Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alice in Wonderland exhibit rounds out our trip to London

On our last morning in London we made our way to the British Library to see "Happy Birthday Alice" which celebrates 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But first we had our morning espresso with our last mince pie of the trip in the library restaurant.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1865, was originally entitled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. It was written by the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). The tale was first told by Carroll on 4 July 1862, to the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on a river boat trip. The children, especially Alice, adored the story and begged Carroll to write it down. It took him until February 1863 to write out the whole text, taking great pains to write in neat ‘manuscript print’, designed for the young Alice to read. Once the text was complete, Carroll began to add the illustrations which give a charming impression of his own vision of Wonderland and its inhabitants.

The author gradually revised and expanded the tale, publishing it with illustrations by John Tenniel. "Alice" is underpinned by encounters with talking animals, magic potions, problems with scale and nonsensical ideas.

I really enjoyed the exhibition which contains an extraordinary array of Alice-inspired material, from the original manuscript in beautiful script to computer games designed by undergraduates at De Montfort University. There were toys, tea caddies, Edwardian films and psychedelic posters. I was very pleased to find what I think was the same postwar edition of Alice that I had as a child complete with the same red cover.

The saga of the original manuscript is as surreal as anything in the book itself. Carroll gave Alice the illustrated manuscript, which, later in life and strapped for cash, she sold to an American collector for the then astronomical sum of £15,000. After exchanging hands several times, the book was bought by a group of wealthy American anglophiles who presented it to the British people in recognition of the country’s gallantry in World War II. The Librarian of Congress brought the priceless volume to Britain on the Queen Mary, sleeping with it under his pillow, and it was accepted on behalf of the Nation by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Carroll’s effortful pen-and-ink illustrations, influenced by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, clearly formed the basis for John Tenniel’s illustration of the original edition – which, despite the hundreds of subsequent re-imaginings, remain many people’s idea of the essential Alice. We were shown the original woodblocks and vintage copies, and the way Tenniel’s elaborately worked engravings maintain a poker face despite the patent absurdity of the imagery – mad-hatters, Cheshire cats and all – perfectly encapsulates the book’s eccentric Victorian spirit.

The expiring of copyright in 1907, however, brought a flood of new versions, from Arthur Rackham’s exquisite art nouveau images to Mabel Lucy Attwell’s sugary, rosy-cheeked reading. In the Thirties, Alice became a vehicle for satire, with instantly recognisable figures such as Stanley Baldwin and Hitler taking the roles of the Griffin and the Dodo, while Ralph Steadman’s extraordinary ink-spattered Sixties version is an allegory on consumerism, with the White Rabbit a harassed commuter.

Sadly, we had to leave Alice and become commuters ourselves as we returned to Piccadilly Circus to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the Picturehouse Central in part of the Trocadero building. This wonderful cinema in the heart of London includes a lovely cafeteria on the first floor and restaurant upstairs. We didn't have much time so we bought a delicious Melton mowbray pie and some salad for lunch. We had to get a doggy bag for the pie. This came in very handy in the movie when we were hungry. What can be better than watching Star Wars in 3D and eating a pork pie?

Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage followed by an interminable ride to Victoria Station for the Gatwick Express. We were lucky as we jumped on a delayed express and got the last two seats. Our plan worked out well as we just had time for a quick dinner in Jamie's Italian restaurant before our flight home.

Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench light up the stage

We had planned a very busy day. First of all we did our final M&S shopping accompanied by a nice cup of tea and mince pie. The mince pie a day theory didn't really work since we forgot to have one yesterday.

Once more we made the trip to Leicester Square where we found a nice pub for a steak pie lunch. It was quite an elegant pie complete with mashed potatoes and kale and beans. At least part of the meal was healthy.

Then we went back to the Garrick to see Shakespeare's tragicomedy "A Winter"s Tale" with Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. The story follows King Leontes (Branagh) in a search for redemption after his obsessive jealousy destroys his family and divides the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.

