a quick photo stop to begin the afternoon.


Next stop was the Falkirk Wheel – a huge cantileverd mechanical lift that hoists narrow boats from one section of the Falkirk Canal to another, raising boats (one at a time) 35 vertical meters. Two things kept me from signing up to ride the boat. (1) a chilly downpour that lasted for a good 20 minutes and which proved that an old raincoat was no longer waterproof and (2) not knowing how much time I really had for this unexpected attraction. Even so, an impressive feat of engineering all the same.

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One last stop on the way back to the train station was Callendar House, a listed building / stately home with a long pedigree and ties to Scottish kings and other nobility and, more recently, the Forbes family (yes, apparently those Forbeses). Interesting in a Newport, RI sort of way, though much less grand. More a museum in an empty building than the sort of OTT gilded glamour found in Newport. Maybe all the “good stuff” has been removed to another mansion or museum. The exhibits in the various rooms spanned Roman, Jacobite and Stewart history but it was hard to discern whether, for example, the dozen or so Roman-style helmets in one display were actual archaeological finds from the grounds or simply modern copies to demonstrate how far back the region’s history stretches.

A final side note – there is a senior living complex on the grounds of Callendar House (now there’s an idea for a one-of-a-kind retirement home!) but couldn’t get the camera out fast enough for a foto.

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A new program from London TfL

I almost lengthened the title of this post editorially but decided against.

Transport for London has launched a new effort to (possibly) make it easier for folks with physical or other difficulties to get a seat. It’s sad to think that Londoners don’t recognize when someone needs a seat more than the person seated.

I’ll be looking to see how many of these blue buttons I spot on lapels and collars when I’m next in London. I don’t consider myself frail or even particularly old-looking but I’ve been offered a seat several times when traveling the Tube. I usually demur but perhaps I should accept – not because I need the seat but simply so that the gallant stranger can feel good about the gesture.

Perhaps advertising the program will get people to act more kindly towards folks who really do need to sit down even if they aren’t wearing the little blue badge. I will try to do the same more often – and hope nobody will look at me with an expression that says “No thanks; you need it more than I do”!!

Note to my London friends – if you give me one of these buttons, I’ll smack you. (If I used a cane, I would have said I’d hit ’em over the head with my cane). So there!

Please offer me a seat

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New TV location tours from Tours International for 2018

Tours International has new TV location tours for next year. These are the folks Dad and I traveled with back in 2002 (the Normandy beaches) and who gave Dad, by his own estimation, the best trip ever!

The link to their website is on the right –> see under HOT LINKS; the newest tours added to their TV/Film category include Game of Thrones, Outlander, Poldark, Sherlock and more.

I’m not exactly sure if individuals are excluded from some tour dates. In the case of our 2002 tour, Dad & I expected to travel with other people unknown to us, so it may only be a question of keeping the head count manageable (and “separate checks” when billing). Just ask!

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Aliens captured!

Lazy me. I AM working on a couple of other posts but it takes time, especially if there are more than one or two photos to add. Until then…

I came across this photo taken at a local autumn fair and had to chuckle (a rare occurrence in the USA these days). I don’t even know why these aliens were corraled like this, other than possibly needing to restrain them from floating around the area where they were hanging out until they could be either sold or claimed as prizes for winning some midway-type game. And what does it mean if it’s a purple one?

Hope they give you a laugh, too.

aliens corraled

aliens corraled


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Duke and Baron – Scotland’s Kelpies

A few years ago, a TV news item introduced me to Andy Scott, a Scottish sculptor working in metal who has created more than a dozen gorgeous works, most of which are installed in various outdoor locations in and around Falkirk, Scotland, near Glasgow. The focus of the news item was the unveiling of Scott’s latest work, two gigantic horse heads called The Kelpies, named for the aquatic horse-type creatues of Scottish myth.

The TV bit said a pair of small scale replicas or maquettes were touring the world and would be making a stop in New York. As it happened, I timed my visit to NYC on the day of the annual Tartan Day parade. Falkirk was marching, proudly carrying a banner depicting the Kelpies. I don’t always look for signs telling me where to travel next, but this seemed an obvious nudge to put Scotland on my list so I could track down the “real” Kelpies and, if I was really lucky, see some of Scott’s other works. These equines were slightly larger than life but one of them included a small metal stick figure standing at the base, craning his neck up at the kelpie, giving the viewer an idea of the massive scale of the full-size silvery steel beasts. Even these mini-horses were gorgeous and majestic and somehow magical. Horses have that effect on me. I could have stood there looking at them from all angles for hours had my schedule permitted. See my April 2014 post for more on these “little” guys.

I made plans to stay in Edinburgh for a few days then planned to rent a car and GPS so I could drive to Falkirk on my sculpture quest. There is an official Andy Scott Sculpture Trail in and around Falkirk; sculptures are on school grounds, inside traffic roundabouts and in other locations. I wasn’t sure how many I’d be able to find and, if found, get photos.

As it turned out, I cancelled the rental car, not because I had any qualms about driving on the other side of the road – I’ve done that several times quite comfortably – but because I decided I had not left myself enough time to crawl out of Edinburgh, get lost and found and locate the Kelpies and still make it to Edinburgh airport for my flight to Berlin. Instead, I traveled to Falkirk by train and found Dave, a local cabbie, at the station who could take me to the Kelpies and bring me to a few other local attractions along the way (separate post for these).

August can be cool in Scotland and there was chilly rain on and off. Luckily, the rain had gone by the time we arrived at Helix Park where the Kelpies reign. The park is very flat and covers something in excess of 800 acres, so you can see the Kelpies rising from the plain long before you’re actually standing alongside. Like the Empire State Building in NYC, however, the scale is hard to wrap your brain around until you get “up close and personal”.

canalside Kelpies, Helix Park

canalside Kelpies, Helix Park

This was only a few months after the initial unveiling in April 2014, so the Visitor Center consisted of a trailer with nothing inside except a single desk, a ticket seller and a sparse selection of literature. I chatted with the fellow who told me the town was completely unprepared for just how popular the Kelpies were becoming. They had produced postcards but couldn’t keep them in stock. He said this one attraction had awoken Falkirk to the fact that they now had a tourist industry on their hands.

Duke and Baron

Duke and Baron

Modeled on two Clydesdale draft horses named Duke and Baron, these massive metal equines carry the same names and stand 30 meters tall, each weighing some 300 metric tons. It’s difficult to project the scale of these critters until you stand next to them even with a photo like this one. Something about feeling the sheer mass of these incredible artworks.






