29 Jul 2022 UK/EUROPE
I left home on June 23 and returned on July 29. Even ignoring the six, as opposed to the normal two-year interval between journeys, this trip was shaping to be unlike any other. The time and then the cost of producing my book, followed by the pandemic, accounted for the gap. Given its length, I suspected that it would give rise to unexpected changes, regardless of Covid. I was conscious of the need to make up for lost time. My focus was on re-uniting with family and friends. The death of my beloved cousin Leila in 2019 meant that there was no longer a need to stay in London for two weeks. The apartment in Belsize Park wasn’t available, so I booked into a conveniently located hotel for eight nights. Clive, who turned 75 two weeks before my departure, agreed to put up with me for a week which included a two-night stay in Cornwall. I was now in the fortunate position of realising a long-held desire to book an eight-day Rhine cruise from Amsterdam to Basel. Also, I had vowed to visit Bruges the next time I was in Europe, so I added a two-night stay there. I concluded my trip with Peter and Gaby in Malsch, flying home from Frankfurt. I was to be away for a day over five weeks, instead of my usual four.
The let it rip approach to Covid since the opening up of the Queensland border in early December 2021, resulted in a marked increase in infections and deaths, but generally, every-day life didn’t change that much. Wherever I went in the UK and Europe crowds and behaviour were largely as before the pandemic, in spite of the high number of infections. Both here and there, I wasn’t impacted by staff shortages in the places I went to. I packed 10 tests, a box of N95 masks, and after perusing the cruise notes, a packet of wipes and a small bottle of hand sanitizer which proved to be redundant. I undertook my journey neither expecting or not expecting to contract Covid. I wore a mask on public transport and in department stores in London. Masks were compulsory on trains in Germany and on Singapore Airlines.
Fate sprang two potentially terminal threats on me in the week before my departure. Both centred on my love of rail travel, which is a major component of my time in the UK and on the Continent. The first was the imminent rail strikes in the UK, starting with one on the day after my arrival. The second was the availability of my fully paid rail pass only on a smart phone app. I do not have a smart phone. I call such set-backs, the joys of travel. They weren’t the only ones I encountered. Gina, my travel agent, had to direct all schedule enquiries and booking requests to an office in Europe because the Sydney office was let go, as a result of the two-year banning of tourist travel to and from Australia. She was only told about the app the week before my departure, by when, the Sydney office had just reopened with a skeleton staff. All attempts to acquire a paper pass were up in the air when I boarded my flight in Brisbane. In the past I had to buy separate Eurail and Britrail passes. Now, the Eurail pass includes the whole of post-Brexit UK, go figure. My love of rail travel is as much for enjoying the destination as for the means of getting there and includes a fondness for the speed of the journey. Consequently, I am not drawn to rail travel in Australia because of its slowness.
My first weekend was devoted to being with family, starting on the Friday afternoon with my second cousin Sue meeting me at Heathrow and taking me to my hotel in Belsize Park. It made a difference being greeted by a welcoming face after my 13 ½ hour flight from Singapore. After being confined to Australia for such a long time, it took a couple of days to sink in that I was overseas again. Because Kathy’s brother David was about to leave for the United States and I was the guest of honour at the grand Kuttner family Sunday lunch, Saturday was the only time available for a catch-up. I phoned the evening before, to confirm our lunch at an Indian restaurant in Covent Garden. David explained that he and Joyce were able to travel to town because one of the lines from Hertford was operating on the day of the strike. The lunch, to which I was treated, was good, but our time together wasn’t long enough. I had seen Joyce and their children Tom and Nicole, when they spent Christmas in Australia in 2019, while David had to work. Prior to it being confirmed that the rail strike was the last one planned till later in the summer, my travel to and from Taunton and beyond, could have been in jeopardy.
Sunday lunch was at my cousin Molly’s house in Edgeware. I had to have a RAT test in the garden, which was negative. This was to protect Molly. She is 94 and an inspiration to everyone, still able to live in her own home, having endured a lockdown for two and a bit years, thanks to the assiduous care of her daughters Sue and Helen, with the additional help of her grandchildren, Ben and Hannah, who were at the lunch, as was Helen’s husband Huck. He had just got back from the Gambia, where his mother and teenage son live. He was trapped there for two years because of pandemic induced border closures and flight cancellations. I had a good chat with him. The weather was pleasant, allowing us to have pre-lunch drinks and nibbles in the garden. Sue, Hannah and Helen prepared a splendid meal, greatly enjoyed by all. The Kuttners are a close family and it felt special to be in their embrace. I received a belated 80th birthday card and present and a book on Jewish history, which was inexplicably found in the house where Molly has lived for over sixty years. I had been awarded it as a prize in 1954. The hours flew by and as I took my leave, I felt that our time together had been all too brief.
Meanwhile, the quest for a paper rail pass was still up in the air. I bought a sim card for my 3G phone at Heathrow, which allowed me to send texts to and receive texts from Australia. Sue offered to email Gina with my UK mobile number. Next morning, I received a text from her with the phone number of a Swiss travel office in the City and a contact name, though ominously, the text mentioned that the number was for voicemail. I phoned after breakfast on Monday morning and had to leave a message. Rather than hang around in the hotel waiting for a reply, I went into town to do some shopping. It was while I was in Marks and Spencer’s Marble Arch store buying much-needed pyjamas, that I received a call from the lady in the Switzerland Travel Centre, telling me to meet her there at 3 pm. By four o’clock I had the familiar paper rail pass in my hand, for which I paid £410. It allowed me ten days of first-class travel over a two month period. The entire ordeal left me completely drained, but the realisation that I was now free to go by train according to plan, acted as a restorative.
In the evening I had dinner in Hampstead with Peter Dockley whom I have known since Art School days in the ‘60s. In appearance, the years have treated him well and he is mentally alert, but he appears to be suffering from long-covid in the form of recurring lassitude and a temperature, meaning that he can no longer lead a reliably active life. When I was in Covent Garden, I passed a poster, advertising forthcoming attractions at the Opera House. The one which caught my eye was a performance of Cosi Fan Tutti on the following Tuesday. I hung around after Saturday’s lunch until the box office opened and was advised to turn up to buy a ticket at 6.30 on the day of the performance.
In Australia, I was captivated by a series of programmes about The Tower of London, which I had never visited. Now was the time to make amends. What better way of preparing for Cosi than a guided tour of The Tower by one of the Beefeaters. The television programmes revealed how well-resourced every aspect of daily and ceremonial life in The Tower is. Little wonder, since my ticket cost £32. Our guide, a senior Yeoman, was a master of his craft. He told a number of Americans who hailed from Boston, as he waved his arms in an expansive gesture, that all this could have been theirs if they had paid £14,000 instead of dumping the tea in Boston harbour. I don’t know if his figure was historically accurate or plucked out of the air to make his point, but it drew a laugh from his audience, including the Bostonians. After the hour-long tour, I visited the Royal Armouries in the White Tower, ascending to the top floor and descending to the lowest floor, rather than joining the long queue to see the crown jewels.
