Doors and windows

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A recent trip to New York saw us visit the Brill Building. My husband Mr BG is a musician and songwriter and visiting the building in which some of the 20th century’s most significant songwriter plied their trade was pretty special. It was a quick snap, taken in between pedestrians hurrying home, and in between rain showers. It’s also quite a rare snap as he doesn’t grin so widely :).

When I think of doors, I think of those that open and show you an opportunity that you may never have known would exist. Heading to the United States this year was one such door, and seeing how happy he is, I am so glad we went through.

wpid-DSCN1859.jpgWindows are not so much something you walk through, but look from, or into. This was my view from a hotel room in Bruges in July 2012. The canal, the bridge, the architecture- I know I’m not in Ballarat anymore. I could sit at our window at any time of the day and see people sitting having a coffee, tourists taking photos, boats on the canal, and people walking or biking over the bridge. Why have a TV if you have a window and a view like this?

7 things I have learned from travelling and travelling blogs

A couple of months ago I was reading an article about Seven places you shouldn’t travel to

At first I was pretty annoyed by someone who had been to a range of marvellous places and dismissed them because they were too commercial (Machu Picchu), or too cold (Times Square New Year’s Eve), or too empty (the Taj Mahal is apparently a tomb). Then I realised it to be link bait and designed to spark debate. So rather than present my places I would avoid like the plague, I present 7 things I have learned from travel.

1. Do your research. A bit of a no-brainer, and considering the wealth of information in online travel sites, travel guides, and travel agents, it’s not that hard. The key to doing research is to do it early, and assess whether or not you really want to go to a particular place.

2. Bring your sense of humour- because you know that there will be a time when you’re in one of the most stylish nations in the world with wet hair because you can’t get the hairdryer to work. Of course there are times when the sense of humour deserts you, like when you’re trying to find the car rental in an unfamiliar city in heavy rain and you get splashed by a car driving through a puddle. And then your beloved LAUGHS…

3. Bring someΒ  common sense- of course it will be cold in Times Square on New Years Eve and there will be no toilets. It will also be cold in Scotland at any time of the year, even in August. It will rain in Ireland 9 days out of 10. Double-checking time train times and platforms is normal. You go to the toilet when there is a toilet, not when you need to go.

4. Travel is a matter of personal taste- My parents have visited China several times and love it. I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather not go to, except the airport in Dubai which is my personal HELL ON EARTH. Mind you, we have visited various Scottish islands, including Lewis, Skye and Orkney and parts of Western Ireland to look at Neolithic monuments, which wouldn’t exactly be everyone’s idea of a fun holiday.

5. Have a backup- printout confirmation emails, maps, receipts, for when you don’t have online access. Also have a backup payment facility for when your credit card gets cancelled, like mine did after I used it at Heathrow airport.

6. Children add a unique dimension to travelling. You learn to look for playgrounds and green spaces as a criterion for looking for a place to stay, and to get to a museum early to avoid the queues and while the children are still fresh and relatively tantrum-free. Otherwise you end up with new phrase like ‘Doing an Uffizi’ to denote a tantrum…On the other hand it is fun seeing your seven year old son become quite adept at negotiating the London Underground, and your four year old daughter make friends with other little people despite not speaking the same language. (And nonnas exclaiming ‘Que belle ragazze’ to me :))

7. Be open to new experiences. I didn’t think I would enjoy travelling by train as much as I did. I didn’t think I would enjoy playing Uno with the kids as much as I did. I didn’t think I would love Bruges and York, and walking in the moors of Derbyshire.

What things have you learned from travelling? I would love to know!

 

The story of Bookgrrl and the sex shop

I changed my picture profile on Facebook to one of my holiday pics, this time in Bruges. I remember it was one of the sunnier days. We had just spent the morning sightseeing, had been at the park and were on our way back to the hotel to rest.

