Posted in Life, Travel

Day #8: Mont Saint Michel

Jeudi 28 Decembre 2017

A guest post by Tim Moss

Much of the trip had seemed a little impossible at the planning stage. Convince Sharon to trek half way around the world, at a time when maximum temperatures were likely to only just edge into positive numbers? Impossible. Travel through so many countries, in such a short space of time, and still feel like we had a sense of each place? Impossible. Get up at 5am, make our way across an unknown city (Paris), find a completely new train station and navigate to our early train, just to journey for several hours at high speeds, to see a lump of land in the middle of the ocean? Yep, you guessed it; impossible.

And yet there we were, rugged up (as usual), Sharon with more layers than your average filo pastry, boarding the train to Mont-Saint-Michel. I didn’t have a strong idea about what to expect, but I was enjoying the adventure. And the first-class train carriage. My early advice about travelling in Europe is to always travel by trains if you have the time, and to always travel first-class if you have the money. It’s the only way to go…

The train pulled away smoothly from the station right on time, and the first half hour was spent zipping through a series of tunnels (I think? It was pretty dark outside, but these were definitely darker), each more ear-popping than the last. And then, whoosh, out into the countryside, past green-edged paddocks, tiny barns and houses with earthy coloured thatched roofs, a rather exorbitant number of powerlines, and so on, all punctuated regularly by a new ear-popping sound, that of the similarly svelte bullet trains going in the other direction. Sharon jumped a little each time, through the whole trip. At one point I looked at the speed indicator – 317 kilometres per hour. Yep, impossible, but there we were, in a smooth, air-conditioned bubble.

I’m a little hazy on the rest of this part of the trip, mostly because I might have napped a little to make up for the early start I suspect! But the hours passed impossibly quickly, and with just a short hop on a shuttle bus, there we were, at Le Mont.

When you get to Mont-Saint-Michel, you have a choice – you can hop on a shuttle bus (which is somewhat convincingly panelled to look like a wooden carriage, except for the diesel fumes and lack of a horse at the front end), you can ride a horse-drawn carriage (although the horses appeared to have slept in on the day we visited), or you can walk the 45 minutes to the island. Despite Sharon’s ongoing knee pain, we decided to act like pilgrims and make the journey on foot. I’m so glad we did. You walk along a nondescript gravel path for about 15 minutes, with very informative (I assume) panels about grasslands and birds and stuff, and then the path opens up, and there in front of you is the most impossible thing of all, Le Mont-Saint-Michel.

Frankly it’s a little hard to describe it, but just imagine your average tidal wetland. It’s flat, there’s some water but because the tide is out there’s not much of it, and a few small rocks creating something of a border or boundary for that puddly water residue, and then some muddy flatland that seems to go on forever. And then, rising out of this completely ordinary landscape (believe me, I’ve tried for several minutes here to make it interesting), is a rock. And on that rock is a wall. And behind the wall there are turrets, ramparts, buildings, flags, lights, seagulls, people, and rising above it all, seemingly perched on just a tiny triangle of land, impossibly small, is the abbey, which is everything except tiny and impossibly small. It’s quite an impression, and easy to forget where and when you are.

Once we’d picked ourselves up from the ground after being bowled over by this incredible view, we finished our pilgrimage and made our way in… Somehow we managed to find the back way to the abbey, past groups of people washing their feet after exploring the wetlands outside the walls as people have done for centuries, past armed men entrusted with keeping order as armed men have done on Le Mont for centuries (hopefully we didn’t look too rowdy), past dozens of tiny doors that seemed to lead to sheer cliff faces, or to tiny rooms with no clear purpose, up stone steps worn to smiles by generation after generation of tired feet, and miraculously to the front door of the abbey.