I hustled out to the sculptures to catch the guided tour. Of course, it was possible to walk around the figures on my own, but the paid walk included the chance to go inside one of the heads to see how it was put together. Absolutely amazing!

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Unfortunately, I missed out seeing Andy Scott’s other sculptures but none are as gigantic as the Kelpies and there was almost no time before my train back to Edinburgh. I gave a Scott Trail brochure to the cabbie in case he wants to create a Scott tour to his taxi business, at least until someone sets up a coach tour. Falkirk has some claims to fame for locals but Duke and Baron have put this little-known town on the tourist map practically overnight. You must go!!

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London’s Roman amphitheatre

OK. This Roman ruin has very little left of it compared to the smaller-than-Colosseum structures in Arles, France or Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Those at least are complete; this one would require almost complete reconstruction and the removal of the entire Guildhall complex. Ain’t gonna happen. What we do have are the underground remains of an arena in the lower level of the Guildhall Art Gallery within the boundaries of the City of London. Really just parts of the foundation and plumbing and a lot of sand. Some remnants are stone, others are wood beams displayed under floor-mounted glass. Old, though. Very, very old. First century AD-type old. And there’s no admission charge.

Interestingly, if you didn’t know where you were headed, you might think that the 15th century stone Guildhall Great Hall would be the place to go. Not so. This Roman formation was only recently discovered (1985) while the art gallery was being worked on; it’s completely counter-intuitive to look for Roman ruins under the most modern building in the square. The Great Hall functions as town hall for the City of London, so a constant dribble of tourists going in and out just to look at the ruins would complicate the decorum in the Hall for those going there to conduct business, assuming we’d be allowed in at all.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery

Computer projections helpfully reproduce the ancient seating areas; the ceiling is quite low when you come down to it (pun intended) but even with these visual aids, it’s difficult to imagine the expanse of the place when you consider that there was room for 7000 spectators. The link at the start of this para has the full width photo I thought I’d taken. It’s sooo frustrating when my brain remembers things that didn’t even happen! The ruins are a tiny fragment of the original structure. Sadly, my visit was so close to closing time there was no time to explore anything else in the gallery’s collection/s. Perhaps next time.

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To get a better feel for the size of the place, go back outside to street level and look for a curved line on the pavement of the Guildhall courtyard. This is incomplete as well but gives a much better indication of the size of the amphitheatre. I’m assuming the entire extent of the amphitheatre’s foundations may never be exposed… not likely to get permission to go rummaging around underneath the Guildhall premises.

Amphitheatre footprint - aerial view Google Earth

Amphitheatre footprint – aerial view Google Earth

I wish  had gotten a photo of this black outline but when I visited it was after dark on a damp December night and the circle runs so close to the buildings it was impossible to make out on the slick, wet pavement at night.

The church of St Lawrence Jewry occupies the southern side of the Guildhall complex – below left of the circle in the Google Earth photo. I’ve added this photo simply because I liked the lighted tree in front and also because, depending on which direction you’re coming from, it’s likely you’ll come upon this church before you curl left around it and see the Guildhall. A good landmark to keep from missing the spot.

St Lawrence Jewry

St Lawrence Jewry

One sheepish note on the photo below – I must have been feeling the damp chill more than I thought, given the blur I managed to add to the photo before clicking the button. Nothing like a smudgy photo to prove this is a strictly amateur travel blog, eh? For those of us who didn’t know there were things like these, it’s a post marking the boundary of the City of London within the larger metro area more commonly called simply “London”. Note the City’s coat of arms near the bottom of the bollard.

City of London boundary marker

City of London boundary marker


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London Fire 1666

The Museum of London has a terrific exhibition commemorating the Great Fire of 1666 on its 350th anniversary. I took loads of photos but they didn’t do the show justice. The story needs more than just a couple of photos or maybe they just need to be better photos. So I’ll apologize now for the very small number of pics in this post but I’ll also recommend that, if you can, see the exhibition for yourself.

I have a few images of the most graphic element in the show – a very clever relief map showing where the fire started relative to the size of London at the time and how much it spread. The map is shaped like a large loaf of bread to represent the baker’s shop where the fire started. The map blackens slowly where the fire spreads across the city over the course of several days. It began in the early hours of Sunday, 2 September and burned pretty much unchecked until it finally abated on Wednesday the 5th and was brought under control on the 6th. The three pictures compress the endless loop of the display but the constant growth of the black blotch of fire was so mesmerizing I ended up watching it several times.

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The exhibit included relics recovered from the fire – furniture, glassware (most of this just pieces, either shattered or melted), metal elements from buildings, singed books, a charred tomb figure, even a wall fragment with several panes of stained glass from a pub, if my memory is correct.

stained glass 1666

stained glass 1666


Reproductions were displayed of proclamations from the king – Charles II as it happens (supposedly one of the guys in my family tree): one set up markets on the outskirts of the city to be supplied with food to keep people fed, another refuted a rumor that a French army was attacking the city to stop rioting and a third letter was issued to raise funds for the rebuilding of London.

royal proclamations

a royal proclamation


Something I’ve always marveled at is the way exhibits mounted in the UK are both very interesting and fascinatingly comprehensive. I’m thinking of stuff beyond regular art museums which are always and everywhere more full and elaborate than my attention span can sustain nowadays. Instead, whether it’s a large museum with an important show like this one or just a group of rooms in a small city or town telling the story of the places’s beginnings and development to the current day, the Brits manage to present their history in a thorough and engaging way. Of course, my being an Anglophile and Europhile and history nerd may explain my enjoyment of these shows; not to mention that my own stories are often of the long-winded variety.

The Museum’s website shows the exhibition running through mid-April, 2017. If this subject sounds at all intriguing, plan to get over to the City and take in the show!

Posted in All Suzanne's travels, Archaeology in Europe, England, European museums, London travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Santons in Metz

If you’re a fan of Peter Mayle and his wonderful stories about Provence life and culture then you may be familiar with santons. The word means “little saints” and refers to handmade clay figures dressed in old style traditional dress and come in a few sizes, you might even say pocket size. The first santons date back to the French Revolution when churches and nativity scenes were banned. Over time, the cast of characters has expanded to the point where an entire village can be created. When I visited Provence several years ago santons were not on my radar so I didn’t go driving around the coutryside looking for santonniers who sell year-round. This distinctive craft is kept alive by families who for generations have created the butchers, bakers and other artisans, folk going about their daily tasks as well as the farm and forest animals – all of which now populate Provençal fireplace mantels or tabletops at Christmas time. These scenes of village life are fascinating and much more interesting – to me, at least – than the typical grouping in the stable with just a couple of sheep and the three “wise guys” as we called them when we were kids (I want to say that label came from a stand-up comic’s routine in the 1960s but can’t find any proof). The miniature figures populate a village completed with the addition of houses, shops, bridges and other structures.

So. Anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to find a chalet at the Christmas market in Metz, France selling santons. Metz is in Alsace, so not a region where you’d expect to find santons. Mesmerized by the display of so many figures, I spent several minutes paging through the laminated catalogue at the stall to see what figures were available and to ask for them properly. It took a while to make up my mind. I didn’t want to start my little bunch with the baby in the straw but getting a mini-town started could be costly, even if I chose the smallest size figures which only cost a few euros each. Just look at the all the different figures you can get to populate your ideal little community!

Santon chalet at Metz Xmas market

Santon chalet at Metz Xmas market



In the end, I decided on a few pieces to get my village off the ground and which would also be something of a scene that could tell its own story. The female figure is “une fille de joie”. She seems to be taking a break between customers. I’ll leave it to your imagination to infer her occupation. The black cat – just because I have one at home; the wild boar is an iconic forest critter in Provence known as “un sanglier” and the bridge was just a way to complete the scene.

My Santons

My Santons


Perhaps I’ll fill the background with bits of model train scenery… maybe do that next year. So… what do you think? Non-traditional for sure but I’ve always preferred to blaze my own path. Joyeux Noël!

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New tours from Tours International for 2017

Take a look at the new tour offerings from Tours International – the folks Dad and I traveled with back in 2002 (the Normandy beaches) and who gave Dad, by his own admission, the best trip ever!

I keep the main website for TI on the right –> see under HOT LINKS but here are their newest…

500th Anniversary – the Reformation  (this is a group tour offering and the newest in the Christian tour category)

TV tour – the Crawleys et. al. (this is an individual tour, one of several in the TV and film location category)

I’m not exactly sure if individuals can sign up on group tours. In the case of our 2002 tour, Dad & I expected to travel with other people unknown to us, so it may only be a question of keeping the head count manageable (and “separate checks” when billing). Just ask!

Posted in All Suzanne's travels, General magpie travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Xmas rats on my dashboard

I know, this barely counts as blog-worthy but hey, it’s timely, no?

These two critters came from IKEA many years ago. They started life sitting on the top of my office cubicle and, somehow, somewhy, they began getting dressed up for various holidays. When the job went bye-bye, the rats relocated to the dashboard of my car. They are still getting dressed up… with coordinating colored pipe cleaners wrapped around their tails. No idea of their gender; they don’t even have names.

This is a foto from last year – note snow in background. Happy holidays from the rats and the Magpie!


dashboard rats

dashboard rats


Posted in All Suzanne's travel essays, not really travel | Tagged , | 11 Comments

St Norbert beer truck – photo

OK. I’m gonna try something new. My desire to blog has been pretty much non-existent for more than a year. Not what I envisioned when I started the thing and no real excuses to offer by way of explanation.

Sooo… in an effort to turn over a new travel-writing leaf, I will try posting photos with minimal text. I can easily find myself writing more when my butt is in the chair and I’m staring at the computer screen, but the tough part is getting into that position in the first place!

Here’s my first photo-post…

Cross the Vltava River in Prague either on foot or by metro to Malostranská. Outside, cross the street and take the #22 tram uphill to the Pohořelec stop. From here, trudge up the hill some more, looking for the high stone walls that lead you to Strahov monastery. (The two libraries in the main building became famous as locations in the BBC Musketeers series – see separate post, December 2015).

Near this entry and before you get to the main monastery buildings is a small beer garden where you can get yummy food paired with some terrific beer. One of the best coming from this tiny brewery is St Norbert.

norbert-beer-truckWords to live by and they obviously deliver!!

Posted in All Suzanne's travels, Czech Republic, Europe food & wine, Prague travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

London Tube closures 8-9 October 2016 and Tower Bridge

Remember – You can always click on the Planned outages link on the right for up-to-date weekend information when no current blog post appears.

Long-term traffic issueTower Bridge is closed to all traffic for the rest of the year (well, 30 December, technically). Gotta keep everything in good nick – and it sounds like they really will be working on everything. Alternate routes are signed for London and Southwark bridges. Have fun!

The weekend looks to be somewhat annoying in central London — Here’s the link for what is (or isn’t) happening on the Tube.

Circle line is completely shut both days. Painful.

Equally disruptive, District line from Embankment all the way to Dagenham East.

Hamm’smith/City line has no service between Liverpool St and Barking.

Track work on DLR will mean no service from West Ham to Woolwich Arsenal.

London Overground has a bunch of closures on the w/e – check the link above. Note, too, that the stretch between Gospel Oak and Barking is out of service until February 2017.

Sunday will see no service on TfL Rail (the new Tube extension from Liverpool St) between Stratford and Shenfield.

Road closures and diversions are numerous – late night roadworks in Chelsea, the usual traffic snarls around Wembley and Twickers for matches.

Most of Sunday will make for headaches in Central London due to a half-marathon. Click here for more info.


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some updates on London transport – 2016

I found this article embedded in one of the TimeOut emails I get.

Don’t think the report that buses are getting slower is either news or useful – who takes a bus to save time? – but the announcement about a new Hopper ticket (2 buses within an hour for £1.50!) is great news and I’ve been waiting for ages to hear about a new date for late-night weekend Tube schedules (to begin 19 August on the Central and Victoria lines – for those too lazy to click on the above link). Too bad that wasn’t in place last year when I got back from two weekend Rugby World Cup matches after 1am and had to flag a cab at premium prices.

Click here to see the most current info on accessibility.

Posted in England, General magpie travel, London travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

London Tube closures thru 14 August 2016

Remember – You can always click on the Planned outages link on this blog page for up-to-date weekend information when no current blog post appears. (I just reposted that link; forgot to change the 2015 link to 2016).

Circle line is shut along the northern edge of the schematic map along with parts of the Metropolitan and Hamm’smith/City lines. Click on the link here for more closures, including disruptions on the Tram and Overground systems which have been going on all week.

There is a long term closure on the stretch of London Tram from Wimbledon to Dundonald Road until October sometime.

The only station closure at the mooment is –

Lambeth North station – closed until mid-February 2017.

Road closures and diversions are numerous.


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London Tube closures 2-3 July 2016

Remember – You can always click on the Planned outages link on this blog page for up-to-date weekend information when no current blog post appears.

