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18 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Poor John in tripe heaven

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Tripe has multiple meanings. In the world of slang, it is something silly, false, worthless or a load of rubbish. In the world of food, it is part of the stomach of a cow, sheep, goat, pig or ox. In Poor John’s world, it simply means delicious.

And for the last eight days he has revelled in the land of delicious.

We’ve just completed a 200-kilometre bicycling tour in Brittany (also known as Bretagne and Briez), that northwestern part of France where tripe is on virtually every menu.

He’s managed to have tripe—or the more elegant-sounding andouille (kind of rhymes with chop suey)—at least once a day and sometime twice. But never for breakfast.

French andouille isn’t straight tripe. It’s a sort of sausage with pork and spices, so the tripe fades into the background. I’ve shown two variations on the presentation, although he’s also had buckwheat pancakes (galettes) with tripe in them. 

I have to admit that andouille is pretty darn good. Of course, I’ve never ordered it. I just steal a bit off Poor John’s plate. So far he hasn’t stabbed me with his fork.

He says he still prefers the tomato-y tripe stews made in Spain. I suppose there is a slim chance that I will try to make such a stew. Anyone have a decent recipe?

Oh, and don’t go feeling sorry for Poor John on Father’s Day. We’ve travelled 10 hours east and south in France—by taxi, train and bus—to arrive in the land of foie gras. So he’s enjoying this luxury food made from duck and goose livers. That’s my carnivore!

P.S. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. Hope you are able to enjoy some delicacy today. Maybe you can find something on my cooking blog.

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14 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Oh, for a palace for the night

Rundāle Palace, Duke's Bedroom

The Duke’s Bedroom would have been just the place for Poor John and me to spend the night

As you may know, Poor John and I have set off on a week-long bike ride through Brittany in northwestern France. We covered 50 kilometres on Saturday, another 73 over Sunday and Monday, and then a meagre 20 today, but over a gravelled track that did my arm no good.

Of course to make things ‘more interesting’, we’re also camping.

Our tent is quite cosy, but it suddenly makes me long for our visit to the Rundāle Palace outside Bauska in Latvia.

This would be a great place to stay after a long bike ride. I read that in addition to being a museum, the palace is also used to accommodate notable guests. I’m guessing we don’t quite meet the criteria.

But we weren’t riding bikes in Latvia, so we arrived at Rundāle by car and took the wrong turn in, which meant we parked as far away as possible from the entrance. Never mind, a good walk gets the day started.

Rundāle Palace, corridor of antlers

Plenty of hunting trophies displayed as you enter

There was a lot of activity in the main courtyard, which meant they were probably preparing for some notable event or guests, but tours were running as usual.

We opted for the long tour, which cost an extra 2 euros and included more rooms (including the Duchess’ suite) and the garden, but not a lift to our distant car.

Tours aren’t guided (although there may be an option with advance notice) but most rooms have explanatory cards in a variety of languages. There can be hot competition for certain languages, so we read most of the cards, but not all.

Rundāle Palace, Latvia

The real front of Rundāle Palace, with a fountain in the foreground

So let’s have a look at the palace
I suppose it makes sense to start at the entrance, which is very grand, but I subsequently realised that what I thought was the back of the castle is actually the front. The give-away information was that the front has fountains. I suppose the other give-away was the rows of antlers to the right of the doors where we entered. Antlers strike me as billiards room decor and not the stuff of grand entrances.

Now I should mention that the placement of pics here does not necessarily sit beside (or above or below) any accompanying text, but everything has a caption, although you may need to roll over the pic to see it.

Rundāle Palace, Throne Room (Gold Hall)

Poor John heads out of the Throne Room. I’m about halfway back up the room

Of the rooms we saw, the Throne Room is the most elaborate in the whole palace. Also known as the Gold Hall, it is used for state gatherings. Gold wreaths and garlands surround the room and depict music, architecture, hunting, geography, cattle breeding, gardening, fishing and more.