At this point, I’ll just share some general impressions, as the overall experience was quite profound and worth experiencing first-hand… There are still monks in the abbey. They live, work, and share their modest lives there, surrounded by swarms of tourists but somehow still able to live lives of peace, tranquility, and worship. And they have extraordinary singing voices, if (like us) you should happen to find yourself wandering through the main chapel as mass is taking place. Those voices and the whistling winds have been finding harmonies for an impossibly long time, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate that we arrived there at that moment so purely by chance. The abbey itself is almost impossibly complex, to the point where those trying to interpret the layout now are simply unable to describe why some rooms exist; there are chapels, refectories, crypts, a scriptorium, rooms with great wheels turned by the feet of prisoners held in the abbey when it was a prison, cloisters, gardens, great halls for receiving dignitaries and kings, and then there are other rooms, spaces that link these purposeful rooms, spaces with fireplaces large enough to hold entire trees, and spaces that… well, do something. It’s like a home improvement reality show has been running for centuries – “I reckon we could add another well here to really spice things up a bit”, and somewhere along the way, the reasons for that work were lost.

But this is perhaps an injustice, as the spaces that we can explain are extraordinary, and the design shows a level of sophistication and insight into not only the engineering required to build a remarkable space, but also the ways space can be shaped to create an emotional response (like the tall, slender windows in the refectory, that bathed the room in light but are invisible as you enter the room). This is an abbey of drama, prestige, intrigue, history, story, and time. And it is still unfolding, still being told…

As our shuttle bus groaned away from the kerb on our return journey, rain had started falling in earnest. A kind of light mist began to curl around Mont-Saint-Michel, softening the lines, reducing clarity, wrapping it up again, ready for tomorrow’s pilgrims, tomorrow’s tiny marks in the impossible pages of its time.

Posted in Photography, Travel

Day #4 – Paris – London – Bristol – Cheddar

Dimanche 24 Decembre 2017

Christmas Eve.

To be completely honest I was expecting Paris to be more Christmas-y than it was. Maybe we don’t go into those areas that were Christmas-y, and maybe the sex shops of Montmartre didn’t need Christmas baubles to lure customers in, but still it was a touch disappointing. I’d heard so much about Paris at Christmas and how pretty it was.

And there was no snow.

Yes, I know. I hate the cold, but snow is pretty and that would have made up for it. Wouldn’t it?

Spending Christmas on the other side of the world is all well and good, but I’ve not had a non-family Christmas before and so, when we were planning our trip, I asked my niece Melanie and her partner Craig if we could barge into their Christmas celebrations.

‘Yes, absolutely’ was the quick response, and so we added one more country to our itinerary.

Melanie and Craig live in Cheddar, a small village in the south-west of England. The closest big city is Bristol, so we made our way there (Eurostar – Uber – National Express bus – Melanie in her blue Ford) … I’m not sure what was faster, the Eurostar or Melanie, but we made it safely, although I have to admit to having my eyes shut most of the way so I didn’t get to see much of the countryside between Bristol and Cheddar.

I can’t remember if this was taken on the Eurostar or in Mel’s car!

I’d not been to Cheddar before so was keen to see it, but as it gets dark at 4pm, that wasn’t going to be today.

Mel’s place was Christmas-y … a giant tree, baubles galore (including the one from New Zealand my sister Debbie had entrusted into my keeping), and if it’s possible, more presents than baubles.

Bruce, the rabbit, had made a start on opening some of the presents, but he only likes the paper … and the tags.

Another early night for us – a combination of jet lag and the fact it’s dark so early (4pm – that’s the time it gets dark, not the time we went to bed!!) … this time in a bed that wasn’t made of concrete!

 

Posted in Life, Travel

An interlude

A few weekends ago we had an ‘interlude’.

It was gentle, cosy, inherently interesting, and relaxing as all interludes should be. Let me tell you about it.

We found our way to Platform 1, where the train was waiting. Tim said, “Three minutes to go”, to which I replied “Three minutes to adventure”. It really did feel like we were going an an adventure.