Branagh brilliantly portrayed Leontes’ descent into madness. His easy smile becomes a grimace as he observes what he thinks are tell-tale signs of adultery by his wife, Hermione. All because she is so eager for his oldest friend, Bohemian monarch Polixenes, to stay on as a guest.

Within the blink of a deranged eye, Branagh was reeling, drunk with self-made poison, his speech faltering as the mania gripped him. His nearest and dearest become abhorrent to him, his son dies, his wife apparently follows suit and their new-born daughter is abandoned then lost.

The lost daughter is at the centre of the second, comedic act. The abandoned infant, rescued by a shepherd has grown into a beauty. A local prince, son of Polixenes, has fallen in love with her. The father is enraged when he discovers his son wooing a commoner, but then her true identity comes to light and the happy group board ship for Sicily.

In the final act we see a grey, withered, broken Leontes, after 16 years of penitence. It turns out his wife is not dead but has been under a spell, not to be broken until the return of the daughter. Which is exactly what happens.

That climactic, tearful reunion is presided over by Judi Dench’s wise, grave, lady-at-court Paulina. Dame Judi’s powers remain undimmed and it is a pleasure to listen to her unique raspy voice. Finally, restored to a youthful bloom after a trial scene that washed all colour from her – is Leontes' wife, Hermione, a study in wronged womanhood.

The play was three hours long but worth every minute of it. It isn't every day you get a chance to see the 80-year-old Judi Dench perform with Kenneth Branagh.

Once again outside we found Leicester Square busier than ever, thronged with fans awaiting the Star Wars premiere. Roads were blocked, a helicopter flew overhead, masses of people were everywhere and several screens were previewing the movie outside the theatre. Only people with passes were allowed anywhere near the red carpet area. All we could see were a few storm troopers in amongst the crowds. There was a huge queue for the midnight show as well.

We made our way over to Piccadilly for the evening performance of the Burt Bacharach jukebox musical, "Close to You." Some 30 classical songs were stripped back and repackaged for the show. The stage was decked out in Bohemian bric-a-brac of old sofas, lamps and suspended guitars. The music was rock and roll with a hint of heavy metal, not your regular Bacharach.

I found it a little disjointed. The musicians were very good but some of the music, Strains from Magic Moments reverberate against the melody of Trains And Boats And Planes. Walk On By, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and Close To You blur into each other like some mysterious musical mirage.

After our heavy day of plays we decided to have a good walk from Piccadilly through Hyde Park before we jumped on the tube.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

More theatre, this time a dark comedy about a retired hangman

In the evening it was back to an incredibly busy Leicester Square to see the play, 'Hangmen.' The opening scene featured a very grim looking prison cell where a hanging was about to take place.

'Hangmen' is a black comedy about a retired executioner, Harry Wade played by David Morrissey and presumably named after real-life hangmen Harry Allen and Stephen Wade. The story unfolds in the smoky lung of a Manchester pub run by this dour, upright local celebrity.

We drop in on Harry on the day that hanging is abolished in 1965. A baby-faced newspaperman wants an interview. Any mention of ‘celebrity’ executioner Albert Pierrepoint gets Harry’s goat. The regulars slip into an easy hierarchy of knockabout male power. But matters turn uneasy when a cocky young southerner, Mooney, starts to ingratiate himself at the pub. Unease turns to dread when Harry’s daughter, Shirley goes missing and Harry’s former assistant, Syd has suspicions about the culprit.

The play is very funny with hints of farce to sweeten the menace. ‘Hangmen’ lives and breathes its period with the smoke machine in overdrive. There’s a hint of 1960s cinema in ‘Hangmen’ too. That partly comes via the northern kitchen-sink dramas of the decade, but it’s also there in how young Mooney nods to the discomforting modish charm of the likes of Malcolm McDowell. It certainly had a hint of Clockwork Orange.