I duly arrived at the box office at 6.30, thinking that the performance began at 8 o’clock. I was told that it actually started at 7.30. I willingly paid £81 for a seat in the middle, and towards the front of the Amphitheatre, which forms the centre of the topmost tier. I had an excellent view of the stage, the conductor and the orchestra pit. I surmise that the seat had not been sold. Alas, there were no returns for a seat eight rows back in the centre of the stalls at a price of £220, which I would have paid in a heartbeat. It must have been decades since I went to an opera in this glorious theatre. The orchestra was superb, as was the conductor, a lady I had not heard of, with a justified reputation for excelling in Mozart operas. The cast, none of them likewise known to me, was uniformly strong, the tenor being the standout. One of the most agreeable aspects of the evening was the absence of the formal dress code which prevailed last time. I made sure of this when I enquired at the box office on the Saturday.
A recent staple of my stay in London is a day rail excursion to partake of afternoon tea at the renowned Betty’s tearooms in Yorkshire, established over one hundred years ago. Betty’s was a family favourite when we lived in Keighley in the ‘50s, not only because of the ambience and the quality of the food, but in a quasi-proprietorial sense, given that Mum’s name was Betty. Having sampled the fare in York and Ilkley, it was now the turn of Harrogate, which I reached after changing at York. A circuitous walk from the station, brought me to Betty’s elegant premises, where a queue had formed. I gained prompt access because I was on my own. Although it was lunch time, I was looking forward to the bespoke tea of two toasted tea cakes with raspberry jam, a huge pot of tea, which, with additional water, was enough for five cups, and a glass bowl filled with broken meringue, raspberries and lashings of whipped cream. Imagine my chagrin to be told that Betty’s no longer offered meringues, nor was raspberries with whipped cream on the menu. I settled for the tea cakes and pot of tea. The spell has been broken, and should I return to the UK in two years as planned, I won’t be going to Yorkshire for afternoon tea. This was the second annoying change of my visit, the first being the unavailability of pyjama bottoms with ties, instead of the ubiquitous elasticated waist band.
My third family engagement in London, was dinner with Nicole’s sister Karen, husband Gerhard and children Dale and Brynn. They live in Barking, which is an easy train journey from Hampstead Heath station, a short walk from my hotel. I had a RAT test in the garden because I caught a head cold early in the week and didn’t want to infect the family. The test again proved negative. Meanwhile, I was getting better. Brynn was born a year after my last visit, since when impressive changes had been made to the upstairs of the house and the garden. Work on the ground floor, including an extension to the kitchen will hopefully be completed before my 2024 visit, all being well. The Marais family were about to travel to Australia to see Karen’s mum and dad, and we eagerly anticipated meeting in Queensland within a week or so of my return.
A pro pos of pyjamas, after leaving Covent Garden on Saturday, I went to John Lewis in Oxford Street to buy lightweight cotton garments to replace the ones I bought in 2016, which had by now worn out. Not finding any with a tie waistband there, I decided to try my luck at Selfridges, but to no avail. Bear in mind that I had stepped off a plane after a thirteen-and- a-half-hour flight only twenty four hours ago. I can think of no other valid reason why I bought two pairs of designer label pyjamas for £340. One pair was in a package, the other was mixed and matched. I wore the jacket for two nights before discovering that the tag had not been removed. To my horror, the bottoms didn’t have any buttons. The pyjamas were useless. At least the two pairs I bought for a fraction of the price in Marks and Spencer, had a button in the waist band. The Selfridges pyjamas remained in their bag until I determined to take them back on the Friday, which became a busy day for me. Firstly, I took my dirty clothes to a laundry/dry cleaner down the road from the hotel for collection between five and six. Then I went to Selfridges and pointed out the defects in the pyjamas, the tag in the jacket and that it was the wrong size. The sales manager organised a full refund without demur. From Selfridges I travelled to Crouch End to have a cuppa and a chat with John and Tina Pearce, whom I have known for decades. John is a wonderful painter. I regard his plein air paintings of landscapes and overgrown north London gardens as meditations on what is before him. Tina has lived with chronic pain following two catastrophic falls down different steps in her flat many years ago. The toll was more pronounced this time, her mobility more restricted, but she has immense composure and intellectual rigour, living without a computer, a smart phone and social media. John is in better shape. He is a fine portrait painter. Lockdown kept him in London and unable to live in his house in Normandy, so he busied himself with a self-portrait which was exhibited in May 2021 at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition. The two hours spent talking, drinking tea and eating cake passed swiftly. I took my leave, conscious of the need to be in time to pick up my laundry. Regrettably, it was not handed back to me in the bag in which it was delivered. Someone had ripped it. I bought it god knows when, specifically to use on my travels. It was kept in a compartment in the lid of my suitcase. In the evening I packed for the morrow’s rail trip to Taunton and a week with Clive. That done, I travelled to Hampstead High Street in search of dinner, found a serviceable French restaurant and ate a good meal.
SOMERSET & CORNWALL
My transfer from the hotel to Paddington in an electric car was half an hour early. Consequently, I had an hour’s wait at Paddington, though fortunately I found one of the few seats in the swirling crowds and hustle and bustle of the concourse. Clive at seventy-five looks distinguished. We took up where we had left off six years ago. We drove to Hestercombe for lunch. I had a pork chop which I hadn’t seen on any menu for years. I had told Clive the saga of the pyjamas and that I also needed brushed cotton ones. We drove past a gent’s outfitters in Taunton, but could not tell if it was open. We parked as close as we could and were relieved to find that it hadn’t yet closed. As befits the styling of the business, the shop was spacious with wooden shelves and glass fronted wardrobes filled to the brim. Out of a cabinet below the counter, the salesman pulled out a variety of brushed cotton pyjamas with ties. I bought two pairs on the spot for what I considered a reasonable price of £98, by when, the manager was in the process of closing the shop as four o’clock drew near.
