Monday, January 28, 2008

Off to Offley - 27 January 2008

Windmill sans sails

Mary Magdalene church Gt OffleyToday the weather was cool, dry and sunny so it was time to leave the city and head for the country. The walk details promised views and wildlife but all we heard were the mating calls of the Boeings and Airbuses from nearby Luton.

Unusual fence brickNevertheless, wandering through the English countryside is always pleasant and the names so often raise questions as to their history and derivation, today’s cluster being no different: Tea Green, Lilley Bottom, Offley Hoo and Mangrove Green etc. (How many of the residents of Mangrove Green have ever seen a mangrove swamp?)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Monopolising Mayfair - 26 January 2008

Mount St Gardens

We have been Londoners for more than 6 years now and there is still plenty of central London that we hardly know.

Today we explored Mayfair where the May Fair was banned many years ago when the area became a fashionable place to live. There are many streets lined with gracious Georgian buidings, many of which are now offices.

Carlos PlaceSouth Audely St

Mayfair is also home to some of the most expensive shopping on the Tiffany's windowplanet; Sotheby, Tiffany, Cartier etc and most stores have bouncers and/or electronic release doors. The streets, thanks to Monopoly, are household names: Bond Street, Pall Mall, Park Lane, Mayfair and so on. Just beyond is more of the Monopoly board: Oxford St, Regent St and Piccadilly Circus.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Inside the Inns of Court - 19 January 2008

Serious sundial seriously short of sun
After the Knights Templar vacated the area, leaving behind one of their uniquely circular churches, the lawyers took over a site on the banks of the ThamesTemple Church situated, conveniently, between their clients in the City and the lawmakers in Westminster.

In 1608, James I granted the lawyers, in the form of the Middle Temple and Inner Temple Societies, the freehold of the land, in return for the lawyers continuing to provide the training and regulation of barristers.

History on the wallsAs part of their 400th anniversary celebrations, the Inner and Middle Temples, two of the four Inns of Court, held an open weekend allowing the interested public to wander through all manner of places normally off-limits to them.

The Middle Temple is home to the oldest public fountain in London; Double Hammer-beam ceilingone of the finest double hammer-beam ceilings (in the Great Hall – where the first performance of Shakespeare’s 12th Night was held); the only pair of Molyneux Globes; the garden where the original white and red Tudor roses (as in the Wars of the Roses) were picked, and so on. The whole area is an amazing amalgam of history and tradition.

The Old Curiosity ShopNot far away is The Old Curiosity Shop: built in 1567, it is the oldest shop in London and was the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Still following the tourists - 12 January 2008

Portobello shop Other destinations high on the tourist list are Notting Hill and Portobello Rd, to visit the famous market. While we have dipped into the area previously and fleetingly encountered the market we had never walked the road from end to end on a Market Saturday so, since it was a beautiful winter’s day, we set off for a walk based upon those two areas.

Street performerIn an area that was once a slum known as the Potteries and Piggeries we passed the remains a bottle kiln left from the early 19th C. It seems strange that some of London’s more desirable real estate was once a fetid swamp of pig waste.

Hornton StLansdowne Crescent

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tourist Trail - 6 January 2008

The Guards approach the Palace
High on the “must do” list for tourists visiting London is to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and today, 6½ years after arriving in London we finally made it to the Palace gates in time to see the pomp and ceremony. Any Brit suggesting that the country should do a way with the Monarchy must be mad, such a move would kill the tourist industry.

Four Calling BirdsThree French Hens
Our circular walk had started at Piccadilly, along Jermyn St past all the expensive menswear shops and a couple of anonymous buildings; Gentlemen’s Clubs from a bygone era where many country estates have been won and lost at the gambling tables down through the centuries.

Badger at the binEconomist Plaza in St James St was host to an outdoor art exhibition based on characters from Beatrix Potter and highlighting the plight of the homeless in London.

Next stop was the Palace for the Changing of the Guard after which we stopped halfway down Birdcage Walk at the Guards Chapel to catch the morning sung Matins. The singing from the small choir was fantastic.Guards' Chapel The church was hit by a flying bomb in the war and the rebuilt church combines a very ornate old altar surround at the end of the choir with a modern nave. The organ was augmented by the Band of the Irish Guards who played a stunning outgoing voluntary at the end of the service. An unusual feature (for us) was the singing of the National Anthem during the service and with the choir and Guards Band it was one of the best renditions of “God Save the Queen” we have Women's Memorialever been involved in.

Along Whitehall is the excellent memorial to the “The Women of World War II” it is a modern memorial but very simple and moving and a very clever way of saying “Gone but not forgotten.”