For once Mr BG had the camera. He said “Smile!” with a cheeky grin on his face I turned around and click went the camera. I knew what he was trying to do.*

bookgrrl and the sex shop

Our hotel’s entrance was down a small laneway and right at the front of the laneway was a sex shop. Unlike similar shops here in Australia, the merchandise was displayed in the shop windows in a very matter of fact kind of fashion. There was none of the blacked out windows, or signs assuring discretion, it was quite an upmarket looking shop. It was also impossible not to walk past it! Usually we tried to walk past briskly, but the naked models and the pink vibrators were an irresistible combination for my two. Miss BG pronounced she would like one of the masks and the pink fluffy handcuffs, and Master BG was simply agog, his eyes like saucers. For once he was speechless.

“What does that do Mum?” asked Miss BG pointing to one of the vibrators in the window.”It’s something to help grownups relax, ” I replied, much to my husband’s merriment (I seem to be the one to get the curly questions…). “Can I have one when I grow up?” was her next question.

I smiled.

 

Street Art in Rome and Paris

Sometimes there can only be so many photos you can take of historic monuments when you go overseas. Sometimes the more interesting aspects of a city can be the things people walk past and don’t notice.
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Opposite the Colosseum in Roma, two ladies are resting, totally oblivious to the knight riding a bicycle.
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Yoda striking a pose in the Piazza del Popolo, Roma, with Miss BG.
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It’s not a hat. ‘An elephant in a boa’ A stencil on a wall in Montmartre, Paris which is a lovely reminder of one of my favourite books The Little Prince.

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This was near Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, on the wall of a school playground. The artist is known as Invader, and featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop. I was quite excited to see it and the kids thought they looked pretty cool. It became a game to find more of them πŸ™‚
And we did!
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Bookgrrl Travel Awards

Welcome to the Bookgrrl Travel Awards, where I give my stamp of approval, or a kick in the pants to the places we visited.

‘The Room with a view’ award

This award goes to the most picturesque place we visited, that could be seen from our windows of our accommodation. We had to rule out Paris, as the much vaunted view of Sacre Coeur could only be seen if you opened the window, stood on your tiptoes and craned your neck to catch a glimpse of it. we could see the tour buses which stopped nearby from our windows though πŸ™‚

So drumroll… the award goes to the Bourgoensch Hof in Bruges, where we were awarded views of the canal, and bridges, and people strolling and riding their bicycles.

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An honourable mention to our house in Skye, where you could see the sheep on rolling hills, the sea, and ‘our’ mountain whose mood changed from minute to minute.
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It does not go to the Bayview hotel in Portballintrae, which heralded its view of Bushmills, which turned out to be a view of… the carpark.

The ‘Pinch me now, I can’t believe we’re here’ award goes to the place where the sudden reality of where you are just smacks you in the face.

That award goes to coming out of the Colosseo station in Rome to be greeted by the Colosseum!
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An honourable mention also goes to turning a corner and suddenly seeing the Duomo in Florence. Actually it wasn’t so much a smack your face, as at the moment I had been horribly lost, and seeing it was a huge relief as I now knew where I was. Then I proceeded to get lost again πŸ™‚
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The ‘Can’t swing a cat’ goes to the smallest accommodation we encountered on our stay.

It is awarded to the Premier Inn in Islington, which was a standard room, with a couch made up and a trundle bed set up to make it a ‘family room’. There was no space between all three beds, and if you wanted to move about the room, the rest of the family had to be sitting on the beds. The bathroom was palatial compared to the bedroom.

An honourable mention goes to our flat in Paris. When we first arrived, the kids asked, where’s our bedroom? I pointed to the sofabed, and they looked at me, laughed, and said, ‘ No really, where IS our bedroom?’

The ‘Brady Bunch’ award goes to the accommodation which was the most family-friendly.

This involved much deliberation with everyone in the family, with a winner and 2 honourable mentions the result.

Our flat in Highbury/Islington in London was a clear winner. There was a backyard, the playground across the road and there was also ‘no big stairs like there were in Florence and Edinburgh’ as Master BG said. There were also kids to play with, the Tube and bus stops 50m away, as well as a supermarket.

The honourable mentions went to our flat in York, which had a well-stocked toy cupboard and kids books available,and also had a WII, which, being an absolute numpty, I couldn’t get to work.