We’d packed our bags with as much electronic gadgetry as we could fit: iPads, iPhones, Kindles, laptops, and headphones. It meant we could play games, read, listen to music, write notes/emails/blog posts/discussion board posts/feedback on student assignments.

We could also just sit and gaze across the countryside flashing past. Or talk to each other. We had the possibilities covered.

I took a photo after we settled in.

That gave me an idea and every hour of the trip I took another photo to mark the time, but also to capture the countryside we were travelling across. My hypothesis was that it wouldn’t change much in the 11 hours we travelled. I didn’t take into account that it would get dark so early and so for the final hours of the trip the windows only reflected myself looking out.

Tim in our cosy cabin
Tim in our cosy cabin 8:58am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broadford 9:41am
Broadford (VIC) 9:41am
Glenrowan 10:58
Glenrowan (VIC) 10:58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wangaratta 11:09
Wangaratta (VIC) 11:09
Jindera 12:03
Jindera (NSW) 12:03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rock 1:02pm
The Rock (NSW) 1:02pm
Junee Reefs 2:02 pm
Junee Reefs (NSW) 2:02 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harden (NSW) 3:07 pm
Harden (NSW) 3:07 pm
Yass Junction (NSW) 4:02 pm
Yass Junction (NSW) 4:02 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goulburn (NSW) 5:11 pm
Goulburn (NSW) 5:11 pm
Moss Vale (NSW) 6:04 pm
Moss Vale (NSW) 6:04 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Campbelltown (NSW) 7:09 pm
Campbelltown (NSW) 7:09 pm
Central Station (Sydney) 8:02 pm
Central Station (Sydney) 8:02 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


We had left Melbourne on one of the very few cloudless days that city seems to enjoy each year and travelled under clear skies for most of the trip. I stepped off the train at Goulburn station and felt the chill in the air. Weatherzone said it was 6C there. Brrr.

We arrived in Sydney in the midst of a cold snap. Well, not cold so much as arctic. And raining. Our hotel was only a ten minute walk away, we dumped our bags, grabbed our cameras and headed out to see the lights of Vivid.


 

Sunday morning. Up at 5:30, shower, breakfast, quick walk to Central Station. Train.

Again, I took a photo every hour (or so) of our return journey.

Central Station (Sydney) 7:35am
Central Station (Sydney) 7:35am
Tahmoor (NSW) 8:46am
Tahmoor (NSW) 8:46am
Penrose (NSW) 9:40am
Penrose (NSW) 9:40am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tirrannaville (NSW) 10:31
Tirrannaville (NSW) 10:31
Yarra (NSW) 10:32am
Yarra (NSW) 10:32am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cullerin (NSW) 11:47am
Cullerin (NSW) 11:47am
Cootamundra (NSW) 12:43
Cootamundra (NSW) 12:43

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere (NSW)  1:35
Somewhere (NSW) 1:35
Culcairn (NSW) 2:44
Culcairn (NSW) 2:44

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Albury (NSW) 3:38
North Albury (NSW) 3:38
Somewhere (VIC) 4:36
Somewhere (VIC) 4:36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh my gosh! (VIC) 5:34
Oh my gosh! (VIC) 5:34
Flinders St (Melbourne) 6:48
Flinders St (Melbourne) 6:48

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

At some point in the afternoon I said to Tim “It’s Sunday” and that word felt strange in my mouth.

It didn’t feel like any day. I felt outside of time, even though I marked time by taking a photo every hour.

It felt – it was – an interlude. A period of time outside of the norm, the regular, the usual. It was no day. It just was.

The bigness of the landscape – the far away horizon, the expanse of sky – was perfectly accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s Time Lapse in my headphones. If you haven’t listened to it while travelling across the landscape, I highly recommend it.

We chatted; I marked assignments; I gazed out of the window feeling the beautiful music wrap around me … and then I read the book Tim had bought a few days before (A monster calls) and when it ended I sat and cried.