For all its talk of hanging and abolition, this isn’t a political play. It’s more about the past catching up with the present, and about power and pride among men. A hangman might wield power over his victim – but there’s always someone round the corner with a bigger, longer rope if he’s not careful. It’s a vicious, funny play, stained with nicotine and nihilism. It was most enjoyable.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tate exhibition shows Pop art from around the world

Tuesday morning found us at the Tate Modern to see the EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop. This was a groundbreaking exhibition revealing how artists around the world engaged with the spirit of Pop, from Latin America to Asia, and from Europe to the Middle East. Around 160 works from the 1960s and 1970s were brought together at Tate exploding the traditional story of Pop art and showing how different cultures contributed, re-thought and responded to the movement.

Pop art is generally considered an Anglo-American phenomenon, associated with such artists as Andy Warhol. This exhibition reveals the alternative stories of Pop, highlighting key figures of the era who have often been left out of mainstream art history. It also reveals how Pop was never just a celebration of Western consumerism, but was often a subversive international language for criticism and public protest across the globe. I found this really interesting as the pop art from behind the Iron Curtain took up the same causes as western pop art.

Reacting to the market and media dominance of post-war America, Pop art arose in many countries and communities as an overtly political, destabilising force. The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop shows how artists used this visual language to critique its capitalist origins while benefiting from its mass appeal and graphic power.

Pop’s comic-book blondes and advertising models have become familiar images of the idealised female body, but this exhibition also reveals the many women artists who presented alternative visions. It was a really colourful and interesting.

We also explored the regular exhibitions at the Tate. One of my favourite pictures was The Weeping Woman by Picasso expressing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The other picture I really liked was a Miro called Message from a Friend.

After a simple lunch of fish and chips and two lovely Fenteman's colas we were lighter in our pockets by $85.00 CAD. And I scrape the batter off my fish. We set off across the Thames on the pedestrian bridge walking along the Embankment to the Temple.

The Temple is one of the main legal districts of the capital and a notable centre for English law, both historically and in the present day. The Temple area of the City of London consists of the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, which are two of the four Inns of Court and act as local authorities in place of the City of London Corporation within their areas. Although it had started to drizzle it was a lovely walk through the buildings housing the barrister's and solicitor's offices. We didn't go in to the Temple Church but stood outside for awhile listening to a choir practicing.

We had a quiet smile as we walked past a shop called Timson's on our way to the Old Bailey. For those of you who are Rumpole fans you will remember that the Timson's family were a great source of income for Rumpole. The Royal Courts of Justice or Old Bailey was finished for the day and we couldn't get access. Another time we will make more time for this visit.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sticker shock along Regent Street, and another great play

Before leaving home we checked the London weather, and packed what we thought were appropriate clothes. However, we weren't prepared for a change in the forecast with temperatures hitting 15 degrees Celsius. The skating rink outside the British Museum began to look like a giant puddle. Every shop we went in had their winter heat on making shopping very uncomfortable. With all this in mind we set off to explore Waterstones. It is a real pleasure for us to go to an English bookshop and actually pick up books and look at them deciding if they would make our book shopping list. We started in the basement with an espresso and scone and worked our way up to the top floor for a strange brown-coloured leek and potato soup. Our trip there was very successful as we ended up with quite a list of books.

Since we had walked up Regent Street last night when all the shops were closed we decided to take the same walk during the day. After all, there were lots of sales going on. We stopped in Kit and Ace, a new Vancouver-based store to admire their cashmere clothes also enjoying a chat with one of the staff who came from Vancouver. As we looked around more stores we were completely staggered by the outrageous prices. We know the same stores in Europe are cheaper and have much better sales. Our shopping trip amounted to a t-shirt from Jaeger's quite good moving sale. Wandering down one of the streets behind Regent Street we stopped for a mulled wine and today's mince tart — for a staggering $29 CAD. We found much of the food really expensive and not very good.

This evening we were off to the Garrick Theatre to see Harlequinade in which a classical theatre company attempts to produce Romeo and Juliet. The intrigues and dalliances of the company members are accidentally revealed with increasingly chaotic and hysterical consequences. Kenneth Branagh played the lead role of actor-manager Arthur Gosport. The strong cast included Zoe Wannamaker and several people we recognized from TV shows. Zoe Wannamaker played a very funny Dame Maud.