The second honourable mention went to Skye, as chosen by the kids. They loved the cottage as it had stairs (only one flight), they had a room of their own, and a garden in which to play. There were also lots of sheep to look at.
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The “If only we could come back without kids” award goes to the best hotel room. That award goes to the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow, which is attached to Grand Central Station and has recently been refurbished. The beds were king-sized, with plasma TVs, the room was huge and the bathroom had a heater behind the mirror, so it would not fog up when you were in the shower. They also win the ‘Scrumptious’ award for the best meal we had.

The ‘Host with the most’ award
I would have liked to give an award for the most friendly hosts, but there were so many it is hard to pick out a winner. Everyone was incredibly nice, but these are the standouts. I have linked to them because I want to spread the love for any aspiring traveller.
Gaia of the Casa Valadier in Rome, for her card and wine, and very comprehensive list of where to find everything in Rome. She really set a high standard!
Alan and Emma in Highbury, London
The staff at the Waterloo Lodge in Dublin
The staff at the Belmore Court Hotel in Enniskillen
Stuart and his cat Daisy in Skye
The staff at the Loch Erisort Innon Lewis for getting a waitress to wear an Aussie rugby jumper to make us feel at home, and for sending in a sticky date pudding with a candle for Mr BG to celebrate his birthday.
The staff at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow
Patrick and Helen of the Riverside Apartments in York
Howard and Ros in Stanton Lees, Derbyshire for feeling more like friendly neighbours whom you could pop in and ask for anything.

Likewise I would have liked to give an award for what I miss the most from my trip overseas, but there are heaps! So here is a short list

    Wifi on trains, buses and in parks
    The coffee in Florence
    The gelati in Florence
    The lemon curd icecream in York
    The northern accent in York
    The chips in Ireland
    The beer in Bruges
    The porridge oats in the UK (weird I know, but they’re so much creamier!)
    Jamesons caramels
    The weather in Italy
    My brothers in London
    My family in Ireland

That’s it- I just have to go back.

Aftermath of trip2012

It has been a week since we tumbled out of the taxi in front of chez Bookgrrl.

There is nothing like a long plane trip and returning to winter in Ballarat to take the gloss off the holiday. The jet lag and sleep deprivation can also lead to feeling and being quite weepy about not being in London, or Rome, or Paris anymore.

But what has been really heartening is everyone is glad to see you and wants to catch up with you! There is another topic of conversation other than how cold/wet/miserable/dark it is in Ballarat :).

After a couple of days off to get over the jet lag, the kids returned to school and kinder. Both were treated like stars when they returned.’You’re back!’ exclaimed a little girl to Miss BG.’I nearly forgot what you looked like!’

Master BG regaled the class with reading from his journal, painstakingly written over the holiday. It was a good aide-memoire, and he used it as a launching pad to expand on his entries.

Miss BG brought some photos in and was able to show her friends and teachers her adventures. I got a quick kiss goodbye, rather than the clinging limpet I usually get, she was so engrossed in telling her stories.

Mr BG was welcomed back to over a thousand emails, and handed over the obligatory duty-free chocolate present to the staff.

As for me- well there have been roses to prune, laundry to wade through and meals to cook. Luckily I am still waking up early which will make it easier to get out of bed when I return to work. On the other hand, a late night for me at the mement is 9.00pm :). DVD movies have to be watched over consecutive nights as we find ourselves nodding off…

I have also taken to switching off. Rather than leave appliances on standby, the telly, toaster, kettle and microwave get turned off at the switch when not in use. Rather than leave the computer on all day, I turn it off when I no longer need it.

I am also reducing my time spent online. The enforced absence from being constantly connected is something I want to maintain. It doesn’t do me nor my family any good to be relating to a screen rather than to other people.

And I am reading more, trying to finishing my granny square blanket and getting to know my new niece. There are untold pleasures to be had at home :).

Hey, who turned out the lights?