Clive is a good cook and eats good food. I enjoyed having porridge for breakfast in addition to my two slices of toast and marmalade and a mug of tea. He is an excellent driver and thinks nothing of negotiating the narrow, embanked West Country lanes, adroitly reversing if he has to. I could never do this. Whenever I’m in Somerset a visit to Watchet is a priority. I’ve always loved its atmosphere, architecture, streetscapes, the stream running through the town, and harbour. Since my last visit it has acquired an award-winning creative complex, with artist studios, exhibition space, holiday accommodation and a café restaurant, replacing an industrial eyesore in the harbour. It was too crowded for us to spend time there. A community event was in full swing on the quayside, with stalls selling bric-a-brac, snacks and produce. We found a café in the main street with a spare table and had afternoon tea. In the past, Clive and I would drive in search of classic country tearooms. In 2014, we discovered the Driftwood Café, on the seafront near Minehead. It was celebrating its eightieth anniversary. The building was spick and span inside and out. It was made of wood, with a veranda and picture windows overlooking the water. It had the insubstantial look of many seaside structures, but for eighty years, had withstood all the heavy weather for which the Severn estuary is notorious. Unsurprisingly its forte was fish and chips, as good as you could ever get. In 2016 they had golden syrup sponge pudding and custard for desert – to complete a meal made in heaven. This time I tucked in to a very good apple pie. Clive’s garden was a haven for birds, who filled it with their calls. I saw wood pigeons and collared doves, blackbirds, song thrushes, sparrows and jackdaws
One item I wanted to buy was a woollen throw or rug for my bed to provide extra winter warmth. I could find nothing of the kind in Australia. My existing rug accompanied me from the UK and was fraying at the seams. Clive had seen such items in National Trust shops, so we drove to Knightshayes, a Trust property in Devon, to check their stock. The rugs were of good quality, but not quite the right size. However, I was able to buy a 2023 calendar on the 4th of July, not bad going. Clive had booked rooms for the 5th and 6th at a B and B near Padstow and lunch at Rick Stein’s bistro in the town on the 6th. He went online to look for rugs and was drawn to a Cornish company which made woollen blankets and rugs and had an outlet at a Garden Centre on the road from Padstow to our B and B. Clive’s choice of accommodation was first-rate. After breakfast we popped into the Garden Centre on our way to Padstow, so that I could look at the rugs. They were beautifully made and the right size for my bed. I chose one in keeping with my bedroom décor and asked the young man in charge of the gift shop if he could post the rug to me in Australia, since it was too big to pack in my suitcase. This was not something which they normally did, but he undertook to make enquiries and provide costings in time for our return before the shop closed at 5 pm.
It took an hour for us to find a parking space in Padstow. The place was overcrowded with families with kids, people with dogs, and retirees. Rick Stein’s presence was ubiquitous – a cookery school near where we parked, a deli, a craft shop, his signature restaurant on the quayside, and, up a hill, his hotel and bistro, where we had a superb lunch. Afterwards we wandered around the harbour with its pleasure and fishing boats. One large trawler had its hatches open. The stench of fish was overpowering, even though the hold was empty. We next drove south to Bedruthan Steps, a noted vantage-point on the cliffs between Padstow and Newquay. The view to the north is of a series of sea stacks framed by a headland. The terrain at the look-out was wind-blown heath. Glancing down on the vegetation next to the path where I stood, I experienced a moment of pure bliss when I noticed a small beetle on the umbel of a shin-high plant with small white flowers. The plant covered a large area between the car park and the cliff edge, and most of the umbels I examined contained a beetle. I surmise it was a species of soldier beetle because of its red carapace. The plant is a sea carrot. In all my years of overseas travel since moving to Australia, this was the first instance of an authentic encounter with the overlooked, which is at the heart of my biodiversity project. On the visual evidence, the beetle population appears to be healthy, but never having seen plant or beetle before, I cannot say with certainty. We arrived at the Garden Centre at about 4.30. The young man confirmed that they could post the item and the only additional charge would be the cost of doing so. Back at the B and B we watched a kingfisher flash past along the creek, next to the garden terrace.
The following day we explored Port Isaac, Port Wen of the Doc Martin tv series. It too was busy, but not as packed as Padstow. The harbour entrance looks narrower when you are there than when you see it on tv. The streets surrounding the quay contained numerous charming old houses. We found an outside table at a centrally located restaurant and had lunch. Leaving Port Isaac, we made our way back to Somerset via Lanhydrock, noted for its extensive park and beautiful gardens which Clive had long wanted to visit. The house is largely Victorian, with some 17th century elements. The gardens lived up to their reputation. The sunny afternoon added to our pleasure.
Clive’s calling is to help people. I felt that this time, I was a demanding guest because of my shopping list. It was clear that I also had to post home the pyjamas I bought in Taunton, for the same reason I posted the rug. Before we left for Cornwall, Clive took me to a post office and found a flat-pack box, which, felicitously, proved to be the right size for the pyjamas. The box had room for the calendar, the opera programme, the Tower of London guide and the Jewish history book. On my final day with Clive I did a crucial clothes wash (I hate travelling with dirty laundry). Clive is an expert packer of parcels. Before we undertook some rural sight-seeing, we went to yet another post office to post the parcel. It was a relief to hand it over. My phone balance was far more depleted than I expected, so I topped-up at the post office in Wiveliscombe, near where Clive lived when he first moved to Somerset. I hoped it would be sufficient to last me to the end of my trip.
The day I said goodbye to Clive, I went from Taunton to Amsterdam by train. Helen met me at Paddington to see me off and we took a taxi to St Pancras for the Eurostar. We hugged farewell at the long check-in queue. The passport queue was nearly as long. Fortunately, I made it to the Brussels train, which departed on time. It saddened me, looking out of the window on my trips to Yorkshire and Somerset, that there were fewer fields with sheep, and those that had sheep, didn’t have as many. Brexit was mentioned as the reason. Once we emerged from the Channel tunnel, passing mostly through productive countryside, I was struck by how empty of hedges the land was, compared with what I had seen in England. This lack persisted when I took the train from Basel to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Bruges and Bruges to Rot Malsch near Mannheim. I spent three days travelling by train around Holland, where one hardly expects to see an abundance of hedges, given the abundance of drainage channels.
When I crossed the border to Holland, my phone died. There were no crossing-the-frontier network messages of welcome, because there was no signal. Next morning, I enlisted the help of the hotel concierge to rectify the problem. Much mortified, he had to admit defeat and I reluctantly determined to buy a new sim card with all the attendant complications. The place where I had been directed was closed and the nearby supermarket didn’t have the brand I wanted. By now I had to check out, and be ready for the transfer to the Avalon cruise boat. I walked on board at around mid-day, registered at reception and asked the receptionist for help with my phone. She tried to fix it without success but said that I should ask the captain. Meanwhile, I decided to see what I could find at Centraal Station, which was a ten-minute walk away. I tried two shops without success and returned to the boat. By great good fortune, the captain was standing at the top of the gangway. We made our introductions and I mentioned that I needed a new sim card, whereupon he asked for my phone and within a few minutes had restored the signal. No wonder he is the captain.
