Category Archives: Food and cooking

A Viking Star

Cruising on the Viking Star

Now that our 2015 trip is over, (sob!) we thought a quick focus on our ‘Mediterranean Odyssey’ cruise would be useful for people contemplating an ocean cruise.

This all began way back in 2013 when we took a Viking river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and we met some wonderful travel companions from the USA and Canada.

The Viking Mob

As we had such a good time, our ‘Tribenzi’ all stayed in contact and we started the search for another fun journey to share.

Viking made it super easy for us as they were launching an ocean-going fleet to add to their very large fleet of river cruise boats. None of us had been on a ocean cruise before, and to be honest it wasn’t really on any of our bucket lists.

But once we saw this itinerary starting in Venice and ending in Barcelona, we were hooked!

The compact size of the ‘Viking Star’ ship really appealed to us as it is relatively small with accommodation for only 928 passengers. We don’t think we would enjoy joining 5000 other people as is the case with many current cruise ships in service – that’s just like living in a small town somewhere!

A pretty relaxed time was envisaged once aboard. We were not disappointed.

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The ship is very well laid out with lots of areas where you can just chill out for as long as you like.

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Very tastefully decorated throughout with a Scandinavian vibe (obviously), and it was a very pleasant experience.

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The food – a pretty important part of the experience – was first class… and you could eat very healthily as well as indulge in some amazing creations. No multiple sittings for meals and the staff were very attentive.

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Our favourite spot had to be the World Cafe at the rear of the ship as we enjoyed the varied menu available – we all found something fabulous to eat every day! Check out these sushi with delicious wasabi…

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In addition to this large selection the chefs always had several ‘cook to order’ options for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they loved creating new dishes for us. Don’s special fiery chilli omelette for breakfast didn’t even raise an eyebrow!

We enjoyed a special night out at the Chef’s Table – a ‘sweet and salty’ five course menu paired with special wines. A wow experience. Check the plate of grilled scallops with a sweet beetroot reduction balanced by a dash of passionfruit in the photo below… Or strawberry and basil jelly with ‘black Hawaiian lava salt’ – it does sound OTT but it was VERY special.

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Of course you have to work off all those calories somehow, and fortunately our itinerary included a variety of active excursions at every port.  These were selected well in advance, and we enjoyed all the ones we chose.

As we only had a day at each port of call, most tours were a half day or so but there was a good variety of optional trips. For example, we loved our full day tour of Sorrento and Pompeii – what a contrast!

However these trips enable you to have a quick look at lots of interesting places, some of which we would like to revisit for a more in depth experience.

Of course you can also just stay aboard if you like, or just head off on your own private walk – as far as we know no-one got lost?!

Unfortunately our friends’ add-on tour to Madrid was not the experience they had hoped for so we were grateful that we had decided to stay on in Barcelona – a fabulous way to end our holiday.

Overall, we found this cruise was good value and a great experience – we can recommend it! Let us know about your favourite trip or what you are planning next???

Barcelona!

Our previous blog focused on the amazing Sagrada Familia as it just overwhelmed our senses, so now we can focus on other interesting spots in Barcelona. Just that name conjures up             a certain waiter from Fawlty Towers, but fortunately we met many funny and competent waiters bearing no resemblance to Manuel!

After docking, we left the huge port and were driven around some of the highlights on a rather cool and wet day (this causes grumpy photographers) so we later returned in beautiful sunshine.

Fabulous views from Montjuic Hill.

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Lots of infrastructure was built for the 1992 Olympics and beautiful art galleries and monuments abound.

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Check out this massive column of Christopher Columbus. Apparently he is meant to be looking out towards “that far distant shore” he discovered but in reality he’s pointing to Sicily. Oops!

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Where else could you find the old bullfighting amphitheatre housing a modern day shopping centre?