The White Hall is the ballroom and it was being prepared for some event when we were there (probably the same reason for the outdoor activity I mentioned earlier. The stucco decorations (see JM Graff in the history) depict the four seasons and the four elements of the world—fire, water, earth and air. The rosette on the ceiling was my favourite. It depicted a sun with a stork’s nest. By the way, I haven’t been able to find measurements on any of the rooms or the palace itself, but let’s agree that it’s ginormous.

There is a porcelain room at one end of the White Hall with 45 vases from China and Japan.

Next we saw the library and the Rose Room. The latter is decorated with garlands of stucco roses by JM Graff (see history) on every wall. The ceiling, painted by Italian artist Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi, shows Flora, the goddess of spring and flowers.

The Duke’s Bedroom (at top) came next and if Poor John and I could have stayed there, I can guarantee you we would have made the bed. I’ll show the parquetry from that room. Most of the original flooring was destroyed over the years, and this shows some of the replacement work.

Rundāle Palace, Rose Room Ceiling

Rose Room ceiling depicting Flora, goddess of spring and flowers

Rundāle Palace, Rose Room stucco roses on wall

Rose garlands decorate the walls of the Rose Room. That’s a blue and white fireplace on the right

Are you exhausted yet? I was and I couldn’t even lie down. So we’ll press on.

About now is when the extended part of the tour kicked in. We went through a small dining room and several unnamed rooms (have included only a few pics of those). These were beautifully decorated and furnished, and I think part of the quarters used by the Duchess.

But I knew we were in her quarters when we came to her boudoir, bedroom and bathroom. I couldn’t get a decent pic of the bedroom, but the boudoir and bathroom more than made up for that. The bathroom ceiling alone is stunning. Come to think of it, her bathroom could be the other throne room. The display of her cosmetic set was enormous, and the gowns were typically ornate.

Then it was out through the ground floor to the magnificent gardens that were hard to photograph. The intricate layout really needs an aerial view to appreciate the 10 hectares of manicured cultivation (so I’ve added an aerial pic from Wikipedia, all other pics are mine). The roses hadn’t bloomed yet, but plenty of tulips were out.

And by now Poor John and I were plenty weary and still had to trudge back to the car.

Rundāle Palace, Duchess' bathroom ceiling

Ceiling in Duchess’s bathroom

Rundāle Palace, Duchess' bathroom

Duchess’ bathroom with a glimpse of the ceiling

A bit about the palace’s history
Rundāle is one of two baroque palaces built in Latvia for the Dukes of Courland (the other is Jelgava Palace, which we didn’t visit).

It took eight years to build Rundāle Palace, and it was done over two bursts from 1736 to 1740 and 1764 to 1768. I thought it was interesting that work on Rundāle progressed slowly because the duke of the time, Ernst Johann von Biron, was more interested in the other palace. As a result, he had materials and workmen shifted from Rundāle to Pelgava.

Biron fell out of favour in 1740 (probably over religious disagreements), and the palace remained empty and unfinished for about 24 years. That’s when Biron managed to return from exile (not sure how he managed that).

At that time, Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli supervised the completion of Rundāle, which included lavish decorations by Johann Michael Graff, a German Rococo sculptor and plasterer. Rundāle Palace and Schönhausen Palace in Germany are among his most celebrated works.

In the end, Rundāle became the duke’s favourite palace and he lived there until he died in 1772.

The palace later passed through many hands and fulfilled many roles.

It was a hospital for Napoleon’s army during the French invasion of Russian in 1812, and a German hospital and commandant’s office during World War I. It was severely damaged in 1919 during the Latvian War of Independence.

Rundāle Palace, garden

Looking out to the 10-hectare garden

In 1933, it was taken over by the Ministry of Education and reconstructed as a school. In fact, some of it remained as a school until 1978, although part of it did a stint as a grain store.

In the 1960s, the palace was declared part of the Bauska local history museum and restoration works began in 1972. This work has been ongoing and was only officially completed in 2014. The works cost 8.5 million euros.

Today the palace is on one Latvia’s major tourist destinations. It and it’s gardens are also a museum and a centre for research into Latvia’s history.

A final few comments
Rundāle Palace and Versailles near Paris are the two most elaborate and beautiful palaces I have ever seen. I haven’t written about Versailles yet, but I promise to do so. So much to tell about and so little time.