I wasn’t looking forward to the holiday ending, because it meant I had to go on a plane for up to 24 hours to fly home. 24 hours of sitting having the person in front recline their seat into my face the seond the seatbelt sign is turned off, 24 hours of bitchy single women of a certain age look disapproving at every child, including mine (whom may I add were angels), 24 hours of crappy food, and 24 hours of not being able to sleep properly next to twitching children.

I was lucky to have gotten about 2 hours during the flight and when that was combined with waking early the last day we were in London, with a night flight, delays in Dubai it meant I was nearing 48 hours with hardly any sleep when we finally arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday morning.

The coldness of the airport kept me awake (no more overheated indoors in Australia- Yes!) as we hit the duty-free. We grabbed our duty-free alcohol, and joined the queues in Customs. There had been a few international flights arrive at the same time as ours, it the hall was packed. I was stressing that we wouldn’t make our connecting bus back to Ballarat as we joined the lengthy queue for those who had children or who did not have an ePassport. The silver lining for the queueuing was that at least our bags would be on the carousel waiting for us.

We finally arrive at the desk and start getting processed. We are nearly finished when the lights flicker and go off. Groans of disbelief go up from behind us and all around us. As we wait, a more senior customs officer roaming behind the staff assure us, ‘Don’t worry, the emergency generator should kick in soon.’

We wait a couple of minutes, as we see more customs staff emerge to look at us and try and figure out what is happening. The situation has not been helped by a large sign informing us that Border Security will be at Tullamarine filming that day. Now I have to worry about a bad hair day on top of not having slept, and trying to get home πŸ™‚ .

The power did come on for about a minute, then went off dramatically, leaving us all in pitch darkness. Turning around, I noticed the doors to the duty free had been locked. We were pinned in between the Customs Desks and Duty Free, all several hundred of us. It is around this time Miss BG feels the need to go to the toilet. The staff are apologetic, but cannot let us through until we have been cleared.

More officers come up, standing around in groups discussing the situation. An automated message is periodically broadcast stating the obvious loss of power, which really doesn’t help anyone’s mood. Our Customs Officer suggests we may feel more comfortable sitting down, but we reassure her that after 24 hours of sitting down, we really don’t want to do that.

Periodically we get an announcement from a senior officer letting us know that they are trying to work out what the matter is. The crowd is somewhat restless,particularly the younger children, who sense the adults stress and begin to cry. I am feeling a touch light headed from lack of sleep, but the usual grumpiness which accompanies my lack of sleep has been replaced by an almost euphoric sense of calm. It could also have been the mouthful of Mars Bar which we shared between the four of us that restored my energy levels πŸ™‚ .

Regardless of lack of facilities, we are in the safest place. The baggage collection area is in total darkness and both Mr BG and I agree from a risk management perspective and an OHS perspective, we are better here. However, it is apparent that there is no real emergency procedure in place to process people manually through Customs, or the procedures haven’t been reviewed for a long time.

Finally, they get a handle on what needs to be done. Quarantine officers move through the crowd and begin to initial people’s quarantine cards. Our Customs Officer, having been briefed, does the same and once again checks our faces at against the passport photos. The lights begin to come on, but not all of the airport has been restored. But we are through Customs!

Heading down to the Baggage Collection, we see part of the hall is illuminated. There are people milling around, looking lost and trying to find their luggage. Carousel 1 has a few bags, not ours unfortunately. Then my last remaining functioning brain cells remember that our carousel was number 6. I take Miss BG with me and tell the boys to stay with the carry on luggage. With any luck, the plane’s cargo would have been unloaded before the power cut.

We troop off into the dark and come across a few people whom we recognise from the flight. I ask if this is the luggage from our flight, glumly they say yes; sadly they have to wait until the power comes on to get theirs.

I start hunting, checking all the red suitcases. One, two, three cases and Mr BG’s guitar have made it off the plane and are available! They are all loaded onto a trolley and we push them over to Mr BG. He is as estactic as one can be after 48 hours with minimal sleep. We push on through to Quarantine, who wave us through into the Arrivals Hall.