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We ‘needed’ to check out Les Cortes Ingles – an upmarket department store, with a magnificent supermarket section in the basement. Here they sell the famous jamon iberico. It’s also very expensive  – check out the (Euro) price of the single ham in a boxed gift wrap below! Fortunately they are cheaper and available in smaller amounts at butchers and the markets…

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Along the Passeig de Gracia. Lots of clever forward thinking people in this city… The early roads were designed with expansion in mind and with major intersections angled to allow easy turning.

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So back to the Viking Star for our last night on board and fond farewells to our friends – last drinks on the balcony, last dinner at the World Cafe. So sad, but we are already making a shortlist for our next meeting place…

A Last nite aboard

Next morning the Aparthotel Silver went out of their way to make our stay memorable – our room was ready for a 9.30am check in straight from the ship, top quality advice on all the transport options, discounts, and a bottle of bubbly waiting for us… What is not to like?!

Off to shop till we dropped on Las Ramblas, a 1 km boulevard – crowded with what seemed to be a good mixture of tourists and locals.

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Our favourite spot as usual was the huge food market, dotted with bars for a quick selection of snacks and a drink.

Each evening we wandered the streets to find a un vaso de vino blanco y una cerveza, and of course tapas. Not only because it is such a great way to eat, but because cafes and restaurants don’t start serving dinner till 9pm (at the earliest).

We want to try and re-create several dishes at home. Number one will be the Catalan traditional tomato bread that accompanies tapas. It looks so simple but has excellent taste and texture and is perfect with jamon, anchovies, cheese, olives – yum!

Barcelona’s population is 1.6 million with a total of 7 million in the province of Catalonia. There is a chequered past  – and future – in regard to pro-Catalan vs anti-Spain sentiments in this region. Passions run high and strong…. This interesting blog describes some of the challenges for the younger generations.

We have barely scratched the surface of Spain, so it now joins our wish list of European countries to explore in a longer time span and at a more relaxed pace. We will have to keep buying those Lotto tickets…

Monaco & Toulon

As we glided into Monaco, our waiter said “Now you will start to smell the money!”

What an accurate description of this principality where the cost per square METRE averages   60 000 Euros, and each letter on the Yacht “Lady Moura” docked beside us is printed in 24 carat gold!

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We assumed that Monaco and Monte-Carlo were one and the same – wrong! Monaco is the (tiny) country, and Monte-Carlo is the area on the hill that houses the famous casino and most of the luxury hotels.

We walked around the medieval “Rock” section and through a very pretty garden – we gave up calculating how much each flower or leaf would be worth in real estate value!

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We could see the Musee Oceanographique literally hanging on a cliff. It was directed by the wonderful Jacques Cousteau for many years – how many people recall watching his magic TV shows? Wish we had known ahead of time as we certainly would have goofed off to explore there…

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Then it was off to the famous cathedral where Grace Kelly was buried. Sadly we had reached our quota of religious and royal exposure for the week.

The police detail that appeared suddenly scattering the crowd was interesting though – suddenly an armoured car with the number plate MC01 whisked past us. Yep, Prince Albert 2 self driving in his Lexus! Guess we still got our quota of royalty for the day!

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Speaking of which, the crime rate in Monaco is very low. This could be due to having 1 policeman to every 40 people, not including any of the palace guards.

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Also it was great to hear that social housing is provided for citizens ‘without wealth’ for a tiny 400 euros a month rent. We saw some of these apartments around the harbour which looked great and were well located.

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That evening was a fun night organised by Don Lehman for our group of 8 at the Chef’s Table on board the Viking Star. Thanks Don, we really enjoyed the night!

The five course “Sweet and Salty” menu gave us a chance to try out several new tastes. We will spare you from the full menu with all the diatribe of posh ingredients, but Ian’s rave dish was the beetroot jelly with grilled scallops and a hint of passionfruit.

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Ginny loved the dessert – not usually her favourite part of the menu. A thickened Bavarian cream with basil jelly and strawberry sauce … Finished with a tiny scattering of rock salt. Sublime!

