Ugly, Nevada

I was fortunate to be sent to Las Vegas on a business trip.  Fortunate, because I didn’t have to pay for the trip, or anything associated with it.

Most places I travel to, I manage to find something interesting or of merit. The most interesting thing about Las Vegas was that I didn’t like Las Vegas, at all.

Everything about this city is ugly. If you don’t like gambling, prostitutes or fakery, there’s nothing here for you – by day, or by night.  The sheer, neon-lit obscenity of the place can only hold your attention for a few minutes. After that, you’re left with a sinking feeling that you’re trapped amidst the worst products of the human imagination.

I was mystified by the expectation in Las Vegas that every visitor was there to be “entertained”.  Taken out of themselves, transported to fake castles, fake pyramids, fake Parisian monuments, to be shamelessly stripped of their money while being bombarded by sound and fury. It is a singularly depressing thought that anyone  comes to this town of their own free will.

Occasionally during my stay, I was reminded of a sane world beyond the glittering gulch. At points along the Strip, there was a gap bewteen the high-rise hotels and I glimpsed the desert and mountains beyond. Nevada seems like a beautiful state, at least the parts  not afflicted by circumstance, customer service and casinos.

The good news is that Las Vegas has an airport. You can escape.

A Weekend in Venice

This year’s winter escape was to Venice… where the cold was even more intense than Paris, but the sun shone all weekend, drowning the city in strong, diffuse light.

It was my first visit to city. One of the most striking qualities of the city is indeed its light… where the sky and lagoon meld into one, as if the city is riding on clouds, rather than sitting on the ocean.  In the view across the lagoon from the boatyard at Giudecca, the poles marking the shipping lanes slip quietly into the invisible horizon.

After the sun sank beneath the lagoon, we walked back across Venice, which had assumed the guise of some Expressionist horror film.  Emptied of tourists, small hidden squares awaited macabre intrigue involving Shylock or Donald Sutherland, and the dock of La Fenice theatre stood ready to receive phantom guests from the other side.

Somebody once wrote that Venice was the most beautiful city built by man.  Everybody should visit once, if they have the chance… by travelling in January, we missed the oppressive crowds of Carnavale and Summer, but there were still plenty of visitors, willing to part with their euros for a trip through the morning mist of the Grand Canal.

Wishing to save our money for food (and Venice provided some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted), we contented ourselves with a short crossing by traghetto... the bare-bones gondolas that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal, charging just 50 cents a trip.

I cannot imagine that I will not be back.  For this first reconnaissance mission, we stuck to exploring the city, and travelling by vaporetto between the city’s islands. This was feast enough for us.  Next time, we might start digging into the art museums, or the churches, or the markets.

In Venice the light reached everywhere. It stabbed the heart of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and glowed deep and green at night on the basin opposite St Mark’s Square.  When Thomas Mann’s composer Gustave von Aschenbach went searching for ideal beauty, it is no wonder that he found it in Venice.

Yes, we will be back.

3 Weeks in New Zealand

On Saturday an Air France 777 dropped me back into the greyness of a Paris January, after three weeks back in my island home.

Despite a very wet December, the consensus was that pohutukawa flowers this year were particularly spectacular.

However, the Hawke’s Bay region provided us with 6 days of perfect sunshine, and some wonderful scenery. It was my first visit to the east coast of the North Island.

At Cape Kidnappers, the gannet colony was noisy, smelly, and full of…  gannets.

 

The trip along State Highway 2 through the Waioeka Gorge was like driving back to before the arrival of humans.

In towns like Opotiki, the local colour reminds you that we are a Pacific nation…

It is a privilege to belong to the nation that invented the paua wonton!

Kicking Around

It’s been a long time between posts… work and travel have kept me a long way from the blog.  There’s not much point in trying to catch up, but here’s a very brief summary of what’s been happening since September:

We spent a late summer weekend in Dijon, looking at art and architecture, and buying mustard…

We accidentally bumped into the Fête des Vignes in Montmartre in October

I spend a few days with family and friends back in New Zealand, while on a rapid business trip.

Holly leapt out of the lily pond and watered my uncle’s lawn.

In the process, I circled the planet on Air New Zealand (CDG-LHR-LAX-AKL-HKG-LHR-CDG)

And since then, I’ve been back in Paris, in a blur of métro, boulot, dodo…

There’s another trip to New Zealand coming up soon, and I hope to get back to some more regular blogging !

 

Grazing in Switzerland

Summer holidays this year were spent in the Swiss Jura, just across the border from France.

We drove from Paris to Switzerland through some hidden corners of eastern France – like Bar-sur-Aube,

We camped by the Lac de Joux, at 1000 metres above sea level,

Where Camping Cat ruled the roost, and visited us around the campfire,

and visited the once Top Secret Fort de Pré-Giroud, built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasion in WW2,

before climbing to the high meadows for view of Lake Geneva and the Alps…

Happy Summer, everyone!