The weekend looks to be somewhat annoying in central London — Here’s the link for what is (or isn’t) happening.

Circle line is shut between Hammersmith and Tower Hill via King’s Cross / St. Pancras both days.

Similarly, line closure on Hamm’smith/City from King’s Cross / St. Pancras to Barking as well as between King’s Cross / St. Pancras and Barking on the Metropolitan line.

District line has no service between Turnham Green and Richmond but only on Sunday.

London Overground has a couple of closures – Gospel Oak to Barking on both days; Willesden Junction to Richmond is down on Sunday.

Sunday will see no service on TfL Rail (the new Tube extension from Liverpool St) between Liverpool Street and Stratford.

There is a long term closure on the stretch of London Tram from Wimbledon to Dundonald Road until October sometime. Also the stretch from Reeves Corner to East Croydon is down this weekend.

Ongoing station closures are –

Holland Park station is closed until early August.

Paddington station Bakerloo line trains not stopping until mid-August.

Road closures and diversions are numerous – central London, Battersea, Chiswick and Blackheath. Wimbledon and Southfields will be the usual Fortnight mess until the 10th.


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A day trip to Mostar

I’ve been working on this post on and off for a couple of years and could have sworn that I’d posted it already. Oops! I also confess that it’s longer than more recent posts; in any event, here it is.

In 2012 (see? told you), I booked a package tour to Croatia and Slovenia. I arranged my itinerary so I could squeeze in a quick visit beforehand – on my own – to nearby Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina (aka B-H). Rick Steves’ TV program made this destination look both exotic and approachable and it’s a popular day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia, where the package tour started. I’m not exactly sure what I expected from Mostar but I came away with mixed feelings, something that’s never happened to me before or, at least, not to such a great degree. Maybe, just maybe, I finally found myself at the edge of my comfort zone.

A travel office near the cruise port in Dubrovnik had day tours to Mostar. The tour bus picked up a handful of us tourists the next morning at the Hilton Imperial near Pile Gate in the Old Town, a short downhill walk from my B&B. After a couple of other pickups, we were off.

The bus made stops at a roadside refreshment area in Neum, the only Bosnian town on the Adriatic and also at Počitelja small Bosnian village on the road to Mostar; both subjects of a previous post. The border crossing was an interesting experience – there are few “real” such crossings in Europe any more though the migrant/refugee crisis is changing that in some places. Since this was before Croatia joined the EU, there were four border encounters on the round trip – each country with its own station and guards, though my passport was only stamped once (better than none at all). So anyway…

After the pitstop/snack buy in Neum, we left the coastal highway and headed inland, to Počitelj, approaching Mostar from the south. We passed acres upon acres of farmland which looked stressed, perhaps from a drier than normal year and with no additional irrigation apparent. The few houses, gas stations and other buildings were widely scattered, adding to the feeling that this was an economically depressed part of the world, even if the olive trees and grapevines had at least some cash crop potential.

The name Mostar comes from a word meaning “bridge keepers” (mostari) and there was a wooden bridge here across the Neretva River long before the first stone bridge was built.

war damage still widespread in Mostar

war damage is still widespread in Mostar

A local guide met us in Mostar to give us some history, take us around the Turkish / Muslim Old Town and introduce us to the restored Old Bridge. The guide pointed out a large piece of bombed-out concrete wall partly hidden behind scrubby trees and straggly vines across the street from the (completely rebuilt) Franciscan monastery on the western (mostly Catholic) side of the city. The war-bruised rubble used to be the movie theater, destroyed during the last war. Keep in mind that when people in any part of the old Yugoslavia talk about “the last war”, they are not talking about WWII – they’re talking about the period between 1991 and 1995 when different regions of that crumbling nation sought independence not just from the old regime, but from the incursions of other former Yugoslav republics. Mostar does, in fact, have a new movie theater. It opened in 2011. More than fifteen years to rebuild the movie house! By contrast, the rebuilding of the bridge took only seven years, from 1997 until 2004. Priorities. I suspect that the EU funds contributed for rebuilding the iconic bridge seemed a better (more public?) investment than bringing back the movie house. More than 15 million dollars had been spent repairing physical damage sustained during the Bosnian war by 2012, but there is still so much left to do and 15 million, frankly, sounds like chicken feed, even in this region where money buys -or should buy – much more than in other parts of Europe. >>>> I’ve since learned that much of the damage remains because ownership of various properties has not been resolved (the Bank of Yugoslavia is gone and with it, mortgages and other records) and because, as so often happens when large amounts of money move around, not all funds for rebuilding were accurately accounted for and used as intended. An oft-repeated tale with all-too-predictable results. This map of B-H showing population distribution shows, at the very least, how fragmented the country remains – and, given the division in Mostar itself, how even the map is oversimplifying things.

Franciscan church, Mostar

Rebuilt Franciscan church and monastery, Mostar


From the monastery, the path to the Old Bridge snakes past a long bazaar of small shops lining narrow cobbled streets. Rugs, copper coffee sets, household goods and brightly colored clothing, blue and white glass charms to ward off the evil eye – all grabbing your attention, tempting you and slowing your progress. Keep moving, folks and shop later!

Mostar Old City Kujundžiluk or Coppersmith Street

Mostar Old City – Kujundžiluk or Coppersmith Street

The restored Old Bridge, the centerpiece of the Old City, looks bigger on television than in real life; things always seem larger on TV somehow. The bridge arcs between two huge piers. When the bridge was first built by Mimar Hayruddin in 1566, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, it was an engineering marvel, given its dimensions and the use of a single, semicircular load-bearing arch but its success was treated with pre-emptive scepticism – the architect’s funeral plans were made ahead of the bridge’s completion, so unsure was the sultan that the bridge would stand after the scaffolding was removed. Luckily for the architect, those funeral plans went unimplemented.

approaching Mostar's restored Old Bridge

approaching Mostar’s restored Old Bridge

Only 13 percent of the original stones were usable for the rebuilding job; the rest came from the same local limestone quarry. The 16th century bridge was reinforced with an ancient mortar made from egg whites and goat hair; the new mortar was a more modern mix applied only where mortar was used on the original bridge. I find myself wondering why they couldn’t “stick” with the eggs and goat hair – have they lost the recipe? The stuff obviously did the job – the bridge withstood 19 months of bombardment until finally giving way under relentless fire on 9 November, 1993.