Each course came with a selected glass of wine which was perfect over the evening. Later on we even managed to dance the night away at a Beatles tribute. Well, the ‘we’ is not quite true as the pain in Ian’s knee prevents such frivolity (roll on his operation in November!) but fun was had by all.

Next morning saw a stunning French sunrise as we arrived in Toulon.

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The local Provençal market was interesting – beautiful flowers everywhere and about 12 different varieties of olives…

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However we saw some limp blackish cauliflowers that were a worry! We’ve seen this in a few places now and it seems weird and such a total contrast to all the other beautiful fresh produce. Does anyone know if there is a reason for this? Maybe a special recipe?!

There are many fountains and squares throughout the city, some in better shape than others. Our guide indicated that funding to maintain and renovate the Old Town is very limited in the current economic climate. Parts are uninhabited or unsafe, and sadly they have a nasty virus in many of their palm trees.

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In contrast the Opera House is in constant use and is a very beautiful building with many sculptures adorning it.

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So there you are.  Monaco & Toulon, third and second last port of call before Barcelona…

More Wonderful Florence

Please enjoy some of the amazing pieces of art to be found in the huge Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It  has been open to the public since 1765 so really is one of the first modern museums.

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This is mostly the legacy of the famous Medici family who regularly collected and commissioned works of art. The last Medici heiress was very specific in her will that all these treasures must remain in Florence – clever woman!

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We could just imagine artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo gathering here to create their masterpieces and relax.

We really enjoyed our Tuscan cooking class with Walkabout Florence. It really could have been a disastrous day: cool and wet, but our guide Mollie (yes, an English art historian immigrant!) led about 30 of us through the back streets of Florence and explained all sorts of interesting social and culinary history. This also required drinking coffee and eating the most exquisite tarts. The seasonal delicacy was a sweet bread dough covered in small black grapes that are only ripe just now…. Yuuuummmy.

After collecting food from the fresh market for our class, we travelled out to a beautiful farmhouse in the hills behind Florence to start cooking. Our lovely chef demonstrated all the techniques e.g. making fresh pasta by hand (Ian made the best tagliatelle in the class!) along with a meat sauce.

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Onto the pizza dough and toppings and the best ever bruschetta – we are sure the secret is the quality of the olive oil, all pressed and bottled on the premises.

Next was the Tuscan roast pork and potatoes … And just to top it all off, Tiramisù.

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In one way, we were surprised to cook dishes which we already associated with Italy but in fact it was a superb lesson in cooking techniques and creating the correct flavours. We enjoyed sharing our meal and excellent regional wines with our fellow students – a great bunch of people and a wonderful way to spend 10 hours!

 

Tuscany

We woke up very early on the morning that we were leaving Rome, so decided to wander around the local streets. There seemed to be a busy buzz on one corner… And we had stumbled on the amazing Mercato Trionfale, the largest fresh market in Rome busy stocking up for the day’s trade.

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We were definitely a curiousity – tourists up early! Many stall holders gave us tastes…warm breads, pickles, cheeses, ham off the bone, gorgeous berries and pears. And the seafood section was pretty astounding – check out the eels and swordfish!

Sadly our booked transfer to the train station was a no-show, so we did a last minute dash up several flights of steps to find a taxi rank. Naturally he was a ‘pronto’ driver so we just caught our train to Firenze (Florence) and sat back to soak in the scenery at varying degrees of warp speed! Ian still feels a little uncomfortable travelling at 300kms per hour on the ground…

We are in Florence for 4 days – beautiful, old and stylish. Our beautiful apartment in via Rosina is an ideal location, walking distance to all the major places we want to visit and 10 mins from the train station. Laura, the owner, enjoys making tourists welcome and gave us many helpful ideas and maps.

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Off we went on a HUGE day out exploring a little of Tuscany with Albatravel. It is chocolate-box pretty, especially with a tinge of early autumn colour on the trees. First stop was Monteriggioni…..

