Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
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Main Index (text only)
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Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
- A Tale of Two Parties
Flight Induced Misery
Back at Work
Sunday in Venice
Saturday in Venice
Friday in Venice
Turin to Venice
London to Paris to Turin
Holborn with Al
Books on Venice
Dinner with Panachi
Oxford with Andy
Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel
Memories of China
- A Tale of Two Parties
- [Saturday 23rd June 2012]
In recent years I seem to get invited to barely a handful of parties in the space of a year. So it was mildly irksome that two of them ended up being on the same day. Kyle and Hannah's joint birthday party in West Dulwich, and Michelle's birthday in East Malling.
Determined to try and have my (birthday) cake and eat it I was keen to make an appearance at both. Kyle's was starting a bit earlier in the day so this was just about manageable.
I spent most of the morning and early afternoon writing the blog entries for our trip to Venice - and got a bit carried away with this, probably spending about 6 hours over it.
Chie was originally going to come to both parties, but was feeling a bit under the weather - a mix of hayfever and a cold - and thought probably standing in a drizzly field or garden on a not particularly summery evening in June might not be the best idea. So I ventured out by myself at 3pm.
As I was leaving, I realised I ought to take some kind of drink as an offering, and felt in the mood for cider. Availability of interesting cider in London is a challenge at the best of times, and in particular I couldn't think of anywhere between Pimlico and Victoria where I might be able to buy it. To my surprise, in what felt almost like a biblical event, a spontaneous street fair had sprung up between our flat and the tube station. I'd never seen them hold anything like this here before, apparently it was the first time they've tried it. Initially I walked through somewhat obliviously, but then noticed it incorporated a few farmers market type stalls, and, lo and behold, Millwhites Cider had a stall there. Not just any old cider stall, a stall selling one of my absolute favourite ciders. So I bought two kegs of that and proceeded happily on my way.
The first party - Kyle and Hannah's birthday - was in West Dulwich. I arrived just before 4pm. I contributed one of the kegs of cider to the proceedings which seemed to be very well received indeed - lots of people tried it and liked it. There had been a few spots of rain as I was on the way, but for the time I was actually there it remained dry, but really didn't feel particularly summery. Kyle had set up a gazebo over the barbecue so it wasn't much of an issue anyway.
Left there just before 7pm and headed back to West Dulwich station, to get the train from there down to East Malling in Kent for Michelle's party. I realised en route I'd might a bit of a mistake, and got my Easts and West confused - the train I was on would be stopping at West Malling, but not East Malling, although fortunately I was able to get a taxi from West Malling the rest of the way.
I arrived at Michelle's party around 8:15, which again was being held in a cricket pavilion (and on the big field outside) like the one we'd been to a couple of years back. Given that this was very firmly out in the country, there were some quizzical looks at my herringbone jacket and pocket square.
I realised the last train from East Malling was just before 11, so I was going to have to leave about 10:30 - so I'd end up only being here for a bit over two hours. A bit silly really considering I'd spent longer than that getting there and back! Still, I felt it was important to put in an appearance.
On the train on the way back to London a bunch of rather well heeled types got on - they were obviously on their way back from a party as well, and were in very high spirits. When they discovered that someone in the next carriage had a guitar they persuaded him to play some songs for them, and were dancing on the train the rest of the way back to London. It was rather bizarre, but I suppose it made the journey a lot more entertaining than it otherwise would have been.
- Whisky Society
- [Friday 22nd June 2012]
My mood had improved by today, I guess I'd managed to either just put thoughts of flying out of my mind, or just resigned myself to the fact it was happening for now. Managed to have a fairly productive day at work correspondingly - I certainly couldn't say that about the previous two days.
In the evening Al proposed going to the whisky society, and I brought Kyle along from the office. We started off with a pint in Ye Old Mitre, and then proceeded from there to the Society, where we were also joined by Chie, who wouldn't be able to enjoy any of the whisky, but I assume came along because she didn't want to have to cook for herself. The three of them ate but I didn't - the vegetarian options at the society are always awful, to the point at which I'd rather just go hungry in protest. I'm not sure they ever take heed of my abstinence particularly though.
- Miserable Thursday
- [Thursday 21st June 2012]
Still felt pretty miserable today, not helped by the awful weather on what was supposed to be midsummer's day. I really struggled to muster the enthusiasm to go to work, and considered just taking the day off altogether, but then remembered I had a couple of people who'd asked me to give them some guidance with their work so managed to drag myself in for 11. I obviously stayed later accordingly - and it was probably barely noticed - a lot of my colleagues tend to routinely work more like 11 to 7:30 rather than 9 to 5:30, to have more overlap with the US.
In an attempt to cheer myself up I went to Drummond Street at lunchtime, and had the buffet lunch at Ravi Shanker. I suppose that did help a bit.
Met up with Chie after work and we went to Sainsbury's together. I decided to make a mushroom risotto for dinner, thinking to use some dried porcini we'd bought in Venice, but then realised we had a backlog of other dried mushrooms to use up first - so it was a mix of porcini, morels and some other mushrooms.
- Flight Induced Misery
- [Wednesday 20th June 2012]
Got a bit down in the dumps today. Possibly it was partly a post holiday slump, but the main catalyst was that I've been roped into going on a business trip next month, and had to book the flights today. My anxiety about flying starts from the moment I look at the airline website, and will now be a constant background thing (and sometimes a foreground thing) until I land back in Heathrow again at the end of the trip. I've realised the anxiety is significantly reduced if its a familiar route and airline, so I think I would have been less distressed this time had it been Tokyo, San Francisco or even New York (the fact that I thoroughly dislike being in New York is somewhat orthogonal to the unpleasantness of the flight). The part I'm particularly frustrated about this time is that, for what appear to be completely arbitrary reasons to me, Portland has been chosen as the venue for this meeting. There are no direct flights to Portland from London, and for some reason we couldn't even seem to get flights to Seattle, the nearest hub, with any kind of sane fare. So I've booked flights to Vancouver, and still haven't really figured out how I'm going to get from there to Portland and back. On the way out I have a day spare, so I can probably get the train. Trains there are ridiculously slow - it takes about 8 hours from Vancouver to Portland, which I think means it must average 40 miles an hour. It's roughly the same as the distance from London to Berwick upon Tweed, which can be done in about 3 and a half hours. On the way back though I'm much more time constrained, so have a feeling I might have to get a connecting flight from Portland to Vancouver. It's likely to end up being one of those scary little propellor planes, which I had to use the first time I went to Seattle, and it's not an experience I'm particularly keen to repeat.