In addition to playing Dame Maud in Harlequinade, Zoë Wanamaker performed Terence Rattigan’s dramatic monologue All On Her Own, which has never before played in the West End. In this brief  play, which was staged prior to Harlequinade, a woman with a secret, alone at midnight in London has a burden to share, fueled by much alcohol, that is at times both heart-breaking and sinister. It was a very powerful play.

We enjoyed seeing both plays very much.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Off to London for bright lights and great theatre

By the time we arrived in London we were quite hungry but what could be better than buying a cheese and onion pasty to eat on the Gatwick express into London. Unfortunately, our eating habits become quite bad when we are in London. Having said that the much needed pasty was delicious.

Our hotel was within walking distance of the Kensington high street and all its shops. That was where we headed for some shopping and a cup of tea and mince pie in Marks and Spencer's. Since we had only carry-on baggage we couldn't buy too much. My theory was that f I had a mince pie every day I was here then I wouldn’t have to take any back to Spain. It worked.

Our main reason for being here was to go to plays. Tonight we saw Peter Pan Goes Wrong starring the original accident prone cast of The Play that Goes Wrong that we had enjoyed earlier in the year. This time we knew to arrive early to see cast members try to solve technical hitches. There were electrical wires being run through the stalls. Every so often it would cause horrible electrical noises and blackouts. Then various ‘electricians’ would try to throw wires up to the dress circle. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing and shouting as they tried to solve their problems.

Finally, the play began with the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society playing several roles as they battled against technical malfunctions, flying mishaps and cast disputes. The play director was quite emphatic that this was not a pantomime but there were a few moments when the audience jumped right in with "Behind you" when one of the characters was looking for someone. Then when we were told that this was NOT a pantomime everyone jumped in with "Oh yes it is,” for a bit of an argy bargy.

The pace of the show became quite frenetic as it moved to the second act and the clashes with the  pirates. This really was an incredibly slick show and English farce at its very best. The company will perform a new murder mystery play in the spring. If you are in London and see one play I would recommend this.

After the show we walked up Regent Street to Carnaby Street admiring the shop windows and all the Christmas lights.

All quiet in the village, but Christmas is in the air

The December weather in El Port de la Selva has been "tranquil" as the locals would say. Amazingly, there have been no tramontana winds bringing the clear cloudless skies. In fact we've had a number of dampish days making drying clothes outside a lengthy process taking rather longer than the usual hour.

After the events in Paris there are now border controls between Spain and France, and consequently a lot less French day trippers here. The village is less colourful without them. On the autostrada the traffic is one lane into France. Here you get waved through or stopped, questioned and searched. On a visit to Perpignan we were waved through both ways but on the way back to Spain we saw a very long line-up waiting to enter France.

December 6 and 8 are holidays here bringing visitors from Barcelona. Even Santa rode around the village on his oversize tricycle amusing the local children. For the first time we saw decorated Christmas trees outside local businesses. It was pleasant to walk in the sunshine along the front with the sounds of a jazz duo playing outside one of the restaurants.

Since then things have become very quiet. We were looking forward to a trip to London that we had planned some time ago. In order to catch our early morning flight from Barcelona we left home at 7 am and drove much of the way in the dark. We watched the temperature drop to an unheard of 2 degrees. Fortunately, it warmed up by the time the sun rose. London, here we come.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Vienna: Belevedere Palace, noble residence now houses fine art

A short tram ride brought us to the Belvedere Palace, on what used to be the outskirts of Vienna. It was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy as his summer residence, and actually consists of two palaces, Upper and Lower Belvedere, with a stunning baroque garden in between. Today it houses Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present day, along with the world's largest collection of Klimt paintings.

Inside was very busy, mostly on account of a large group of Italian students. Their diminutive teachers herded them around with lots of calls of, "Ragazzi, ragazzi." We started in a huge room with a domed ceiling where there was some modern art. My favourite was a video installation featuring a psychedelic frog who would move a little and wink at you. We had to leave Klimt until the students moved on. Much of the palace contains Imperial collections gathered over the years. I found a lot of the paintings difficult to view as there was so much light coming through the massive windows.