The surface of the bridge’s walkway is not a TV highlight, but it’s the one bridge feature that stuck in my memory as I crossed the bridge. The slope is steep and slick; raised blocks of stone set into the surface provide traction. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I crossed the bridge mostly looking at my feet, rather than the views. The handrail helped. And I was there on a dry, sunny day. Hard to imagine what it’s like to cross the bridge on a cold, rainy night, especially while carrying shopping bags or after a spell of serious drinking! (Of course, the locals probably already know just how long a stride so they don’t trip… or fall… or slide home).

rugged footing on Mostar's bridge

rugged footing on Mostar’s bridge

At only eight years young, the bridge gleamed in the sun. The cafes and bistros along the Neretva River’s eastern side are perched as high as the bridge. These are some of the best spots to snap a picture while you grab a snack or a Turkish coffee.

Mostar bridge seen from the north

Mostar bridge seen from the north

A constant attraction on the bridge are the jumpers – young men prepared to leap from the top of the bridge into the river more than 60 feet below for (a lot of) euros. There were only a couple of these brave and crazy guys the day I was there. One was preparing to jump, not having collected enough money for the deed – supposedly around 50 euros; to be sure, the collection routine lasts much longer than the jump itself. Another fellow was down on the river bank, splashing around in the water to get used to the temperature. The water can be cold enough to stop a heart on some days, according to our guide. Nutsy. Just nutsy.

The cobbled streets and tiny shops of the old town soon gave way to more modern streets and buildings. The souvenir stalls continued, but in between were restaurants and other small businesses. A tiny outdoor market was selling clothing, fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and olive oil. This was early afternoon, so it was hard to know how bountiful the market would have looked early in the morning. Except for some tables near the street, the market was kind of empty. This part of Europe is far enough south to have a lengthy growing season but, as I mentioned at the beginning, the surrounding farmland looked to be strugging, so maybe even the agriculture has yet to recover adequately from the war. Or maybe this wasn’t the main market; Mostar has a population in excess of 100,000, so perhaps this little setup may only serve the locals working in the town center. (There were several better-stocked roadside stands along the bus route, likely more for the benefit of the tourist buses than locals).

Mostar's outdoor market

Mostar’s outdoor Tepa market

Our walking tour of Old Mostar complete, the guide announced we could go off on our own or continue with her to see a restored Turkish merchant’s house. I went along to the Turkish house with several others.

Turkish house courtyard Mostar

the  Turkish merchant’s house gracious courtyard, Mostar

A modest wooden gate opened onto a courtyard paved with rounded white stones, laid in circular patterns. A metal fountain tossed water into the air at the center. The stone walls along both sides of the courtyard reached to the roof, providing shade for the benches below at different times of the day. The timbered house was set back from the gate, an open air loggia at the front of the upper story, roof timbers exposed to view. Inside, rugs covered the floors.

Family photographs and pictures of Mostar hung on the white plaster walls, carved furniture filled the small porch and interior rooms. The ceilings were lower than we are used to, adding a feeling of coziness. The entire property filled a footprint not much larger than a typical two-car garage. Inside, rooms were furnished as they might have been long ago.

Turkish house bedroom and clothing

Turkish house bedroom and clothing

Mostar Turkish merchant's house - a fresh air pantry

Mostar Turkish merchant’s house – a fresh air pantry









On the way back from the Turkish House, I came to the new cemetery just a few yards away on the next street. This little space had been a public park before the Bosnian war but during the conflict snipers made access to the regular cemetery farther away impossible, even at night. The park became the final resting place for the war dead. Headstones glare whiter than white in the blazing sun of midday. Most are simple columns, others are a fan or flower shape. I have yet to discover the significance of this shape of headstone though I gather they are uniquely Muslim. For once, the web doesn’t seem to know everything. Doing the math on the dates of birth and death showed that most of these men died in their teens or twenties, barely out of boyhood; only an occasional 30 or 40-year-old. All died between 1993 and 1995. And they are still here, a sobering punctuation to the stunning weather the day I visited.

The new cemetery in Mostar's Old Town

The new cemetery in Mostar’s Old Town

On the subject of comfort zones – even more disturbing than this little graveyard was the view westward from its gate. Atop the heights of Mt Hum, on the Catholic side of the river, sits a huge cross. I’ve read one report saying that the cross was erected on the spot where the (Catholic) Croat forces shelled the streets below. No knife twisting going on here, right?

Cross overlooking Mostar as seen from new cemetery

Cross overlooking Mostar as seen from the Muslim cemetery that was once a vest-pocket park

Much more enjoyable was my souvenir shopping at the coppersmith’s. Our guide noted that the family there were respected local artisans. One of the guys in our group also went inside, looking at the copper coffee sets. I’m not a huge caff-fiend and besides, lovely as these were, day one of this multi-week trip was not the time to add large souvenirs to my luggage. (Don’t you just hate it when practical considerations horn in?)

Copper plaque of Mostar's bridge by Adnan

Copper plaque of Mostar’s bridge by Adnan

Adnan is a third generation copper artist and looked to be in his thirties; much of his work was the flat, slightly raised scenes of Mostar’s Old Bridge in various sizes and there were also Turkish coffee sets on simple trays. Most of the wall art was round, but I liked a squared one, about 8 inches across. Perfect for the suitcase. Adnan was working on a plaque while I was there; he said it took about 3 hours to produce one, hammering the sheet copper to take the shape of the relief mold underneath. The picture was simple but iconic. A banner at the top says Mostar, Adnan’s name is at the bottom along with the year the plaque was made. A minaret towers above in the background. Look closely and you’ll see other dates – the left pier is marked 1566, 1993 is stamped in the water and the pier on the right says 2004. Birth, death and resurrection or, at least, hope.

Folks in Turkish costume were handing out menus for their restaurants and I figured I would look these over and pick one when I was done sightseeing. The place I chose was Restoran Sadrvan. It was easy to find when I decided I needed to eat, the outdoor seating area was shaded and inviting and I was intrigued by the Turkish clothing the staff wore.

When they told me there was a wait for the outdoor tables but not for the inside tables, I decided inside was fine. I was checking my watch by now, wanting NOT to hold up the bus by being the last one back – an annoying (to the tour guides) habit I’ve been succumbing to of… LATE). My table faced the doorway to the patio, so it was almost as good as sitting under the vines and the wasps were inspecting the food and wine outside more than in. My waiter recommended the Mostarian sahan, a sampler plate that was very satisfying. If you click on the restau link above, go to Local Dishes. It’s #54.