Plus, I’ve been without internet for two days and don’t expect to have it again until late Thursday. So cheers for now.

P.S. Still 44 kilometres of bike riding to do and too much of it uphill. Ugh!

Rundāle Palace, tulips

Aerial view from Wikipedia

11 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Survived a 50-kilometre bike ride

This is a report on my health, my fitness, my sanity and my bedtime.

It’s 9:15 pm (21:15 for those who observe the 24-hour clock) and I’m going to bed. I’m absolutely knackered, My arm hurts, my knee hurts, but I did it. Five more days to go.

There was more uphill today than I had expected and, I confess, I walked some of it. I would have had a much better performance had I not been knocked down by the proverbial freight train five days ago. But I am mending.

Besides months ago, we booked and paid for this cycling adventure in Brittany in northwestern France. So we’re doing it. That said, the 50 kilometres (or was it 55) took us 7 1/2 hours, with stops for lunch, water, resting my arm, taking photos (not too many) and consulting the instructions (egads, we couldn’t afford to get lost unless it was a shortcut). Fortunately, at least half of the last 14 kilometres was mostly downhill.

You’ll have to wait for photos of this part of our travels. By mistake, I left all the equipment for downloading photos in Paris. Argh!

Not sure how much internet I have over the next five or six days. We’re camping and not every campground offers wifi. Don’t worry. I’ll be back online for a couple of days and then four more days of camping (but no bikes).

And now it’s 21:30 and I’m really going to bed. Tomorrow’s ride is only 25 kilometres. I’ll store up for the day after that which is 48.

P.S. Should have internet tomorrow morning, but after that I might not be able to answer comments for a while.

P.P.S. I mentioned my sanity. It’s there—only just—but I can still smile. Just got a gold star from fellow campers. They are French but couldn’t figure out how to get into the internet they’d paid for. But I could. Everyone’s happy.

Szzzzzzzzzzzz!

 

9 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Hill of crosses honours fallen rebels

Hill of crosses, Lithuania

Hill of crosses, Lithuania, totem

If you’ve read my most recent post, you’ll know I was knocked over in Brussels the other day by a teenager trying to escaped from the police. I’m still very sore and bruised, but the muscles and joints are slowly improving. Nothing seems to be broken, and I’m hoping that I’m good to go tomorrow on our week-long bicycling trip in northwestern France.

But you wonderful people have been amazing. I’ve been gobsmacked by all the kind messages that I’ve received on that blog post (and on Facebook too). I think you’ve all helped (willed) me to heal.

So as a thank you and before I set out on the French cycling tracks (with probably no connection), I thought I’d share a hill of crosses (and blessings) with you.

Entering the Hill of Crosses

Entering the Hill of Crosses

It’s a fantastic and uplifting story.

Back in 1831, in Lithuania, there was an uprising against the Russian tsar. The uprising was put down. Sadly, the families of the fallen rebels ended up with no bodies to bury. So they started to leave crosses on a special hill (perhaps the highest hill in all of Lithuania).

I have to admit that the hill isn’t very high. We scanned the horizon and saw nothing. And then drove around aimlessly even though it was ‘plugged into’ our car’s GPS. If you ever happen to be searching for it, try keying in ‘kryziu kalnas’ instead of ‘hill of crosses’. That was what finally worked for us, and we found that reference on a local map.

Hill of crosses

Crosses being forgotten

But back to the hill.

This place is amazing. It’s impossible to know how many crosses are here today, but estimates assume there are more than 200,000. I suspect there should/could be many more. I read that when the crosses started to become a symbol of resistance to the communist regime, the KGB had the hill bulldozed twice.

As you enter the site, there is a long list of rules and regulations about what crosses can be left. They can be made of wood, metal or many other substances. They shouldn’t be more than 3 metres tall.

We saw hundreds of small crosses draped over larger crosses and assumed they were added, not on a whim, but as a convenient place to hang a cross.

There are crosses to commemorate the young (so touching) and the old, and there are crosses from all over the world. Poor John spotted one from Nebraska, my home state.

But there are more than crosses. Statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots, and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been brought here by Catholic pilgrims.