Household Cavalry MuseumWe called in at the Household Cavalry Museum, recently reopened after refurbishment and then we were back to Piccadilly: close enough to Fortnum & Mason for a short detour. Their windows are still looking very festive with 6 of them featuring the ‘12 days of Christmas’ song.
Air ambulance lifting offReturning to the Tube Station we witnessed a rather unusual sight; a helicopter parked in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. It was the air-ambulance helicopter that had landed to collect a road accident victim.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Luxor - 31 December 2007

The Sphinx Avenue  at Luxor Temple

Luxor TempleAnother early start was on offer this morning, for a sunrise balloon ride, but we decided to pass on that and catch up on a little sleep. When the balloonists returned we all set off for Luxor Temple, just up-river from where we were berthed. Following our tour of the Temple the itinerary was to visit a papyrus factory but, again, Luxor Templewe declined, having seen that in Cairo and instead took ourselves off to the Luxor Museum. There is not a lot to see there but what is there is excellent and very well displayed in a modern and airy building, a far cry from the crowds and clutter of the Cairo Museum. The Luxor Museum has a number of items from Tutankhamun's tomb as well as some fabulous statues discovered under Luxor Temple in 1989.

Luxor TempleThen, after lunch, the end-of-holiday reality set in as we had to pack our suitcases and get them out for the porters to take to the bus, leaving us nothing else to do but sit in 24C heat dressed in clothes more suited for a London winter evening.

Valley of the Kings - 30 December 2007

Sherif and the Pharaohs in the Valley of the KingsOnce again our passage through Esna lock was delayed and we woke about an hour out of Luxor, the same place that we joined the Serenade after our tour of Luxor on Tuesday. The reason for berthing here was that it was by the bridge that gave access to the West Bank of the Nile. The original programme was that we would take a boat across the Nile from Luxor and return by bus, but the delay meant that the transport arrangements had to be reversed. Such is the life of a tour guide, coordinating and rearranging transport at short notice.

Hatshepsut TempleOur first stop was the Valley of the Kings which may have been a closely guarded secret at one time, but all the world and his wife were there this morning, including an ex-employee from NZ. We had just under an hour to see three tombs of our choice. There are now 63 discovered tombs but many were closed for restoration. Influenced by our Tour Guide we chose Rames III, IV & IX snaking through them in the queues and making it back to the meeting point with a minute to spare.

Hatshepsut TempleThen it was Hatshepsut's funerary temple, a grand edifice built into the cliff on the back of the hills surrounding the Valley of the Kings.

Off the standard tourist route and thus much less crowded is the Valley of the Queens where we were able to visit the tomb of the son of Ramses III who died young and was buried in the tomb prepared for his mother, and the tomb of Titi. Colossi of MemnonBy far the best tomb in the valley is the tomb of Nefratari but unfortunately is has been declared off limits for tourist unless they pay $US3000 for the privilege of a vist. Leaving the valley we had time for a quick photo-shoot at the Colossi of Memnon, the oldest structures on the West Bank and a tourist attraction for more than 2000 years.

Hatshepsut TempleA ferry ride took us across the Nile to the Serenade, which had arrived in Luxor while we were on our morning excursion then, after lunch, we joined another tourist convoy to the Temple at Dendera.

The concept of the tourist convoy was a result of the November 1997 massacre at Hatsheput Temple when 62 people were Dendera Templetrapped in the Temple and shot, but it seems a rather strange idea since it gathers all the 'targets' into one easily identifiable place. The one positive benefit was that the convoy was given right-of-way everywhere and all local traffic was stopped in the side streets or stopped on the side of the road so that the convoy could speed past.

The Dendera Temple was the site of the first recorded use of the Signs of the Zodiac. What we saw was a replica as the original was stolen and now resides in the Louvre in Paris. It is also possible to visit the upper level of this temple, as it has not been destroyed in the passage of time.

Dendera TempleFor the benefit of the passengers who only joined the Serenade for the downstream voyage there was another floorshow with the Whirling Dervish (male) and belly-dance (female) performers infinitely more superior to the pair we watched on Monday night.

Kom Ombu - 29 December 2007

Kom Ombu TempleThis cruise seems to specialize in early morning wake-up calls - not the most desired addition to a relaxing holiday - and this morning it was 0600 so that we could be at the Kom Ombu Temple, in front of which we had moored during the night, when it opened at 0700. Unfortunately this temple was used as a source of building blocks for a sugar cane processing factory so is nowhere near as complete as the others we have visited. The unique features here include mummified crocodiles; a Nilemeter, used for gauging the height of the annual flood and thus Kom Ombu Templelevying the taxes for the year; depictions of the King with two left hands, a practical joke by the workmen carving the reliefs; and a relief showing the various medical instruments in use 2000 years ago for such operations as brain surgery and caesarean sections.

