A Silent Visit …

Ah, the celestial city of Prague. Castles, cathedrals and culture galore and I have been bereft of words to express my delight. Literally. What began as severe hay-fever or a bad cold in my last two days in Cairo developed rapidly into raging laryngitis and I’ve been unable to speak above a sibilant whisper for the past four days.

As I’ve said in the past, however, you can’t keep a good Boomer down, and being struck dumb hasn’t dampened my adventurous spirit. HWB and I have had an absolutely fantastic time, albeit somewhat mutely on my side.

Happy campers 🙂

As I write, I’m sitting on a train watching the verdant Czech countryside pass by my window en route to Munich. I’m looking forward to some German fun times, but I have to say the cumulative effect of two weeks of intensive exploring is starting to fuzz my brain. I’ve been to more than 13 major historical sites in 14 days and I think I’m beginning to reach maximum capacity (never did I think I’d say such words, but there we are). Carcassonne is now not only figuring as my writing dream destination, but also as a place where I can mercifully unload and abandon the suitcase and not have to leap forth for a marathon culture quest every day.

That said, I wouldn’t have missed a moment of the last week which has featured some truly remarkable moments. Apart from navigating the hordes of tourists at Prague Castle, St Vitus’ Cathedral and Charles Bridge we’ve really enjoyed wandering around the magical old town. I’m an organised sort of traveller, but HWB is more of an aficionado of the spontaneous ‘let’s follow our nose’ school of thought, and it was his inspiration to stick our nose into an absinthe bar.

The ‘green fairy’ has a long history, much of it apocryphal and associated with bohemian writers/artists (Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemmingway) having a raging old hallucinogenic time of it supping absinthe in the belle epoch. Being banned in Australia and having such dangerous and literary associations means that absinthe has always had a certain allure and mystique for me. It felt both daring and titillating to place our orders and watch the flaming brew being prepared by our host Marek.

Let me assure you, dear readers, that modern absinthe is perfectly safe and absolutely non-psychoactive. Distilled or macerated, this anise-flavoured bevvy is produced and sold widely in France, Switzerland, Spain and the Czech Republic and, when consumed in a classical bar decorated with inspired murals in Prague, it makes for a great night out.

HWB enjoys an absinthe with Vincent and friend

Only a few days into our adventure HWB had already reached his cathedral saturation point, but even he had to admit that the Ossuary Chapel of Sedlec in Kutna Hora was a bit special.

Built on the site of a former medieval cemetery, the entrepreneurial and respectful new owners of the site, a bunch of 14th century Cistercian monks, decided to honour the bones of some of the 60,000 ex-residents by using them to decorate their unique place of worship. One particularly inspired and half-blind monk dedicated himself to building four intricate and massive pyramids of bones in the hopes that this pious work would move God to restore his sight. I love my beautiful home town of Narooma, but I have to admit it has its limitations – you won’t find one of these chapels round the corner and it’s amazing to be able to revel in such historical wonders.

We wound up our week with an overnight flit to the truly exquisite
Český Krumlov, three hours south of Prague. A UNESCO world heritage listed baroque town, it’s nestled in two oxbow loops of the Vlatva River, and is a cobblestoned, towered, frescoed wonder.

Picture perfect

Our itinerary in Munich is likely to be somewhat more modern. HWB is in charge so don’t expect reports on any more castle visits. I don’t have a very clear idea of his intentions, but there has been mention of something called Frühlingsfest which I believe is a smaller but no less rollicking cousin of the Oktoberfest. I might have to go shopping for a dirndl.

Following in the absinthe-flavoured footsteps of Oscar Wilde is about as literary as I’ve been this week, but I’m now intensely aware that my writing apotheosis is only days away. Very soon I will sit at my Carcassonne window, my fingers quivering over the keyboard and the moment of truth will have arrived. As I’ve been gazing on onion-domed churches and munching goulash and trdelnik I’ve been conscious every now and again of a mild and quickly suppressed panic at the thought of my impending date with destiny. I guess in next week’s blog we’ll discover if I have found my voice …

Channelling Agatha Christie …

Conundrum. When planning to travel down the Nile what does one read? OK, clearly this is not a conundrum. It’s a no brainer. Of course I have had to reach for some classic Agatha Christie featuring the inimitable Hercule Poirot.

Compulsory Nile reading

I’d like to stress that I’m not a die-hard Agatha fan, but I do admire her originality, her plot construction techniques, and the way in which she broke new ground with the detective genre back in the day. Plus, she delivers a frolicking good read which requires only minimal brain power – perfect for holiday cruising.

Reading on the River …

My selection has also provided food for much additional fun in terms of book location scouting/spotting and in finding entertaining opportunities to follow in the footsteps of the intrepid Agatha in her Egyptian travels. When she was traversing the Nile in the 1930s Agatha was aboard the SS Sudan – a classic river boat which we happened upon moored in Luxor on Wednesday.

