Happily Lost — Rocky Gully

We were driving from Margaret River to Albany and desperately needed a comfort stop. But towns were few and far between on this empty country road.

The bushland to either side of the alleged highway was too open and too muddy. Intensely green, though.

Damp but very green farmland. South-west Western Australia, August 2022.
Green, rolling hills somewhere on the road to Albany, south-western West Australia. August 2022.

We’d planned to stop for coffee but there was nowhere en route. We had s long drive to go, to get to Albany and (as usual) we had not booked ahead. Soon morning coffee was drifting into an early lunch, but the need to find a loo of sorts (in Australia on the roads, I won’t dignify these with the euphemism “bathroom”) was becoming more urgent. Even an outback hole in the ground would have been welcome. Avoid the snakes on the path, check under the seat for redback spiders, and relief!

Then — a town! Well, a village… no, maybe just a collection of buildings. “Welcome to Rocky Gully” was on a sign somewhere. No shops we could find. We’d done one loop of the whole housing settlement (two minutes and about 100 metres in total) and headed back to the main road.

Hang on, a fuel stop! We pulled in. Mean Street Café was stencilled on the wall. At the door, a sign with  yellow L-plate warned, “”We are still learning. May stall unexpectedly. We thank you for your patience.”

“Sorry, we’ve not got any petrol yet,” the proprietor told us. Today’s our first day open, we’re still getting ready.”

By this time we were walking awkwardly with our breakfast cuppa having thoroughly worked through our bodies.

“Can we use the loo?” I asked.

“Sure, no worries,” they said. “Thataway.”

Lovely. Scented soap, pristine porcelain, not  snake or redback spider in sight.

When I emerged, the next pressing need surged to the fore. “Is there anywhere around here where we can get a feed?”

“Well, we’re a bit short of food supplies, the delivery was due yesterday, but we can do a ham and cheese toastie for you. And coffee, of course.”

It was too much to hope for, that they could do lactose-free, gluten-free, but we were travelling with my lactose-free milk and gluten-free bread. I dashed back to the car for supplies which mine hostess skilfully turned into a delicious, if impromptu, meal for us. While we waited, I wandered around the small shop. They were selling some very bespoke t-shirts and the rock ‘n roll/biker theme was obvious, especially with a perfectly-chromed Harley-Davidson parked beside the pot-belly stove.

It was a cold day outside, grey clouds hanging low and heavy. We enjoyed the break from the long sit in the car, enjoyed the toasted ham and cheese sandwich and the coffee was excellent. The company was fun, we grooved along to Meatloaf and had a lovely chat to the staff. For their first day’s customers, they did very well. But then, the level of friendliness is typical of almost any Aussie country road stop.

I stashed my milk and bread back into the car and we got back on the road again. Only a few more hours to go…

Victorian foodie country — Southern Aurora 60th anniversary tour

On our last full day aboard Southern Aurora we woke somewhere in NSW, with another early start. We were just sitting down to breakfast as we reached Albury railway station on our way back into Victoria.

Breakfast — fruit compote, yogurt, toast, cereal.

Buses were waiting for us when we got to Benalla railway station. Once again we were kept in our Covid bubbles and had each been allocated to a specific bus depending on our train carriages and dining room seating plan.

The buses wound their way up into Victoria’s high country where our first stop was Chrismont Wines, a cool-climate vineyard in Cheshunt.

The views from the balcony at Chrismont were gorgeous. If I lived there I’m sure I’d never get any work done. We had a birds’ eye view across the vines, to the road and mountains beyond.

rom the balcony at Chrismont Wines, Cheshunt, Victoria.

After a sampling of their best wines we all had lunch together before leaving to drive to Milawa, a small village in the heart of foodie country.

Our first encounter with Milawa was back in 1999, when our family spent a week in Bright. During our stay we drove around the Victorian Alps area as well as the gourmet areas nearby. Our cheese-loving daughter was delighted when we stumbled on Milawa Cheese Company. We’d also stopped in to Milawa Mustards and sampled some delicious relishes and mustards. As we were travelling with a family and on a tight budget, we bought mustards, relish and cheese, then stopped at the bakery for some crusty warm bread rolls. Then we drove out of town to find a quiet spot to have a family picnic on this glorious fresh local produce.

Gateau du fromage — Milawa Cheese Company stack of their best cheese wheels.

We’d told our now-adult children of our expectation to visit Milawa Cheese Company and knew they’d want us to ‘stock up’. The family favourite is Milawa Gold, almost impossible to find outside Milawa. It’s a creamy, strong-flavoured cheese, bold and with bite. Once tasted, it’s unforgettable.

We made a bee-line for the cheese counter and selected our favourites. The staff on the train had offered to store our perishable packages for us, in the fridges on board.

From Milawa we wound our way back on the buses through Wangaratta, to re-board the train in Albury.

Historic Wangaratta. Photo taken from the bus as we sailed through. Next time…

Before we left Albury there were more speeches, and a surprise (for me). I don’t know why I hadn’t realised, but the staff on board this historic train were volunteers. They worked hard, their service and courtesy was gold standard, but they were there because they loved the train and the historic railway journeys.

Waiting for dinner — all this was served by volunteers!

The journey back to Sydney could have been sombre, as our adventure on Southern Aurora was drawing to a close. But we still had dinner, and breakfast next morning, to keep our mood relaxed and golden.

Dawn somewhere around Moss Vale.
Breakfast in Bundanoon? Bowral? Somewhere in the misty highlands…

The train was taking us through a damp and misty Southern Highlands as we enjoyed breakfast next morning. After packing, we moved to the lounge car to chat to our new friends and listen to their excited arrangements for their next trip with St James Rail (stjamesrail), and Owen Johnstone-Donnet.

There are tours which take you to wonderful places; there are tours where you get to knew some wonderful people. There are tours where they spoil you rotten.
We’d just had all three. Can’t wait for more!

Journey’s end on Southern Aurora. For sixty years, this sign shone through the night between Sydney and Melbourne from the back of the train. No longer in public service, she’s now a touring train for heritage rail enthusiasts.

Puffing Billy — Southern Aurora 60th anniversary tour

Our food-filled adventure on Southern Aurora took a different turn in Melbourne.

While Southern Aurora waited for us somewhere at a siding in rural Victoria, the tour group was spending Anzac Day 2022 on the historic Puffing Billy steam train in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.

We had an early buffet breakfast in the hotel. Plenty of choice, and freedom to move around and make our selections, so we felt no impetus to eat everything put in front of us as captive diners. As a result, I was beginning to feel less over-full as we set out from Southern Cross for Belgrave, on the Victorian METRO rail service.

When we got to Belgrave we left the suburban train and walked down a ramp through leafy bush to the Puffing Billy platforms.

The Puffing Billy station at Belgrave.
There she is!
Loading up. We were a train load of enthusiasts.