I argued with the people at work about the whole thing - given that there are a bunch of people coming from San Francisco and a bunch of people coming from Europe, Vancouver would have been a much more sensible venue. It's only slightly longer flight for the people coming from California (2 hours 15 rather than 1 hour 45), and then it would just be a direct flight for the rest of us.
Perhaps I just need to be clearer to them about my fear of flying, and what a traumatic experience it is for me - not just the flight itself, but I typically lose sleep for several days in the run up to it, and it brings about a constant air of gloom from the moment I book the ticket. I would have hoped they would have just figured that out by now, with my constant reluctance to fly anywhere, and the ridiculous lengths I go to in order to travel by train within Europe. Perhaps they just haven't worked it out then.
Anyway, I found it pretty demoralising that these kind of arbitrary decisions about venue were made, oblivious to the fact of all the inconvenience - and more importantly distress and anxiety - they would cause.
- Back at Work
- [Tuesday 19th June 2012]
Back at work today after our holiday. Nothing much to report really. Went to Sainsbury's on the way home and bought things for dinner - I made Chinese food - mock duck pancakes to start, followed by two dishes for the main course. One was a dish of greens and mushrooms in a sauce of ginger, garlic, sake, mirin, seaweed stock, and some of the red and green peppercorns I'd bought in Venice. The other vegetarian "chicken" in a sweet and sour sauce. Both came out rather well actually.
- Travelling Back
- [Monday 18th June 2012]
Awoke around 8am on the sleeper train, and really enjoyed lying in bed watching the world pass by. Went for breakfast in the dining car a little after 9. Food-wise it was again a somewhat basic affair - a croissant, some coffee and some orange juice - but as last night I can't really put my finger on it but there was just something really fun about sitting in that dining car.
We returned to our cabin for the last hour or so of the journey after that, and continued to enjoy lounging around watching the scenery go past.
We arrived in Paris just after 11, and I suggested we try another vegetarian restaurant that I'd found out about with the help of Google Maps on my phone - a place called Saveurs Veget'Halles (I didn't think the French really went in for puns). So we headed over there from Gare de Lyon, and it actually turned out easier just to walk, which made for a pleasant stroll along the Seine.
I think I slightly preferred the food here to the place we'd eaten at on the way out (Le Grenier de Notre Dame). The menu seemed to be focused on mock meats, and I assume given the ingredients they used there must have been a bit of Chinese influence.
After that we hopped on the metro to Gare du Nord, and from there got the Eurostar back to London.
- Sunday in Venice
- [Sunday 17th June 2012]
Our last day. Having had a pretty detailed itinerary planned up until yesterday, we'd sort of intentionally left today fairly open to just do whatever we felt like. Somehow we ended up deciding to go and see some art - at least in part this decision was motivated by just not wanting to be outdoors in the middle of the day.
To begin with we headed to the Gallerie dell' Academia. It's a rather large gallery, and many parts of the building are impressive in their own right. Much of the art to begin with was religious in nature, which eventually started to get a bit much, if I'm honest. Unfortunately one of the paintings I wanted to see - Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi - was partly covered up for restoration. However, towards the end the styles and themes were more varied, and I particularly enjoyed the Miracles of Venice series.
After that we walked to the Santa Maria della Salute, planning on going inside, but on arrival found we were there outside of opening hours - it was a Sunday after all. So we got on a vaporetto from there, to head in the direction of the Palazzo Grimani (the ticket for the Gallerie dell' Academia also gave us free admission there). On the way there we stopped off in a slightly touristy cafe for lunch, where in a lapse of judgement I ordered what turned out to be effectively a pizza with chips on top. I regretted this decision somewhat, and ate less than half of it.
The Palazzo Grimani had a small exhibition of Canaletto's paintings. I've been a fan of Canaletto since first visiting the John Soane Museum in London, where they have a few of his works in the picture room. The palazzo itself was also quite interesting and the marble interiors were pleasingly cool.
We also decided to fit in a flying visit to the island of Murano, which turned out not to be particularly interesting. There were probably a hundred shops selling Murano glass, but it all seemed to be either tacky tourist souvenirs or weird abstract ornamental pieces that were expensive and seemed to just serve no purpose. We both wondered why they didn't just make things people could actually use, like drinking glasses and little bowls to put nuts in. Maybe they did sell that kind of thing as well, but none of it was on display in any of the shop windows. So we returned to the main island having spent only about half an hour or so on Murano.
Once back on the main island, we were thirsty so went and bought a bottle of Gingerino (non alcoholic Campari, effectively) and found a shady spot to sit and drink it. There was a nice little square across the Grand Canal from the Fondaco dei Turchi where we'd also sat for a while yesterday, so we decided to go back there and watch the boats going past.
The last thing we did in Venice was to visit the Jewish quarter - the original ghetto from where the name used all over the world originates. We started with a light dinner at Gam Gam - a Kosher restaurant, as we were unsure whether the food on the train would be any good. This was rather nice, we had a sort of mixture of little Israeli vegetable dishes with some falafel and some bread. After dinner we went for a quick wander around the ghetto before heading to the hotel to pick up our bags, and from there to the station.
