Oysters and Bubbles

This one is for you Mum!!

I’ve been in London for  five days and every time I think of starting to write some words there has been so much going on it’s hard to know where to start.Where better then with half a dozen Cumbrae oysters and a glass of very lovely bubbles at the Champagne and Oyster bar at Selfridges for lunch today.

Staying right in the heart of Marylebone  a stone’s through from Oxford Street and walking distance from the British Museum,  Regent’s Park, pubs and shops, restaurants and cafes it really has been such an amazing experience to be quite so in the thick of things. Thank goodness for maps though .. the maze of streets and lanes and mews leads  for interesting short cuts and discoveries of a cheese shop which has a cheese room,  lunches of soups drizzled with truffle oil and platters of thin sliced smoked beef, salmon and oozy cheeses with charcoal biscuits. There’s the book shop with a down stairs brimming with travel books and maps and a little bakery with a carpet hanging on the wall and Gravadlax or pickled fish and egg rolls for breakfast with lingonberry juice.

 So today it was off to the National Portrait gallery and the lovely surprise to find the Photographic Portrait Award in full swing and more portraits of queens, kings , princes, important and some not so important people than you can poke a stick at.Yesterday was a day at the British Museum and one of the most interesting and moving exhibitions I’ve certainly seen for a long time. Grayson Perry?? An unfamiliar name for me anyway , the show curated by the artist with his new works, ceramics , potteries and sculptures of found objects, a motorbike  and the inimitable bear Alan Measles alongside pieces made by men and women throughout history-‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’. Then lunch across the table from a sturdy  grey- bobbed hair lady munching her way through a prawn salad, swigging from a bottle of Appletiser. She has taken up card making and shows me a bag of ink pads and stamps for her first attempts and tells me about Grayson Perry.

And talking about lunch, today into Selfridges….now that has to be one of THE shrines to consumerism…. and trip though the food hall to a stool at the oyster bar. Enough said, it was delicious and beautifully presented , even down to the half lemon clothed in muslin.

Train Travelling

Thanks to Lizzie and manoeuvring the way around the website on line tickets are booked to London and back and early Thursday morning Ali and I are up drinking coffee, feeding the hounds, packing the car and heading to Montpellier as the sun rises.

I’m very excited about doing the train thing and not hopping onto yet another plane though it will take the best part of  nine hours and A very sweetly walks me and the bag along the blue line from the car park to train station as they are not one and the same due to road works  and involve a bit of a schlep. Also we do have to retrieve the tickets from a machine and have the first one’ composted’ so I can wield bag up and down a flight of stairs to the platform and get on the right train, thankfully, but into the wrong carriage! Plonking down in seat 35 a stony eyed madam waves her ticket at me and discovering I should be in carriage seven and not eight is not helpful as the train is starting the big whoosh out of the station.

Anyway 30 minutes later and loitering in an upstairs  seat there is a quick stop at Nimes so with a very quick hop on and off and correct seat and I share a table of four with a gorgeous family returning to the US after Christmas in France. Wow what a lucky little lad Thomas is, French mum with whom he converses in French and American dad with whom he chats in English  and annual trips to visit his European family .The TGV is very fast, comfortable and with a working loo which is always encouraging. France races by outside the window and it really is so rural for such a large part with fields and vineyards, pretty villages with spired centres and all the more perhaps because buildings are so uniform, pink  and earthy and settling well into the surrounding country .

Lille Europe sounds very grand and is the transfer stations for the next leg under the Channel through the Tunnel with EuroStar. Blimey, talk about cold and draughty. There is nowhere out of a ferocious draught that heaves through the station and it’s not just me being thick about getting the wrong spot. Tall, vertical red barred heaters are scattered around and gloved, coated and scarved  waiting passengers stand around them so close that a Japanese tourist in a black pvc jacket is in threat of melting. It is a miserable place to wait and after an hour or so the EuroStar check in is open and huddling in a shivering line behold there is a warm waiting room for a nanno second before descending into the bowels of Lille and the appropriate spot for getting on to the right carriage. 

This is beginning to sound like a whinge and yes it probably is! Not quite sure what I was expecting from the Eurostar …obviously not the Orient Express but it is surely a bit of an iconic statement.

Maybe a tad tired, weary and certainly cold the carriage is small and a crusty English woman of a certain age has commandeered my seat and while folding and refolding a huge broadsheet goes on about a comfortable seat for her leg condition and there’s another seat over there I could have. True. In the foursome across the aisle a young French woman with Kathleen’s Turner breathy laugh and smoky voice talks at machine gun rate for the entire journey while her mate fiddles with his phone and  punctuates her conversation with a desultory ‘Oui’ at appropriate points. Their neighbour a very elderly farmer type rolls his eyes and covers eyes and ears with his hands and dozes deciding half an hour before St Pancras to venture into the loo which is now producing a volcanic bubblings of hygienic blue stuff from the bowels of the toilet. After 20 minutes even ‘Kathleen’ is glancing towards the corridor and eventually he emerges with a curious look on his face.