We were only due to sail the following afternoon and had the option of a canal cruise or other excursion. Before dinner we were briefed by the Cruise Director. We were asked to put up our hand when she mentioned the country from which we came. I was the only passenger from Australia. Most people were from the UK or the USA, but there was a family from South Africa, people from Canada and Ireland, and some Germans. The cabin was spacious and luxurious, as was the bathroom. There was a railing in front of the full height sliding doors, much better than a balcony which, would have eaten into the cabin. The food was superb, fine dining at its best, the portions such that one was able to enjoy all the courses. The boat could take 130 passengers, but it was a little over half full on this cruise, so that we benefited from having the care and attention of a complete crew.
Predictably, most of my fellow passengers were baby-boomers. One who wasn’t, was an Englishman who lived in Amsterdam. We became acquainted on the afternoon of the day we boarded the ship. He had joined his brother from England as guests of their mother, who lived in Spain, making the cruise in memory of their late father. When I entered the dining room for breakfast next morning, I nearly had to step over the mother, who was lying on the floor, barely conscious. She had caught her foot as she swivelled to speak to one of her sons, an action which, it turned out, had fractured her hip. She was taken to hospital and the group had to pack their bags and disembark before the voyage even began. After breakfast, I met a couple from Warwickshire. The wife was a leading judge at top dog shows, including Crufts. The husband owned a niche engineering business with military and Formula 1 affiliations. At dinner the previous evening, I sat with a couple in their sixties who were inveterate cruisers, this being but the latest for the year. We would subsequently exchange greetings at various times and locations.
An inescapable spectacle on the river Ij was the immense bulk of the Holland America Line’s newest cruise ship Rotterdam, which dwarfed the International Cruise Terminal where it was moored, a couple of kilometres upstream from our boat. Shortly before we departed, the Rotterdam sailed sedately towards us, an uncanny sight, with a plethora of shipping ranging from ferries and tour boats to speed boats and canoes, criss-crossing in front of her. She is 300 metres long, weighs 100,000 tons, and the superstructure was seven to ten decks high. She passed within two hundred metres of us, moving so slowly that we didn’t feel her wash. One of the several passengers looking on and I, entered into a conversation. He and his wife had been on cruise ships almost as large. When he heard that I was from Australia, he told me about docking in Hobart on the way back from New Zealand and Antarctica. I gazed at the Rotterdam, transfixed, until she disappeared from sight having turned left many kilometres downstream.
Shortly thereafter, our cruise boat got under weigh. At last I was about to find out what happened to the barges I saw sailing upstream, from my hotel window, during my last two stays in Amsterdam. We were navigating the Amsterdam-Rhine canal for the voyage’s first seventy two kilometres, at the end of which were two locks. They were not the deepest we encountered on the voyage, those came towards the end, but they were the largest, over 200 metres long. This is the most used canal in Western Europe. The waterway is broad and tree-lined on both banks, initially shading a well-used foot and cycle path, until they were accompanied by an adjacent road or railway line. The barge traffic, but not the size of the barges, decreased as the cruise progressed. At this time of year, we could view the passing scene after dinner, for several hours before darkness set in. I slept well. The bed was comfortable and our travel was effectively noiseless, so that it seemed as if we were not moving at all.
At our first dinner under steam on our way to Cologne, I befriended a couple, she just eighty, he in his early eighties, who lived near Hull. They were members of local choirs and loved classical music. They had been on Avalon’s Moselle cruise which they thoroughly enjoyed. He was keen to see the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine at Koblenz. Meanwhile, we were gliding past Düsseldorf when I woke up. I was interested in the industrial landscape of Duisburg, but had missed it. After breakfast, I met the wife of the man with whom I had conversed about the Rotterdam. She was Indian. She met her husband in 1972 when they both worked at Dum Dum Airport in Kolkata. I joined them for dinner, as we had India in common. He told me that Duisburg was full of derelict buildings and plant, which made me regret all the more, the fact that I had failed to see it. I alternated much of my time on board with them and with the couple from Hull, either at meal times or watching the world glide by, because we got on so well.
In Cologne, I participated in an underwhelming guided walk of the city centre. I have seen the cathedral several times in at least the past fifty years. What struck me as much as its size and loftiness, was how black its stonework was, particularly the towers and spires of the west front. From being puzzled I grew impatient and this time felt offended by what seemed to me a wilful act of ecclesiastical negligence in not cleaning the cathedral, decades after the public and commercial buildings in the industrial towns of Yorkshire, where I spent my boyhood, were cleaned of the soot and grime which encrusted them, to reveal their original rich cream, yellow and brown colours. The guide explained that the stone could not withstand pressure-cleaning, but I was not convinced, given the mediaeval churches and cathedrals which have been pressure-cleaned in the UK.
I spent the rest of the day onboard, watching the plentiful river traffic and conversing with some of the passengers, as one does. A husband and wife described the horror journey they endured getting from their home in Keswick, where she had just completed a term as Mayoress, to Manchester airport to catch the flight to Amsterdam. They became collateral damage in a motorway accident, driving over debris of a vehicle which had swerved onto the hard shoulder and hit a wall. The impact of the debris on their car, forced them to find the nearest car park, where they contacted friends in Lancaster who collected them in time for their flight. I spoke to a man of eighty who was looking forward to spending six weeks in the apartment he and his wife owned in Saas Fée, after disembarking in Basel. She wasn’t an outgoing person and hardly uttered a word. He is a passionate skier and they spend six weeks in the apartment in Winter.
We departed Cologne on a balmy evening, enjoying the lights on either bank of the river. Eventually, they dwindled to an almost complete darkness. I had made a mental note to get up early to see the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle. Alas, I wasn’t early enough. What I saw of Koblenz was the part of town upstream of the confluence. Koblenz marks the start of the constant parade of fairy-tale castles adorning each side of the Rhine Gorge. Nearly all have ancient origins. Some were destroyed by the French and were rebuilt. Others have remained more or less intact, many are partly ruined. A number have been converted into hotels and restaurants. A few are not open to view. From the deck I marvelled at each sighting while looking forward to the next. Railways ran along both banks. The line on the left carried mostly freight, that on the right, passengers on one of the world’s great rail journeys, a rare combination of historic architecture and dramatic scenery. Our whole cruise was its riverine, more varied, leisurely and longer equivalent.
We moored for the night at Rüdesheim in the afternoon of a hot day. Having been fried while watching the changing view from the sun deck, with no effective shade, I walked to town to buy postcards to send to Australia, and sun block, deciding it would be foolhardy to continue surveying the world from such an exposed position. After dinner I again walked to town to post the cards, noting that they would be collected at 8 am. Our first stop after Rüdesheim was Mainz where we had the option of seeing the cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum or a day trip to Heidelberg, with a pick-up en route to Mannheim, our overnight destination.