Our sleeper train left around 8pm. After our previous experience on the way back from Florence (sharing a 4 berth couchette with two snoring Brazilians) I was determined we were going to get a private compartment this time. This made a world of difference, and we both grew rather attached to our little room over the 15 hours or so we were on board the train.
After settling in we ventured out to the bar for a quick drink, and then sat in the restaurant car for a light second dinner. Actually Chie wasn't hungry, so it was just me eating. They had a sort of vegetable lasagne on the menu - it wasn't great (and to start with was still half frozen) but I really enjoyed the experience of sitting in the dining car. It was obviously a long way removed from the Orient Express in terms of the decor and service, but still there was something rather fun about it. We got chatting to a couple from California who were sitting across the aisle from us and it was all very pleasant.
To my surprise, I actually slept reasonably well on the train. Perhaps it was the fact that every hotel we'd stayed in for the last four nights had had some sort of noise problem, and I'd either just got used to it by now, or I was just very tired. Or maybe it was the half bottle of wine I'd had in the dining car. Anyway, I'd very happily use this sleeper train again.
- Saturday in Venice
- [Saturday 16th June 2012]
We had planned to get up really early this morning and get to St. Mark's square before any of the tourists. I think where we went wrong was having breakfast - it started at our hotel from 7:30, and even though we were down there for 7:30 on the dot, by the time we'd eaten and left our hotel it was almost 8, and by then the vaporetto from the station was already disappointingly crowded.
We were at St. Mark's square by about 20 past 8, and there were already quite a lot of people milling about, but I suppose only a fraction of the hordes that would be there by the afternoon. Luckily it seemed a lot of these people were just milling about outside. I think we were among the first people into the Doge's Palace when it opened at 8:30, and with the exception of a guided tour group of Japanese people, we had many of the rooms all to ourselves. I have a feeling I might be overusing the words "grand" and "impressive" in writing about this trip, but they do seem apt when describing the Doge's Palace. There's interesting parallels with the residences of powerful people the world over - we'd seen the same thing in stately homes in England and castles in Japan. The whole point is to impress - and intimidate - visitors, so that it's quickly made very clear who is in charge. The rooms of the Doge's Palace seemed to keep on getting larger, grander, and more lavish as we progressed through. Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed in most of the interior, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
After the Doge's Palace we had booked to visit St. Mark's Basilica. Booking ahead was definitely a good idea - we only waited about four or five minutes to get in, and it only cost a euro to book (other than that entrance is free). Even at 9:45 the queue for people who hadn't booked must have been over a thousand people. The highlight for me was the Pala d'Oro - the excessively ostentatious altar screen covered in gold and plundered gems. In fact much of the ornamentation of St. Mark's is plundered, including of course the four horses taken after the sack of Constantinople. It's interesting how the Venetians stuck all these trophies on as ornaments to the exterior of the building in a seemingly ad hoc fashion - it's like a sort of inside out version of the British Museum. It makes for quite a showy, at times perhaps even gaudy looking building, and consequently it has had many detractors amongst architectural critics over the centuries. Ruskin however was a big fan apparently, probably in part because it is so colourful. It has obviously deteriorated somewhat since Ruskin's time, and some of the colours have faded, but many of Ruskin's sketches are still very recognisable.
All of that and it was barely past 10am!
I wanted to go for a coffee in one of the grand cafes on St. Mark's Square, but just couldn't bring myself to pay the crazy prices for table service, so instead went into Lavena - considered by some to do the best espresso in Venice - and had a standing espresso at the bar. Amazingly even here it cost just 1 Euro. It also came with an amaretti biscuit which was quite delicious.
Next, we decided it would be nice to get away from all the crowds, so got on a vaporetto and headed for the Lido. It's essentially just a large sandbank in the lagoon to the East of the main island, which has been developed in more recent years. Unlike the other islands it actually has cars, which was a bit of a shock to the system when we arrived!
We walked from the vaporetto stop to the East side of the island, where we found a public beach, and Chie had a little paddle in the water. Had we thought ahead a bit we should really have brought our swimming togs with us. Although I'm not sure I really wanted to show my pale English skin to a lot of bronzed Italians. So instead we had an early lunch at the beach cafe, at a table actually on the beach, which was rather nice. The beach was next door to the Hotel des Bains, where much of Death in Venice was set. So we were more or less on the beach where the closing scene of the film was shot. Despite it being a rather unsettling and challenging film, the cinematography was superb, and this had been part of the reason I'd wanted to come to Venice, so I was really pleased to have been able to visit this spot.
Thinking we might go to Murano next (the island famous for glassmaking) we got the vaporetto from the Lido to Fondamenta Nuove, on the North of the main island, from where the vaporetto to Murano goes. On the way though we changed our minds, and decided instead to just walk back from Fondamenta Nuove to our hotel for a bit of a siesta. On the way we stumbled upon a little hole in the wall pizza place called Arte dell Pizza which I'd read good things about, so we popped in for lunch number 2, and shared a pizza. I'm conflicted as to whether this or the pizza we had in Turin was the best of the trip. They were both very good.
Once back at the hotel we had a nap for a couple of hours, hoping that it might cool down a bit outdoors during that time, as it was a little too hot for my liking.
After our nap we ventured out again, as I wanted to find a coffee shop I had read about. It proved to be rather difficult to find, not least because of the rather confusing naming system of Venice's streets, where sometimes the same street can appear to have as many as three different names, and businesses appear to choose which one of these they want to use somewhat arbitrarily. We eventually made it there though, and in addition to an espresso and an iced coffee I bought some ground coffee to take back home. I also noticed they sold spices by weight - I'd heard spice shops were once commonplace in Venice and have now all but disappeared, so it was pleasing to see a bit of that tradition had carried on here. I bought some red and green peppercorns, at least partly because they had such an impressive vivid colour.