Coffee and Turkish delight

Coffee and Turkish delight

A Mostar lunch

A Mostar lunch


The perfect accompaniment? A bottle of           Sarajevsko beer.  Very, very good stuff. If Dad had still been alive, I probably would have brought home a can or bottle for him. I ordered the Turkish coffee which, though thick, was no more bitter than an espresso. The little cube of Turkish delight was the perfect last bite. Travel tip – it seems that you need to make eye contact with your waiter to bring him to your table. Closing the menu as we do in the States to signal readiness to order seems not to mean anything.

Made it to the bus on time – the restaurant was only a block from the Franciscan church where the bus was waiting. Whew!

Note – while validating some facts for this blog, I came across an article describing the social and political antagonisms preventing Mostar’s two stage companies from operating within the same building. Granted, the article is two years old but for Bosnia, that’s barely yesterday. A visitor won’t necessarily pick up on continuing antagonism; paid guides and other locals working in tourism-related jobs are anxious to point out a place’s good points and that’s probably for the best. It takes longer to heal emotional scars than to restore buildings and replant trees but even without any obvious animosity, there was an air of unease, possibly aided by the sight of a used syringe on the ground near our waiting bus or maybe just a side effect of my first visit to a non-Christian place.

Here is an account of another traveler’s visit to Mostar. I also recommend Rick Steves’ reflections on Mostar from his book Travel as a Political Act. Steves’ observations better articulate the feelings I struggled with on the bus back to Dubrovnik. Both the articles in the two links above were written by folks who spent more time in Mostar than I did but they expressed similar feelings to my own about B-H in general and Mostar in particular.

Mostar is working hard to attract visitors, not just with the Old Bridge, but by sponsoring music and theatre festivals and by setting up the Mostar Tourist Quality Project. Someone understands that getting the word out in the travel and tourism spheres will improve the local economy and help to heal the wounds of war.

Even if you’re just coming for the day, eat a meal, buy some locally produced souvenirs and tip your tour guide. It all helps. I didn’t bother to barter for the copper plaque. Maybe I could have. Like trying to recover VAT, I figure that leaving all the money I spend where I’ve spent it will do more good than saving a bit of money (in whichever currency) for myself.

All in all, I am very glad I chose to see Mostar instead of Montenegro (the other day trip the US travel agent recommended over Mostar). Comfort zones are meant to be exceeded.

Posted in All Suzanne's travel essays, All Suzanne's travels, Balkan Europe travel, Bosnia travel, Europe food & wine | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BA short haul to charge for food

I know people who fly British Airways regularly, mostly trans-Atlantic.

Be aware though, folks – BA’s short haul flights won’t include food, so keep your sterling handy or bring your own snacks. I’m tempted to advise bringing high-aroma foods (I’ve read recently that highly aromatic own-food on planes is making other passengers grumpy, though bringing your own curries and tacos happens even on flights with food included in the price of the seat). Come on! Besides, will it REALLY ruin your entire day – or week – or trip – just because the person next to you is chowing down on a Big Mac or a tiffin box? Pull-eease!

Posted in Europe from the air, General magpie travel, News from Britain, travel advice, UK | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Best day on planet earth

What follows is my submission to the Rough Guides travel writing contest. The bolded title is one of three themes we could choose to write about. The piece itself is 492 words. The max allowed is 500 words, the min, 450.

I have no illusions about winning. Actually, I hope I don’t win anything. Expectations and all that. I used the competition as a way to kick myself in the butt to start blogging again. It remains to be seen whether it results in a resumption of my travel writing. You never know.

My best day on earth

Everybody’s best day on earth is different. For a beach person, it’s being stretched out on a Caribbean beach. If you love mountains, the view from atop Mt Kilimanjaro or the gorgeous, ever-widening panorama as you ride a gondola into the Alps could define your perfect day. Snorkeling the reef along Costa Rica? Having the absolute best seat for Formula One or the World Series? Surfing in Hawaii? If you want to stay home, perhaps lazing around in the backyard is your idea of bliss but my best day happens traveling far away from home.

I can’t fit everything into just a single 24 hour day. I’m not trying to be coy. My most perfect day consists of travel experiences collected mostly in Europe and there are so, so many; too many to fit into just the one day. Oh well. Here is one day’s scenario, a patchwork of experiences culled from thirty years of travel.

Morning is a cello concert at Sydney Opera House; a hike along the glacial lake depicted on almost every postcard of Banff in Canada; a delectable meal of grilled mussels on a New Zealand beach. These are some of the first bits Scotch-taped into the album of my best day on earth. Then I discovered Europe. How many people do you know fell in love with London not while standing outside Buckingham Palace or gawking at Westminster Abbey, but just queuing up at Customs and Immigration at Heathrow? Nutsy. Absolutely nutsy and wonderful.

At noontime of this best day I’m stepping into Barcelona’s stunning Sagrada Familia church, stained glass windows splashing ribbon candy colors across the floor. Next, I’m being flung around on the dragon roller coaster at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, followed by a trip to Mostar in Bosnia that takes me way out of my comfort zone. A group tour of the Normandy beaches with Dad in May, 2002 ended up being just the two of us as everyone else cancelled in the after-fear of 9/11. Orkney’s archaeological treasures, the floral excesses of Keukenhof’s bulb festival, the amazing sound-enhanced videos projected onto Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate during the Festival of Light and the tsunami-seeming winter surf on Iceland’s west coast fill the rest of the afternoon and early evening.

Dinner is at an outdoor restaurant in Brussels’s Upper Town. I’m eating chicken with morels, drinking chilled white wine. It’s a dripping hot spring evening and I’m able to communicate with the waiter using only French. Mind you, my French is pretty pathetic, but at least he speaks French back to me and not English.

Luck adds to the day, too. I find a nothing-much hotel in Provence at the last minute, very late one summer night and find Arles just outside my window next morning!

This day began three decades ago, the sunset beyond Dubrovnik’s harbor is breathtaking, the Night Watch walking tour of Zurich has run almost past my bedtime. (One of) my best days on earth.

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Bolshoi Ballet – Spartacus 2016

This is not, strictly speaking, a travel post. I went to the movies near home recently to see a ballet but enjoyed the broadcast so much I decided to blog about it. See… my two favorite performance disciplines are live theatre and the ballet. This was both, the Bolshoi Ballet performance of Spartacus broadcast live via satellite from their home theatre in Moscow. OMG!