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In Siena we walked down very steep beautiful medieval streets past an array of beautiful palaces, the cathedral and hundreds of shops to the Piazza del Campo. This is the location for the crazy bareback Palio horse race – you’ve probably seen it on TV – let’s just say the rivalries are deep and emotions run high! We wandered off and found a local spot where we had the special of the day – mackerel and vegetables, along with a (of course) vino bianco and a basket of bread and olive oil. Message to self – do not rely on memory! Write down the name and location of good places to eat – especially when they don’t do cards, Facebook etc because they don’t need to!

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San Gimignano is a tiny medieval town (and a world heritage site) with interesting buildings and shops. The old city is surrounded by huge walls built in the 13th century, although the Etruscans settled there in the 3rd century. The antiquity is  quite overwhelming, and then we remember that Australia was settled 40,000 years ago and that puts it all in perspective!

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We ended at the Tenuta Torciano Vineyard, privately owned since 1720. The peppered olive oil was deluxe, also enjoyed a luscious balsamic vinegar and then there were the wines. Well, some were yummy, and some just OK, and wow, do they have drinking rules!  Just don’t think that drinking un-chilled white wine in our West Australian climate is going to catch on any time soon.

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We think the photo above shows us in our perfect natural environment, and hope that these other photos capture the beauty of the vineyards, olive groves, castles and farmhouses we have seen. More to come soon on our visit to the Uffizi Gallery and our Tuscan cooking class!

Italy…

We have been planning (and saving for!) our Mediterranean holiday for 18 months.

First off we spend 9 days exploring some of Italy, then we cruise around the Mediterranean from Venice, finishing with several days in Barcelona.
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Enjoying every moment of our time in Italy so far. We won’t bore you with travel details from our home in Perth [the most isolated capital city in the world apparently] to Rome – let’s just say “time passed”…
Yes, we could have used public transport to get to our apartment one block back from the Vatican City but it was so welcoming to find our ‘driver’ (booked weeks before) actually waiting for us. This is a top service offered by even small scale accommodation.
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Ginny reckons Rome looks and feels pretty much the same as her last visit 35 years ago – it’s grungy,  graffiti-ised to the max and the traffic is insane …. But of course it is all so fascinating that we just ignored all that and relished the architecture, the antiquity and the statues on every corner.
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We are lucky to have two opportunities to enjoy the ‘Eternal City’ as we will return during our cruise, so joined the hop on, hop off bus. Yes, we know that it’s a ‘touristy’ trip in any city, but it’s also a good way to find your bearings and earmark places to explore further… Which we did!
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Then La Bella Roma turned on the sprinklers for us (a.k.a. A beaut thunderstorm!) and out of the woodwork came touts to sell brollies and ponchos. Us two wet people decided to be semi-sensible and return to our apartment to change clothes before our beautiful afternoon walking tour with Viator.
This was a great way to see some of the beautiful squares, monuments, fountains and artwork. First stop, the Pantheon…
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It was also a good reminder of how the ancient cobblestones look absolutely fabulous but play havoc on your feet and legs – thank goodness for a rest and a refreshing gelato!
Fortunately we didn’t have to park… It’s a nightmare! But amusing, and we fell in love with the tiny cars that can – and do – park anywhere!
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Meal of the trip so far was at La Locanda di Pietro – a stunning combination of finely sliced medium rare beef, pear slivers and pecorino to which we added drops of olive oil and a luscious balsamic vinegar. OMG.
By the end of two days we had walked many miles and seen some astonishing sights – some that just give us so much joy and some that will make us sad for the rest of our lives. Mark Twain called Rome “a museum of magnificence and misery” – a great description.
Ciao for now!

Wildflowers & Scenery East of Geraldton

Leaving Wooramel Station on our trek home, we stopped at Northampton, a small but lovely historic town 50 kms north of Geraldton. Returned for another meal [bangers and mash for me and pepper steak for Ginny] at the ‘bottom’ pub. Yes, there are 3 pubs, and although they all have proper names they are locally known as the Top, Middle and Bottom Pub – who are we to argue, they all sell cold beer and good tucker!