Another thing on our to do list was to use a traghetto - the gondola ferry across the Grand Canal. We didn't particularly need to cross the canal for any reason, but just wanted to say we'd been on a gondola whilst in Venice (without having to pay the extortionate rates they charge for private hire). It cost a mere 0.5 Euros each. I'd read somewhere that it's customary to stand whilst crossing, which turned out to be harder than it looks, and was actually a bit nerve wracking! Still, even though we were only on the gondola for a couple of minutes it was memorable and rather fun. Later on I saw other people crossing and just sitting down. I think that's what we should have done.
We had planned most of our meals out pretty meticulously so far, not wanting to just leave it to chance and end up in a tourist trap. By this evening though we'd more or less ran out of places which we'd planned in advance. There was one Chie wanted to try, which turned out to be full, and by this point it was 9pm and we were quite hungry. So we did end up more or less wandering around and choosing a place without a particularly strong recommendation. I guess it could have been worse - I think Chie at least enjoyed her starter (razor clams), the rest of it was a bit bland and a tad overpriced for what it was. Like I say though, it could have been worse.
The vaporetto on the way back was very overcrowded - even at 10:30 - so we ended up walking back to our hotel. One thing that surprised me about Venice - at least the parts we saw - is that it doesn't seem to be a very late night city. By 11 most places seemed to be shutting up for the night, even on a Saturday. I thought Venice at night might be quite atmospheric but actually it just felt a bit deserted and if anything ever so slightly sinister. Not in a likely-to-get-mugged way, but more in a slightly haunted way. The city has actually endured a lot of hardship in its history with more than its fair share of plague, famine and war. It's easy to overlook all of that when the sun is shining, but somehow at night that all seemed slightly less far away.
- Friday in Venice
- [Friday 15th June 2012]
We were awoken about 4am by the people in the next room having a conversation. They weren't shouting or even arguing, just having a conversation - the walls were just ridiculously thin. This would turn into a bit of a theme of this holiday, what with the bikers in last night's hotel in Turin attempting to break their door down at 2am, and the incessant buzzing of the air conditioning in the hotel for the next two nights, we weren't going to get a single quiet night's sleep.
Never mind, we did eventually get back to sleep, and awoke some time around 9, and headed down to breakfast. Breakfast at this hotel was a somewhat more elaborate affair than it had been at the previous place. Clearly someone in management had made an executive decision that Italian breakfasts were just a lost cause, and so opted for the standard international breakfast fare I've found in hotels all over the world. Including baked beans. So to my slight shame I pretty much had a full English breakfast, and reminded myself of Monty Python's travel agent sketch: "...and if you're not at your table spot on seven you miss the bowl of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, the first item on the menu of International Cuisine".
After breakfast we went for a swim in the hotel's rooftop pool, which had great views over Venice. It was really hot today, already even at this time of the morning, so I was glad of the refreshing dip in the pool.
We didn't want to cram too much in on our first morning in Venice, so after checking out of the hotel we just took a leisurely vaporetto ride to San Giorgio Maggiore, which is on an extra little island off the end of the Giudecca. I'd wanted to see it as I'm a bit of a fan of Palladio, plus the island is a good vantage point from which to get a view of St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace across the water. Although having read some extracts from Ruskin's Stones of Venice on the way here I'd slightly gone off all things Palladian. Ruskin was certainly not a fan, describing Palladio's style as colourless, and rather cold and austere. I did sort of see his point, and hopefully the pictures agree - grand and imposing San Giorgio Maggiore may be, but it isn't really a building you could develop much affection for. On the plus side though Palladio did throw in a few Diocletian windows, which always wins extra points in my book.
We got the vaporetto back to the Giudecca, and considered going into Il Redentore, another Palladian church, but decided one was probably enough. So we took a stroll along the waterfront of the Giudecca, and made a return visit to Snack Bar La Palanca (our local!) for lunch. This was possibly the best meal of the whole trip - we just had a simple pasta dish each, but it was perfectly cooked and the staff were lovely. I think this was also the best spritz of the trip - not sure how it differed from the one last night, but it was somehow lighter and more refreshing.
I was almost reluctant to leave the Giudecca, as I had the sense that the friendly local feel that we'd experienced here probably wouldn't be present on the main island, which processes tourists on an industrial scale. Still, it would have been crazy to come to Venice and not see any of the famous sights, so we collected our luggage, prepared ourselves for the hordes, and got on a boat to the main island.
Our hotel for the next two nights was next to the station - we thought it would be convenient for when we left that we wouldn't have to try and cart our luggage across the city. The hotel was formerly an abbey, home to a commune of Discalced Carmalite Friars - and still had some original features accordingly, including a sort of pulpet in the lounge, and a pretty courtyard garden. Our room was kind of basic but pleasant enough, we were sort of up in the rafters.
After a short rest we decided to head out and walk to the Rialto Bridge. On the map this didn't look particularly straightforward, as there was a maze of windy little alleyways and passages to navigate, in addition to having to bear in mind all the canals and where you could cross them. In practice though this turned out to be a very well signposted route, and consequently there was a procession of other tourists following it. I found it interesting that there wasn't really a single obvious route to take, and at various points you could stray off the marked route and end up back on it again without seemingly having taken any longer. This was good as it let us get away from the tourists now and again, but also interesting in terms of thinking how they decided to mark the "official" route, which would obviously have a big impact on the revenues of the shops along that route. In fact in a couple of places there seemed to be unofficial signs competing with the more official looking ones, trying to persuade you to go down a different street.
I could happily have spent hours just wandering aimlessly around these little streets, they're so rich in detail and around every corner there's a surprise waiting - suddenly a little canal, or a little courtyard around a well, or a square with a little church and a campanile. I found the ornamentation fascinating, and hopefully you can get a bit of a sense of this from the pictures - I was constantly stopping to take a quick snap of a doorknob or a bit of stucco work. So many symbols, I assume all of them have meanings. The most common seemed to be the winged lion - the symbol of St. Mark adopted as the symbol of Venice - but there were also many others. Perhaps some of these were the coats of arms of Venice's powerful families.