This ballet has been around since 1968 but somehow I’d managed never to come across it before. Perhaps the Bolshoi holds performance copyright or something. If so, satellite broadcast is the only way to see it other than, say, DVD – assuming it’s available. It has been a staple of the Bolshoi repertoire every year since and, now that I’ve seen it, it ranks near the top with other superb ballet stories, along with Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Le Corsaire. My favorites are those with the most exciting (and, of course, physical) male roles which requires me to mention my all-time favorite – Rudolf Nureyev – in pretty much anything he ever did, including a surprising (non-ballet) turn as the King of Siam in a traditional 1989 production of The King and I. Doesn’t matter that Nureyev danced with the Kirov Ballet (rather than the Bolshoi) until he defected in 1961. He was an ethnic Tatar/Cossack with a personality demanding attention. What I mean is, both ballet companies tap into the same well of talent, passion and – for that part of the world – ethnic type which generates huge amounts of strength, fire and passion. Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, long before Spartacus had been created, let alone performed, so I don’t know if he ever danced the role but, man, if not, we all missed out!

Anyway, back to the topic at hand – the Bolshoi’s 2016 Spartacus. It’s an ancient tale of Imperial Rome with blood and gore, guts and glory, revenge, love and sex – all the Roman vices, if not virtues. Lots more people know the story from film (1960 starring Kirk Douglas – OK, so I’m dating myself) and TV (2010-2013 on cable TV) than from the ballet, I’m sure. Enjoyable as these other renderings are, they can’t compare to this production by the Bolshoi with Aram Khatchaturyan’s music and choreography by Yuri Grigorovich. All these art forms demand suspension of disbelief but I think ballet exercises the imagination in a way that spoken or sung media doesn’t and that’s the magic for me.

The images here are from an Italian source, as is the trailer link farther down the page.

The story is epic, the staging monumental even though spare – this is ballet, not opera, after all. Dancers need SPACE. The vertical space at the Moscow State Theatre seems to go up and up forever; it demands dancers who can fill the air with their presence else they’d seem like ants scurrying about a tiny hill. Mikhail Lobikhin dances Spartacus with gobs and gobs of strength, ferocity and bravado, devouring the gigantic stage in his solos with Nureyev-like leaps – a feat no other dancer has ever duplicated, in my humble opinion – though Lobikhin comes pretty close at times.

Crassus, Emperor of Rome, captor of Spartacus et. al. and so the pre-eminent baddie, is danced by Vladislav Lantratov – cruel, arrogant, completely self-confident – until Spartacus bests him in single combat and then (horrors!) spares him. In addition to a terrific makeup job, he has the perfect Roman profile – strong chin, classic nose and cropped hair in tight ringlets completely replicating the faces you see on Roman coins and statues and golden military dress that might have been stolen from Mordred in Excalibur.

One of the biggest difference between Spartacus and other ballets is the stage time given to the large male corps de ballet. Sure, there are female leads and bunches of girls* as prisoners and whores but it’s the boys* who really carry the tale. Some scenes and bits of the choreography even reminded me of the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story which were lifted and tweaked from the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet, of course. *  Note – in the ballet world, the terms are girls and boys. There are other, more familiar terms such as dancer for males and ballerina for females; maybe these other words are simply considered less insulting (more PC?) to outsiders.

The Bolshoi broadcasts are introduced from the stage by Katerina Novikova, the chic woman who heads up the Bolshoi’s Press Office. Her comments are delivered in Russian, French and English. This time, she also conducted interviews during the intervals with Vladimir Vasiliev, the originator of the Spartacus role in 1968 (and a contemporary of Nureyev) and a woman named Aberkhaeva whose notability I missed since I was making notes on things for this post. Can’t Google her, either – maybe I spelled her name wrong?

Stories from the interviews – Vasiliev said the original idea was to have the boys who played Spartacus and Crassus swap roles on different nights but after opening night, the public’s imagination was imprinted with the casting so they weren’t able to exchange parts. He echoed a thought I’ve heard from lots of performers that playing the bad guy is lots more fun than being the good guy. Aberkhaeva told a story about the 1968 Soviet censors identifying scenes in the ballet that could not be presented – too sexy, too provocative, too whatever. Choreographer Grigorovich told his dancers to cut the ‘offending’ scenes for opening night but dance everything as rehearsed for all subsequent performances. Gotta love that!

Tracking down representative videos online is complicated. There are trailers and individual scenes from this production, most too short to do the ballet justice. So far, the best one is a less-than-one-minute trailer for this production. I watched many of the others but this 2016 production has a life and a passion that surpasses all the others you will find online.

A couple of side notes – watching dancers milling about in the background during the interviews. Most were wearing sweatpants or sweaters to keep from tightening up but one guy was wearing a teddy bear mascot/pajama-type costume that looked hilarious though I’m sure it kept him toasty from head to toe. Crassus strutted casually around in his bright red UGGs. The scrim that separated upstage from down allowed upstage to stay dark until the lights were brought up on tableaux of figures that would come to life in the next scene. The scrim was raised to form a giant basket rather than being hauled up completely out of sight. Normally, this would just be an interesting bit of scene design (a subject I studied and participated in at university) but what made me notice it was an identical net arranged in exactly the same way back in October, in Prague. I was there to experience that city’s Sound and Light festival called Signal Fest. This magical fishnet hung in the air outside the Rudolfinum concert hall and changed colors projected on it from behind. A minor artistic connection to another medium.

Rudolfinum blanket at Prague Signalfest 2015

Rudolfinum blanket at Prague Signalfest 2015


Posted in European art, European music, not really travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Piccadilly line 1 day strike – 23 March 2016

Looks like the 1 day strike on the Piccadilly line is going ahead today. It will start at 21.00 on Wednesday, and continue until 21.00 on Thursday. TfL says that the trains will run until 22.30 on Weds PM – presumably because trains will already be in motion.

The news release from London Tube is as follows…

“Drivers on the Piccadilly line who are Tube union members are currently planning to strike from 21:00 on Wednesday 23 March for 24 hours. If the strike goes ahead, there will be no Piccadilly line service from late evening on Wednesday and all day on Thursday 24 March. Although the strike begins at 21:00 on Wednesday, Piccadilly line services will be running until around 22:30. Please complete journeys on the Piccadilly line by this time, or travel earlier if possible.

Services on other Tube and Rail lines, the bus network, and river will run as normal but are expected to be busier than usual. Roads in west and central London are also expected to be busy.

If you are travelling between Heathrow airport and central London, please use Heathrow Connect and Heathrow Express services to/from Paddington station.