One of my favourite rooms had a collection of busts arranged in a large circle. Each bust showed a grotesque grimace. It is thought that the artist perhaps had a tick condition.

Finally we saw the Klimt collection with the golden paintings "The Kiss" and "Judith" as the highlights of the 24 works – portraits, landscapes, and allegorical scenes. Klimt contributed considerably to the international avant-garde’s breakthrough in Vienna. The collection was quite lovely.

We walked down through the baroque Palace gardens filled with sculptures and fountains to the Lower Belvedere where we saw Austrian art from the 1960s.

Our tour complete, we jumped on a tram but after a few stops began to wonder if we were going in the right direction. We got out at the next step, which happened to be near a metro station, and we were soon back at St. Stephen's square enjoying lunch in a very nice Italian restaurant. I had spinach with a  special poached "Tuscan" egg. At first I was a bit sceptical, but the egg was really nicely done with some egg foam as well. I was just happy to sit down; wearing new shoes while exploring a new city can be a bit painful.

Revived once again, we window-shopped along the pedestrian shopping area. There are lots of really interesting, different shops in Vienna. If truth be told we were really too tired to try anything on.

After another relaxing afternoon tea and another small plate dinner we enjoyed going to the movies and seeing Spectre, the new James Bond movie, in English. This was a perfect way to finish our time in Vienna, a place we would like to return to.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Vienna: a night at the opera

Of course we made it back to the hotel for our afternoon tea and slice of bundt cake. We had too short a time before we had to leave for this evening's entertainment, Richard Strauss' Electra at the Vienna Opera. Since we had bought tickets at the last minute we were up in the ‘gods’. Perhaps that was a good thing. In front of us on a small screen we could read in English what was being sung. So much of the dialogue was really nonsensical. After an hour things came to a little lull and I thought there might be an intermission but my hopes were dashed as things picked up again for another hour.

The Greek story was performed in modern dress on a dark stage. Although it had excellent reviews it really wasn't my cup of tea. Electra, a nasty sort of person, has disassociated herself from society vowing to avenge her father's death by her mother and lover. When she finds out that her brother, Orestes is dead she vows to avenge the death and tries to win the support of her sister. A stranger arrives who turns out to be the brother, Orestes. He kills the mother and her lover. Electra is ecstatic. Everyone is happy. The audience loved the performance. I continue to have a ‘love and like not so much’ relationship with opera.

On the other hand, we were happy to be back at Ulrich's having another small plate for dinner. This time it was an artichoke in a vegetable broth with thin strips of peppers. Once again it was a delicious meal and a fitting end to a very busy day.

Vienna: outside Schonbrunn a beautiful park and world class zoo

After our pick-me-up it was time to explore the gardens and outbuildings around the Schonbrunn Palace. The spectacular park covers an area of 500 acres and was laid out in the 18th century Baroque style. The flowers and leaves were gone but the gardens were still impressive with wide pathways and perfectly groomed trees and bushes. We wandered along the paths finally reaching Neptune's Fountain, a sculpture based on themes from Greek mythology, including the story of Thetis and her son Achilles. Unfortunately the fountains had been turned off in preparation for the cold weather to come. It was a balmy 18 degrees today but the forecast was for overnight temperatures of minus seven in a couple of days.

The park's most impressive structure was the Palm House. Built in 1883, it was, at the time, the largest greenhouse in Europe and contains three sections in which numerous exotic plants are kept, along with hundreds of species of butterflies. It was massive, and opposite was a similar building, the Desert House. We decided to visit the zoo first and see if we were up to visiting the Palm House after that. We weren't.

In the summer of 1752, Emperor Franz I, Maria Therese's husband, took his royal guests to the newly constructed menagerie in the park at Schönbrunn Palace for the first time. Ever since then, the world's oldest zoo has been operating in Vienna, and is today considered one of the world’s best.