Hill of crosses

Loads of crosses in one place

Pope John Paul II visited the hill in 1993 and declared it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. I really appreciate those thoughts. In 2000, a Franciscan hermitage was opened nearby.

Important tip: If you plan to visit and don’t need to go to the toilet or buy a cross, don’t pull into the carpark. Park on the verge outside and enjoy your time strolling through the crosses.

P.S.: Poor John and I are heading out tomorrow on a week-long bicycling trip around Brittany. I have no idea whether there will be internet connections. So don’t worry if you don’t hear from us for a week or more. If it goes beyond that—worry and send reinforcements!

7 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Hit by the proverbial freight train

He came out of nowhere. In fact, I didn’t even see him coming. It was only later that I even learned it was a him.

We were in the Brussels North bus station trying to find our bus to Paris. There were plenty of Flix buses around, but none heading for Paris.

Poor John did a fact-finding foray and then I set out on one.

I’d gone maybe 50 metres when I was hit by a freight train, or what seemed like a freight train. I’d still be lying there on the ground if three kind people hadn’t helped me to my feet and collected the things that slipped out of the side pockets of my backpack.

I was so dazed, I have no idea what people were saying to me, except I knew they were trying to be reassuring and helpful.

I staggered back to where Poor John was standing. I was breathless, hunched over, hobbling, in shock and probably fairly incoherent. He asked, Did that guy hit you? I saw him running and thought he’d knocked someone over.

It confounds me that Poor John always manages to miss these attacks on me. He was walking in front of me when I got hit by a motor scooter in Hanoi four years ago. It was going the wrong way on a one-way street. He said he heard a whoompf. When he looked back, he didn’t know if the sound had come from me, the woman who hit me or the crowd. At any rate, I was the one lying on the ground.

You can read about that disaster here and here.

Anyway, we’re still not sure what happened this time. Poor John had a look around and saw that one teenager had been grabbed and was being held by the police, but probably wasn’t the one who barrelled into me. Most likely, the pair had committed some crime and were being chased by the cops.

All I could do was sit on the pavement in a sort of stunned silence until it started to rain. We moved to a bit of shelter and the bus came eventually. It’s probably good that I had four hours of just sitting quietly on a bus.

So here I am with wounds all over. I don’t even know which side the guy hit me from. My whole right arm is wrenched. Did he hit me there or are the injuries from the fall. Still deciding whether my right shoulder is dislocated and whether my right thumb will regain function. My left hand, left thumb and left knee are going to be okay.

Thank goodness, I didn’t hit my head or lose a tooth. Yay!

But if you don’t hear from me much over the next few days, I can assure you that typing is a challenge.

6 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Lappeenranta has unique food—the vety

Pappilanniemi nature trail

A view from the Pappilanniemi nature trail

Our first stop outside Helsinki was at a town called Lappeenranta on the shores of Lake Saimaa (the fourth largest lake in Europe) and only 30 kilometres from the Russian border. Not surprisingly, it is the second most visited Finnish city by Russian tourists.

We were excited to see signs promoting visa-free travel from Lappeenranta to St Petersburg, and were keen to see if we could manage at least a day-trip. We had originally booked to go to St Petersburg from Helsinki, but all the ferries were full. We were destined for disappointment yet again. Those trips (via the lake and canals) from Lappeenranta didn’t start up again until today, and we left Finland a couple of weeks ago.

But the city kept us well occupied. For starters, there is an old fortress. 

Lappeenranta fortress museum

Museum at the fortress

For centuries, Sweden–Finland and Russia fought each other. This fortress was built to protect the border and formed part of a chain of fortresses between Finland and northeastern Russia. Over the years, it was alternately held by the Swedes and the Russians.

Today it is a tourist destination, with shops, cafés, a museum, a church and parsonage, a commander’s house, and great views out over the lake (pictures above). Most places were closed because we were there on a Sunday, also Mother’s Day in Europe.

So after checking out the fortress, we headed down to the lake to enjoy the boats and buy lunch. We’d been told that we absolutely, positively had to try a vety (pronounced vetu) sandwich. Wow, these things are amazing. So much so that we had them two days in a row. They’re a sort of baked bread pouch filled with rice, ground beef, smoked ham, pickles, onions and more. I’ve started the hunt for a recipe.