EdfuLeaving Kom Ombu it was a race down the Nile to Edfu, the MS Serenade seemed to get overtaken by every other boat, leaving us trailing the twelve or so line-astern ahead of us. At Edfu, those who had joined the Serenade at Aswan were taken for their tour of the temple and we had some free time to wander around ashore. EdfuUnfortunately it was not all that pleasant: the quay is lined with carriages touting for tourist trade drawn by the most mangy collection of smelly, scrawny, under-nourished horses you could ever have the misfortune to meet. The water-sellers, bazaar owners, carriage drivers and walking 'cambio' men were all vying to catch your attention and, naturally, your 'tourist dollar'. On the whole this trip has been reasonably free of this harassment but the short time ashore reminded us quite forcibly that we were in Egypt.

Back on the boat we cruised into the night heading for the Esna lock and Luxor. Twin masted Felucca at sunset

Abu Simbel - 28 December 2007

Abu SimbelThis morning's wake-up call was at the unsociable hour of 0340 so that we could be on the coach at 0415 ready to join the convoy at 0430. After the 1997 massacre the authorities are taking no chances with their most precious commodity, the tourist. The 280km trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel is made in convoys under armed guard. For some reason, although we appeared to be the last Abu Simbelcoach to arrive we were the convoy leader and as soon as the guard had joined us we set off across the featureless waste to Abu Simbel; bizarrely on the wrong side of the road most of the way.

30 minutes before arrival the tour leader woke us so that we had time to eat something from the 'breakfast box' that we had each been given as we left the boat and it also gave us the opportunity to watch a totally unspectacular sunrise over the Sahara.

Abu SimbelAbu Simbel was packed with tourists but different in that it was carved form rock rather than built from stone. The story of its rescue from the rising waters of Lake Nasser and its repositioning 64m higher and 280m back from the original location is quite inspiring. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted inside the temple; a prohibition rigorously enforced by the numerous attendants inside the two temples.

The 2.5-hour trip back to Aswan was a chance to catch up on some of the lost sleep before we arrived for lunch. Quite why we had to join the 0430 convoy when, clearly, there were later convoys running at civilised times is anyone's guess.

Feluccas becalmed on the NileAfter lunch it was time for our felucca ride up around Lord Kitchener's Island and back to the boat. Part way round we were 'ambushed' by a young boy in a hand-paddled 'canoe' who pulled up alongside and sang various well known English songs and then, at the request of our tour leader, a 'national song' from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan and so on. Pokarekare ana was not in his repertoire. Having been tipped for his vocal prowess he then paddled off flat-stick looking for another boatload of tourists.

Sunset over the NileWith a little spare time before dinner we decided on a walk through the souk; quite a disappointment after the bazaars of Cairo and the souks of Morocco so we returned to the boat to catch a sunset on the Nile.

High Dam and High Tea - 27 December 2007

Our first feluccaAnother morning of intense sun-lounging was our lot but the difference this morning was the presence of feluccas, the gaff-rigged sailing boats so distinctive of the Nile.

Cruise liners four abreastAfter arriving at Aswan, where we joined at least 60 other cruise ships moored 4 and 5 abreast, we disembarked for our bus trip to see the Aswan dams, Philea Island and Temples, and a perfumery. We drove across the lower, original dam en-route to the High Dam. This dam was built by the British in 1902 and flooded the Temple of Isis and it was not until 1987 that this Temple was rescued, reduced to 47000 pieces and repositioned on the renamed Agilika Island.

Philea TempleThe High Dam is just what one would expect and, as is normal with hydro dams, most of the interesting stuff is underground. The dam contains enough rock to build 20 Great Pyramids and holds back the largest man-made lake in the world, so long (500km) that it reaches into neighbouring Sudan. The dam was built in the 70s with Soviet assistance and now provides more than enough hydro-electricity to power the whole of Egypt as well as taming the annual Nile floods.

Philea TempleOn the way back to our boat we detoured to visit "Philea" Island and the Philea Temple complex. Since the Temple is on an island, a boat is required for access so the bus dropped us off at the waterfront tourist-tat bazaar where there were dozens of boats milling around and jostling for position to entice tourists to use their services. It appeared to be total chaos. If there was any organisation to the way it system worked it was not apparent to the outsider. Philea TemplePhilea Temple
Having, somehow, secured our boat we were delivered to the island for our tour while our boat waited, in the shade of another island, for our return. How all this was coordinated before the advent of cellphones is anyone's guess.

The Tombs of the Nobles across the NileIt was our intention to visit the Old Cataract Hotel for High Tea on the terrace where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile but unfortunately we never had the time to make it there and there were conflicting stories, one of which was that the Terrace was closed for refurbishment.