Soon we were watching the pandas munching massive amounts of bamboo and going for rambles in their outdoor enclosure. Both the inside and outside enclosures had a natural design, with lots of greenery and specially designed things for the animals to play with. We were to find this everywhere. The zoo has an excellent record of breeding animals and has produced three panda cubs.

We spent some time watching the giant hippos. I really liked being able to get so close to the animals. One hippo outside wanted to join his mates in the hippo house. He kept banging the outside glass door with his head. In fact it was a bit scary but it finally it opened for him. He promptly ambled into the water where he swam around a bit and persistently kept blowing and surfacing. I think he was showing off for the females.

It was lunchtime so we headed for the old breakfast pavilion. It was at the centre of the zoo’s original 13 buildings, some of which still remain. Inside the pavilion was quite grand with high ceilings, giant ornate mirrors all around the walls and huge chandeliers. I was feeling adventuresome and had semolina pancakes for lunch. When they came they had a light dusting of icing sugar. Even though they were in the entrees section of the menu, I think they were really a dessert; however they were quite tasty.

One of the highlights of the giant Rainforest House was the bat area. We entered the darkened room and could just make out hundreds of bats hanging out while others swooped around. the swooping didn't bother me but the smell was truly disgusting. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We watched polar bears, leopards, kangaroos, penguins, seals and lots of other animals on our visit. It was amazing how the zoo's historic charm was preserved while creating modern, interesting enclosures.

At the end of our visit we went to the Orangutang House where we spent ages being entertained. We watched them play with their straw or shavings, climbing, sitting watching a little boy blow bubbles, swinging on the ropes and spinning on a rope until dizzy and playing with giant Lego blocks. Of course the youngest orangutang was a master at annoying the older ones.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace, spectacular summer residence for Habsburg rulers

Today we took the Metro a few kilometres west of Vienna's city centre to the spectacular Schönbrunn Palace, which was built in the early 18th century in a beautiful park-like setting and remains one of Austria's leading attractions. The palace's history, however, goes back further, to 1569 when Emperor Maximilian II acquired a small summer palace in a converted mill on this site. After the glorious victory over the Turks in 1683, Emperor Leopold I commissioned an Imperial palace on the site of what was then known as the Palace of Klatterburg that he hoped would rival the Palace of Versailles. Instead, the more modest Schönbrunn Palace with its 1,441 rooms and apartments was built and soon after converted into a residence for Maria Theresa, the only female Habsburg ruler.

While only 40 of the Schönbrunn Palace's 1,441 rooms are open to the public, they were enough to provide us with a sense of just how magnificent a place it really was. We visited the Palace's West Wing, home to the sumptuous Apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth (or Sisi). Richly furnished in 19th-century style, the rooms include the Emperor's Audience Chamber and the Walnut Room, named after its rich walnut paneling from 1766, a highlight of which is the candelabra carved out of wood and covered in gold. Another highlight is Franz Joseph's Bedroom with the simple soldier's bed in which the Emperor died on November 21st, 1916, after a reign of 68 years. Also of note here is Empress Elisabeth's Salon with its pastel portraits of her children.

Maria Theresa’s rooms were richly furnished. There were pictures of her eleven girls including Marie Antoinette. Highlights included Marie Antoinette's Room where Napoleon stayed and the Breakfast Room with its fine floral paintings thought be the work of the Empress' daughters. The Great Gallery was once home to glittering Imperial banquets under ornate ceiling paintings. The long table was laden with gold as if a banquet was about to take place. Etiquette required that you only spoke to your neighbour's on either side. Sometimes you could hardly see across the table with all the centre pieces and candelabra. The Million Room, Maria Theresa's private salon was  panelled with precious rosewood, ornamented with gilt carvings, and home to some 260 Indian and Persian miniatures. Finally, the Hall of Mirrors with its crystal mirrors in gilded Rococo frames was very impressive.