It was on this stretch of the river that what proved to be the hardest to explain sight of the whole cruise, occurred. Between human settlements, the banks are generally shaded by trees, or have bushes growing on them. Regularly, there are sandy beaches which give swimmers and dogs ready access to the water. The last thing one would expect to see on such a beach, is a flock of sheep – cattle yes (though I don’t recall seeing any), sheep no. But this is what I saw. I estimated that there were more than a hundred of them. They were close together, most standing, some lying down, but none drinking. I couldn’t detect anyone in charge of them. Seeing the sheep, made my day.
My new vantage point was on the upper deck in front of the lounge. It was sheltered by the projecting sun deck. There were four or five tables with umbrellas and comfortable chairs and a settee against the curve of the lounge bulkhead. Having been to Heidelberg, I chose to stay in Mainz. The cathedral is one of three architecturally important Romanesque buildings in this part of Germany, the others being at Worms and Speyer. All have multiple towers with spires and an elaborate crossing. Mainz and Speyer date from the 11th century, Worms, from the 12th. The core of the Gutenberg Museum is a strong room, sealed by a thick steel door, which contains three copies of his bible, bound in leather, in a dimly lit glass case – a reverential sight. Our guide had previously given a very workmanlike demonstration of the printing process which Gutenberg invented. After lunch, we continued on our way to Mannheim. I made sure I saw the confluence of the Main and Rhine. Its width and look reflected the need to facilitate barge traffic and nothing more. Much of the journey from Koblenz was through wine producing country. The slopes of the gorge and the ensuing hillsides, were full of vines. I was delighted to see a sign amidst the vineyards on the west bank, some twenty kilometres from Mainz, proclaiming Nierstein, and shortly thereafter the eponymous village with its landing stage. Nierstein is known for a particular wine of which I was very fond, when I lived in England. We passed Worms during dinner and I dashed up to the sun deck to try and catch sight of the cathedral. I believe I saw its towers among a plethora competing for my attention.
I didn’t expect to see so many silos in Germany (according to google, the country produced over 40 million tons of grain in 2020-21) nor so many industrial plants on this part of the river. The larger works had docks with cranes and barges tied alongside. The presence of power stations was to be expected. Germany is famed for its chemical industry, of which there was copious evidence on the Rhine, culminating in the gargantuan BASF plant stretching many kilometres along the river at Ludwigshafen and deep inland.
We left Mannheim during the night for Strasbourg, which we reached after breakfast. We moored some distance from the city centre, and had to board a bus to get there. Until I heard our guide talk about the subject, I hadn’t realised how contested between France and Germany this part of the world was and for how long. The shifting border sometimes dividing streets. The 20th century inflicted at least as much pain as earlier troubled epochs. We had free time after visiting the cathedral, where I admired the stained glass and west front graced by the tallest surviving mediaeval spire (the astronomical clock left me cold after I found out that its mechanism was made in the 19th century). My steps took me to an impressive and intriguing church that we had passed on our way to the cathedral. Originally catholic when work started in the late 12th century, a hall church with five aisles, it became a protestant place of worship in the 16th century. For me, its most memorable feature was a marvellous 15th century mural of St Michael which covered nearly all of the end wall of an aisle.
An American couple had embarked on the boat without their suitcases which apparently were stuck at Boston Airport. The cruise director was assiduously on the case several times a day (no pun intended, but what the hell) without success. The man held off buying clothes for the first day or two, but was forced to do so thereafter. The elderly husband of a British couple was minus his suitcase, last seen at Gatwick. It contained crucial medication for his prostate condition which needed to be taken daily.
Our penultimate port of call was Breisach, a little gem. The town occupies a modest eminence on the east bank of the Rhine, the mass of the cathedral at one end used to be balanced by a castle which no longer exists, at the other. Rather than go on the day tour to the Black Forest, I opted to revisit Colmar. I had been there with my parents on one of our holidays in the ‘fifties. The memory of its beauty and its famed Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grünewald had stayed with me ever since. Colmar was but a short drive across the Rhine from Breisach. Our guide took us on a comprehensive walk which did full justice to the town’s attractions. A couple from Ireland and I joined him to see the Isenheim Altar. The rest of the party were left to their own devices until we all met to return to our bus. My recollection is that in the ‘fifties, the altar was in a mediaeval church where the side panels were shown, but not the wings. Now it is in a museum in a former 13th century convent, so that its architectural setting belongs to the Middle Ages, whereas the way it is displayed is characteristic of an art gallery. The benefit is that one can view all of the altar’s panels. I had just enough time to buy postcards to send to the UK before catching the bus back to Breisach.
Many of the places we saw and visited on the cruise suffered severe bomb damage during the Second World War but have been sympathetically restored to their former appearance. Colmar was fortunate in not being bombed. Breisach some 20 kilometres away as the crow flies, was not so lucky. 86% of the town was destroyed. The upper town in particular, has been lovingly rebuilt. Although the cathedral was bombed, its mediaeval treasures were removed into safe storage.
The Colmar tour was only half a day. After lunch I boarded the wine-tasting tour bus, but got off at the start of the walk to Breisach’s upper town. The heat made the climb more demanding. Half way to the top, I passed through a town gate, one of two or three that remain of the town’s original fortifications. The path brought me to the cathedral, a compact building mixing Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The early 16th century carved wooden reredos above the high altar is stunning. It is regarded as one of the most important monuments of German sculpture. I walked the length of the upper town from the cathedral. At its midway point, I arrived at the ancient Radbrunnen, a lofty tower over a well forty metres deep, housing a massive wheel with which water used to be wound to the surface. I descended to the lower town by a different path, seeking a café in which to enjoy German culture in the form of coffee and cake with cream. I had to wander for quite a while until I came to the tourist centre, found my café, placed my order and sat down to write my UK-bound postcards. The coffee and cake with cream were up to standard. A young man from the café accompanied me to a letter box and I walked back to the boat. At dinner, the daughter of the South African couple popped over to the table I was sharing with my friends from Hull, to show them some photos she had taken of the Black Forest tour, which they also went on. She was studying medicine and spoke passionately about her studies. It was a joy to hear her.