We eventually arrived at the Rialto market and the bridge, and throngs of tourists. I didn't want to go too far today, we'd planned to get up early tomorrow morning to go to St. Mark's. So we just ventured a little way over the other side of the Rialto bridge as I wanted to see the Corte del Milion - the courtyard where Marco Polo lived. It was named after him in fact. After his travels to Asia he had a reputation for telling tall tales of the Far East - for example the Mongol horde which comprised of "millions of horses and millions of men". As a result his nickname became "Mr Millions" which lives on in this courtyard.
Chie was starting to get a bit tired at this point, so we got the vaporetto back to the hotel, along the Grand Canal, so that she could have a bit of a nap. I was a little too excitable to sleep though, so headed back out by myself. I went back along the Grand Canal on the vaporetto, this time standing outside so I could get a better view of the buildings as we went along. Most of these were formerly the residences of Venice's most powerful merchant families and are correspondingly rather grand and showy. I particularly liked the Ca d'Oro and the Fondaco dei Turchi.
I hopped off the Vaporetto at the Rialto Bridge, and strode purposefully over, trying to display the air of someone who knew where they were going, and therefore wasn't a tourist. I'm not sure anyone was convinced particularly. As the sun was now very much over the yard arm I decided now would be a good time to start exploring Venice's bacaro - the little wine bar places which are a peculiarity of Venice. I had read an article about them a while back when trying to find old wine bars in Florence, and it had rather captured my imagination. Moreover in London we have a sort of recreation of these in the form of a restaurant called Polpo.
I started with Cantina do Mori - partly because it closed the earliest. I think this may be the oldest in Venice, and certainly feels reassuringly ancient. There are copper pots hanging from the ceiling - a bit reminiscent of the things-hanging-from-the-ceiling fashion in English pubs. Apparently these pots were traditionally used for collecting water from Venice's communal wells.
Next I popped just round the corner to All' Arco, which was a bit more lively and had friendlier staff. The clientele were a mixture of locals and adventurous tourists, the staff seemed just as friendly and welcoming to either, and the two groups seemed surprisingly to co-exist quite harmoniously. I think this was probably my favourite bacaro of all the ones we tried, mainly for that reason.
At this point I temporarily paused my bacaro crawl and returned to the Rialto Bridge. Chie had awoken from her nap and come to meet me. I hadn't tried any of the cicchetti yet - the little tapas style nibbles served in bacaro - as I wanted to wait for Chie before eating anything. So once she'd joined me we actually went back to the first two bacaro again, and had something to eat in each one. I just about managed to muster "sono vegetariano, lei e incinta" which, with a bit of pointing, just about managed to convey our respective dietary requirements. In each place they then chose a couple of things for us. I think my favourite ciccheti of the evening was at All'Arco, where they had a little slice of bread (many of the ciccheti are served like this) topped with some cream cheese with truffles and porcini.
We also fit in two further bacaro - the next was called Do Spade where there was a very nice lady behind the counter who figured out the "incinta" part before I even finished the sentence. We had quite a large plateful here - they found some kind of caponata for me. Not sure if that's a typical ciccheti but it was nice nonetheless.
We wanted to get the traghetto (the gondola ferry that crosses the Grand Canal at several points) to the last bacaro, but were a bit too late, so ended up using the vaporetto to cross. The last one was a place called Alla Vedova (Ca d'Oro), where tiny glasses of wine seemed to be the norm rather than the spritzes I'd been enjoying at most of the other places. I don't think the chap behind the bar really understood our "vegetariano ... incinta" ordering strategy, and initially just looked a bit confused and then congratulated us, before eventually figuring out we were trying to get him to suggest something to eat. I think they overcharged us as well, so I didn't really like this place as much as the others.
Anyway, I enjoyed our little bacaro crawl, and it made a nice alternative to the usual sit down meal to eat a few little nibbles in a few different places.
- Turin to Venice
- [Thursday 14th June 2012]
We awoke in our hotel in Turin at a reasonable hour, had a naff breakfast (as much as I love Italian food, breakfasts really aren't their strong point) and then headed out to explore Turin a bit.
It's a very grand and impressive city, which I think is probably mostly overlooked by visitors to Italy. Apart from some bikers who were staying at our hotel (who were passing through en route to Monaco, I overheard), it felt like we were the only tourists in the whole city. This would of course prove to be a pleasing contrast, given that we were bound for Venice.
I suppose part of the reason Italy has so many grand impressive cities is that originally these were all independent states, so all of these were effectively capital cities in their own right. Arcades and loggias seem to have been very much a key theme embraced by Turin's architects, and these make for convenient shelter for the outdoor seating of the city's many grand cafes. We poked our noses in at one of these, on the grand Piazza San Carlo (which has two churches on its Southern edge - yes, two churches). I think it was the Caffe San Carlo.The interior was similarly grand and impressive - I want to say rococo in style - classical but ornate and colourful, and with a huge and imposing chandelier. All of that lavish splendour and an espresso was a mere 1 Euro. This seems to be the norm throughout Italy if you stand up and drink it at the bar. Chie had a bicerin, which is a Turin speciality, a mix of hot chocolate and espresso. It was very sweet and very rich - you wouldn't want more than one of these.
We continued our wander from there to Turin Cathedral, wherein the famous shroud is housed. It's apparently only put out on display once every few decades, but slightly bizarrely we did at least get to see the box it is stored in.
Perhaps the real surprise highlight of our brief time in Turin was the market (I think it's called Porta Palazzo). It's apparently one of the biggest in Europe, and whilst (as appears to be the case with markets everywhere) there's a section selling all sorts of cheap tat you don't want, there was also a huge fruit and vegetable section, with row after row of stalls selling delicious looking fresh produce. I suddenly regretted that we weren't staying longer and self catering. Alas we still had four or five days of travelling ahead of us, and I didn't think anything would really survive. So we just consoled ourselves by buying some cherries, and otherwise just enjoying looking at it all.
