Monthly Archives: February 2012

Avoid top-10 attractions

Avoid top-10 attractions

Anywhere which gets tourists has a List. It might only have one thing on it (the church in Foxton) or it might be a bit rubbish (the world’s oldest roundabout and inspirational urban planning in Letchworth) but the List will exist. For cities like Paris, London or Bejing, the List is so long that even the top 10 is overwhelming.

I suggest you avoid places on the List on your first trip to any big city. You’ll know what they are because they’ll be in every guide book, in the pamphet you get given at the hotel and the inflight magazine.

As a result, these places will be easy to get to, full of English speaking staff and incredibly crowded. Food will be expensive, queues will be long and all your photographs will look something like this: A crowded room at the Louvre with the Mona Lisa just visible over the heads of the crowdThat’s K looking at the Mona Lisa, if you can’t tell. He’s the one in the bright orange scarf.

Instead, figure out what you like to do anyway and do that. K likes to look at scale models and clothes shops and I like weird museums and yarn shops. We both like seeing places we’ve seen in films and getting up high to see the city spread out at our feet. So we do that. You might like football matches and local beers or dinosaur bones and porcelain – whatever it is, you’ll find it in the big cities.

Of course, when I say ‘the first time you go’, I’m assuming there will be a second time. If it’s the only time you think you’ll ever visit Paris, then yes, go see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, go up the Eiffel Tower and walk around Notre Dame. But if you think you’ll come back, you can save at least some of those things for next time.

I’m also assuming that you’ll have plenty of time to plan a first trip because I’ve found that’s usually the way it goes for us. The first time we go somewhere we plan months in advance and go for a week or more. The second time we throw some stuff in a back and go for a weekend. Or change planes with five hours to kill. Or wind up in town on business, free from 7pm Tuesday to 11 am Wednesday. And when that’s the case, it’s really nice to do something easy and the top-10 list supplies that.

Second time in Paris

Second time in Paris

Me & K, white, 30-ish, in front of the Eiffel tower on a lovely sunny dayK and I went to Paris on a whim last weekend. As I travel through London every day, getting to Paris is almost as easy as getting home from work – easier, in fact, in some ways, as Cambridge does not run buses near our home and Paris has a pretty good public transport network.

It’s the second time we’ve been there together. The first time we went (five years ago!) we spent a week camping out in a hotel in the 12th arrondisment and hunting down locations from Before Sunset, a film we both love which was shot in the city. We ate a lot of baguettes and walked miles.

Being a bit broke meant we really had to think about what we spent money on, so we only did what we really wanted to do. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower or into the Louvre or on a tour bus or a bateau mouche. Instead, we had a drink (just one) at the cafe we saw in the film, walked the Promenade Plantee and watched the sunset from Sacre Coeur.

This time, we were only there for two days and we only decided to go the day before we left. Luckily, as we hadn’t done the big, famous attractions last time, we could easily pick a couple out to visit.

On Saturday, we went to the Louvre. It’s easy to spend several hours just wandering around the different galleries because that place is huge. We did that, and tracked down the Mona Lisa (not that impressive in person) and the Code of Hammurabi (because it’s in the Civilisation games). On Sunday we were planning to go up the Eiffel Tower, but the top was shut and the queue was epic so we didn’t bother. Instead, we went up the Tour Montparnasse (more on that later) and had crepes – traditional ones, with savoury fillings and cider. Lovely.

Innsbruck for Knitters

Innsbruck for Knitters

A river divides the viewer from a row of brightly painted houses. In the background, a snow-covered mountain range.

A small city with a population of just over 115,000, Innsbruck is nestled in the Alps, tucked in a valley with impressive mountain faces on all sides, and I say this as someone who grew up with a view of Mont Blanc. It’s charming and easy to walk around – and full of yarn.

Tiroler Volkskunst Museum

History piles up before you even push open the door: the folk art museum is in the old town, near the Dom St Jakob,  housed in a former monestery, attached to the Hofkirche. Inside is a large collection of everyday and festive objects used and created by local people over the last centuries. It’s a brilliant place to visit as a knitter – even though there’s very little knitwear on show.

Hand-made fabrics and crafters’ tools from the last three- or four-hundred years abound and cover the whole process from sheep to shoulders.The collection’s scope is impressive – there are spinning wheels, both mundane and beautifully carved, hand combs with elaborately painted backs, flax combs and at least three different kinds of distaff. There is also a great big mechanical carder, a particularly vicious looking contraption with its spiked wheels.

Each exhibit is tagged with one or more barcodes, and each visitor is given a scanner which calls up the relevant information in their chosen language. It’s a simple but brilliant idea as you can explore the exhibits at your own pace, and find out plenty of detail about displays which excite you.

One of the most interesting displays was a set of local costumes. Some time in the early 20th century, a local sculptor made life-size models of couples from different areas, and dressed the models in their Sunday best. The variations in detail between the different costumes are fascinating and provide an excellent reminder that ‘traditional’ costumes were actually fashionable at one time.

Yarn Shops

I found 3 yarn shops in Innsbruck, all within about 500m of each other and near the city centre – between the river and the train station.

The easiest to find is probably Kapferer Textil at Herzog-Friedrichstrasse 27 as it’s in the cobbled square which is home to the Golden Roof, one of Innsbruck’s premier attracions. The shop carries fabric and stitching supplies as well as yarn so it’s a great stop for a polycrafter.