Of Châteaux and Chavignol

We managed to escape Paris for a weekend in the Sancerrois – a miniature region of France between Bourges and the Loire valley. The place is famous for its white wines (sauvignon blanc for the most part) and the goat’s cheese made in the village of Chavignol: a product so highly regarded that it has its own appellation contrôlée.

We hunted the famous goats and took pictures of them.

We tasted wine from the Côtes des Monts Damnés – Sancerre’s most prized terroir…

We stayed here, at the Château de Beaujeu… built in 1560, and now accepting guests for Bed and Breakfast.

The château’s farm featured the largest pigeonnier (pigeon house) in the département… but no pigeons were in residence. Just one old owl.

Overall, the region around Sancerre turned out to be one of the loveliest parts of France I’ve seen so far!

Energy State: 4 Days in Saudi

Last December, I spent a few days in the Gulf – it was, as I mentioned at the time, a most intriguing experience.  Last week, I had the opportunity (and the visa) to go further down the rabbit hole: this time to Riyadh, the extraordinary capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is extraordinary, in the sense that in ordinary circumstances, the city should simply not exist. In Riyadh, 7 million people – the population of one and a half Scotlands – live at 600m above sea level, in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on the planet, with neither a river, port or a strategic geographic setting to recommend it. One can barely imagine the energy required to bring water, food, fuel and power to the place. And yet the city still grows, and the traffic gets worse, year after year.

For visitors (who are either businessmen or expatriate workers, the Kingdom does not welcome tourists), there is virtually nothing to do.  Saudi Arabia offers neither bars nor cinemas. Alcohol is contraband, and the outside temperature in summer (40-50 degrees) makes sport simply impossible. If my experience is typical, visitors spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned hotels and offices, in air-conditioned taxis, climb to the top of the Kingdom Tower to count the mosques, and then jump on the next plane home.

Even the shopping malls are strictly regulated, to prevent single men and women mixing. There are separate floors for women’s shops, and “family nights” are reserved for wives, husbands and their families: single people are turned away at the door. At prayer time, we saw shopkeepers closing their shutters, and Mutaween cars cruising the streets with loudhailers, apparently berating the backsliders and infidels for not attending prayers.

My hotel thoughtfully provided a prayer mat, in a bedside drawer, along with a sticker pointing the direction to “Holy Makkah”. In the privacy of your hotel room, there are thankfully no Mutaween: the instructions to face Makkah can be heeded or not, as one wishes.

After four days in the Kingdom,  although I had been fascinated by the experience and deeply appreciated the generous welcome given by our Saudi hosts, I was very happy to depart. It is a privilege to live in a place where there are trees, public transport, and where the media consisted of more than just koranic readings, propaganda and football. Allah may not have blessed our western countries with almost endless oil wealth, but in our own way, we are very blessed indeed.

Glimpses of Budapest

A weekend before a week of trade show madness… a chance to scrape the surface of a another European city… I quite liked what I saw. These are all the obvious tourist shots, I’ll have to go back sometime when I have more time.

The Danube, viewed from Gellérthégy hill

The Royal Palace in Buda

The Chain Bridge and the Országház

Országház

Spring in St Cloud

With the winter definitively behind us, and the sun warming the city to a not-unpleasant 20 degrees, it was time for a Sunday walk in my favourite park in Paris – the Domaine National de St Cloud.

Climbing the hill behind a wide bend in the Seine southwest of Paris, St Cloud was the site of the Château de St Cloud: preferred residence of the Bonapartes, and home to Napoleon III until it was destroyed (ironically, by a stray French artillery shell), during the seige of Paris in 1870.

Today the park of the Château is owned by the nation, and its gardens, lawns and forest are a popular escape from the city.  The Domain forms part of a swathe of parkland that stretches all the way to Versailles.  Great triumphal avenues cut through the trees providing glimpses back towards the city – La Défense, Issy-les-Moulineaux and the Eiffel Tower.

If you carry on over the hill, you’ll eventually hit the edge of the forest at Marnes-la-Coquette, a village that proudly remains one of the smallest communes in the Paris region, with a population of just 1,700 people. Although less than 10 kilometres from the edge of Paris, Marnes has retained  the atmosphere of a country village.

Rather predictably, Marnes’ discrete location has made it a coveted bolthole for the rich: this is where Johnny Halliday and the Emir of Qatar have their Parisian homes.  Most mere mortals can’t afford to live here. Luckily, on the north side of the park, the SNCF “L” line is waiting to carry us back to the Gare St Lazare.