Our aim was to get photographs of the very rare Wreath Flower (Leschenaultia Macrantha) which seems to favour disturbed ground such as the roadside where graders have been turning up the soil. Not sure they don’t occur in the bush as well and it seems they are prolific in some areas and very scarce in others…

We also wanted to explore the very beautiful rolling hills and countryside in the Chapman Valley – one of the most agriculturally productive areas of Western Australia. At this time of the year it is spectacular – huge acreages of wheat and canola as well as well-fed sheep and beef (yum)… The green and yellow is beautiful. We travelled through this region for an hour without seeing another vehicle of any kind!

The weather for our stay was fairly overcast, but we managed to get some sunshine and the cloud formations were pretty amazing.

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On the Pindar Road out of Mullewa we found biggest mobs of the very elusive Wreath Flower plants – neither of us had seen so many in one place. Outstanding stuff.

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From the Chapman Valley we moved south to Mingenew – via Dongara for the famous pepper steak pies from the bakery! The Mingenew pub is for sale if anyone is interested. Nice place, but would need cleaning up and money spent on it to bring it up to somewhere special… Maybe if we win Lotto… [Note from Ginny – not in my lifetime!]

Using Mingenew as our base we drove 35 odd kilometres to the North East to the famous Coalseam Valley where we were told that some early wildflowers were in evidence… The rumour proved correct and there were carpets of everlastings of every description.

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Some really nice ‘free camping’ spots at the Coalseam Conservation Park as well and we intend coming back for a longer stay. The ‘break-away country’ round this area is very scenic. The flora seems to thrive on these formations and it is very pleasant. And it is quiet!

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We were a bit early for the real wildflower season and we think that in about 2 weeks this area will be awash with flowers! Some areas have received early rains, but most are having a late season so it would be good to revisit then… maybe next year?

WA is lucky to have this amazing and beautiful season each year. We have flown over miles (kilometres in new money) of seemingly unending carpets of these flowers, I can vouch for that…

People come from all over the globe to experience this time of year here… Why don’t you give it some thought?!

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Back on the road…briefly

After 6 months of city dwelling, it was definitely time to get out bush for a few days – but where to go? We opened our West Australian atlas (old-fashioned but the geography doesn’t change much around here!) with the challenge of finding a place that:

• neither of us had visited before – quite hard as Ian was born and bred in WA

• within 4-5 hours travel time from Perth

Within 3 minutes we found the perfect spot in the Wheatbelt region – Wave Rock, only 326 kms away, with a caravan park 2 km away from Hyden.

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And what an amazing landform it is.  An enormous granite rock 15 metres high (same as a 3 story apartment) and 110 metres long. It has been beautifully sculpted over many millenia into the wave shape that makes you want to get your surfboard out!

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The rock walls are stained in bright orange and black from the chemical reactions caused when water drips slowly over the tiny mosses, lichens and algae on the rockface.

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Just loved Hippo’s Yawn – perfect name!

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Many trips and walks have been designed to explore the area, and most of these are included in the ‘Granite and Woodlands Discovery Trail‘, a useful resource booklet for visitors.

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We drove out to Mulka’s Cave and The Humps…. the name Mulka’s Cave comes from an Aboriginal Legend believe to be associated with the cave. Mulka was the illegal son of a woman who fell in love with a man with whom marriage was forbidden. The legend is complicated and violent, but is there to try to stop ‘wrong-way marriages’ and also to prevent children wandering away from the group. Note the rock art on the walls below:

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Hyden is a terrific town to visit

• a good pub with mallee roots on the fire, and local wines (that doesn’t happen everywhere) including a nice bottle of Shiraz from nearby Lake Grace

• excellent meat from Hyden Quality Butchers – lots of envious people were sniffing the air when we cooked our favourite lamb shank recipe for dinner on Saturday evening out at the caravan park!

• the Living Art Sculptures were inspirational. This is a clever ‘walk through history’ created by local people, using old machinery and metal junk to tell the story of Hyden.

