Red Sea

A mid-August afternoon in Devon. An impromptu trip to Sidmouth. Warm enough weather that there were even people in the water.

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Sidmouth is part of the “Jurassic Coast” World Heritage Site, which includes the more famous Lyme Regis, known for its rich pickings for fossil hunters. I had to resist the temptation to do my best Dickie Attenborough impersonation. “Welcome…to Jurassic Coast!”

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But on this particular day in Sidmouth people seemed more interested in buying a little plastic nets and hopping across the rock pools in search of live specimens.

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Beaches all along this stretch of coast have cliffs made of distinctively terracotta-coloured sandstone. It’s soft and crumbly, which makes rockfalls common and puts cliff-top properties in frequent danger. It also makes it easier to carve a message of undying love into their surface.

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Climbing the set of steps known as Jacob’s Ladder to the top of the cliff allows you to see the extent to which the sea, particularly on a day like this with a bit of wind and a strong current, has been stained red by the eroded cliffs.

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In Piazza

Exeter, where I’m from, doesn’t really have one main, central public square. It has a large lawn in front of the cathedral, a long main shopping street, some parks and some open space down by the quay on the river. But if you wanted to hold a big event for a lot of people I’m not quite sure where you’d do it. Most Italian towns on the other hand have a principal piazza which can be used for any number of events, demonstrations, or just as somewhere to hang out and feel like you’re part of the life of the town.

This summer we experienced two different Italian squares, on two different scales. Campiglia Marittima, just inland from the beach where we were staying, is a fairly small place, but of course it has a main square.

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With an alliterative eatery.

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It also, we discovered, has an annual street theatre festival called Apritiborgo. For such a small town this was a pretty good event, with acts from all over the world. The streets and squares (there are several smaller ones apart from the central square) were packed, there was a market and a few food stalls.

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The Uruguayan jugglers were fun.

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This was the first time I’d seen someone spinning a hula hoop around their nose.

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Of course the advantage to events in public squares is that people who live there get a free show right outside their window.

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Whether they’re interested or not.

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A few days later we passed through Siena. We’d not been there for over a decade, but it was much as we remembered it. Siena, of course, has a large main square called Il Campo, which is the site of the town’s most famous event: the Palio. As luck would have it we were in town a few days before the event, so preparations were well under way. In fact there are several test runs before the big day, so we got to see all the decorations, crowds and horses in action, albeit a little slower and quieter than the real thing, which we saw on TV when we got home the following week. Most people crowd into the centre of the square, so that the horses race around them. Alternatively you can rent a seat on a balcony above the hoi polloi, for around €400.

When we arrived it was still quite quiet and they were spraying the sand on the ground to stop the horses kicking up clouds of dust.

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Colour-coded children from each ‘contrada’ (a team representing a town district) were seated in a prime spot in front of the town hall.

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An hour or so later there was standing room only. Usually I hate crowds, but this was a very relaxed atmosphere.

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Again there were cheeky peekers in various windows around the square, although not many people actually live in the buildings looking onto Il Campo.

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Each team’s supporters would take turns singing football-style chants.

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For some reason only the men sang, while the women sat in silence.

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Here’s a sample of the singing and general atmosphere.

Horses and their riders emerge from under the town hall.

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After much shuffling and faffing around they line up.

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And then they’re off for three circuits. The first turn was quite fast, but they slowed down for the next two. It’s basically just to let the riders and horses get the feel of the course.

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If you want a bit more detail of what actually happens on the day, I recommend Stef’s blogpost. And here’s the actual race:

Backwash

I like going to the beach, but rarely feel the desire to swim in the sea. When I do go in the water, I’m often happier just standing at the water’s edge, letting the waves lap at my feet and lower legs. If I do go in for a full immersion the water has to be pretty warm and even then I take it slowly, wading out and waiting a minute before ducking under.

But the area where the waves spill, plunge, collapse and surge is more fun. Like many people I can stand there and watch them for a good long while. Allowing them to swirl and pull at my lower extremities while I do so adds a sensual element. On the beach near San Vincenzo in Tuscany this summer I took to standing at the edge where the waves would slide up the gently shelving sand. They would crash up to around the middle of my shins and then wash backwards, creating gurgling vortices around my ankles.

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As they did so they also pulled at the sand under my feet, and with each passing wave I would be sucked a little deeper into the surface of the beach, heel first, which made it increasingly difficult to keep my balance.