SS Sudan

Those of you who have perused Death on the Nile will know that the cast of characters first gather together in Luxor where they toddle out to inspect the wonders of the Temple before boarding the fatal vessel on its journey to Aswan. And the wonders of Luxor are certainly extraordinary as I discovered this week. In fact, all of the sites of antiquity in this country are extraordinary and there is no way I can do justice to them. This is not a travel blog, so I’ll spare you the billion or so photos I’ve taken and just share with you a few of my favourite moments:

My Nile cruise eventually brought me to Aswan where the main action of Death on the Nile takes place. It is also the home of the extraordinary Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha based herself for a year in 1937 while her archaeologist husband delved for antiquities on Elephantine Island and she penned her masterwork on the terrace of her suite.

Old Cataract Hotel

The hotel pays homage to Christie as one of its most famous guests – there is the Agatha Christie Suite (where you can stay for a mere $7000 a night), the hotel is dotted with pics of the author and you can dine at her table in the extraordinary dining room:

Now that’s what I call a dining room!

Best of all, you can see the modest mahogany desk at which she wrote, ogle her wicker rocking chair and take in the view from which she drew inspiration. I think you’ll agree this is pretty astounding – but no more so than than the view I am anticipating from my Carcassonne apartment 🙂

Room with a view …

As I toasted Agatha with a sun-downer gin and tonic my writing aspirations soared to a new level. These 10 days of Egyptian wonders have completely obliterated my work world from my head (sorry WV colleagues, but that’s how it is :-)) and my whole being is focused on this mad mission I’ve set myself.

Sun-downer – replete with inspiration

Before I take the final and fateful plunge, however, I’m going to overload my inspiration tanks with further adventures in Prague where I will rendezvous with HWB. Farewell pyramids, hello castles!

Marharba!

Apparently, when Evelyn Waugh visited the Mena House hotel in 1929, he had this to say. “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.” That pretty much sums up my feeling over breakfast upon my arrival in Cairo yesterday morning.

Mena House Hotel – not your average breakfast location!

I decided that there was nothing for it but to jump right into the cultural experience and so I fed on a feast of good, if unusual, things compared to my standard matutinal menu of crumpets and Vegemite. Hello hibiscus juice, eggplant mush thingy (really yum!) and pita pockets with hummus.

After goggling at the Great Pyramid of Cheops for a while I was so sated, stunned and jet lagged, that I had to go have a little lie down, first in a most salubrious bed chamber, and then by an even more salubrious palm-lined swimming pool. Oh yes, indeed I was surely on holidays and certainly no longer in Narooma!

I think I need to be quite clear here. My business in Egypt is not to wallow in decadent and pampered luxury, although I’m afraid that will be somewhat of a necessary concomitant of my planned itinerary. My mission is to explore and revel in antiquities and ancient wonders and today I launched the assault with the first stop being – of course – the pyramids.

Oh yeah!

About a million writers have tried to describe the immense and brain-shrivelling awe of these structures, so I’m not even going to try. I will instead share with you a few interesting factoids: there are more than 2.7 million two-tonne blocks of limestone in the Great Pyramid; it was built for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, and was completed around 2560 BCE (yep, that means it’s coming up for its 5000th birthday pretty soon!); the ratio of its circumference to its original height is equal to the value of pi: 3.14 – a mathematical calculation that was not rediscovered for more than another millennium (it’s facts like this last one that have spawned theories that the pyramids were built by technologically advanced aliens…). And, of course, the pyramids are the last of the seven great wonders of the world still extant.

They are certainly wonderful. And popular. And right on the edge of the throbbing outer suburbs of Cairo. So despite the miraculous absence of hordes of people in the pic above, there were in fact plenty of other keen Egyptophiles swarming all over the site, and queuing up to experience the thrill of penetrating the structure and navigating the ascending passages to one of the tomb chambers. How could I resist such a lure?

Cheops – entry point…

I did not. Armed with my special ticket I approached the entrance to the tunnel with reverence. Finally I would be able to feel something of the frisson of a Carter or a Mariette, boldly going where no one had been for millennia in search of lost secrets buried with the remains of long-dead pharaohs. I could pause reverently in the sacred chamber and imagine the scent of incense and the beating of funereal drums …

What I found was an Occupational Health and Safety hazard situation of epic proportions, with literally hundreds of beetroot faced tourists trying to edge past each other in both directions of an oven hot, near-vertical, crawl-space sized tunnel with no ventilation. After a few minutes attempting to breathe calmly and slowly while waiting for the crush to abate sufficiently to take another step upwards, something switched in my head. Dear readers, I fled. Without reaching the burial chamber. Thus perish some of our fondest dreams …

Monumental…

But, as previously advertised, I’m the most incorrigible of optimists – you can’t keep a good Boomer down. And if the interior of Cheops didn’t match my clearly delusional fantasies, the exteriors and context of all of the pyramids could not fail to satisfy in every possible way. I’ve stated that the pyramids nestle snugly alongside the homes and shops of Giza, but if you narrow your field of focus and squint a bit it is possible to imagine a time when these great landmarks were a beacon for camel caravans arriving from the Western Desert.

