Posted by: travelrat | May 25, 2015

Gardens of Suzhou

Master of the Nets Garden

Master of the Nets Garden

Suzhou: May 21st 2014.

After lunch, we visited two gardens in Suzhou. With 100% hindsight, I should have adjusted the ‘timestamp’ on my camera, for I found it difficult to decide where one ended and the other started. So, I hope you’ll forgive me if, in the videos and slide shows I’ll post in the coming weeks, one sort of segues into the other.

But, first was the ‘Master of the Nets’ garden. The ‘Master of the Nets’ was probably a fisheries minister of some kind; this visit was followed in quick succession by the ‘Humble Administrator’s Garden. Possibly, though, the Humble Administrator wasn’t as humble as all that; he certainly outranked a Master of the Nets, for his garden is much bigger.

They’re popular with both local people and tourists but, like the Summer Palace gardens in Beijing and the Snow Goose Pagoda gardens in Xi’an, it sort of absorbed then all.

Both gardens, with their lotus ponds, bridges and buildings are strongly reminiscent of the Willow Pattern … which I hesitate to mention, because that pattern, and the story behind it, originated in the potteries of Staffordshire … and is about as Chinese as I am!

Humble Administrator's Garden

Humble Administrator’s Garden

Posted by: travelrat | May 21, 2015

St Maarten: On the Ground and Under Water

Semi submersible St Martin_copy

St Maarten: 16th March 2015

 

It’s probably the policy of most cruise lines to keep their clients above the surface of the ocean. But, today’s excursion took us under the waves.

We’d docked at Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch part of the island. We were rather impressed with the ‘cruise terminal’, which is really just a complex of shops and bars. But, we didn’t pay much attention to these, as we were going to return to St. Maarten later in the cruise. We did, however, note an internet café, where wifi was on offer at a reasonable price,

We were bussed to Grand Case, on the French part of the island. Without stopping, we passed an unmanned border post which consisted only of a little shack and a raised barrier; this is the only place in the world where France and the Netherlands share a border.

The semi-submersible awaited us at Grand Case, and we cruised for about 45 minutes, observing coral, fish and turtles. I did wonder, did it actually semi-submerse, or did it just have a viewing chamber in the bilges?

Marigot_copy

All too soon, the cruise came to an end, and we were taken to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Here, we spent some time browsing around the ‘shopping centre’ … which was, in reality, really a collection of colourful stalls selling souvenirs.

On the way back, we got stuck in a traffic jam for a short while, right beside some trees where the guide pointed out iguanas. We couldn’t get off the bus to photograph them, because it was likely to move off at any moment. But, we had a go through the bus windows. The result was just satisfactory … but at least I had more success than I did with the humming bird at Guadeloupe.

Iguana 1

Posted by: travelrat | May 19, 2015

Suzhou: Silk Museum and Grand Canal Video

Silk Museum 1_copy

Suzhou: May 21st 2014.

As I explained earlier, the Silk Museum at Suzhou isn’t only a museum. It’s a factory as well, and, of course, a shop! I’ve got one or two more pictures of it here … and, of course, the video of the cruise along the Grand Canal that we took to get here.

Silk Museum 2_copy

Posted by: travelrat | May 15, 2015

Sint Maarten

Philipsburg_copy

One day in 1493, Christopher Columbus came upon an island. What’s the date today, he demanded.

‘November 11th, Sir! St. Martin’s Day!’

‘Okay! We’ll call it St, Martin’ (only, being Genoese, he called it  Isla de San Martín)

Then, he took possession of it in the name of the King of Spain, and sailed off to see what else he could find.

However, His Catholic Majesty doesn’t seem to have taken much of an interest in the place, for, by 1624, the French were growing tobacco on the island and, a few years later, the Dutch had set up a colony to work the salt pans. But, in 1633, the Spanish were involved in the Eight Years War, and asked for their island back.

But, the Dutch and the French were soon back, and formalised the arrangement in 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Concordia, which divided the island up between the two nations,

The islanders like to tell a story of how the nations divided the island by sending a soldier from each country for a walk, on a blazing summer day.