This was a long tour and we were quite relieved to visit the adjacent cafe for a much needed coffee. It was quite warm and we sat outside watching the sparrows. I sprinkled some sugar crumbs but one sparrow swooped in and scooped the whole sugar cube and flew off with it. Perhaps the surroundings weren't as sumptuous as inside the palace but it was a lovely place to stop.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Vienna: imperial grandeur on display in Hofburg Palace apartments

It was time for us to move deeper into the Hofburg palace complex to see the main attractions — the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Silver Collection. We started out with the silver collection, with its more than 7,000 items including ceremonial and everyday tableware from the Imperial Court. At one time the royal family ate off silver plates all the time. They must have had any army of people cleaning all the silver.

Porcelain was used for desserts and soup.  Among the many treasures in this spectacular collection are fine 18th-century East Asian porcelain, the formal dinner services of Franz Joseph, a silver traveling service belonging to Empress Elisabeth Christine that went everywhere she went, and the ten-meter-long Milanese centrepiece made of gilded bronze. Other highlights include the Meissen service from 1775, the 19th-century Viennese Empire service and, perhaps the most important part of the collection, the Ruby service used for Imperial grand occasions with its settings for 140 guests. Everything was in beautiful condition. My favourites were the flowered plates that almost resembled Portmerion with the same flowers but these were definitely nicer. The black plates with flowers painted on them were stunning. The porcelain covered in gold was very interesting. The gold dishes had to be melted down for coins so porcelain dishes were covered in thin gold for important occasions. Very impressive.

We popped into the Court Kitchen for a look behind the scenes of the Imperial banquets. On display were original copper vessels, pans, and molds, along with old kettles and the warming dishes needed to feed the court's 5,000 members.

The next part of the tour was the Sisi Museum dedicated to Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi. This offered a fascinating insight into the aristocracy of the 19th century. She was an intriguing woman who married at sixteen. Her hair reached to her ankles and it was brushed for two hours a day while she read and learned foreign languages including Ancient Greek. It took a day to wash her hair in eggs and cognac. She kept a fairly strict beauty regime using natural products, things we would use today such as rose petals but she also used cooked animal blood on her face. Her waist was twenty inches and to maintain her figure she would skip meals and workout in her rooms, where she had a set of rings hanging from her door, steps and other apparatus. She was a keen horsewoman and swimmer. It didn't seem to be a problem for her filling her time as her husband worked 16 hours a day until his death at the age of 86.

In the Hofburg's Stephan Apartments, highlights include more than 300 personal artefacts such as gloves, parasols, notes regarding her strict beauty regime, and the death mask made after her assassination. Other fascinating artefacts include a copy of the dress she wore when moving to Austria from her native Munich as a 16-year-old in 1854, a copy of her coronation gown, and a replica of part of her imperial railway carriage.

Next we entered the Imperial Apartments, specifically the Franz Joseph Apartments, most of which remain unaltered. Highlights include the Dining Room, famous for its rich décor and Flemish artwork representing the heroic deeds of Hercules, and the Circle Room with its exquisite tapestries. A fascinating model of the Hofburg and its many buildings is in the Guard Room, while in the Large Audience Chamber - the waiting room for the Emperor's weekly audiences - the Bohemian crystal candelabrum was worth seeing. In the Study is a bust of Field-Marshal Radetzky, one of a select group permitted to appear unannounced before the Emperor (his sword is also on display).

Empress Elisabeth's Apartments include her sumptuous Living Room, widely regarded as the prettiest of the Hofburg's many rooms and serving both as a living room and bedroom. This was quite unusual as the bed was right in the centre of the room. Another highlight was the Large Salon, home to a fine collection of Louis XIV furniture and a number of Sèvres porcelain vases, a collection of Romantic landscape paintings, and a marble statue of Napoleon's sister.

We made our way to the Ring Road where we found lunch then continued on to buy opera tickets for tomorrow night before walking to another huge, wide pedestrian walkway lined with some lovely shops. After many, many steps we returned to the hotel for our afternoon tea and slice of cake.