Vety

The vety sandwich is found only in Lappenranta. Anyone have a recipe?

To walk off some of the calories, we spent a couple of hours walking to and from the Pappilanniemi nature trail on one end of town. The trail itself is only 1.8 kilometres long, but it took us ages to get there and back. On the way back to town, we cut across a golf course and were careful not to get clobbered by golf balls.

Lappeenranta offered up a few other unexpected treats. It has the country’s oldest still-existing wooden town hall, built in 1829.

It’s also where breakfast included frozen yoghurt and those delightful tins with moomin designs (click through and scroll down to see the pic). A woman at the hotel guided us to a secondhand shop where I bought two moomin mugs. Hope I can get them home without breaking off the handles. For the moment, both are shrouded in bubble wrap. Will show them off when I get home.

A woman in the tourist office also directed us to two other great tourist spots—the concrete sculpture park I’ve already written about here and a museum of mechanical instruments (coming soon). It’s also where I bought my first Finnish beers.

All in all, Lappeenranta was a great start to our driving holiday around Finland. By the way, the town is also famous for an annual giant sand sculpture, but that wasn’t going to be completed until this month. We did, however, see the pile of sand. 🙂

5 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Our life of luxury is over

Miller's house, Pakruojis Manor

Miller’s house turned into a hotel at Pakruojis Manor

Poor John and I have lived the most unreal existence over the last month. It’s called luxury.

Over the last eight years, most of our normal travels have been on the back of overland trucks or in vans. We’ve camped a lot, sleeping in tents that are waterproof. We’ve used self-inflating Therm-a-rest mats (highly recommended) that are almost as good as many mattresses. Our sleeping bags have been good for three seasons.

We’ve lived in camping clothes—merino (wool) tops that are machine-washable, but which would shrink to Barbie-size in a clothes dryer, and lightweight camping trousers or shorts. My favourite brands are Icebreaker and MacPac for tops, and Berghaus for pants (they just fit me right).

Miller's house, Pakruojis Manor

Approaching reception at Pakruojis Manor

But this trip has been totally outside the box.

We rented a car in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and have stayed in four and five-star accommodation (with breakfast included). I wrote about some of those amazing breakfasts here.

The only constant has been our devotion to camping clothes. We’ve worn them every day, and worn quite a few layers in an effort to stay warm in an unusually cold spring in these parts. It was 7°C (45°F) yesterday in Tallinn, Estonia and, according to the weather report, the wind made it feel like -2°C.

Accommodation-wise we are back to earth and, luckily, the temperatures are warmer.

We’re still in camping clothes, and in a very comfy and nice B&B in Brussels, Belgium. But for a change, we’re up three narrow flights of stairs with no lift and a toilet that’s next door to our room and shared with another room.

We’ve had a great time being completely spoilt (I’ll be writing about the top three places we stayed), but now it’s time to re-adjust to the real world.

But in case you think we’ve been totally spoilt, I will point out that Poor John (also known as He Who Walks Everywhere) has had us walking to and from the ports in Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn. 

Just picture me dragging a 15-kilo bag (on wheels) and carrying a 3-kilo camera bag and a 6-kilo carry-on bag as we trudge between port and hotel. Most walks have been about 40 minutes, until we’ve found the shortcuts to go back to the port.

Scenery around Pakruojis Manor

Wonderful scenery around Pakruojis Manor

Clearly luxury comes at a price.

That said, Poor John once walked from our house in Campbell to the Canberra Airport (at 4am) just so he could say he’d done it. Many years ago, and because the banks weren’t open, he walked from the airport to the city in Istanbul, Turkey. Now that was a stroll in the extreme because it’s more than a 4-hour walk.

Anyway, I’ll be back soon with posts about our luxury stays and our less salubrious stays. We’ve booked a camping/cycling trip for next week in Brittany. Here’s hoping it doesn’t rain.

P.S. Plus lots more to tell about our times in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It’s been a fantastic trip.

Miller's house, Pakruojis Manor

Our bedroom in Pakruojis Manor. Perhaps the most basic room we had