Mindful of the time, after that we start to head back in the direction of the station, and had lunch at another place I'd chosen before we came - a kind of self service restaurant called Brek. They had a few vegetarian options available - probably not even a particularly concious effort, but the Italians just aren't as meat obsessed as their French neighbours. The food was rather nice - I had a sort of lasagne with pesto - and we ate in a pretty little courtyard attached to the restaurant.
After lunch we picked up our bags from the station, and headed to Porta Nuova station to get on the Frecciarossa (one of Italy's high speed trains) which would take us on the first leg of our journey to Venice - from Turin to Bologna. I'd booked us first class seats again, and whilst perhaps not quite having the finesse of the TGV's first class, they were still very comfortable, and the complimentary drinks were nice too. The train was running rather late, and we (perhaps ill advisedly) had quite a short connection time in Bologna - just 15 minutes. We asked the ticket inspector whether we'd be likely to make the connection and he responded with a delightfully non-committal hand gesture. What wonderful people the Italians are - even when they're being entirely unhelpful they're somehow charming with it.
As it turned out, the next train was slightly delayed too, so after a slightly frantic change of platforms we managed to make our connection. The next train was a Frecciargento, which I believe is slightly below the standard of a Frecciarossa, but again we were in first class and it seemed very comfortable. When the free drinks trolley came round I decided this time a small glass of Prosecco would be appropriate, which I sipped whilst excitedly anticipating our imminent arrival in Venice.
When it was first built, the railway bridge which connected Venice to the mainland was deeply unpopular with Venetians (so much so they tried to blow it up), and Ruskin was also not a fan. It is said that the best way to arrive in Venice is by boat. Whilst all of that may be true, the crossing of the lagoon by train was still a very exciting moment, and I was bordering on jumping up and down as the first glimpses of the city came into view.
We had chosen to stay our first night in Venice on the Giudecca, an island which runs along the Southern flank of the main island. I think the main draw for Chie was that the hotel had a swimming pool, but it also turned out to be a really good way to gradually ease ourselves into Venice - the Giudecca is quieter and far less touristy than the main island. So, from the station we bought our 72 hour vaporetto pass, and got on the vaporetto to Zattere, on the South side of the main island. There was a hotel shuttle boat which ran from there to the hotel. The vaporetto is Venice's water bus, and is pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from the gondolas in terms of price. It is consequently rather basic and functional as well, and slightly disappointingly when seated you often can't actually see very much out of the windows. Perhaps this was unimportant for our first ride on the vaporetto, which went around the Western edge of the main island, past ferry terminals and cargo depots - so there wasn't really much to see anyway - although some of the cruise liners were a sight to behold, almost to the point of being rather intimidating.
We had a short wait at Zattere for the shuttle bus, which gave me my first opportunity to sit in amongst some Venetian buildings and soak up the atmosphere a bit. Then onto our hotel to check in and drop off our bags. The hotel had a sort of "executive lounge" which offered free drinks and nibbles, so we took advantage of that briefly before heading out for a stroll to find dinner.
Our stroll took us along the waterfront of the Giudecca. It has rather lovely views across the water to the South side of the main island, made even nicer by the fact that the sun was starting to set, and the already richly coloured facades of Venice's buildings were bathed in a warm orange glow. I think I actually managed to capture that in some of the pictures.
Before dinner we stopped off for an aperitif at Snack Bar La Palanca, which I'd read about before coming here, it being a place popular with the locals. It almost immediately felt like our local within minutes. I ordered a spritz - this seems to be a very popular drink in Venice - and pleasingly they always offer a choice of Aperol or Campari. I always chose Aperol and felt rather proud of myself for being unfazed by this question the first time I heard it (and it was in Italian as well). We stood outside on the quayside with our drinks, amongst the locals (pointedly refusing to sit at a table because we're not tourists). We only stayed for one drink but it was quite magical.
For dinner we went to a place also along the quayside called Tratorria do Mori. I had pizza again, and Chie had something which looked wholly unappetising involving squid ink (which she apparently really enjoyed). Whilst the pizza wasn't quite as good as the one I'd had last night in Turin, the location was just magical - we sat right by the edge of the water as the sun set over Venice. An absolutely fantastic start to our time in Venice.
- London to Paris to Turin
- [Wednesday 13th June 2012]
Although we'd booked the sleeper train for the return journey from Venice to Paris, on the way out there hadn't been much availability (particularly of private 2 berth compartments) so we'd decided to use daytime trains instead. To make it a bit more of a leisurely journey, we'd also decided to split it over a day and a half, and have a night's stay in Turin.
So as most of the European rail escapades start, we began by getting the Eurostar to Paris in the morning, which conveniently got us there in time for lunch. I decided we should try Le Grenier de Notre Dame, apparently the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Paris - dating back to 1978! The food wasn't amazing, but the seating was reassuringly cramped and uncomfortable, so we really felt like we were on holiday.
After lunch we headed to Gare de Lyon, which is starting to feel like the only other station in Paris apart from Gare du Nord. When we went to Nice we got the train from here, unsurprisingly when we went to Lyon we went from here, and recently the train to Zuirch was (sadly) relocated to start from here rather than Gare de l'Est. Which is a shame as I had a bit of a soft spot for Gare de l'Est, and it was also just very convenient from Gare du Nord.