St Pancras awaits in gorgeous high vaulted ceilings, glass and the Olympic rings hung high.

Outside in the cold London air the taxi rank is lined with the iconic cab and my guy looks like Alfred Hitchcock. In Aussie greeting I ask him ‘How are you going tonight?’ and in very lugubrious tones he replies ‘I’m going wherever you are.’ Well ask a stupid question!!

Aigues-Mortes

With map folded and a somewhat unreliable sense of direction Ali and I head south east from Roujan to the outskirts of Pezenas and then to Montpellier and south to join the coastal road skirting the Mediterranean Sea.

Destination Aigues-Mortes, a mediaeval town and walled city built in the mid 13th century by Louis IX first as a port and then fortified by  two Philippes between 1289 and 1300. What a spectacular ‘castle’ in that battlement way with almost two kilometres of ramparts enclosing the old town in a rectangle, flanked by towers and arched gates through the city walls. The Tour de Constance is all that remains of the castle built in King Louis reign and is the ‘emblem’ of Aigues-Mortes royal beginnings , visible from land and sea… and in this reflection!

In 1245 Pope Innocent IV tried to persuade European royalty to lead a crusade to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Land and King Louis, later Saint Louis ,took up the challenge. With no French land on the Mediterranean coast at that time, Louis arranged a trade with the Abbey Brothers of Psalmody for the swamp lands known as ‘dead waters’ and the town was built originally as a trading port. Surrounded by malaria riddled swamps and not exactly an attractive destination regardless of its coastal location Louis  granted exemptions from tolls, port taxes and forced loans and the town thrived. All this and a crusade to plan, the Seventh by this stage, and some three years later Louis IX left Aigues-Mortes with wife and children in tow and thousands of men on 100 ships leaving the Queen Mum, Blanche de Castile in charge. Six years later he returned only to leave again in 1270 for the Eighth Crusade and died  in Carthage from typhus.

 The swamps, coastal lagoons and Aigues-Mortes are in the Camargue which somehow came as a lovely surprise as I hadn’t expected to be travelling through the land of white horses and black bulls and there is a definite change in the taste of the air which is salty and earthy . These are the  Etangs that stretch along the Mediterranean coast from Sete where they are farmed for oysters and in the watery surrounds of Aigues-Mortes, the Salins de Midi are the centre of salt French production and have been farmed for salt for centuries.. A magnet for birdlife, pink flamingos…also very unexpected…paddle around in the shallow waters and herons hunch on sand spits while traffic rushes past. 

Arriving at Aigues-Mortes is a little like driving into a Breugel painting where a small ice rink is full of children skating and toppling, laughing and breathing white puffs into the air in the shadow of a castle wall. Families walk through Porte de la Gardette along the Rue J Jaures into Place St Louis and there is a very festive feel in the cold air. A sign at the main entrance welcomes dogs and forbids girls in bikinis and boys in boardshorts which would rule out a great swathe of Australian summer visitors who in Perth at least think nothing of dressing for the beach and sauntering through the city bare foot on a hot summers days.

Before we do anything vaguely touristy though we have lunch. The entry to the rampart walk is closing, shutters are dropping on  windows, the tourist office has shut up shop and the main square restaurants that fringe the tall, imposing statue of Louis, by  now a saint are filling up. At outside tables, families ..and it is delightful to see how inclusive the French are of their children who share meals, kisses and conversations.. cluster around pink clothed tables and dogs sit or sleep quietly, neither complaining or fussing, rather like the children. And there are lots of dogs. Leggy, handsome and copper coloured , short, active and curly haired and the very little , their pop eyed bald eared faces poking out of handbags.  By 12.30 the only people working are in the kitchens and those balancing trays at shoulder height  heaped with silver bowls of mussels, platters of fish and meats, bowls of paella and carafes of rose weaving  between tables. With a swish of  hips and well judged sidesteps, narrow gaps between tables are manoeuvred, plates exchanged, a small white whiskered dog avoided, bills tendered and tips retrieved.

 Eventually we leave behind a pile of emptied mussels shells and make our way to the chateau to climb to the city ramparts and walk the perimeter of the walled city. Peering out over the battlements to the lagoons and the gleaming hillocks of salt and down onto the gardens and courtyards of the houses hidden at street level, walking the well worn surfaces and grooves of the ramparts it is not hard to envisage for a moment how safe the inhabitants would have felt within these fortressed walls.

Returning home and driving west into the setting sun flamingos still wade in the lagoons though the evening  seems to be draining the pink from their feathers and claiming that colour along with the purple and orange streaking the sky.