After dinner we departed for Basel. We had to negotiate a total of eight locks on the shortest leg of the cruise, one being the deepest on the river at over fifteen metres. Entering it felt like going into a tunnel. The speed with which the locks filled was most impressive. Looking at the lock wall, one could see the boat rise. In the evening I made my fond farewells to numbers of my fellow passengers and to the two couples I befriended early in the voyage. I also thanked members of the crew who had looked after me so well, particularly the cruise director, a lady of grace and charm from Germany, and the young Italian receptionist. We docked in Basel during the night. I had ample time for breakfast. A cab had been booked to take me to the station to catch the 10.13 train to Frankfurt am Main central station, on my way back to Amsterdam. The captain, no less, loaded my luggage into the cab and I thanked him for his impeccable handling of the cruise. He stayed on the bridge one night when there was only 70 cm of water beneath his boat. His affability and visibility went down extremely well with the passengers.
Next time, god willing, I travel with a Eurail pass, I shall not book seats months in advance. I requested window seats facing the direction of travel. The request was either ignored, or I was given a seat next to a bulkhead, with only half a window to look through. Luckily, I was usually able to find a better seat in the carriage. My holiday, until the end of the Rhine cruise, had been plain sailing, but for the ensuing six days, I had to work really hard. The first glitch was the cancellation of my connection to Amsterdam from Frankfurt, forcing me to find another way to get there. That train too was cancelled, so I was faced with a two hour stay in the vicinity of the station. I managed to park my luggage in a nearby hotel and went in search of a late lunch. Never have I seen so many drug-crazed individuals. None of the London termini were thus plagued, nor Amsterdam central station. Compounding the horror were the overflowing garbage bins and containers which sullied the streets and pavements. I could not believe that the financial capital of Germany would allow its streets to be seen in this condition. At Cologne, we were told that the part of the train we were in, had broken down, so we had to dash to the front part. Luckily, I found a seat immediately behind the driver’s cabin, which I had to give up at Duisburg to the lady who had reserved it. Fortunately, a lady on the opposite side of the aisle behind me, had a spare seat next to her. Had my journey gone to plan, I would have arrived in Amsterdam at 5.30 pm. Instead, it was 10.30 when I checked in at my hotel, only to find that the tv in my room wasn’t working, with the prospect of having to change rooms next day, if the hotel’s IT expert couldn’t fix it.
A notable change since my last stay in Amsterdam is the need to book an entry to the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum, which the concierge did next morning for the morrow and the day after. In common with continental practice, museums and galleries are closed on Monday. This allowed me a day to explore new towns, so I took the train to Zwolle, noting that I could return to Amsterdam by a different route. I arrived at lunch time and was pleased to see that wildflowers had been encouraged to grow at the side of the road opposite the station and in grassed areas separating traffic lanes. Wildflower planting is widespread in public places in England and whole fields are given over to it by farmers. I also noted municipal wildflower planting in Breisach and Bruges.
Walking along the main street, lined with mature trees, which led to the town centre, I passed a prosperous looking old-fashioned hotel with a spacious veranda set with tables. The end of the street overlooked the remains of the water defences which surrounded Zwolle, typical of many Dutch towns. The lawned gun emplacements now adorned with trees, forming a spacious park with people relaxing on the grass. My eye was immediately drawn to an enormous city gate towering above the trees and buildings around it, which I longed to see close-up. But because I was nearer the hotel and lunch beckoned, that is where I went. The hotel was built some ninety years ago. I sat down at a table in the opulent bar with its elaborate timber counter, and asked the young woman who came to serve me, if I could have some crisp white bread, butter, tomatoes and Dutch cheese, with a bottle of beer. I had enjoyed such a lunch, minus the tomatoes, in Alkmaar, twelve years ago. I knew this was not on the menu, but it is what I fancied and I was sure that all the ingredients were available. Baffled, the girl withdrew to speak to the manager. He approached me, listened to my request and promptly assured me that I could have the wish-fulfilment I craved. A part of me knew that this would happen. Life does not get any better. Thus fortified, I entered the city via the Sassenpoort. It was built in 1408 and is forty two metres high. The city is a delight, with old churches, houses, and long stretches of its mediaeval wall and a number of towers, lining a broad canal. One half of a large late gothic church, is a bookshop with a gallery, organ and original ceiling paintings.
At the station, I asked some railway workers which of Deventer and Apeldoorn was more worthy of a visit, as both were on the return route to Amsterdam. To a man they replied Deventer, whither I caught the next train. The city is on the river Ijssel and is one of the oldest in the country. It too is replete with ancient houses lining narrow streets. It has its great church, set in a square, which is a typical component of old Dutch cityscapes. Deventer’s extremely long principal square is framed by the sixteenth century weigh house at its narrower end. The day was hot, building to the extreme heat forecast for tomorrow. I was ready to return to the station and board an airconditioned train. Except that I learned that it was impossible to travel via Appeldoorn. I had to take a train back to Zwolle. At Deventer station I watched some jackdaws flying to and fro, before perching on the handlebars of some of the bicycles in the stack next to the entrance. Even then, the ride to Amsterdam was delayed. I was experiencing the Dutch equivalent of the German system failure which had bedevilled my trip from Basel. I got back to my hotel two hours late and was told that I would have to change rooms, as the tv had not been fixed. It was nudging ten o’clock by the time I packed my belongings. The duty manager helped carry them to the new room and offered me a complimentary drink. We settled on two bottles of chilled apple juice, whereupon, I called it a night.
Given the heat of the day dedicated to my visit to the Mauritshuis, I bought extra water and set out for Den Haag. After a fifteen to twenty minute walk from the station, I arrived at my favourite art gallery in the world. To paraphrase the quote “history is one damned thing after another”, the Dutch Golden Age is one damned (brilliant) painter after another. To further paraphrase, Holland is one damned gem of a venerable old town after another. They are thicker on the ground than anywhere else.
The Mauritshuis contains marvellous floral paintings. One that I didn’t recall from my previous visits, was by Abraham Mignon. When I am in the presence of artistic mastery, my response is to marvel that a human hand could paint (or draw) what I see in front of me. So it was with the Mignon. So it is with Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, all the more because it is an early work, and Vermeer’s View of Delft. Something else that I hadn’t previously registered was the existence of two Van Ruisdaels, Jakob and Salomon, both consummate landscape painters. Jakob is the better known. A curator at the Rijksmuseum told me that they were cousins. Hobbema is another of my favourite Dutch landscape painters. Mysteriously, I was unable to recall his presence in the collection, so I was thrilled to behold his glorious Cottages in a Forest. One painting that I could not have seen before was Boy Blowing Bubbles, a stunning picture. The postcard I bought of it is bigger than the actual painting, which is by Caspar Netscher. It was acquired since my visit in 2016. After a late lunch in the café, I bought my postcard of boy blowing bubbles in the gift shop, but couldn’t find a card of the Mignon flower painting. I did find my perfect souvenir to give to family and friends in Australia, namely a lovely Royal Delft dish with a bird on a flowering bush and a pretty floral border. I bought eight. The lady in charge of the shop went off to search for a box. I left the gallery carrying a large bag containing the box and my man-bag. Feeling weighed down in the heat, I decided to return to Amsterdam without stopping off at Leiden and Delft. The temperature reached 38° in the city.