For refreshment, the Frenchman took a bottle of wine, and the Dutchman a bottle of gin. The heat of the day, and the strength of the refreshment took more of a toll on the Dutchman, so the French were able to claim a greater part of the island.

In the years between 1679 and 1816, the island changed hands at regular intervals between the French and the Dutch; even the English took possession from time to time.

In 1816 affairs settled down, to the situation that prevails nowadays. The French part (St. Martin) uses the euro as currency (technically, it’s a DOM, and as much a part of France as a Parisian suburb) and the Dutch part (Sint Maarten) uses the Netherlands Antilles guilder … although, in practice, the US dollar is widely accepted.

If you like quizzes, and you’re ever asked ‘Where do France and the Netherlands share a border?’ … it’s here, on St Martin/Maarten. There are border posts, but they’re rarely, if ever manned. If you do see a border guard, it’s usually a case of ‘wave, and he might wave back’

Posted by: travelrat | May 13, 2015

Wraysholme Tower

Wraysholme Tower_copy

Allithwaite: 21st April 2015

With a little time on our hands, we drove down a narrow, single-track road to Humphrey Head. This is a limestone outcrop jutting out into Morecambe Bay, and mainly noted for the (disputed) fact that the last wolf in England was slain here in the way-back-when.

On the way there, we passed Wraysholme Tower.

Regular readers of these chronicles may remember my visit to Kirkhead Tower earlier this year (https://travelrat.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/kirkhead-tower/ ), having been wrongly informed it was Wraysholme Tower.

Kirkhead, however, is a ‘folly’, built sometime in the 18th Century. Wraysholme is much older, a pele tower dating back to the 15th Century. Pele towers can be found all over northern England and southern Scotland, and exist because of the Border Rievers.

The Rievers existed from the late Middle Ages right up to Stuart times, and generally consisted of feuding clans and families on both sides of the border, and they usually feuded by rustling each other’s cattle and sheep … although a little plunder and pillage on the way may have been conducted as well.

The best defence was to build a ‘pele tower’, usually, animals would be kept on the ground floor, which might have been used as a storage barn in quieter times, and accommodation would be on the upper storeys. On being warned of the approach of the Rievers, you’d simply herd your livestock into the tower, lock the door, and hope your feed held out until they decided to go rieving somewhere else.

Although it’s a Listed Building, and English Heritage have recently done some repairs to the roof, it’s not really possible to visit the Tower, as it’s on private land, and part of a working farm.

But, there is a convenient layby close to hand, from which a reasonable photo might be taken.

Posted by: travelrat | May 11, 2015

The Other Grand Canal

F3B Grand Canal Suzhou_copy

We seem to be collecting canal cruises! The latest addition to our list was the Grand Canal in Suzhou, which was originally built to carry goods and produce to Beijing. We only did the tiniest fraction of it, of course; we sailed between waterside houses slightly reminiscent of Venice. I wonder if anyone offers canal cruises all the way to Beijing? That might be worth doing.

Indeed, when the Venetian explorer Marco Polo came to Suzhou, he called it the ‘Chinese Venice’

(It seems everywhere with a canal gets compared with Venice; I call Venice ‘The Birmingham of the south’!)

F2 Grand Canal, Suzhou_copy

The boat dropped us at the Silk Museum, where they showed us the manufacture and weaving of silk. Then into the showroom to see … and of course, buy the finished product. We came away with a quilt and a cover … wondrously comfortable in Summer, although the mind boggles a bit at the thought of how many silkworms were used in its making.

And, they told us how to tell real silk from artificial silk. Put a match to it! Real silk will burn; the artificial stuff will just melt. But, either way, you’ve still got a hole in your shirt afterwards.

F3D2 Silk Museum_copy

Posted by: travelrat | May 8, 2015

Aboard ‘Costa Mediterranea’

Costa Merditerranea_copy

Guadeloupe: 15th March 2015.

After the seemingly endless check-in procedure, we finally boarded ‘Costa Mediterranea’. I’ve already given details of her size and tonnage earlier, I can only add that she was built in Finland in 2003 and, like other ships in the Costa line we’ve sailed on, has extensive artwork conforming to a particular theme. On this ship, it’s inspired by Italian buildings of the 17th and 18th Century.