And cried.


It was a long way to travel for just over 24 hours in Sydney – and though this is as cliched as ever I hope to get – it wasn’t about the destination.

It was about the getting there and the getting home. Yes … the journey. Or as I prefer to call it … the interlude.

One of my very favourite weekends.

Posted in Travel

Musings from the train

Martedi, 9th Ottobre. Venice is about two hours behind me. I’m on the train heading to Germany, to see Elke.

It was strange coming over the bridge between Venice and Mestre (on the mainland); it was like coming into a new world. A world of cars and regular (Italian regular) houses and farms and industry and … regular life.

Venice is anything but regular. There are traffic jams, but they’re not regular ones. Gondolas rather than cars get caught in jams and on the big canals horns honk just as virulently as they do in non-water based cities; ‘stop and go’ men hold up red stop signs for pedestrians rather than cars. The rubbish collection isn’t regular – well, it happens on a daily basis (except Sundays) but instead of bins, people put out their bag of rubbish (and their recycling if they have any) on little hooks stuck into the walls.  At 8am each morning the rubbish collectors move through the laneways pulling their rubbish carts behind them. Ambulances aren’t regular ambulances; police vehicles aren’t like regular police vehicles; delivery-men work tirelessly pushing and pulling their trolleys loaded with goods up and over bridges, through the laneways and into the shops. Everything is delivered on foot. It seems so obvious once you’re here, but it’s not something I had thought about previously. Furniture is moved by boat, then carried through tiny laneways to houses, grocery shopping is done on a daily basis because there are no cars to drive it home in. No lawn mowing is needed, no front gardens need tending; there are no grassy playing fields, no skate parks, no tennis courts, few trees. It’s a different world.

A jam Jim, but not as we know it.

 

The ‘stop/go’ man, keeping the traffic under control while something happens in the building above.

Stopping ‘traffic’ the Venetian way

I even saw a Venetian garage:

A garage of the Venetian variety

 

And then there’s the art. My goodness! Some I went to, knowing I was going to go; others I came across in my wanders. The Dali exhibition was one I just happened upon. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was one I deliberately set out to see. Works by

Picasso

Dali

Pollock

Modrian

Miro

Max Ernst

Modigliani

… amongst others.

And then the older works contained in the Gallerie dell’Accademie. Paintings from the 12th century onwards, looking as though there were freshly painted. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto and more. Room after room after room of amazement.

And of course the Doges Palace, which has one of (the?) biggest rooms in Europe in it. Again, amazement on every wall and ceiling. Furniture, paintings, wallpapers, frames: interpretation panels making sense of it all. Across (inside) the Bridge of Sighs and into the maze of the old prison. It made me think the convicts at Port Arthur were lucky, in their own way. The Giants Staircase, with the original rises from the 14th century; Aries and Poseidon continuing to guard it.

The view from inside the Bridge of Sighs

 

This staircase would have some interesting stories to tell!

And then there are the churches and the islands … and the history.

And the music! On my first night in Venice I went to a Vivaldi concert in Vivaldi’s church. I Virtuosi Italiani were playing The Four Seasons, but they started with Pachelbel’s Canon. On the first note a tear trickled down my face and then as the music continued I couldn’t stop them; it was so beautiful. Tim will know the other reason. The concert was fabulous and if I hadn’t been caught in the infinite maze looking for the lavanderia I would gone to another one. Another thing to do on my next visit.

I know thousands/millions of people have ‘been there, done that’, have seen these galleries filled with beautiful old and new works, heard this music played live in Vivaldi’s church, and it’s not new for them (possibly for you), but for me it was new and it was wonderful. I walked the laneways thinking that people have walked these same laneways for hundreds of years – the cultural heritage here is so present, so evident, that it was easy to let my imagination go and think about the number of priests and noblemen and women (and not so noble ones) walking the same laneways over the years. So many other people, in so many different cultural evolutions, have walked where I walked; did they stop and admire the dome on a church on the other side of the canal? Did they marvel at the statues and ornate buildings in the same way I did? Was it at one time new and wonderful for them (you) too?