 Anton Kogler yarn shop in Innsbruck. Image shows large glass shop front windows with some balls of yarn and knitted samples just about visible and shop name over the door

There are 2 shops on Museumstrasse, about 200m from the main train station. They’re both intriguing. At number 6 there’s Anton Kogler, a lovely, old-fashioned yarn shop – the kind where sock yarn is held behind the counter and they expect you to know what you want. Bring your phrase book and wade in – it’s stuffed with European yarns. When I visited, the top shelves were full of hand-knit hats making it easy to see how yarns knit up.

On the opposite side of the street, at number 19, is a fancy dress shop cum haberdashery which is probably called Leimgruber. Stock is limited, but prices were good when I went and it’s worth a look for the yarn and cross-stitch mixed in with toy stethoscopes and fake blood.

All three shops had friendly, helpful staff and a cross-stitch, tapestry or embroidery materials as well as yarn. Although there was some cross over, most of the yarns weren’t the usual ones seen in the UK (Rowan, Regia, Rico…) which was a pleasant change. There was a small amount of local wool in the third shop, but most yarns were commercially spun and dyed.

People watching
Innsbruck is an area where hats, gloves and scarves are strictly necessary, so there’s plenty of knitwear to watch go by. Most hats and jumpers are store bought, but the variety is inspiring.

Austria is world-reknown for their pastries – in France, many pastries are still called ‘Viennoiseries’ – and there are plenty of cafes and bakeries in the old town, so curl up with a cuppa and watch the knitwear go by!

Things you might want to know
I’m not a local – I’ve visited Innsbruck exactly once – but I did visit all these places and in one day. The city is flat (no hills) and all the places mentioned are within about 500m of each other and in the city centre so it’s an easy tour to walk.

Entry to the museum was €10 for an adult at time of writing. This also gave access to the adjoining Hofkirche and possibly another museum – time and language skills were both limited on my part, unfortunately, so I didn’t explore this option.

Unraveled by Courtney Milan

Unraveled by Courtney Milan

Unraveled is no trashy romance. It promises a lot and delivers in full. I very much enjoyed it. I bought a copy of this book after reading a review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The review mentioned two intriguing things:

  1. A historical romance set in Bristol
  2. This line: “When one is threatened by a shadowy criminal figure, one goes to the magistrate that shares one’s bed rather than the shadowy criminal figure.”

Now, if you haven’t read as many terrible romance novels as I have, you might not know that both of these things are rare. Historicals are most commonly set during the Regency period and action takes place in London (during the Season) or in ___shire (out of season). Regency romances very rarely venture to any other city apart from, maybe, an excursion Bath or Brighton.

The quoted line is even more exciting – I’ve lost count of the number of films, books and TV shows I’ve encountered where the conflict between the two love-interests is down to them (a) assuming the worst of the other and (b) each not telling the other something. Personally, I find this frustrating in the extreme as I think that if you’re going to marry someone you ought to trust them enough to tell them your mid-level secrets. I mean, sure, they’ll probably balk if mention you killed a man in Reno but if they flee because you spent a lot of money on a hat, it’s too early to get married. Get thee to some Ren-therapy, my Lord!

What is it about?
It’s a romance (I mentioned that, right?) set in early-19th century Bristol. Smite is a magistrate and Miranda is a witness in his court – again. Under an assumed name. There is a plot (with shadowy underworld figures!) and there is tension between the two (necessary tension! due to their separate emotional histories!) which keeps the book engaging. At the same time, the characters are unusual, sympathetic and charming. (To the reader, I mean, not necessarily to the other characters they encounter.)

Stand out moments
I mentioned a couple above, but I was also pleased that this book has a couple of gay characters. Homosexuality was a hanging offence in Britain at the time (as is mentioned in the text) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. But gay characters are rarer than a trip to Liverpool in the Regencies I’ve read so far.

You might want to know
This is the fourth book in a set  but it reads well as a stand-alone novel. My only word of caution is that if you read this one first, you will find out who wound up with whom in the first three books: Unveiled, Unlocked and Unclaimed. Unlocked is free on Kindle at the moment, but I haven’t read it.

Fresh snow

Fresh snow

A snowy road curves off to the right, under a blue sky with mountains in the distance

Snow is pretty, but it’s also awfully heavy. It’s hard work shifting it, it’s hard work walking through it, it’s hard work living in it. Luckily the Tirol is well used to snow so, unlike in England, the country doesn’t grind to a hault when a few flakes fall. On Saturday, Innsbruck airport was closed due to heavy snowfall. A couple days later and a thousand meters above sea-level, the roads were clear and the sky was blue.

Books with Alps in

Books with Alps in

A blue sky, snow-covered mountains in the fore and background.

Heidi by Joanna Spyri
Probably the most famous book ever to mention an Alp, Heidi is a classic story about an orphaned girl who goes to live with her gruff, grumpy grandfather up in an Alpine hut. It’s a heart-warming story advocating simple living and fresh goats milk as essential child-rearing tools.

After Spyri died, a family friend wrote two sequels, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children. Both stories are incredibly soppy, and miss some of the love of the surroundings and the characters which made the original special.

The School at the Chalet by Eleanor M Brent-Dyer
There’s a whole series of Chalet School books spanning the years around the Second World War. The school is small and homely and caters to the international set of the day, so the girls all have an interesting back-story. They get into scrapes and learn valuable moral lessons by climbing around the mountains near the school.

One curiousity, at least in the editions I read as a child, is that the author assumes that all her readers are, like the Chalet School girls, trilingual, breaking into French and German for a line or two without offering translation. That habit often left me feeling like I’d missed a joke but even with a few missing pieces, the stories are good, wholesome romps and I enjoyed them a lot as a kid.