We are greeted with a sea of faces who look expectantly at us, then register their disappointment when we’re not their relative. Undeterred we push on and debate toilets or finding our shuttle bus? It is at this point Mum and Dad pop up and surprise us all. Truly they are a sight for sore eyes! We gladly pass the kids over to them to take back to Ballarat, while we take the luggage with us to the bus home.

I don’t mind sitting the last 90 minutes. We manage to while away the crisp sunny trip back nodding off back to Ballarat Railway Station. As luck has it, the taxi driver who collects us is the same driver who brought us to the station 11 weeks ago. ‘You’re back!’ She exclaims. ‘That went fast, how was it?’

Mr BG and I look at each other. ‘Really, really good,’ we say.

Last day in London

Our last day was not to be wasted and we headed out to Upton Park, deep in the East End of London (actually we walked past the football ground of West Ham) to visit a very special shop…
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The Doctor Who shop was gobsmackingly awesome. Our jaws dropped in a collective gasp as we entered, as we surveyed the shop. T-shirts! Figurines! Keyrings! Lego-style sets! There were vintage fan books, many of which I remember reading as a young Who fan, poster and memorabilia adorning the walls. We walked around in silent awe, before letting out a squeal. I’m sure the people who work there were quite used to nerdy people like us going slightly batty at all the Dr Who guff there was to be had.

The back room of the shop was fitted out as a museum of props and costumes from the series, and other memorabilia such as scripts and posters. Entry was via…a Tardis, of course! I was given the key to let ourselves into the museum.

The costumes had been purchased from auctions, and it was clearly a labour of love. We saw a gas mask from ‘The Empty Child”, a very old Cyberman and a costume belonging to Tom Baker, who had been my favourite Doctor until this gentleman turned up…

We didn’t go completely crazy in the shop as we were leaving that day and only had a small amount of space in our luggage. We then ventured out into the dismal wet weather that was London’s summer. Ha- just our luck to be there for their wettest three months on record!

We then ventured to the Museum of London, which is appropriately in the City of London. It’s somewhat less busy than Westminster, or other parts of London, and pretty much of what we saw was office buildings, which made for great wind tunnels. The weather was grey and it matched our moods. None of us really wanted to go home.

It was good to get out of the rain, albeit into a very noisy environment, with more school groups marking time in their last week of school at an excursion. The museum was great, with an effort being made to make history more relevant by having younger people involved in exhibits about their own contemporary London experience.

Modern-day items were displayed beside historical artefacts to contextualise their presence. A mosaic that would have been the floor of a Roman villa for example, was a floor upon which a couch table and modern lamp was placed.
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The kids loved playing at being firemen wearing old fashioned helmets πŸ™‚ .
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My favourite bits were the Victorian street scene and the exhibits of 20th century London. One was cool to walk around in and the other was realising that my childhood is now a museum piece!

And then it was time to go. We headed off to my brother’s flat for a final cuppa and one last look at CBBC, then we went back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage. Bye bye London, we’ll miss you terribly.

And now the end is near…

A smooth return trip on Eurostar, and we’re back in London. This time we’re in Angel, a stone’s throw from my brother Mark’s little flat and staying at the Premier Inn. It’s close and convenient, but the family room is basically a queen bed with a couch made up for one child and a trundle bed jammed in between. The spaciousness of other family rooms in our hotel stays in Glasgow, Lewis, and Enniskillen are sweet distant memories…

The hotel rooms are beginning to take their toll, as it is hard for the kids to settle while we’re in the same room, so it is a case of early nights for us, or a lot of arguing and settling excited children for ages.. I am finding the rooms are a bit stuffy and the duvets a bit too thick, so you are tossing and turning trying to find a cool spot, throwing off the duvet, and then waking up feeling a bit chilled.

The prospect of my own room and bed is somewhat enticing, but none of us really want the holiday to end. What is supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime has whetted our appetite to see more of what we have missed. I would love to get a Eurail Pass and see Venice and travel through Austria,Β  and Germany, go to Denmark and Sweden, and see more of France other than jidt Paris and see Spain for the first time. I want to visit all the places in London I still haven’t visited, like Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London and go on a Jack the Ripper walking tour in East London. I hope there will be a next time!