The concierge ordered a taxi to take me to the Rijksmuseum. It had cooled down and rain threatened. A whole floor was devoted to the best paintings of the Golden Age. The focus was Rembrandt’s Night Watch which is undergoing a ten year restoration. It was on display, the canvas stretched and secured on a frame, the damaged areas covered with tell-tale patches, awaiting treatment. The painting was due to be removed to the studio for further remedial work. I enjoyed the bonus of viewing the splendid Oppenheim Meissen collection in one of the Golden Age suite of galleries. I then gravitated to the room which contained the Vermeers. In his painting of a Delft street scene featuring his aunt’s house, the buildings have iron tie bars which appear to have been part of the original construction, whereas I assumed that tie bars were always a later addition. With a free afternoon ahead, having had to use my umbrella on the way to the nearest underground station from the museum, I took the train to Haarlem from Centraal Station.
The walk to the Grote Kerk is always a pleasure. I pass familiar landmarks, most notably a fine Hofjes or alms house, cross over two canals and behold the immense church, hemmed in by old shops, which seem to be part of its fabric. The 14th century City Hall is the focal point at the other end of the bustling Grote Markt, which is lined with trees on one side and substantial 17th century buildings on the other. A short walk from the market square leads to the river Spaarn. A preponderance of commercial and office premises occupied the street on the west bank, dwellings, the street on the east bank. I turned towards the Amsterdamse Poort, the one remaining mediaeval gate of the original twelve. Passing through it, I strolled towards a very large smock windmill, dating from 1779, which is a treasured landmark. As I walked, the indomitable will of biodiversity was confirmed anew in the form of hollyhocks surging to full height in the tiny gap between the edge of the pavement and the front of a house. In seeking to retrace my steps to the station, I passed a hofjes under restoration in a street unknown to me. My railway woes resumed. I could not return to Amsterdam along the route of my outward journey, though I was told I could travel part of the way and change trains to get round the problem. This information was erroneous, so I was directed to return to Haarlem only to find out that I needed to catch a train to Schiphol Airport and change there to proceed to Centraal Station.
My new destination was Bruges. I had to change trains in Brussels. I thought Bruges was a lot closer to the Belgian capital than eighty kilometres, but the train was fast and covered the distance in an hour with a stop in Liege. The Low Countries share a marvellous ability to imbue their ancient towns and cities with a varied skyline of lofty towers and riotous spires. In Liege, Mechelen and Bruges, all on the same line from Brussels, Belgium has three of the best. My hotel, originally a ducal palace, was in the heart of Bruges. My room overlooked the garden. I had forgotten how extensive the old town centre is. It was far larger than Zwolle and Deventer. The city has a more mediaeval aspect than many of its Dutch counterparts, due to its heyday occurring earlier in its history. The ecclesiastical, civic and public buildings are on a lavish scale. Endearingly, they are surrounded by streets of modest houses, like those in Holland, though unlike in Holland, there were far fewer trees on the streets lining the canals. The first thing I did to start my only full day In Bruges, was to hand in some laundry. That, and breakfast done, I set out to enjoy more of the city’s delights, starting with buying a guide book, followed by a canal tour. The captain was informative and humorous in three languages. I can’t fathom how he did this, given the zillions of tours he has conducted, requiring him to endlessly repeat his commentary. More power to him. I had made a mental note to see Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele in the Groeningemuseum. I was sitting on a canal-side bench perusing the guide, when I happened to turn round with the book open at the page featuring the museum and realised that I was seated across the road from its entrance. My next port of call decided itself. The museum was devoted to Flemish art from the Middle Ages to the present. I now added the Van Eyck to the list of paintings which make me dumbfounded at the dexterity of the human hand. After lunch at a café in the market square, I set off to find the windmills at the north-eastern edge of the city. I completed a meandering route to reach them, in part because my sense of direction is not as good as it used to be, encountering rain along the way, which persisted until I got back to the hotel, where I had left my umbrella. I wasn’t drenched, but I had to change my clothes before dinner. The afternoon walk confirmed what I had already found out on this trip; that I can stay on my feet for as long as I could six years ago, which pleased me, though my pace is slower.
My laundry, which should have awaited me in my room, was not there. I informed the management, who instigated a search. It had not been found when I checked with them after dinner, nor the next morning before breakfast. I felt that the hotel wasn’t really bothered. All I could do was leave my email and postal addresses when I checked out, making it clear that I would expect compensation if the hotel lost my garments. Annoying as all this undoubtedly was, I did not let it cloud my enjoyment of revisiting Bruges after an interval of more than sixty years.
From Bruges, I went by train to Malsch, near Mannheim, to spend a few days with Peter and Gaby. I had to change at Brussels, braving the Saturday crush of passengers travelling beyond Belgium, just making my connection to Cologne. The train stopped at Ghent, which has a splendid modern station. In Cologne, I left the Intercity express, to catch the regional express to Mannheim. It was almost as fast and quite as comfortable. Just after Bonn, we ran alongside the Rhine. I soon realised that we were replicating the route of the cruise. As we crossed the mouth of the Moselle at Koblenz, I at last had a fine view of its confluence with the Rhine and recognised with enormous pleasure that I was on one of those trains I had seen from the boat, snaking through the Rhine Gorge. I had a clearer, though briefer view of the castles on the opposite bank. At Mannheim I caught the train to Rot Malsch via Heidelberg and was relieved to see Peter on the platform. He and Gaby have made major changes to their house, including a completely refurbished kitchen, bathroom and stairwell. I opted for a bedroom on the first floor. In 2016 I slept in the cellar because it was the coolest place in the house.
The day after my arrival I shouted lunch at the same hotel in nearby Rauenberg which Peter chose six years ago. I had invited Christina, the initial architect of my website, with whom I have kept in touch ever since. She has fairly recently returned to Frankfurt, about an hour’s drive from Malsch, after three years working for Ove Arup in Mexico City. It was a pleasure seeing her again and we all enjoyed the meal in the hotel’s elegant courtyard. We returned to Malsch and had coffee and an excellent cake, made by Gaby.