DSC_0215_copy

In overall charge was Captain Mauro Bellamo. We didn’t see much of him, except at the Captain’s Reception, when we were seated so far back, I couldn’t get a decent photo. However, at Miami, he left the ship and a new Captain came aboard.

On the other hand, Executive Chef Emanuele Canepa could often be seen in the dining room … a complete opposite to the ‘Costa Deliziosa’ a few years back, where we just caught a glimpse of the Executive Chef, but often saw the Captain.

DSC_0213_copy

Then, there were, of course, the waiters at our table. Since this was a fairly long cruise, they changed from time to time, so, rather than post pictures of them all, I’ll put a video up later.

We had the lifeboat lecture … now, it must be held before you leave port, then … I wonder why we still say ‘set sail’, when there are, as far as I know, no sails aboard to set? Next stop … Sint Maarten.

DSC_0540_copy

Posted by: travelrat | May 6, 2015

Wish You Were Here

2015-04-29 16.49.54_copy

I have been putting in a weekly stint as a volunteer at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre for over a year now. While the exhibits at the Centre are nearly as permanent as the Stones themselves, there is a corner of the Gallery where the exhibition changes every six months or so.

We recently closed the ‘Soldiers at Stonehenge’ exhibition, which was displayed to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War I and as a salute to the close connections the Army had, and still has, with Salisbury Plain.

On the 1st of May, it was replaced with something a little more light-hearted. Even in Victorian times, there was a nearby souvenir shop … if not at Stonehenge itself, probably in nearby Amesbury.

Many and varied were the memorabilia offered over the years. Some of it was quite good; some of it plain tacky. But, as any collector knows, even the tawdriest tat becomes collectable over the years. Just watch an episode of Antiques Road Show, or something.

2015-04-29 16.47.16_copy

Archaeologist Julian Richards is such a collector, and many items from his collection are being shown in the Wish You Were Here exhibition, which will be running until October. If you can’t make it by then, don’t worry. Julian has many more items in his collection, which he may display at a later date. If you can, and you see me there (we all wear name badges), won’t you come over and say hello?

Usually, we don’t allow photography in the ‘mini-exhibition’, as many of the artefacts are on loan from other organisations and some are very delicate. But, in this case, taking pictures is allowed … even encouraged. So, here are some images.

2015-04-29 16.48.09_copy

Posted by: travelrat | May 4, 2015

Reed Flute Caves: Video

ELC Reed Flute Caves_copy

Guilin: 20th May 2014

There’s not much more to say about the Reed Flute Caves without sounding like over-inflated puff from the Tourist Board. But, as I’m sure I’ve said before … when words can’t convey what you want to say, there’s pictures. And, when pictures don’t cut it, there’s video.

Posted by: travelrat | May 1, 2015

Boarding at Guadeloupe

Costa Merditerranea_copy

Guadeloupe: 15th March 2015

Today is the day the cruise really started. But, before we leave the Canella Beach Hotel, let me say a few words about it. There were quite a few negative reviews about it on Tripadvisor, but we found it quite adequate for our purpose. It seems, again, that Flights and Packages were trying to find the best deal to keep their prices down, but still provide a satisfactory service. I concluded that most of those reviews were written by people who ‘expected to pay steerage prices for first-class service’.

Anyway, the morning found us waiting on the hotel steps for the coach to take us to the cruise terminal. I whiled away the time trying … unsuccessfully … to photograph a humming bird flitting around the bushes.

At the cruise terminal … well, the kindest thing I can say about the shore organisation at Guadeloupe is maybe they haven’t quite got it together yet. Not that boarding a cruise ship was ever a painless task; there’s enough hassle getting a tenth of that number on an airliner. Even the queueing would have been tolerable if not for the continual grousing and complaining of the two men behind us … I thought of ‘Waldo and Statler’, the two grumpy old men in The Muppet Show.

I prayed they wouldn’t put them on the same table as us in the dining room.

Finally, we boarded the Costa Mediterranea, which is just about at the top of the scale at which I feel comfortable. Some might classify it as a ‘big ship’ … but, a few days later, we were to tie up at St Maarten, next to the Norwegian Getaway …which completely dwarfed it.

Sunrise 1_copy

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