We liked Ulrich's so much that we returned for dinner. After sharing a salad I had a couple of small plates. One was shredded cabbage served with quince and a balsamic vinaigrette and the other was a fish and chips with little shoestring potatoes and a couple of thin, thin slices of carp done in a really light batter. Delicious and no greasy aftertaste. I wish all restaurants would cook like this.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Vienna: we admire prancing stallions on our way to Hofburg Palace

Our hotel was quite centrally located, and only a ten-minute walk from the Hofburg Palace.  The Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna's palaces. For more than six centuries it was the seat of the Habsburg emperors - and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements. Sprawled across 59 acres are 18 groups of buildings with 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms.

On our way to the palace we spotted the Spanish Riding School, home to the famous Lippizaner horses. Since it was somewhere we wanted to go we adjusted our plans and went inside. Dating back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the Spanish Riding School was established after the ruler had the famous Lipizzaner horses introduced to his courtesans in 1562. Today, it's one of Vienna's leading attractions, thrilling audiences with fabulous displays of equestrian skills in the Baroque Winter Riding School in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, where it has been located since 1735. Since there were no actual performances while we were in Vienna we opted to see one of the morning training sessions held in the same place as the performances. The place was full of people sitting in the balconies overlooking the performance area. There were five horses practicing their moves with their riders in full uniform. The horses rode around then suddenly they would prance, take sideways steps, move backwards or ride diagonally across the ring. There was no end to the moves these horses could make under the elegant chandeliers. Most of the stallions were white but in the second session there was one brown horse. In fact these white stallions looked very similar to our Camargue horses. Sadly, we had to move on as we had a busy day ahead of us.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vienna: Museums, Mozart and Sachertorte

We flew into Bratislava from Girona, which is closer to home than Barcelona. This, however, meant taking a bus from Bratislava to Vienna, which took almost two hours. It was an interesting ride through the countryside. We could tell immediately when we arrived in Austria, as everything seemed just a little more neat and orderly. Soon we were installed in our hotel in an old Viennese house. Best of all it was time for afternoon tea and some cake in some of the lovely old rooms.

Now revived, it was time to go exploring. Vienna is the capital of Austria, the cradle of classical music, the home of the rich Habsburg heritage, and one of Europe's most liveable cities. We headed towards the pedestrian only  part of the city passing some lovely shops. There were many small independent clothing stores, mostly with a retro 70s vibe. I think I owned one of the Pucci dresses I saw in a shop window, back in the day, but in different colours. We walked up and down the wide street looking in some shops and taking in the atmosphere. Vienna certainly didn't have that hurried pace that many cities have. We even found an English speaking cinema.

We followed one of the hotel's recommendations for dinner. Ulrich's was only a few blocks away and best of all it was casual, very busy and had a great menu of small and large plates. We started with an appetizer of flat bread and little dipping bowls of avocado, hummus and a beetroot dip. Thus the name dip, dip, dip. This was followed by a wild boar schnitzel in pumpkin seed breadcrumbs. Oh my this was very good. I had been a little apprehensive that the food in Vienna might be huge lashings of meat and potatoes. What a great find this restaurant was. I finished off my meal with a tea infusion made with sage leaves, rosemary and thyme with a little honey on the side. This was refreshing and really tasty. In fact I am going to have some as soon as I finish this. If you have these herbs in your garden I highly recommend you try it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

High tech submersible one of summer's highlights

Back in the village the weather has been beautiful, with one day hitting 25 degrees. We even managed a few half-hour swims but the water was pretty cold. Because of the fine weather lots of people are still making day trips to the Port.

Unfortunately, our little yellow submarine submersible has been taken away. It was connected to the university's archeological boat that has examined a sunken Roman ship in the area. We had enjoyed watching guests going for a ride around the bay in the submersible.

Life is back to a routine where we either swim or walk. Just the other day we had a lovely walk going from Cadaques towards Port Lligat. The highlight of the trip was watching an octopus swim around and then eventually struggling as it moved a rock that was much bigger than he was. I didn't realize just how strong they were.

We are off on our travels for a few days tomorrow and as soon as we return the beautiful warm weather will end and we will have a tramontana, cold winds from the Pyrenees that bring lovely blue skies, cold weather and very high winds.