Anyway, I digress. So at Gare Not du Nord we climbed aboard the TGV for the five and a half hour journey from Paris to Turin. As always I'd booked us seats in first class, so it was a very comfortable journey, albeit a long one. It's about a 400 mile journey altogether. Almost two thirds of the distance (about 250 miles) is covered in the first two hours, as the TGV whizzes along the high speed line from Paris to Lyon, through this largely flat and unchallenging part of France. After Lyon, there's the small matter of the Alps to deal with, and so the remaining 150 miles takes three and a half hours. As compensation for this dawdling rate of progress the scenery is rather nice. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as the scenery on the Zurich to Milan train, but I suppose I am easily impressed by a few snow capped mountains - particularly in June. Also the point at which we crossed the border into Italy was quite exciting - it occurred to me although I had technically been to Italy by train twice before (once when we went to Milan and Florence, another time when we popped over the border to Ventimiglia during a holiday on the Cote d'Azur), I'd never managed to get all the way there by train from London in one day. This felt like something of an achievement.
We arrived in Turin some time after 8, and following an initial difficulty in just getting out of Porta Susa station we eventually made our way to our hotel, and checked in. Then we headed out for an evening stroll, to find something for dinner. I'd already had a look around for places on Google+ Local (bit of product placement there) and chose a Neapolitan restaurant called Reginella. It was a very pleasant evening so we sat out in the street to eat our pizza, as lots of other Turin locals seem to be doing. The pizza was really good - fantastic stretchy dough, and very fresh zingy tomato sauce. Again, it definitely felt like we were on holiday.
- Holborn with Al
- [Tuesday 12th June 2012]
Got a text from Al proposing a pint this evening, but owing to me being a bit busy and slow to respond, by the time I'd said I was on my way, he had already left the pub and gone for dinner elsewhere. I did however bump into Robert in the Seven Stars though. Whilst waiting for Al to have dinner I progressed on to Ye Old Mitre by way of Chilango for a quick burrito. I thought I might meet Al at Ye Old Mitre but in the end he went back to the Seven Stars again. Technology ought to just solve all of this.
So we did eventually meet in the Seven Stars, along with Charlotte and a couple of Americans whom I slightly forget the connection to, but it had something to do with meeting at a wedding I think.
- [Monday 11th June 2012]
It was a rather miserable rainy day today. I realised this morning that I'd left my umbrella at Polpo on Friday so in the evening after work I ventured in the direction of Soho to reclaim it. En route I passed Piccadilly Circus where a sizable lake of rainwater was forming, and it was starting to look like London was flooding.
Having picked up my umbrella, whilst in the centre I decided to stop off for a quick pint at the Lamb and Flag, but my enthusiasm to stay out any longer after that quickly waned, and I then got on the 24 bus back home.
- [Sunday 10th June 2012]
Got my hair cut today, at Murdock in Covent Garden. Afterwards I met up with Chie in the cafe in Foyle's, where Chie had been doing some "homework".
We were both a bit peckish by this point so decided to go for dim sum, but thought we'd better try somewhere different for a change, so gave Leong's Legend a go. We'd both been there in the evening and the food had been pretty good, but dim sum really isn't their strong point. One of the dim sum tasted distinctly of the freezer, the rest of it was at best OK. Meandered back home after that, taking in the mall on our route, which still had the big union jacks flying for the Jubilee celebrations.
- Books on Venice
- [Saturday 9th June 2012]
After the usual lazy weekend morning / early afternoon slobbing around the flat, we ventured out around 3pm and walked to Piccadilly. I'd decided I wanted to buy a couple of books on Venice - some sort of interesting/unusual guidebook and/or something about Venetian architecture. Waterstones on Piccadilly met my needs perfectly and I bought Secret Venice and Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited.
Whilst in Waterstones we also decided to go for a coffee at the 5th View cafe, which seems to have really gone down hill. After that we pretty much just wandered home again, by way of Sainsbury's to pick up some things for dinner.
- Dinner with Panachi
- [Friday 8th June 2012]
Chie's friend Norie-san and her daughter Pana were in London today, and in the evening we met up and went for dinner at Polpo in Soho. I first met Pana when she was about 2 years old, she's now 11, and so I feel like I've watched her grow up. I don't see her very often so every time I feel compelled to roll out all the clichés I remember hearing so often as a child ("you're so tall!" etc). I always worry that at some point (just like Harry Enfield's Kevin) she'll have suddenly transformed from a very sweet little girl into a monstrous teenager. Luckily that hasn't happened yet!
That said, it is difficult to know how what to talk about with an 11 year old girl. My knowledge of Justin Bieber is woefully limited, and I haven't watched any kid's TV programs since I was a student. She told me I look a bit like one of "Dick and Dom", whoever they are.
Still, at least she enjoyed the food I think - and the cichetti style (Venetian version of tapas) at Polpo meant there were new things for her to try, which was hopefully a fun experience for her.
It was also a good opportunity to whet our appetite for our upcoming trip to Venice - very excited about that now!
- [Thursday 7th June 2012]
Not much to report really. Had jacket potatoes with some of the left over Quorn chilli I'd made on Tuesday.
- [Wednesday 6th June 2012]
Back to work after the long Jubilee weekend.
In Fortnum and Mason the day before we'd picked up a jar of pesto and some rather nice looking "radiatore" pasta. I hadn't given the name much thought, but as we sat eating dinner tonight, next to the radiator, it suddenly dawned on me. Strange thing to liken a foodstuff to, but it was very good nonetheless (as was the pesto).
- Jubilee Tuesday
- [Tuesday 5th June 2012]
Funny how these things turned out - of the four days of the long Jubilee weekend, the day when we had the least planned ended up being the nicest.
After a lazy morning, I unusually for a "weekend" lunch decided to make a quick batch of Quorn chilli, which we strangely ate with some of the leftover Middle Eastern bread from our recent Eurovision party (we had frozen the bulk of it). Following that, we headed out for the afternoon, as I was keen to try for a second time to buy a summery jacket, particularly now thinking that I needed some appropriate attire for our upcoming trip to Venice.