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The power of the water was surprising, given that it was only a few inches deep.

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The glassy smooth surface of sand freshly washed by the sea is probably my favourite part of the beach, and I love walking along it and seeing it change tone and dry out under the pressure of my feet.

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Han Ting in The Hague

We only went to The Hague to eat dinner, but almost as soon as we arrived we wished we’d booked a longer stay. Our hotel was located right on the main shopping street, a wide, pedestrianised area full of interesting architecture and wacky sculpture. This is our hotel:
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This is the department store just opposite. Note the large bird head at right. The next building along had a line of them all around the first floor.

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This gauzy wrapping reminded me a little of the famous Dancing House I saw in Prague.

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Bikes, because Netherlands.

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The aforementioned sculptures on the main street. This is one of the more normal-looking ones (it’s the one on the right).

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We only had a couple of hours spare before dinner, which would have been a bit tight to try and squeeze in one of the admittedly tempting arts and culture highlights such as the Escher museum (by the way it was only on this trip that I realised that Escher was Dutch, and so his name should be pronounced closer to ‘Esker’ than ‘Esher’, as I had always done). So we just spent the early evening wandering the back streets, mentally noting other promising lunch options for future visits.

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Han Ting is a Chinese-French fusion restaurant which this year received its first Michelin star.

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The decor leans heavily on the Chinese aspect, although the food was actually more Frenchified than I expected.

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We went for the “Tea menu”. I chose wine pairings and my wife went for tea pairings, for the sake of novelty (and sobriety).

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We were given chopsticks, but ended up using western cutlery for most dishes, as a lot of them involved creams and foams and other types of slippery liquid.

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Amuse-bouches, from the top: celery foam, “duck stomach”, tofu roll, cold mackerel soup.

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Veal with cauliflower cream and shaved macadamia nut.

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Bread. Steamed, with pieces of shallot (the dark brown spot in the middle).

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Our drinks. Can you tell which is the wine and which is the tea? The sommelier introduced each tea with some spiel about how each one interacted with the hot or cold “energy” of the dish, according to Chinese dietary theory. Whatever. They were nice, if all a bit samey.

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This one was definitely the highlight of the evening. The purple swirl is eel marinated in beetroot, and there’s salmon underneath the white layer, which is rice paper. The orange lumps are pumpkin. Bursting with flavour.

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We were then given a small bowl of sticky rice and crème fraîche as a palate cleanser. It works in terms of refreshing your mouth after the bold flavours of the previous dish, but for me was a little too filling, compared to a sorbet.

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Sea bream, razor clam. Beautiful and with a welcome spicy kick.

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Sole marinated in ketchup (the red piece at the top).  And another sole fillet with goji berries and celery. Slightly overpowered by the mango sauce.

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On the side was a small dish of bone marrow and panko. Not a big fan of bone marrow, and the abiding impression was of a mouthful of crunchy panko and not much else.

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Back on track with the main meat course: beautifully cooked beef with shiitake mushrooms and Jack Daniels.

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Dessert. A bit of everything: fruit, ice cream, panna cotta, macaroon, popcorn.

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All very nice and pretty reasonably priced at €65 for the full menu (without drinks).

The following morning we just had time for a walk along the sea front before heading home. Note the handy signs, a different one every twenty metres or so, for lost children to help them find their parents again.

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More wacky sculpture.

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And some persistent bathers. What do they think this is, summer?

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Fortunately The Hague is only a little over two hours by car from Brussels, so it’ll be easy to come back again some day soon.

Treasures of Aachen

The German town of Aachen sits on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a medium-sized town which is pleasant to wander and we’d visited a couple of times before, notably for the Christmas market. This time we were there to meet a friend who was passing through on her way to Switzerland on business. We felt the need to do something cultural and worthwhile, and so we headed straight for the cathedral, which dominates the town centre.

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It was originally built in 796 AD on the orders of local boy made good Charlemagne, although it was added to and amended several times over the intervening centuries. Charlemagne is everywhere in Aachen, which is understandable considering his historical significance.

“He united a large part of Europe during the early Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France, Germany and the Low Countries. He took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. From 800, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor — the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae),[3] as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors up to the last Emperor Francis II, as well as both the French and German monarchies, considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire.” (wikipedia)

This is his statue outside the cathedral which also houses his tomb. This photo is from a previous visit; we couldn’t find it on this trip and suspect that it’s hidden under scaffolding as part of the church is undergoing renovations.