Speyer is quite close to Malsch. The cathedral is the grandest of the trio of influential, German Romanesque churches along the Upper Rhine. It has a history of war damage inflicted by the French but retains sufficient of its 11th century work to convey the impact of the original building, although the 19th century murals below the clerestory spoiled the appearance of the interior. Our perambulation of mediaeval Speyer was affected by the heat of the day, which was not conducive to energetic sightseeing. It became more a quest for a decent lunch than a celebration of the city’s attractions, because so many of the hostelries were closed and most of those that were open seemed to be ice cream parlours, which were doing a brisk trade. Nevertheless, we covered plenty of ground in our search for a restaurant, deviating from the main street to find out what some of the side streets had to offer. At the opposite end of the main street to the cathedral, stands Speyer’s obligatory dominating town gate, fifty five metres high. Its lower portion is early 13th century, above which is an early 16th century rebuild, topped by a twenty metre high early 18th century roof. I thought that these monumental structures reflected a need to intimidate the populace by an overlord, a tendency which persisted on the continent, but not in England, which became politically settled earlier. I recently read that Zwolle’s Sassenpoort was built to proclaim the city’s prestige, which may also have been true of its equivalent in Speyer. Gaby thought the restaurant closures were due to the lurking ravages of the pandemic on tourism. The place was markedly less crowded than the ones we visited on the cruise. Back home, Peter and Gaby asked me where I wanted to go on the morrow. My wish was to see the abbey at Maulbronn.
To get there, we drove partly on the motorway and partly on the scenic route. In a little over an hour we descended to the bottom of the valley where the monastery, in true Cistercian fashion, was located, to take advantage of its watercourse. One’s first sight, approaching the gatehouse, is of a range of substantial buildings extending behind the abbey wall to the left and a group of smaller buildings on the right, close to the slope of the hill occupied by much of the town. Once through the gatehouse one is funnelled into a massive paved courtyard, with half-timbered and stone structures built to support the trade and daily sustenance of the monastic community, some distance to the left, and a stupendous early 13th century barn on the right. The church and monastery buildings close off the courtyard. The church is not massive. I have not discovered how many monks lived in Maulbronn, but if size of church and number of monks are correlated, then Fountains Abbey, with its much bigger church, suggests a greater number of monks. A similar comparison can be made with the lay-brothers accommodation. But Maulbronn’s location in a town and the huge scale of the secular buildings, suggest that there was no need for the workforce to be housed in the ecclesiastical accommodation. Consequently, the ground plan is atypical of a Cistercian foundation, usually isolated deep in the countryside, like Fountains Abbey, for which a large number of lay-brothers was required to carry out the monastery’s ancillary work. The great glory of Maulbronn is that it is arguably Europe’s best-preserved mediaeval monastery, whereas Fountains is one the finest ruins. The weather was ideal for a thorough exploration of the buildings, the walls and the water supply beyond the walls. My time in Maulbronn was an utter delight.
When we visited Speyer cathedral, we passed the entrance to the Technik Museum on our way to the car park. For my last full day with Peter and Gaby, we decided to go to the museum. It is a wonderfully anarchic destination. The external exhibits comprise aircraft, helicopters, boats, even a submarine. The internal exhibits I saw include railway engines, fire engines, vintage cars, trucks and buses, military vehicles, fairground attractions and machinery packed into a huge, sky-lit old industrial building. A number of the steam engines are set up so that the driving wheels turn and steam and sound are produced when a coin is inserted in a slot next to the information panel; very effective and entertaining. Other machines can be brought to life at the drop of a coin. The space flight exhibition is housed in a purpose-built hall, across the way. All the exhibits are Russian, including the shuttle (a copy of the USA’s Columbia) and the space suits – evidently a consequence of Germany’s long-lasting Ostpolitik and a jarring note after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two wide galleries around the hall house an exhibition of motor bikes, which is right up Peter’s street. We spent some time looking at them, without progressing beyond the first gallery. Many external exhibits are accessible, even the 747 which is many metres off the ground, as if it were flying. Russia is also well represented here with large helicopters and a heavy-lift plane. There is an engaging randomness about the layout of the collection both indoors and out. It looks as if it has been selected by enthusiasts. Visitor access to the ships and planes and the space shuttle is a high point. Some of the vintage vehicles show their age, others have been restored to their original glitz and glamour. The information panels contain plenty of easily read technical information. Commendably, the emphasis is not on slick presentation, but on fitting in as wide a range of exhibits as possible. I had a great day out at the museum. I have been to nothing like it.
Before we set off to the museum, Peter put my clothes in the washing machine and I hung them out to dry, in readiness for packing that evening, prior to my departure for Frankfurt airport next day. My time with Peter and Gaby could not have been more enjoyable. I could not thank them enough for all they did to make my stay so comfortable and content-rich. We agreed that it would be excellent to do it all again in two years’ time, by when the outside of the house should have been painted.
The return journey was uneventful and as pleasant as travelling on the trot for 23 hours can be, even allowing for the comfort of flying business class. That the journey was uneventful was entirely due to my good luck in being directed by a member of Singapore Airlines ground staff, to tag along with an airport official who was looking after a lady on my flight who couldn’t speak English and was something of a lost soul. The official, who seemed to have an ‘access all areas’ clearance, guided us to the front of the huge security and passport control queues and dropped me off at the Singapore Airlines lounge. If it were not for her, I may have missed my flight.
In saying that the journey was uneventful, I wasn’t quite correct. A couple of hours or so from landing in Brisbane, the cabin in darkness save for some reading lights and the fluctuating glare of in-flight entertainment screens, I raised my window blind, noted the mottled pattern of light and shade on the ground as we flew above the clouds at 11,000 metres, and was stunned to see Kata Tjuta appearing almost in touching distance of Uluru, god knows how many miles to the South. Instead of making landfall over the Northern Territory, we had crossed the Australian coast over Western Australia.
I picked up my car from the off-airport car park. Someone had switched on a mechanism which prevented me from drifting to another lane. This made the drive home unnerving, exacerbated by rain, darkness and the long flight. It was the last thing I needed. I got back to my flat at 10.30 pm and found it in good order. All was well.
PS By now you may be wondering what became of my missing laundry. There was no email from the hotel when I switched on my computer after a record-breaking ten hour sleep. I heard nothing for the next thirteen days, which prompted me to address a fairly stiff email to the Manager. Kathy, who retired from being an ace trouble-shooter for Australia Post last year, sent me an email with the general manager’s name and two email addresses. I now addressed the email to him and got an answer straight away. He had just returned from a business trip, knew about what had happened, apologised wholeheartedly, and told me that the items had been retrieved, but couldn’t confirm any postage details. I was in the process of replying to him when I received an email from Australia Post saying that an overseas package addressed to me, was awaiting customs clearance in Sydney. I added the information to my reply with a request that he explain why I had not been told that the items had been retrieved. His next email contained a further apology, but no explanation. I collected the package three days later.