The Western Desert

Which brings me to camels. Back in the 70s my mother and father visited Egypt, and I have a prized photo of my dad (fetchingly outfitted in a baby blue safari suit) mounted upon a camel with a pyramid in the background. What, I thought, could be more romantic than sitting aloft in a Berber saddle as your ship of the desert sways among the dunes? Then again, what could be less romantic than feeling like you would be committing and perpetuating serious animal cruelty in contracting any arrangement with the hawkers of transportation flesh in locations like this? No, I decided, despite their sartorial attractions, there would be no camel ride for me.

Not for mounting …

Given half a chance though I would have jumped at the opportunity to go for a run up the Nile in a solar boat. These were funereal barges which were used to transport the massive sarcophagi of pharaohs to their final resting places, and back in 1954 a fully-intact solar boat was unearthed from its own tomb in the shadow of the Chephren Pryamid. This fully-functional, 44 metre-long, 5000 year old-boat is now housed in its own special museum. Awesome!

Sun boat – 4500 years old!!!

And finally, for today, a visit to Giza would not be complete without paying one’s respects to its most famous monument. Yes, the sphinx is indeed a lot smaller than you’d think from pictures, but it is every bit as potent, mysterious and compelling as the most fervent of my imaginings.

Sphinx satisfaction

Tomorrow we head for Luxor and the Valley of the Kings …

Bon voyage!

It hardly seems possible, but this time next week I will be posting my blog from Egypt. After so long a time nurturing this writing dream, it’s about to become reality. I’m excited and terrified, unsettled and eager.

On the eve of departure, I’m stepping back from envisioning the delights ahead and finding that I’m dwelling instead upon all that I will undoubtedly miss while I’m off on this adventure. And as I write, one of them is sitting purring on my knee – our beautiful Bentley.

Bentley

Bentley is a thoroughly over-indulged British Shorthair, and has been with Martin and I from the very beginning of our time together (he even travelled to New York with us and appeared to thoroughly enjoy his Manhattan apartment lifestyle!). In the absence of children, he is our baby, and I’m going to miss him dreadfully. We are very lucky though that we have found a lovely young couple who will be house-sitting for us and who have promised to indulge Bentley in the manner to which he is accustomed.

I’ll miss my family of course, but I think I’m going to really pine for my dear friends. Last weekend and this one, a couple of them have really pulled out all stops in the farewell celebrations department.

Firstly, Julie threw a fabulous dinner party at her place and spoilt us with Croatian culinary delights followed by a riotous session of dancing and singing. Our rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody was a wonder to behold!

Catherine, Hannah and Julie rockin’ out

And last night Hannah hosted an all-French extravaganza at her place to help get us into a suitably Gallic mood. We had a huge amount of fun scouring our cookbooks and devising a mouth watering menu of French cuisine.

Many hours of chopping, boiling, blending, blanching and baking (not to mention dousing the boeuf in flaming brandy!) resulted in a mouth-watering feast of fine things. And when Hannah puts on a show we’re also talking about fully themed table decorations and frocking up in costume. So, for a French dinner, of course there was Le Menu:

Yum!

Fine food, good wine, lively conversation and shared friendship are some of life’s greatest pleasures and we were fully sated on all fronts last night. HWB and I are going to eagerly savour French fare in Carcassonne but we won’t be sharing it with such fine company.

Vive la France!

Later in the evening, Hannah and I had a good old chat and she told me once again of her unalterable conviction that I’m going to write a brilliant book which will not only be published but will be adapted into a blockbuster film. She asserts that she is going to buy a new pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes for the red carpet opening night event. Such faith in my endeavour both humbles and emboldens me and I know there are going to be many moments in the coming months when I shall yearn for her unfettered enthusiasm and support.

Hannah’s Tarte Tatin – lush!

There is of course such a thing as Skype, and I hope to keep in touch with my cheer squad online. But they say that writing is one of the loneliest of occupations, and I suspect I may find myself experiencing the pangs of isolation and too much solitude.

Actually, no. I’m an incurable optimist. I will have the pleasure of keeping in touch with those I care about at home, and I hope that I’ll make a bunch of new French friends with whom to share this fantastic adventure! Je suis prêt à partir …


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