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As in most country towns, shops are not open on Saturday afternoon or Sunday so that local people can ‘get a life’.

All in all it was a very refreshing break and great to get back on the road again! Happy to answer any questions people may have about this region, or hear your own stories.

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Beautiful Ieper and the Menin Gate – Belgium

Ieper – or Ypres back in 1918 – was immediately christened as ‘Wipers‘ by Allied soldiers, with even a ‘Wipers Times’ newspaper being written by the British!

During the Middle Ages, Ypres was a prosperous Flemish city renown for its textile industry – they were trading linen with England way back in the 14th century. It is located in Belgium north of the Somme River. Sadly this was right in the pathway of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France during WW1 so it became the scene of some savage battles. Shelled into ruins, the town ramparts were solid enough to endure the pounding of artillery and in fact were used by troops to shelter from the onslaught.

The people of Ieper were devastated at the destruction of their ancient town, but they have rebuilt it magnificently. Check out these before and after pictures of the amazing ‘Cloth Hall‘ below. This building featured in many photographs taken of allied troops moving through the town and the Menin Gate to the battlefields beyond. It is now home to the modern In Flanders Field Museum which commemorates the futility of war and includes a new World War I research centre.

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The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is also the centre of a painting made by Will Longstaff (Menin Gate at Midnight) showing ghostly troops moving by the gate – a very moving depiction that is in many RSL halls around Australia.

The town’s fire brigade has a group of buglers who play ‘The Last Post’ at 8pm each evening as part of a ceremony to honour the Allied soldiers who lie in unmarked locations throughout the surrounding battlefields. Traffic is halted while the large numbers of visitors attend this very moving experience. 54,000 names grace the walls of the Gate and we defy anyone not to shed a tear about the overwhelming horror and barbarity of war.

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This ceremony started at the end of WWI and has been a feature of the town ever since, except for a brief break during WWII when the town was occupied by German troops. A similar ceremony has been adopted for the close of our Australian War Memorial in Canberra each day.

We stayed at the very nice Ariane Hotel in Ieper while we toured the battlefields. A lovely blend of old architecture with modern interior and facilities.

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Ieper is a delightful place as you can see from the photographs and has many beautiful buildings – and wonderful window displays of cakes and sweets!

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Cakes in window

The town has cobblestone streets and we found them a little hard on our legs after a day walking round taking in the sights. The ramparts almost circle the town and are a lovely place to walk and take in the buildings.

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Wallnut Red CurrantWe really had a good time and were intrigued by Belgium and in particular beautiful Ieper with such interesting and relevant history. We intend returning for a longer stay next time… and we would love to hear from anyone else who has also enjoyed visiting this region!

In a pickle?!

After 8 plus months away on our big caravan trip, lots of people predicted we would get itchy feet. Hmmm. Maybe a little bit, especially when there is no choice but to do the mundane things of life like filing, vacuuming and home maintenance!

Mostly though it has been fun to get ‘back into the routine’, and guess what came to mind?

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We enjoy making chutneys and pickles – don’t you think they make the difference between an ordinary cheese platter or meal and something fabulous?! This mango chutney recipe from Janelle Bloom is cooked in the microwave and  makes about 4 jars – easy peasy! Just the best served up with cheese, biscuits and fruit or veges.

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Do you ever watch River Cottage? If so, you may have seen “Pam the Jam” in action demystifying how to make jams and pickles, including this delicious Piccalilli. Go down to your local markets and pick up 2 kgs of your favourite mix of veges (we chose cauli, radishes, zucchini, capsicums and beans). Chop and salt them overnight, then make the pickling sauce and throw it all together. VERY easy – the only problem is waiting 6 weeks to taste it but the jar drippings were yummy!

Get the recipe here. This made 8 jars of various sizes; great for home or as gifts for Very Special People.

Speaking of jars… Do you know how to easily remove those pesky labels off old jars so you can recycle them? Let us know if you’d like the tip!

Jars