There was plenty I didn’t see: churches and museums and galleries and islands and concerts and St Mark’s Basilica from the inside … but it’s not too far from Prague, so I can go back during next year’s trip.

***

I have just passed through Trento and I have to say that the countryside is beautiful. The hills on either side are lit by the late afternoon sun which makes the rock faces shine. Vineyards take up every available space, a castle clings to the side of a mountain and I catch my breath with how beautiful the scene is. The rivers are wide and fast-running and the same kind of colour that rivers in New Zealand are. To me it suggests water that’s come from high in the mountains over particular kinds of rocks that turn the water almost green in its colourlessness. The landscape is amazing! Little villages are dotted here and there, the church steeple always the tallest structure. A road snakes steeply up/down the mountainside and the light flits across the tower of an old castle, making it glow amongst the green of the vines and the apple trees.

Fields of solar panels, as I’d seen in France, come into view and even old sheds have solar panels on their roofs. As we pull into a station I check the number plates of the cars to see if we’re still in Italy. We are. I wonder if I’ll know when we cross into Austria. It’s amazing that … that we can move from one country to another without having to fly or go on a hazardous boat ride. I suppose only Australians fully appreciate that; although I perhaps the English have some idea of what that’s like. Does driving to Scotland or Wales feel like going to another country, I wonder?

We have arrived in Bolzano Bozen, a place I never knew existed. There have been quite a few of those sorts of places on this trip. The German family leave and close the door to the carriage after them, dissuading others entering the train from coming in. Except one man, who nods to me as he enters, and then another who sits opposite but insists that I don’t have to move my bags out of his way. They both communicate with me in a way that suggests they both know that I’m not from round these parts.

Bolzano Bozen is beautiful; vineyards climb up and over the hills on one side of the train, while the hills on the right hand side are full of pine forests. It’s green, something I (oddly) missed while in Venice.

Another castle high on a hill, built on the very edge of a cliff. I wonder what OH&S would have been like when it was built. So far this is my favourite train ride yet. Twin waterfalls spring from a hole in the hill, about half way down; apple trees laden with fruit, tractors on the roads, flower boxes full of pink and white and red flowers adorn balconies and window ledges, the prevalence of church steeples, the green of the hills, dahlias in bloom in gardens beside the train line, scooters lined up at the station, fat cows with bells around their necks, touches of autumn colours, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu playing through my headphones (it somehow seems fitting) … what a wonderful way to spend the day.

It’s almost 6pm and I’m almost in Austria. I have to say that the northern part of Italy I just travelled through is beautiful. Sarah asked me where to after Prague next year … I think I just found it. Innsbruck is about 35km (by road) from here, and the train arrives in Munich at 8:25. We must be crossing a narrow part of Austria. I hope I get to see some of it before the light goes. There are patches of fog sitting at the tops of the valleys and smoke rises from chimneys at the bottom of valleys.

My trip is winding down and I feel sad about that. I’ve had a fabulous time; seen lots, travelled to many new (for me) places, ordered things off menus without knowing exactly what I was getting, seen more artworks in a week than I think I’ve seen in my life before, eaten ice cream just about every day, drunk French or Italian wine nearly every night, said Ja instead of Si (or even yes) more times than I should have (in fact I didn’t once manage to say Si), seen the Mediterranean and the Adriatic seas, been to four countries, found my way on and off trains, followed incomprehensible instructions to hotels in five cities, walked between four and six hours every day, spent time with my niece Sarah and her partner Ben … it’s been fantastic.

Two weeks has felt like a month, but it’s not over yet. A day with Elke, another train trip (to Frankfurt this time) and then the long flight home, via Kuala Lumpur (plus a night in Melbourne).

I’m having  a blast!