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Inside you enter almost directly under the main dome and the first thing you notice is the rich and sparkly mosaic work covering most of the ceiling.

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Alcoves on the first floor (inaccessible to the public when we were there).

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Looking directly up into the dome.

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As you head towards the altar the stained glass windows draw the eye. I’m a big fan of these more abstract designs as opposed to the classically illustrative ones. These ones were installed in the 1950s after the originals were destroyed during WW2.

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First time I’ve seen a mention of corporate sponsors on a church’s windows.

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The gift shop outside had the usual array of postcards and books, and also a selection of religious DVDs. This German dub of the Irish film Calvary stood out, as it’s actually a fairly depressing film about murder and the decline of priests’ social standing. The German title translates as “On Sunday You’re Dead”.

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The other main draw here is the Aachen Treasury, which holds a bewildering array of religious knick-knacks and arts and crafts. Many of these are elaborate and shiny reliquaries, containing fragments of bone, hair and wood of dubious provenance and authenticity. But the containers are very pretty. Especially this enormous hand.

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Nice veins on the back.

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That’s Charlemagne, slightly larger than life-sized.

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The top of his head handily flips open to reveal…

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Well you can’t really see without the aid of a mirror. There you go: Charlemagne’s real, actual skull bone inside.

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A bit of femur.

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There are also some amazingly well-preserved books. This one’s over one thousand years old.

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I forget the technical name for this thing, but it’s basically a little bucket for containing holy water, which you then sprinkle on whatever it is you want to bless.

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This box supposedly contains Jesus’ belt. There was another one for Mary’s belt, and one for the very whip which was used to scourge Jesus’ flesh. Hmm. Still, it would make a good curse, I feel: “Christ’s belt!”.

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Jesus With The Disproportionately Small Head.

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More old books. I was more interested in the form that the content.

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A fantastic triptych (artist unknown) full of fascinatingly weird detail.

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Like this dog bothered by a wasp in its ear.

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There were more paintings upstairs, and I was amazed at how easy it was to go right up to them to photograph details. These things are centuries old and presumably priceless, but I could have just reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to.

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Angel with peacock wings.

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Literally everyone in this picture has the same face. Including the baby.

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Finally out in the fresh air we noticed basketball hoops in the courtyard. Reminds me of the scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Habemus Papam when he gets a bunch of priests to play volleyball in the Vatican grounds.

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In a square nearby we saw a classic “Where did that chicken come from?” statue.

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All this culture and history had made us thirsty, so we stopped at a wine bar whose menu gave handy visual hints as to the flavours of their various offerings.

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Les Crayères

A hard morning looking at trees and stained glass certainly builds up an appetite, so for lunch on our last day in Champagne we’d foreseen a trip to a little place on the outskirts of Reims called Les Crayères. In fact we’d only found it after we’d booked our hotel in Épernay; otherwise we’d have been tempted to lodge there too.

We arrived for lunch at 1pm and settled in at the bar with a glass of fizz and some nibbles while we perused the menu options.

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We chose the ‘Découverte’. There was another, more expensive option, but it only seemed to be more expensive because of the use of ingredients like lobster and caviar, which don’t particularly excite me.

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Our first amuse-bouche once we were seated in the dining room was a mousse of strawberry, tomato and lemon balm.

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The proper dishes all arrived covered with silver domes (“cloches”). I’m still surprised whenever I see one of these things being used. They seem so old-fashioned.

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Foi gras poached in rosé champagne.

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One of the best cod dishes I’ve ever eaten (even in spite of the lack of batter and chips).

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Courgette flower stuffed with quail meat and foie gras.

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An interesting twist on the cheese course, using a local cheese called Chaource. Basically a cheese mouse with lumps of harder cheese inside.

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I wasn’t drinking because I had the three-hour drive home straight after the meal, but the table next to ours was taking up the slack. The table of four consisted of a man probably in his seventies and four young men in their twenties, speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t sure of the relationship between them (professor and students? Boss and employees?), but he certainly liked his wine and had long discussions with the sommelier before each bottle was brought out.

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A creamy pre-dessert.

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And then the Piña Colada soufflé. We’d already seen this being served at another table so I knew to get ready to film the process:

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As desserts go it was pretty big, but light as a feather. All that was left was a few petits fours, although our waiter actually forgot about them until we gently reminded him after we’d finished our coffee.

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