Our second last day was spent re-packing our cases, to balance out the weight, while the kids went to spend some quality time with their uncle Andrew and ‘aunty’ Helen, who delighted Miss BG in giving her a makeover. I took a final stroll up and down Upper St, saying goodbye to a lovely neighbourhood.

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This was the first place we stayed in in 2001 with the lovely Miss S and her husband Mr S. It’s become a bit upmarket since we first stayed there… Real estate prices in this area do not appear to have suffered any downturn due to the recession.

A final drink with friends at the Lexington and a final dinner with my brothers at Jamie’s Italian finished off the night. It was my first time at a Jamie Oliver restaurant, and it was loud, noisy and very busy. The food was very good,Β  with my sea bream with a salsa rosso being a very tasty main. It was just there were a lot of flavors and textures competing in what should be essentially very simple dishes- the tartness of a lemon curd slice was overwhelmed by the inclusion of nuts and berries as garnishes, and I think my tiramisu would have tasted better without the inclusion of orange peel shavings, and the coffee flavour was a tad uneven through my serving.

Still, it was a good time with my London family, who will be much missed, especially by the younger members of the BG family.
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Bruges is not just about beer and chocolate…

…but it is hard not to avoid the devotion that everyone has to the brew. One waiter nodded with approval when I asked for a Chimay,which was one of his favourite beers. His favourite was a Westvleteren, which was so exclusive it was only served in one cafe in Belgium and to buy more to take away, you have the phone the brewery and make a reservation and supply your car licence plate number. Individual customers are limited to the number of bottles and return customers have to wait two months before placing another order. The wait would somewhat whet you appetite.

Luckily there are lots of other things you can eat and drink in Bruges. We tried the chocolate, a couple of times…
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There were moules and fries to try, which were scrumptious, and the waffles, which admittedly did vary from cafe to cafe.

To work off all the food, beer and chocolate, we did a bit of a workout…

We found a park with a playground, which got a serious workout from the kids. It was a great place to relax in the sun, when it finally decided to come out!
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We climbed the 366 steps up the Belfry to see the bells and the fantastic view from the top.
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We took a horse drawn carriage around, which is something which would best be done at the start of a stay but even better on a sunny day. Actually this was more of a workout for the horse, who takes a five minute break halfway through the tour.
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We could have gone for a ride on a bike- the fltaness of Bruges and its general lack of cars make it a cyclist’s dream. Of course you score extra points if you run down a tourist, which at times is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel ;).
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Another sunny day activity was a canal boat ride, which was best done in the morning to avoid queues. It was a lovely way to see the city, seeing as it is sometimes called the ‘Venice of the North’.
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If you were unlucky enough to do it on a rainy day it could end up like this…
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A couple of days were indeed rainy, which did dampen our spirits somewhat, if not our jeans. We spent one of these days at the Groenenwinge museum, which was noted for its collection of paintings from the Flemish Primitives. The more modern paintings however were the ones which drew the kids’ attention
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The artworks were not just in the museums. I saw the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo at the Church of Our Lady, which was undergoing renovation. I must say it had a profound impact upon me. The church wasn’t too crowded, so I was able to simply stand and look and reflect how amazing Michelangelo was and how lucky I was to have seen his artistry in person.

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I also went to see the Church of the Holy Blood, which contains a vial of Christ’s blood, recovered during the Crusades. The experience was somewhat different, in that you had to join the queue, pay money and spend a minute with the vial. My minute of reflection was spent largely thinking of the person who brought it back, how many Saracens he would have killed and the millions of people who have seen it since it arrived at the church. I think it somewhat exposed my scepticism of holy relics, my general lack of faith in religion, and those who claim to speak on behalf of God. I think my reading of Wolf Hall may have influenced me in this way.

And so we left Bruges to the thousands of tourists, on another rainy day, back on the Eurostar to London, for our last couple of days of our holiday. We were determined to make the most of our last days and see as much as possible before we flew back to Australia. Who knows what we would see?
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