Naturally we aimed for Jermyn Street, and I was pleased to find a good few of the shops there open despite it being a bank holiday. I looked at and tried on quite a few jackets, but the only one I really loved as soon as I put it on was a herringbone cotton jacket in Hackett. It was also the most expensive of all the ones I tried. Having worked hard the last few weeks I somehow managed to convince myself I'd earned it, but still felt compelled to haggle a bit, and was quite pleased with myself when I got them to knock 10% off.
After that, Chie said she fancied a scone, so we decided to head into Fortnum and Mason, which we timed rather perfectly as unusually when we arrived there was barely any queue. For the sake of variety I ordered a slice of cake rather than scones - and went rather unadventurously for the Victoria sponge, without really expecting much of it. I was a surprise hit - I really didn't think I could enjoy a simple slice of Victoria songe as much as this. The tea was very good too - good old F&M.
Headed back home after that. Had a strange sort of dinner which was akin to an indoor picnic. Chie wanted to try Picalilli, so we'd picked up a jar of that in F&M, as well as some cheese in Paxton & Whitfield. I also made some coronation Quorn, which seemed like an appropriate sort of thing for a Jubilee weekend.
- Oxford with Andy
- [Monday 4th June 2012]
Chie had plans with friends today, and I'd decided to leave her to it and meet up with my friend Andy.
So we headed to Oxford to revisit some of my favourite pubs there. I was surprised to hear that Andy, despite having grown up in Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire, had only ever been to Oxford once before, and barely knew the place.
The Bear is very much setting itself apart from the other pubs in Oxford as my overall favourite - so much so we went there twice today. It has elements of several of my other favourite pubs of all time - Ye Old Mitre in Holborn, the Cherry Tree in Tintern, and the Dove in Hammersmith.
- Jubilee Sunday
- [Sunday 3rd June 2012]
Rather a disappointment really - the river pageant today was meant to be the big event of the jubilee weekend. Living as we do very near the Thames, but in a sleepy and often forgotten about part of London, we thought we could just casually saunter down to the river around 3 and watch it all in relative peace and quiet.
When we did eventually venture outside, the reality was somewhat different - the streets near our flat were all thronging with people, and we couldn't get anywhere near the river at any of the nearby vantage points we thought we might try. The weather wasn't particularly nice either, so in the end we decided to just give up, go home, and watch it on the telly instead.
- Jubilee Saturday
- [Saturday 2nd June 2012]
Saturday of the long Jubilee bank holiday weekend. I had planned to take a complete rest from work over the four day weekend, but have to admit today to having done a bit in the morning. It's hard to just completely stop.
I had promised to take Chie out to do some clothes shopping, as I'd been a bit unavailable for that sort of thing the last few weekends, so we headed out just before midday in the direction of King's Road.
Stopped off en route for a quick bowl of pasta at an Italian restaurant near Sloane Square called Caraffini, which made for a very pleasant start to our afternoon's outing.
After a bit of shopping around King's Road we decided to get a bus into the centre proper as I wanted to go and look at summery jackets in a particular shop in Soho. Couldn't quite find one I liked enough, so we abandoned that and instead did some Japanese food shopping in Rice Wine.
- [Friday 1st June 2012]
Went out for lunch at Daylesford Organic with a couple of people from the office. Not sure I particularly enjoyed the salad, but I've been eating lunch by myself a lot recently as I've been so busy, and it was really nice to have some company, and get out of the office in the daytime.
In the evening left the office around 7:30 ("early" again!) and Chie made ramen for dinner.
- After Launch
- [Thursday 31st May 2012]
Day after the big launch, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but overall things were looking pretty good.
Left the office "early" (around 7:30) and was able to get home to have dinner at a sensible time. Made a sort of pasta bake.
- [Wednesday 30th May 2012]
The project I've been working on for the last year or so launched today, and other than a couple of minor kinks it all went really well. The rollout took most of the day and mostly required my full attention, but by around 6pm everything looked pretty good, so the few of us that had stayed in London (most of the team had gone to California for the launch) decided that would be a good juncture to kick back and pop a couple of Champagne corks.
As always the run up to the launch had been quite stressful, lots of late nights and working at the weekends, and I'd been filled with anxiety about whether the whole thing will work, and how it's going to be received by the general public. With this kind of thing there's always so many moving pieces that some things just get forgotten about until it's very nearly too late, and the last couple of weeks have been filled with frantic last minute changes.
Now that the thing is launched I can breathe a big sigh of relief, not just because the end result does all seem to hang together pretty well (minus a couple of rough edges of course) but also because taking a step back I'm really proud of what we built. I think there's some fairly groundbreaking stuff in there and I hope people will find it genuinely useful.
- Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel
- [Tuesday 29th May 2012]
In the morning I had to rush across London for a meeting with our CFO at one of the other offices we have in the city. The timing was a bit unfortunate the day before launch, so I hadn't really been able to prepare very well, but I think it went as well as can be expected.
Worked late again tonight, another 12 hour day. Chie was out at the theatre with friends this evening, and I didn't feel like going home to an empty flat, plus I felt like a bit of a celebration as we were on the eve of the launch of my project, the culmination of the last year or so's work.
So I decided to don my suit and try out the Library Bar at the Lanesborough. I was pleased to discover unlike most cocktail bars in London they actually had creme de violette (and quite a good one at that) so started with an Aviation which I think is the best one I had yet (apart from the ones I make myself!). Followed that with a Negroni which was pretty good - pictures is the vermouth they used.
- Memories of China
- [Monday 28th May 2012]
Worked late-ish at the office, until just before 9pm, when I met up with Chie after her evening class. We decided to go for dinner at Ken Lo's Memories of China, which is very close to my office. I'd been a few times now, but never with Chie, and she was keen to try it.
There's basically only one vegetarian main course on the menu, so I had the same thing I always have, which is good albeit a bit pricey. Being in Belgravia it's a really upmarket sort of a place, and this evening seemed to be largely populated with older Belgravia types. I like to think at least a few of them had titles.