This narrow-gauge line was opened in December 1900 as a way to open up the remote areas in the Dandenong Ranges. It quickly became a tourist attraction, but it was a vital supply line to the people who chose to live in these hills. Not just mail and newspapers, but equipment, tools and even livestock. It made living in the Dandenong Ranges a viable concern. However, it was an expensive one and was eventually downscaled in importance as a result. When a landslide blocked the line in 1953, it was the final blow and the line was closed.

Public interest stepped in, boosted by media coverage. The Puffing Billy Preservation Society was formed and a combination of volunteers, CMF (Citizen’s Military Forces, these days called the Reserve Army) and also with a nod from the state government, bypassed the landslide and got the line reopened in stages.

At 11 am at Belgrave there was a short Anzac Day remembrance, and then we boarded the train. Again, in keeping with staying in our own Covid bubble as far as possible, we were allocated a carriage.

Fern fronds for peace.
They were a bit sad by the time we got up to Lakeside, but there were plenty of fresh fronds to replace them.
Simple, but heartfelt. Remembrance message chalked on the side of the engine.

Puffing Billy’s carriages are open at the sides, a wide sill on each side with horizontal bars ensuring people can’t fall out, even if they choose to sit on the sill with their legs hanging out (surprisingly permitted along the first section of track where we were going).

The open carriages allowing people to sit on the sills, if they choose.
…and we’re off! Thanks, mate.

As we wound up higher into the Dandenongs we could see small villages along the track, some of which were still having their Anzac Day services. People not involved with the services were waving to us as we passed, the little steam train clearly a local favourite.

Riding on the sills as we go over the trestle bridge is apparently a ‘thing’.
Starting our wind up into the Dandenongs.
Ours wasn’t the only train doing trips.
The Anzac Walk parallels the train track.

There was a walking track for part of the way along the line as well, the commemorative Anzac Walk. QR codes allow walkers to hear the stories of the Emerald Anzacs who served. The vegetation varied between tall timbers or groves of palms.

The view of Melbourne from up in the Dandenongs.

Up at Lakeside we had lunch organised for us all (of course! More wonderful food!). We had some interesting speakers over lunch. One man, Graeme Legge, represented Emerald RSL (Returned Services League). He was born in Emerald, grew up there, his father served in WWI. He told us that 32 local Emerald men died in WWI and local communities developed the Anzac Walk to commemorate their sacrifice.

 We had some time to wander around the beautiful and historic station, looking at some of the displays on the history of the Puffing Billy, before our return trip later in the afternoon.

In the small museum at Lakeside you can learn more about the history of Puffing Billy.
Happy engineer.
Yours truly, grabbing a moment on the footplate.
Beautiful countryside. Plenty of fern fronds.

Back in Melbourne we took advantage of the complimentary dinner that our tour host had arranged for us, although we still didn’t have room for much.

Back at Southern Cross in time for dinner.

After dinner we decided to forgo the bright lights of Melbourne and instead avail ourselves of the free wi-fi (sadly lacking on the train) and catch up on emails.

Sitting with legs out the window is definitely not permitted on Southern Aurora.

Back on Southern Aurora tomorrow!

No Danger of Starving — Southern Aurora 60th anniversary tour

We’d boarded this special anniversary run of Southern Aurora the evening before. A few wakeful moments but we slept fairly well and woke to dawn light streaming in our window, and southern NSW countryside flashing past. Just in time for breakfast. Because we’re early risers, we blessed being allocated to the first sitting.

The mist lay low on the paddocks as NSW countryside flashed past our window. Our table mates were a little late, there were a few missing heads in the dining room for the first breakfast sitting at 7 am.

We rolled in to Albury Station soon after breakfast (for us). The second sitting was going to be later, it had to wait until after the morning border crossing ceremonies.

Albury Station, NSW, in the early morning.

With the early morning sun splashing gold over the heritage-listed Italianate station buildings, we gathered to hear some short speeches including one from sitting Federal MP, Sussan Ley. She mentioned the previous MP, Tim Fischer, who was well-known for his obsession with trains, including Southern Aurora. Tim’s funeral train also passed through Albury, paying respects for the many years of hard work he put in there. According to his wife Judy, Albury Railway Station was one of Tim Fischer’s favourite places. We certainly admired it for its architecture, its planning and the amazing length of it — 455 metres, the longest in Australia!

Still travelling — the Boomerang Bag that also went round Europe twice.
Albury Station, NSW. The longest platform in Australia! April 2022

We left Albury just as “second breakfast” began. Although it was for other passengers and not us, we were finding that the food on offer, both the quality and quantity, was making us feel like well-fed hobbits. Instead of thinking of food, I took the opportunity to attempt a shower, in a tiny cabin bathroom of a train on the move.

The trick to showering on the train is to strip off in the cabin, outside the bathroom. Leave your clothes within reach outside the bathroom door. Toiletries (soap, shampoo etc) can fit neatly on the shelf under the mirror. Go into the bathroom, close the bathroom door, then slide the shower curtain around to also cover the bathroom door. There was a very thoughtfully-provided grab rail to hold onto when the train was going around a bend. Because the bathroom is so tiny, it’s easy to reach whatever you need.

I was sitting in the lounge car sewing when we pulled in to Violet Town to be met by some local dignitaries for the occasion. Southern Aurora has a special connection with Violet Town, which I will go into in a later episode.

We left Violet Town just as the first sitting of lunch began. Lunch? Who’s got room for lunch? But it was so delicious we managed to force it down. Other passengers at nearby tables were exclaiming in delight at the food. “As good as ever,” they said. “These St James Rail tours are about the food as much as the adventure.”

We weren’t going to starve, then.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived in Melbourne, at Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer St Station). We were to spend two nights in Melbourne in a hotel across the road from the station, but coming back to the same compartment on Southern Aurora after that. The staff (who had been waiting on us with such professionalism for our meals) were going to stay on the train while it parked at a siding somewhere out in the country. I hoped they were going to get some well-earned rest.

Southern Cross Station, Melbourne. April 2022

We left our bigger bag in the cabin and took a change of clothes in our smaller bags to the hotel.

And at the hotel, we met our first glitch. They were not ready with all the rooms. Despite knowing how many were arriving, and when, despite the bookings having been made several months ahead, they were not ready. We actually didn’t mind very much because being fed so well and so frequently, we had a sort of detached attitude soaking into every pore. But the hotel staff were profusely apologetic, and invited us to partake of their Swiss-influenced ‘death by chocolate’ happy hour.

It’s amazing how much chocolate you can still stuff in, even when you are full as a tick.

While we were tasting little pots of mousse or indulging in chocolate truffles, our tour organiser Owen was working hard on our behalf. He couldn’t get us into rooms any faster, but he did manage to gain a concession.

“I’ve asked them to compensate you in some way for the inconvenience of having to wait for the room,” he began.

I downed another chocolate truffle. Inconvenience? Oh, yes, I suppose so.

“They’ve offered you a complimentary dinner in the dining room,” he beamed.

Dinner? Where would we put it?

“Tonight or tomorrow night, what is your preference?”

“Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” We were very much in agreement. Maybe by tomorrow night, we’ll be able to squeeze in a morsel of food.

Our room was finally available, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Melbourne. Along the way we decided to find something very light for dinner. Soup. We headed for Chinatown which we found was packed. Really packed. There were long queues outside some places. We weren’t keen on crowds (Covid makes a person a bit paranoid) so we kept moving on.

Melbourne, April 2022

Finally we found one place that seemed to have room. We had to wait, but that was okay. As we waited, I realised that it was the same place we’d visited in February 2020, just as the pandemic was starting in China. Back then, Melbourne’s Chinatown was almost deserted. We’d been the only customers for dinner in this very restaurant. Back then, we’d been served by an older Chinese woman who treated us like beloved children who needed to be nourished. And here she was again! Of course she did not remember us, but we remembered her.

A quieter Melbourne Chinatown, February 2020

I felt so bad for her when all we could order was one bowl of soup each.

She didn’t know that we were in no danger of starving.

Venice in July

Venice is art, music and history, with a big helping of mystery and surprise.

As Sydney comes out of yet another, and the longest so far, Covid lockdown, we’re starting to look around at travel opportunities again. I saw an ad land in my in box, a hotel deal for Venice, right next to Piazza San Marco. It looked expensive, so I looked up the place we’d stayed in. Much cheaper, actually comparable to a hotel in an inexpensive Australian country town. Oh, the memories!

Everything Venice — the sea, the damage it does, and the means to get around. Venice, 2018.

A good friend had been booked to go to Venice for her first-ever trip before Covid hit. I sent her some photos and the name of our hotel in case she’s interested. It’s time to plan our travel again.

I thought back to when we planned our own trip. Venice had been on our own bucket list after so many books we’d read which were set in that unique city. But we could only squeeze it in during July.

‘Don’t do it!’ we were told, far too late. ‘Venice is nice, although a bit overrated. But in the height of summer, in the heat, the stench is terrible!’

We were making our way across Europe in 2018 and visiting places along the way. We’d been homebodies for most of our lives, armchair travellers only. The world has so many special places we wanted to see, and our trip was bookended by people we needed to visit. But many other more seasoned travellers were trying to mould our itinerary to their own preferences. But we’d booked. Couldn’t back out. When you’ve been stuck at home most of your life, the chance to visit places like Venice, ever, were just too enticing. Even in the heat of July.

From Greece we flew to Rome and joined a tour which also included three days in Venice. In early July the summer heat was intense. Rome with its free-flowing water at various fountains and faucets was more refreshing than we’d expected.

We were travelling by train. Some people might turn their noses up, but not us. And the Italian train service, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrow’) at 300 km/hr is almost as fast as a plane, with the added bonus of scenery out the windows closer to hand. There were other benefits to Frecciarossa — wifi on board, USB and plug-in power, a call button system similar to airline seats and comfort. Good food, too. And for me, plenty of time to write. The plug-in power meant no chance of flat battery on my laptop interfering with my creativity.

Our first view of Venice, as the train crossed the lagoon.

Despite the comfort we were out of our seats to watch as the train slid across the bridge of the Venice lagoon. We could only see a tantalising glimpse of Venice, as if it was a treasure held loosely in a closed hand. Then we were indoors at the railway terminal (ferrovia, or ‘iron way’) for Venezia Santa Lucia. Just the name was exciting and romantic.

From the ferrovia, the steps of the railway station.

For the tour, hotel transfer was included. But for Venice, don’t expect a minibus or even a minicab. We got met, and then we walked. Not far, however. But as we left the ferrovia, we just had to stop and gasp. Venice! Grand Canal! Opposite was Chiesa San Simeon. We had to shake ourselves and hurry to catch up with our bags which were in danger of disappearing around a bend in the path. But our guide had paused, smiling. ‘You will enjoy our beautiful city, I think,’ he said, ‘after we have checked you in to your hotel.’

The foyer of Abbazia Hotel, Venice. 2018
In centuries past, this was the dining hall and a monk would give readings from this lectern during meals.

The heat of the day outside was instantly cooled in the high vaulted ceilings of out hotel, Abbazia. It is a former monastery converted to a hotel and was only a few minutes’ walk from the railway station. We were early for check-in and also had to register with our tour guide, but even indoors there was so much to explore.

When we finally saw our room, it was a lot larger and less spartan than a monk’s cell. It wasn’t huge, but it was large enough for a huge TV directly above a large, black bathtub. I kid you not — there was a bathtub in the bedroom. We discovered the separate bathroom with some relief. Taking to the other tour members, it appeared each room was distinctively different, and we were the only ones with such a tub.

The bathtub under the TV, at the end of the bed. The rest of the bathroom is on the other side of that wall.
Looking back the other way. The chandelier was Murano hand-blown glass. There was a white one in the bathroom.

As with so many other cities, we headed out the door as fast as we could. While we had tours organised for the next day, our afternoon and evening was free. So we crossed bridges, we walked, we window-shopped and just goggled at it all. Towards the end of the day we saw smartly-dressed Venetians gathering for a drink in a bar before heading home. Many of them chose to lean against a counter outside, sipping their Aperol Spritz. Having walked so much, we decided to sit inside. Despite the coolness after the scorching heat outside, there were very few people indoors. Our choosing seats marked us as tourists (assuming our clothing and accents didn’t do that already). I think the price went up too, for table service, but our feet needed a break.

Aperol Spritz on the Grand Canal, Venice 2018
Food franchises around the world. *sigh* Venice, 2018
The first Venetian mask we saw.
…and the second.
For the Star Trek fans, spot the Venetian borg. Venice, 2018.

We walked further and found a small supermarket. I needed my supplies of lactose-free milk (‘latte sensa lattiosa’). On the way back to the hotel we were distracted constantly, by Venetian masks, flags, shop windows full of exotic blown glass and a confectionery store specialising in nougat. Bliss!

You could get very fat in this place.
Cascading chocolate. Venice 2018.

The next day began with a vaporetto taking our small tour group to Piazza San Marco, where we toured the church then explored the Doge’s Palace. This included a demonstration of glass blowing, as gondolieri plied their trade past the windows. We succumbed to temptation and bought a set of tumblers, to be shipped home.

Piazza San Marco. Venice, 2018.
Looking doen to the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace. Note the round fountain in the centre.
Such opulence! Looking down the Grand Staircase to the courtyard. Venice, 2018.
The last view of Venice as the prisoner is taken to the dungeons gave this enclosed bridge the name, ‘Bridge of Sighs’. Venice 2018
Bridge of Sighs from the outside, seen from another room in the Doge’s Palace. Venice 2018
Venetian glass. Venice 2018
Beautiful blown glass, a touch of Cappadocia in Venice 2018.

Impoverished by the purchase, we were glad lunch had been included in our tour as we were taken to Burano Island to see an even more colourful side of Venice.

Burano Island. Lots of colour and curtains instead of flyscreen doors. Venice 2018.
Flowers, colour and wafting curtains on Burano Island. Can there be any more romance? Venice, 2018.
Mystery, music and temptation. Venice, 2018.
Yours truly, Burano island. Venice 2018.

One thing I was very aware of, was people everywhere. In such a picturesque place, it is difficult to get a photo that doesn’t have other people in it. Unless we were out of the way, exploring quiet, dark, dank alleys, we were around other people.

The next day was ours alone. We bought 24 hour passes on the waterbus and just took ourselves where we wanted to go. We saw more of the normal daily life of Venetians, rather than the tourist trail. The tiny alleys, little curved bridges, steps everywhere. So easy to get lost, but when every blind alley is showing something new, nobody cares.

The hidden, quiet corners of Venice.
Gondolier off duty. Venice 2018

We looked at the prices of gondola rides, then looked at the challenges of getting into one of the things. We decided to pass. Maybe if I was forty years younger and forty kilos lighter (and forty thousand Euros richer) I’d have had a go. We watched them glide by without a regret.

I think it was something like 60 Euro for half an hour. We passed.
The view from the top of the bridge (previous pic). The open area to the right is the ferrovia piazza – the railway station square and building. In thre foreground to the right is the waterbus terminal for Ferrovia. Grand Canal, Venice, 2018.

On our way back from Piazza San Marco, we saw a notice for a music performance. A small string orchestra, performing classical music. We booked tickets and returned later that evening, just on sunset, to the palazzo near Ponte Rialto. The tide was high, lapping the base of the bridge and I was determined to paddle.

High tide lapping at the doors. Venice 2018.
The water was pleasantly warm. Venice 2018.

The music performance was divine. A splendid way to spend our last evening in Venezia. The performers were all in Renaissance costume which also fascinated me, with my own involvement in various events requiring medieval or Renaissance clothing.

As the waterbus took us back to our stop at Ferrovia, so close to our hotel, we could see by the moonlight and the city lights that the tide was even higher. A combination of sinking sands and rising sea levels will be the death knell of this city, but for now it lives on, a delightful, fascinating place to visit.

And the ‘nasty smells in July’ of Venice? All we could smell was the clean salt smell of the ocean, overlaid with various aromas of cinnamon, chocolate and fried onions.

I long to go back.

Stone Soup

A stone. Is it magic? Or just a stone? How to get a meal out of nothing.

I’m going back a long way now, to a holiday we had when my children were young. We’d been up on the Sunshine Coast, enjoying a holiday in the early Spring. The only way to afford a holiday when you have four children is to find an inexpensive apartment. Definitely not a hotel!

This facility had a swimming pool, but it was far too cold to swim. The apartment had a kitchen which we’d put to good use, cooking our meals rather than eating out every night with four kids.

The day before our departure we were packing and getting some washing done. But the family still needed to be fed, preferably on whatever we had left. The fridge was fairly bare by this stage.

“Let’s make stone soup!” I announced to the girls. They already knew the story, thanks to Jim Henson’s “Storyteller” series. But we were going to do our own version of the traditional folk tale, which goes back hundreds of years through many cultures.

Beside the swimming pool was a rockery of grey river pebbles, some streaked with marble. Miss Ten grabbed one where the layer of marble looked like a ring. “Let’s use this one! It looks magical!”

Back in the kitchen I began the story.

A tramp was looking for shelter on a frosty night. He was tired, hungry and cold but the only house he could try belonged to an old miser. There were signs on the property saying, “Get out! No freeloaders here!”

The tramp read the notices, shrugged, and knocked on the door.

The miser opened the door. “Well?”

You have a fine house, sire,” said the tramp. “It is going to be a cold night. Could I please sleep indoors in your house? Just a quiet corner out of the wind and storm.”

The miser was furious. “Can’t you read?” he shouted. “No freeloaders!” and went to slam the door.

The tramp stuck his foot in the door.

Oh, I quite agree! You can’t be too careful! But I’m not a freeloader. In exchange for your hospitality, I will cook you a delicious soup.”

What with?” the miser asked. “All I see is you, skin, bone and rags.”

Ah, but sire, I have a magic stone. With that, I can make soup. All I need is a pot of water to put over the fire.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a river pebble, grey with a circle of marble on it.

“Just like mine?” asked Miss Ten.

“Just like yours,” I told her.

All we need is a stone. And some water in a pot… all else is seasoning.

The miser was curious. And there was the prospect of a free dinner. “Very well, then. But mind you sleep in the furthest corner. I don’t want wear and tear on the rug. My dog sleeps there.”

With the cottage door closed behind him, the tramp rubbed his cold hands together to try to bring back some feeling.

Well? Where’s this soup you promised me?” asked the miser.

I’ll need — a fire!” The tramp rushed over to the fireplace to warm his hands a little more. “And a pot to put the soup in. And some water. That’s all.”

The miser fetched a small cauldron and filled it with water from the trough outside. “Here!” he handed it over. “Do your magic! Let’s see this miracle soup! I’m betting the only miracle will be why I didn’t slam the door on your face!”

Have faith,” replied the tramp. He dropped the stone into the pot.

Well?” the miser asked. “You’ve got your stone, and your water.”

It takes time,” the tramp told him. “Do you have an old bone? Just something you would have thrown away anyway. We can stir it with that.” The tramp sipped at the contents of the cauldron. “Hmm, needs seasoning. Do you have any salt?”

Leftover barbecued chicken, picked mostly clean.

In the kitchen in the holiday apartment, Miss Ten handed me a spoon. “I think there’s some sachets of salt left over from a takeaway dinner. Here!”

“Let’s look in the fridge. Are there any old bones which we might throw away?” I already knew there were bones left over from a barbecued chicken.

Miss Ten produced the remnants of the chicken. I noted that the stuffing was still there. None of the kids would touch chicken stuffing. We’d picked the bones almost clean. It went into the pot, along with the contents of two salt sachets.

In the miser’s hut in the forest, the pot had been stirred with an old ham bone that still had some meat on it, and some salt had been added. It was coming up to heat and the tramp was enjoying the warmth of the fire. But he would have to feed the miser well if he was to stay warm this night.

The miser hovered. “Is it nearly ready?”

Just a little longer. Do you have any old, wrinkled root vegetables which you won’t eat? Just stuff for the rubbish heap. It will give the soup a bit of body. Some potatoes, perhaps. Or old, stale bread.”

The miser scurried around and found a wrinkled onion, some potatoes and some skinny root vegetables. The tramp put them into the pot. “It won’t be long now.”

Back in the apartment kitchen, Miss Ten looked in the fridge. “Here are some carrots!”

“We need those carrots,” I told her. “I’m going to peel them and we can have carrot sticks to nibble in the car while we drive to the park this afternoon. But here’s an onion. And let me peel those carrots while we wait for the soup.”

Onion ends and outer layer; shrivelled cloves of garlic. Carrot peel. Into the pot.

I decided I would use the onion for dinner, but I needed some onion in the soup too. So I peeled the onion, taking an extra layer. The onion peel went into the soup, along with the carrot peel. We tasted our soup, Miss Ten and I. She peered into the pot. “I can’t see the stone, Mummy. Is it gone?”

“No, the stone is just hiding behind the bones and the scraps. We’ll see it at the end.”

Little left but bones.

The tramp was now warm as toast and had been tasting the soup all through. It had started with a pot of water, and his magic stone. But he had added salt, some root vegetables, some old bones and other bits of rubbish that the miser would not have bothered to eat and now the soup was thick, rich and meaty from the old bones. What the miser would have thrown away would have fed a poor family for a week.

At last the tramp was satisfied. “It’s ready! And a finer soup you’ll never have had!”

The miser hurried over with a bowl and a spoon. He saw the sad look on the tramps face, and reluctantly produced another bowl and spoon for the tramp. Together they sat and enjoyed the soup. The miser exclaimed at how tasty it was, how it warmed him and what a marvel it all was. “Please, good sir,” the miser told the tramp, “I will give you a full bag of gold. Let me buy this marvellous stone from you. It is a wonder!”

The tramp smiled. All he had wanted was shelter from the storm. Now he was warm from the fire, had eaten well of the soup which had been concocted with unwanted food from the miser’s larder, and now he was offering money. But the tramp pretended to be reluctant. “Let me think on it overnight. I have been glad of this stone in my wanderings on the road. I will be sad to part with it.”

The miser was now very eager to please his guest. “You take my bed tonight. I will sleep on the mat with my old dog. Maybe after a good night’s sleep you will think more kindly on my offer.”

In our kitchen, Miss Ten tasted our soup. I was very happy with it, and glad I’d been able to produce it with the last discards of our holiday larder. The seasoning in the unwanted stuffing had added flavour and some thickening. Miss Ten exclaimed at the marvel of producing a tasty soup with just a stone, and old scraps from the fridge. But she pushed it aside and took a carrot stick instead.

A strained chicken stock, full of flavour, made from the leftover bits that would be thrown away by most people.
Rice cooked in the same stock, with bits of meat picked off the bones, and a thin-sliced sausage.
By adding more — egg, vegetables, whatever else we can scavenge in the fridge — we have a meal fit for a king.

So what happened next morning, Mummy?” asked Miss Ten, munching on a carrot stick.

I told her the rest of the story as I poured the soup into a jug and picked out the scraps of onion, carrot and chicken bone to put in the bin. Miss Ten reached for the stone and washed it under the tap. “I want to keep this,” she announced, and put it in her holiday treasures box.

Back in the cottage, the tramp spent a very comfortable night in a warm feather bed, in a hut with a burning fire. But when he woke, he knew he needed to get on his way. But the miser was reluctant to see him leave.

Please, good sir,” the miser begged. “Will you sell me your stone? Perhaps two bags of gold?”

With a great show of reluctance, the miser reached into his pocket for his stone. “Very well,” he sighed. Your gold will help me feed myself for a while, at least.” He handed over the stone as the miser eagerly pushed the gold into the tramp’s hands. And then the tramp found himself almost hurried out of the door as the miser took the little pot to the water trough to fill it up.

As he left, the tramp advised, “You will always be able to make soup with the stone, with just water. But it always improves the flavour if you add a few other things too.”

The miser was back in the cottage, door closed on the world and the tramp could see the smoke spiral higher from the chimney as the fire was stoked up to boil the pot.

The bag of gold, and the next stone…

As he walked away through the morning snow, the tramp smiled. At the bottom of the hill he paused for a moment. He bent over the river bank and picked up a stone. He put it in his pack where it nestled next to two bags of gold. He continued on his way, still smiling.

I put the jug of soup in the fridge. That night, with the rest of the onion and a small bag of rice, I made risotto. A meal conjured from nothing.

Years passed in our home, Miss Ten kept the magic stone and made many pots of soup with it. She became a skilled cook, able to improvise. When she grew up and left home to get married, she took her magic soup stone with her.

Door Porn 4 – Santorini

The ferry spilled its load of tourists on Santorini. June 2018, no need for social distancing.

We enjoyed immersing ourselves in Athens, we relaxed on Paros, we got lost on Naxos, but it was all a prelude to Santorini.

The ferry was packed tight (well before Covid!) and, because turnaround has to go quickly, everyone disembarking on Santorini were all waiting with luggage in the large floor of the ferry. Passengers first, then vehicles would start up and drive off.

Santorini is a startling place. Sheer cliffs rise up from the ocean floor, cliffs composed of layers of ash and pumice. The contrast of lapis blue ocean with black cliffs iced with a frosting of white buildings was breathtaking.

Santorini from the ferry, black rock rising from blue ocean. The white frosting is the accumulation of villages, spackled across every possible niche on top.
The view across the caldera from our room in the hotel. That’s the table where our breakfast was served.
Fira, Santorini.
The balcony door to our room. Beyond is the sea on the other side of the island. Fira, Santorini.

Once the ferry was docked and we had the all clear, the crowd surged forward almost as one. Greek ferries have turnaround timed very tightly, and disembarkation is done efficiently, calmly but also rapidly. We had barely enough time to cross the car park and watch the vehicles follow us off the boat, when we saw the doors closing and the ferry begin to pull away, to allow for the next.

Cruise ships have a different transfer dock. We were the plebs, the common folk but no less respected.

A transfer mini-bus dropped us off at a common meeting point, and our destination was pointed out to us. “Go straight up the hill until you can’t go any further. Turn right at the cathedral and continue on about a hundred metres.”

The cobbled road led up to the narrow street. Dragging bags up here was challenging. I loved this little shop, it’s where we bought our first bottles of water.
The street outside our hotel room. Many wonderful doors. Fira, Santorini, 2018.

We dragged our bags over cobbles and low steps, reached the top of the rise and paused to drink in the amazing view over the Santorini caldera. Sparkling blue ocean, black ash cliffs and again, those amazing blue-accented white buildings clinging to the top.

An accumulation of doors — buildings layered on buildings, occupying every possible flat space, and a few impossible ones. It makes for some fascinating door photos. more to come! Fira, Santorini, 2018.

We found our hotel (a door in the wall in a row of shops and, of course, there were more steps inside. No hotel here has wide foyers with circular driveways…

When we were finally shown our room (oh, blessed air conditioning in the heat!) we found we had a balcony with an uninterrupted view not only over the caldera, but looking back to the other side of the island. Santorini is like a sliver of fingernail in the middle of the Mediterranean, curved protectively around the fledgling volcanic island of Nea Kameni. Across the caldera from us was another island, a fragment of the ancient volcanic rim. Below us were several cruise ships which lit up at night like floating palaces.

Sunset from our balcony, looking back to the cathedral. Fira, Santorini, 2018.
Cruise ship in the caldera, just after sunset. Fira, Santorini, 2018.

As soon as we could, we slipped down the stairs and began to explore. Once again, doors were something I featured in a lot of photos.

Under the church in a small village. Santorini, 2018.
Beware of the dog, in any language. Santorini, 2018.

This is a place where I could write about so many things. Foremost in my mind was the Minoan civilisation. What was it like for them, living here in a place of luxury, a place where the wealthy came to live it up, and where so much wealth of the world at the time was concentrated? Back then, they farmed saffron on the exposed plateau.

Church doors. The paving was made by pitting in flat, flinty pebbles on edge. Long-lasting, hard-wearing. We found samples of this dating back centuries. Santorini, 2018.
Door, Unplugged. Santorini, 2018.
Impossible steps, twists and turns.
A door, barely there. Santorini, 2018.
The classic Greek Orthodox church on Santorini — blue and white.

On our first full day we took a tour around some villages, to a vineyard and to the ancient archaeological site of Akrotiri. When Santorini had its catastrophic eruption in about 1640 BC, most of the island and its buildings was completely obliterated. But these fragments survived, buried under metres of ash. Anything organic has decayed, but left a space. They pour cement or other molding material into the cavities and are able to determine the exact shape of what was once there.

Buildings three and a half thousand years old at least.
Doorway and window in ancient Akrotiri. Santorini, 2018.
My writing projects on Minoan Greece had me in hog heaven!
A glimpse inside the homes from thousands of years ago. Skilled craftsmen lived here. Potters, jewellers, carpenters, artisans. Ancient Akrotiri, Santorini, 2018.
Walking the sstreets of ancient Akrotiri. How old is this doorway? Santorini, 2018.
You can see the pots, the seats, the tables in here.

After Akrotiri we stopped for lunch and a swim. It was a black shingle beach, the tiny stones burning hot underfoot.

Here is the door to my change-room with my much-travelled Boomerang Bag.

We finished at the popular village of Oia, where people gather every day to watch the sun set. It was very crowded, but an exciting visit.

Door in Oia, Santorini 2018.
Church bell tower, Oia, Santorini 2018.
Oia is a challenging place to photograph. So many people! Santorini 2018.
Even iin such a beautiful place, practical maintenanc
Shape and colour are highlighted in the sunset. Oia, Santorini 2018.
Always look back — there’s always another perspective to a story. The rooftops are packed with people, all in Oia to see the sunset. Jeff on the right is looking at his mad wife with her back to the view. Oia, Santorini 2018.
A withered wreath over the door. As discussed in previous post on Naxos doors, this is an ancient custom. Santorini 2018.
An interesting notice on a door — in Santorini, they are promoting live sports on TV. Not unusual, you say. look closer. it’s State of Origin, NSW vs Queensland! Santorini 2018.

It’s a beautiful place, almost impossible to take a bad photo.

A flirtatious accordion player — a touch of delight at the end of a glorious day. Oia, Santorini 2018.


Christmas on the move

NSW Christmas Bush in the local park, anonomously decorated.

We’d planned to be in Canberra from early Monday before Christmas to babysit the kids, with school finished for the year but parents still working. We were then going to stay until Christmas Day, leaving the next day (Boxing Day) to head home. I planned to use the quiet evenings to work on writing and editing. Then we heard that we would be allowed to attend our granddaughter’s dance concert. The choir concert (a few weeks earlier) was unfortunately not open for audiences.

We had already booked accommodation and planned to drive down on Sunday, but the dance concert was midday. With a three and a half hour drive, we’d have to ‘bug out’ early from home. We also planned to bring our son Rob with us. He had an event to attend on Saturday, so the schedule was tight. We were considering leaving on Saturday ourselves, and perhaps getting Rob to come down by train. We booked the extra night’s accommodation (in a different hotel, the one for the majority of our stay wasn’t available that night).

Christmas on the road.

We discussed it all on Friday night. Rob was determined to attend his event on Saturday so we went online to book a train. We could have booked Sunday, but would have missed the dance concert to collect him from the railway station in Canberra, so we reluctantly booked his train for Monday instead. All other trains were booked out.

Within five minutes of booking (and paying for) the train ticket, Rob’s phone went off. The Saturday event was cancelled. There was an increasing Covid hot spot in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, about as far away from us as you could get and still be in Sydney. So could he come with us after all?

“I’m working tomorrow morning on the bread run,” he explained. “It’s too late to let them know now.”

Rob decided to come down by train on Monday. That way he could work Sunday morning as well.

With the Northern Beaches Covid cluster growing in momentum we felt some disquiet setting out. Strong restrictions were coming back in, but we knew we were still okay to travel. We double-checked, loaded the car and set off. We’d packed the car carefully to allow for Rob’s seat and luggage coming back with us.

On the road to Canberra

We wore our masks whenever we got out of the car — buying fuel, buying lunch, checking in to the hotel in Canberra. The hotel was full of cricketers! There were security guards and Covid marshals on every exit, which was disconcerting.

Next day was a more relaxed bugout with perishables carefully packed in a cooler back somewhere buried under the load of Christmas presents. We were carrying gifts from the extended family to the “Canberra mob”. Fortunately we were able to park under a handy tree and wait.

Our grandson almost exploded into our car with his energy to announce their arrival.

Queuing for the concert was interesting. We wore masks, but in disease-free Canberra this seemed to be an exception. We were all expected to leave 1.5 metres between us in the queue, but inside it was full seats. We kept our masks on…

That evening there was a press conference. The border was closing at midnight. I rang Rob. Could he get down to us before midnight, by car? Nope, not packed. With the likelihood of heavier traffic than usual, the chance of him getting to us by midnight was vanishingly small. There was also the chance that we, as recent arrivals, could be sent home or, worse, made to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. Should we leave? We’d delivered our Christmas presents already.

The kids were upset at their Uncle Rob not coming for Christmas.

We took a chance. Next morning we watched the news anxiously. Yes, the border was closed but we had no problems. We’d booked time slots to take the kids to some of the public places around Canberra and decided to go ahead. If we were going to babysit, we’d have fun too, and see the sights.

Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. The actual Parliament House is under the hill with the flagpole.

First stop, Parliament House in Canberra. This is a fascinating place, I’ll write it up separately some other time. Under Covid conditions and with two young children, we weren’t going to have the usual leisurely tour. With parliament not sitting, there wasn’t a lot to see. The kids loved the Lego model of Parliament House, complete with Lego sheep on the lawn on the roof (Parliament House in Canberra is an earth-covered building). They really liked the artwork and some of the stories that various guides told us in passing.

Looking from the Australian War Memorial towards Parliament House (note the tiny flagpole in the distance). The white building just in front of the flagpole is Old Parliament House which is now a museum.

After Parliament House, we went to the Australian War Memorial. Again, our time here was pre-booked to ensure that not too many people were inside at any time. Our grandson wanted to look at the eternal flame first, he was fascinated with the burning gas bubbling up from the pool. From there we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I explained to the kids that nobody knows who is buried there, except we know he’s Australian from World War I. So for all the families who lost a brother, a son or a father in WWI, there is some peace in knowing that the man buried there could be him. He represents them all, all Australian servicemen and servicewomen who never came home.

Wall of Remembrance — each poppy represents a recent visit from someone paying respect.

We looked for names on the Wall of Remembrance then explored the displays inside. Again, with the children we knew their attention spans would be short, but we think some of what they saw was understood.

In the Australian War Memorial — a blanket crocheted by a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB, where Jeff’s father spent time in WWII. Did the same skilled prisoner also craft dad’s cap? The colours match.

The next day we took the kids to Telstra Tower on top of Black Mountain. It was on their list of places they’d wanted to see. We went up into the tower and enjoyed the view from the observation deck, amazed at the wind.

Blowin’ in the wind — it was my Marylin Monroe moment.

On the way back to the car we saw a young ringtail possum snoozing in a nearby tree. “It’s all an adventure,” we told them.

Snoozing ringtail possum in the fork of the tree.

We collected their mother and went for a drive in the bush, as requested by our grandson. We ended up in a place we’d never been to, or even heard of — Gibraltar Falls.

Gibraltar Falls.
Lady beetle on the granite boulder, Gibraltar Falls.
Mating beetles (it’s that time of the season). Gibraltar Falls, ACT.
Tiny flowers, Gibraltar Falls, ACT

We hiked down the slippery granite steps to the falls, and the kids exclaimed over a lady beetle. Little things and big things caught their attention. I got out my macro lens and we explored further, getting up close and personal to beetles, flowers and the lady beetle. It seemed a world away from coronavirus.

Christmas Eve was all about preparation. Last minute grocery shopping, and keeping the kids out of the kitchen while their father set about his one day of culinary glory in the year — cooking up a feast. Far too much food, but all of it tasty. It will all get eaten, but not necessarily today.

Gifts in various stages of being opened.
Greek-style lamb on the barbecue for Christmas dinner.
Christmas feasting done — leftovers for Boxing Day.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Stay safe, stay well.

Tomorrow we drive home, and back to higher restrictions.

Taralga Time-Out

A good crop of table grapes at Taralga pub should be good eating by late summer.

We’ve got “bugout” down to a fine art, posting online right up to the wire. Half an hour before checkout, we started to pack. Fifteen minutes before checkout deadline, we were on the road from Canberra. Our ultimate destination was the Blue Mountains village of Medlow Bath, but we wanted to drive a different way. Adventure is about challenge and change, and that is where the best stories come from.

Leaving Canberra. The telecommunications tower on Black Mountain (right) is a well-known landmark.

Jeff still needed the stops every hour to get and walk for a bit. First stop, Goulburn for fuel. From there, our route went inland over new roads.

Typical Federation houses in Goulburn — the places you see when you miss a turn!

We were amazed and delighted at the green fields and full dams on the properties we drove past. A field of canola glowed sunshine yellow, while just over the field was a paddock of the deadly purple paterson’s curse. Beautiful, but deadly to horses. However, the flower’s other name, salvation jane, indicates its value as a fodder crop for sheep and cattle in poor pasture areas.

A field of paterson’s curse against the backdrop of the Blue Mountains
Paterson’s curse close-up.

We decided to stop briefly in Taralga. A short stroll would do Jeff’s bad leg a power of good. As we were comin g in to the town we had to stop while an echidna crossed the road. The creature paused briefly while it seemed to be thinking about whether to change direction and follow the centre line for a bit, then it seemed to shrug and continue to cross, looking for all the world like a prickly wind-up toy. One should always resist the temptation to physically move them — if you startle them, they’ll just curl up into a spiny ball and you can’t move them without heavy gauntlets. Croquet sticks are definitely not a good idea. National Parks and Wildlife would look askance at the idea. Lewis Carroll was writing about hedgehogs, not the much larger echidna.

An echidna crossing the road just outside Taralga.

We stopped outside Taralga pub and immediately Jeff spotted a street library. As were were looking at it to see how it compared with ours, an older woman with a straw hat approached. Did we want a book to read?

Taralga Hotel. The “pub” as we call them. Wide-veranda’d, shady, cool inside.
And yes, they have rooms available, like any country pub of its day.
Taralga pub street library, close-up.

We said we were fine with books and showed her the photos of our own book library. “We’ve only stopped for a few minutes to walk around,” we explained. “It’s too early for lunch, or we’d go into the pub.”

Coastal daisies. A favourite cottage garden plant here.

We chatted, and she clearly knew the place well. “Are you the proprietor here?” Jeff asked.

I got her photo after all. Oops! But it’s suitably anonymous.

She nodded happily. “Would you like to see the place?” she asked. She’d watch me take photos of the street library, and some coastal daisies. “We’ve got a lot more you can take photos of round the back,” she assured. “Our vegetable beds are coming on too.”

So we took the tour. We chatted about her plants, her roses and her fruit trees. Figs, apricots, pears, cherries, apples. We’ve often remarked, there are few people friendlier than country Australians, and this lady was no exception. She delighted in her gardens and briefed us on her future plans for more garden beds.

“We’ve planted more hops,” she showed us as she talked about boutique beers. We never learned her name, and she never asked for ours, but we talked for nearly half an hour as if we were old friends. I took a few snapshots as we walked around. As we headed towards the back door of the pub, I asked if I could take her photo. I thought a portrait shot would be something she could value in exchange for her time.

“Oh, no,” she declined. “I hate having my photo taken!” But she was happy for me to keep taking photos of the garden, the signs and the pub itself.

The view from the front door. The accommodation is upstairs. A beautifully maintained historic building.

We’d already taken longer than we intended and felt a little guilty at not stopping for a meal.

She waved away our concerns. “Next time,” she said.

As she showed us the shortcut through the pub to the front entrance, she seemed to have all the time in the world. However, we also saw her interact with staff and the respect they showed her. A strong woman, a hard worker but someone who valued the importance of time.

For us, Taralga was a brief opportunity to stop and smell the flowers.

Scraping Together — an Exercise in (Foodie) Improvisation

While we’re in lockdown with Covid-19, clearly we’re not travelling. During the shutdown of daily life due to this pandemic, we’ve seen photos, too many, of people discovering that food can be cooked from scratch. It brought back memories of various meals improvised while travelling.

Some years ago in New Zealand we spent a week in Lake Taupo on North Island then flew to South Island. We’d bought some groceries and I wanted to bring what we hadn’t used to our next week’s unit to save us buying replacements. Of particular concern was a part-used bag of plain flour. My son-in-law wanted me to bin it, but I was raised to avoid waste.

My son-in-law demonstrated the options by holding out both hands in front of him. “On the one hand,” he said, “there’s the $2 it cost. On the other hand, there’s the concerns of baggage security when they find a white powder in your suitcase. Hmm… $2? Or body cavity search? Decisions, decisions…”

We compromised. I found someone else to give half a bag of flour to.

On South Island we stayed in Wanaka. We’d gone in June but there had been little snow to see. However, at last on our last day in Wanaka it began to snow. The wonder of it all stopped us in our packing to go outside and play. The mad Australians who don’t see enough snow…

Then the snow got heavier. The satellite dish filled with snow and we lost all transmission, so no TV, no movies, no news. We went outside even as the sky got darker. My son and I were playing a game of outdoor chess on a large set in the snow and we realised we should stop when the board kept getting covered with snow. One spectator said to me, “You’re in check from his bishop,” and I had to drag my foot across the board to show that in fact there was not a straight diagonal path for the bishop to attack.

We’d eaten down the larder as we planned to go out to eat for our last night, but the thought of slip-sliding in the dark was too much. We stayed put and resolved to be safe but hungry.

However, as I foraged, I found a few gems. We had some butter, a couple of eggs, and the tail end of some “Maori bread” from a hangi we’d attended a few days earlier. The Maori bread was scone-like and a week old, nobody wanted any. But I managed to rejuvenate it into a sort of Maori French toast, using the eggs, some milk and a couple of sugar sachets from the hospitality bar and pan-frying it in the last of the butter. We scraped together a meal of the rather tasty French toast with some soup sachets and hot chocolate sachets. A campfire dinner, with no electronic distractions, as the snow whirled outside in a flurry of white.

A day or two later, stranded by snow on the road to Queenstown, we found some beautifully fresh produce including fresh yams, which I’d always wanted to try. We still had our tub of butter and I was told to try boiling them and serving them hot with a knob of butter.

We got back to the room. Problem – no saucepan. The electric kettle was one of the old Speedie brand ceramic things with an exposed element in the bottom. I improvised and put the yams in the kettle. It worked a treat!

Trying the local food — home-cooked and local is the best experience.

Fast forward to 2018. When we arrived in Zurich for an overnight stay, we discovered that our hotel was undergoing major renovations which had not been known at the time our travel agent booked. We were, in fact, the last guests in that hotel before they closed for major work. The restaurant was closed. No matter, there was some lovely local food on the street. But breakfast was another matter. The hotel would organise a hamper, they said. Sounded lovely!

Next morning with an early train to catch, our departure time was tracked to the minute by the hotel. We were doing our last bug-out check (where we check each space for anything we may have left behind) when the hotel reception rang. How did we like our morning coffee?

When we got to reception, detouring past newly-installed scaffolding and bypassing closed areas, we found workmen well in residence, unplugging leads, removing ceiling battens and trying to remove the reception desk itself. We saw one over-zealous workman get slapped away by the receptionist who was still trying to print out our bill. The reception staff were lovely, the workmen only had a job to do and we, the last guests, were definitely in their way. There was a sense of relief as they helped us out to the taxi. It was at that point that I was handed the ‘hamper’ through the taxi window. A large paper bag each with unknown contents, plus a very hot cup of coffee (tea in my husband’s case). The paper carriers had paper handles which I carefully threaded over my arm. They waved goodbye to us then went back in to lock the doors and hang up the ‘No Vacancy’ sign.

At the station, we had to juggle five bags, the two paper carry bags and the very hot morning cuppas in paper cups. The taxi driver got us to the pavement. We were on our own from there.

We found our way to a bench seat inside the station where I sagged gratefully, putting down the paper cups and rubbing my almost-blistered hands. Jeff built our cube of luggage then headed off to organise our tickets. I rested my legs across the cube before examining the paper bags which were now soggy and threatening to rip. With all the renovation issues and no restaurant, I had low expectations.

A peek inside the paper bag ‘hamper’. We’d already finished the coffee. Note the stripy boiled egg. They sell them like that in the shops in Switzerland.

Inside each bag, to my delight, was a ham roll, a cheese roll, an apple pie, a very pretty striped boiled egg, a cup of yogurt with fruit, a cup of fruit salad, a small cup of milk for the tea and coffee, a bottle of water, a smaller bottle of fruit juice, an apple and a small Toblerone chocolate. All well chilled. Plastic cutlery, of course, and the condensation from the milk, fruit salad and the chilled yogurt was what had damaged the carrier bags, and also turned the napkins to papier maché. I had my cloth Boomerang Bag, of course, and I transferred the rolls, the eggs, the chocolate, the bottles and the apples to it. When Jeff came back we drank the coffee (now at a reasonable temperature) and ate the yogurt. Getting to the train was easier — being now better organised, we could wheel our bags while I had my Boomerang Bag with our food slung over my shoulder. It took us almost until we arrived in Lausanne that afternoon to finish our breakfast.

Setting up our leisurely picnic breakfast as the train pulled out of Zurich.

At other times when driving through countryside, we’ve often stopped to buy a meal at a small local shop. In New Caledonia we bought a jar of paté in a supermarket which I ate for breakfast with a fresh, warm bread roll bought at a local boulangerie. Jeff preferred the fresh croissants with a pot of jam. We’d buy them and drive to a lookout somewhere, or a beach by the lagoon. At one isolated place we found the resident mosquitoes clearly wanting their breakfast too. We slammed up the windows and slapped the mosquitoes into oblivion while we drove somewhere more hospitable.

To Dijon for mustard — perfect for ham on the breakfast baguette. Interestingly, the shop is on Rue du Chapeau Rouge. Street of the Red Hat. I did not put the hat on just for the photo, honest!

Making do like this for impromptu meals has given us local experiences with food not available anywhere else. We’d stop and buy a local cheese, perhaps a local bottle of wine. It can be hit and miss, but the experience is always worthwhile.

Hot food in preparation on a cold day — pumpkin and chicken soup on the left; home-made chilli oil (made with some Carolina reaper chillis from a friend); the makings of gnocchi for a late lunch.
Fresh gnocchi — little Italian pillows of delight when made fresh with eggs, mashed potato and flour. Served with just butter or here, with a tomato-based sauce. Comfort in coronavirus time.

In my kitchen right now, stuck at home with whatever we can put together, I’ve made a chicken stock by boiling down a reserved chicken carcass from a previous roast dinner, and fresh herbs from the garden. We have a couple of pumpkins, one had a bad bruise on the skin which, if left, would send the whole pumpkin bad. I cut out the bruised part and I’m simmering chopped pumpkin in the chicken stock. I’ve also got leftover mashed potato and some eggs — inexplicably, in wet weather and short winter days, our chickens are still giving us eggs. So I’ll make home-made gnocchi too, for a family member who has had to go to the doctor to get tested for Covid-19. Tonight I’ll use up more eggs and some leftover roast meat and vegetables to make a frittata.

As we eat what we put together from what we have, I’ll be remembering breakfast by the roadside in France with fresh croissants, some sliced ham and Camembert, with mustard from Dijon. Or perhaps that amazing breakfast on the train from Zurich, as we watched the countryside flash past.

Soup selfie. Making do in the moment.

One day soon…