Extra buses will be provided to help Londoners get around. Buses do not accept cash. Please use contactless payment or Oyster, or a Bus & Tram Pass ticket. Contactless is the same fare as Oyster and you can find out more about it here

The Piccadilly line is expected to run a Saturday service on Friday 25 March, as part of the Easter Bank Holiday arrangements. Details of Easter engineering work can be found at

Please check before you travel and visit or follow @TfLTravelAlerts,@TfLTrafficNews and @TfLBusAlerts on Twitter for the latest information.”

Good luck!

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London Tube closures – 19-20 March 2016 and possible 1-day midweek strike

A late posting, so anyone who cares already knows about some of this…

All closures are in place for both days – Circle Line – entire line; District Line – Tower Hill to West Ham; Hamm’smith/City – Kings X/St Pancras to Barking; Metropolitan Line – Kings X/St Pancras to Aldgate. Also Liverpool Street to Shenfield is shut on TfL Rail.

Check the link for specific issues with London Overground.

Click here for bus schedule changes and here for road closures and diversion, some of which is duplicate info from the bus stuff.

As for the strike, this would be a 24-hour action on the Piccadilly Line starting at 21.00 on Weds, 23 March 2016. I’ll post a separate notice if this changes.

Anyone planning to use SouthWest trains to get to the Boat Race on Easter Sunday should know that the stretch between Clapham Junction and Barnes will be by bus. Probably means hitting the road early would be wise.

Click here for TfL Easter updates and here for National Rail.

Finally, a long-term notice – Holland Park tube station is closed until early August 2016.

In case I get lazy and fail to post more for next weekend (entirely probable) – Hoppy Easter Everyone!


Posted in European festivals, General magpie travel, London travel, News from Britain, UK news | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tours International for 2016

Even though I have this tour company on my Hot Link list in the right-hand column, check out a few of their newest tours for 2016.

Shakespeare Tour  in April – one of 6 literary tours on offer

Downton Abbey in September – one of 9 Film and TV-themed tours, along with Sherlock and Wolf Hall.  There used to be a film and TV location map put out by British Tourism but that was 20 years ago and the interest in visiting filming locations has exploded with  the increase in productions and the word-of-mouth / screen of social media.

Richard III  – one of 15 history tours available

Tours International has several other categories of group tours and they will also set up private tours.

Explanation (of sorts) – I’m not compensated for singing T-I’s praises (worse luck), this is the outfit Dad and I booked for our May 2002 Normandy Tour (search ‘Normandy’ for the 3 posts I wrote describing our adventure). A terrific experience; I’d love to take more of their tours myself.

Posted in All Suzanne's travels, England, Europe's gardens, European museums, General magpie travel, London travel, UK news | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

old but helpful Dutch rail card news

The old paper tickets are obsolete on Dutch trains. Now you need a smart card, called the OV-chipkaart. Similar to NYC’s Metro card or the London Oyster and Travel cards, these can be bought as either single use or multi-use, reloadable cards. Next time I get to Amsterdam, I’m gonna check this out. I bought some paper tickets at Tourist info across from Centraal station last year, so there may be a ticket machine there for us wandering foreign types.

Another wrinkle on this change – you may need a card to even get onto the platform. This is already being rolled out near Utrecht… forewarned and all that…

Note – I found out about this 2 years ago, so there may be even more changes that have been implemented by now, especially with the refugee flood. Just click on the chipkaart link above for the latest news!

Posted in Amsterdam travel, BeNeLux, General magpie travel, Netherlands travel, News from Europe, travel advice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Spinning on Milan’s bull

So… here’s the deal…

In the center of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a gorgeous 19th (!) century high-ceilinged open-air covered shopping mall opposite the Duomo, there’s a mosaic of a prancing bull. According to popular myth, you should place your right heel on the bull’s balls and spin around three times (without falling on your face). This is supposed to bring you luck, or maybe grant a wish, or maybe guarantee a return to Milan – take your pick.

No, I wasn’t inclined to do it but there were loads of people who were; at least one guy even set up his camera to get himself on film. 

spinning on the bull in Milan

spinning on the bull in Milan

What I found even more hilarious was the fact that the bull’s jewels are effectively gone, replaced by a great gaping hole in the floor, big enough to drop a tennis ball into – not the sort of ball to impress a cow, even if fuzzy and bright yellow. Guess he’s just a steer now.

Balls all gone!

Balls all gone!

If nothing else, it shows just how thick the concrete is beneath the mosaic floor.


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Visiting Richard III in Leicester

If you are an Anglophile and/or history buff (both of which I am) and you haven’t read The King’s Grave, by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones, put it on your reading list. Ever since Richard III – or what was left of him -was uncovered in a Leicester city parking lot in 2012, the discovery has intrigued me and I enjoyed this exciting account of the whole story immensely. The book’s chapters alternate between recounting Richard’s life and times and telling the modern tale of theory, documentation, fund-raising, permissions and ultimate discovery.

Before I’d reached the last page, I was determined to ‘visit Richard’ in Leicester. Let’s not quibble about whether he should have been interred in York Minster instead. His memorial stone in Leicester Cathedral and final resting place in the church’s crypt below is a damn sight more fitting for this last English king killed in battle than the barely consecrated pit where he’s spent the past 520 some-odd years. Besides, much as York might have a claim, they’ve already got plenty of visitor income; Leicester – not so much. It’s just too bad his feet weren’t found along with the rest of him, probably destroyed during previous building works in Victorian times.

Apologies for some of the crummy images; put it down to my excitement! Note the white roses at the base of the statue below. I’m assuming it was the back-up location because the Cathedral didn’t want rotting roses lying all over the memorial inside the church.

projection showing Richard's bones

projection showing Richard’s bones as found


Leicester Cathedral

Leicester Cathedral


Richard III statue with York roses

Richard III statue with York roses



Richard's memorial stone

Richard’s memorial stone in the chancel




Richard's morning view above the altar

Richard’s morning view above the altar



Here is a short video from the BBC of the cortège which brought Richard to the Cathedral last year.

My photo of the funeral pall didn’t come out, but here are links to the designer and the textile. Note that there are two designs, on opposite sides of the piece. Wish I could have included a stop at Bosworth field but the head cold that was settling in for a long stay shortened my day. Next time.

One last thought – one of my all-time favorite books is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Though a work of fiction, it spins a terrific tale – the main character, while laid up in hospital, tries to figure out the fate of the princes in the Tower and what role Richard did – or didn’t – play in that event. Written in 1951, but intriguing all the same. I expect I’ll be rereading it soon.

Posted in All Suzanne's travel essays, All Suzanne's travels, Archaeology in Europe, England, UK news | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments