Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Tiananmen Square, 23 years on

June 4th, 2012 No comments
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Food Review: La Tour d’Argent

April 30th, 2012 No comments
Our table overlooking the Seine

Our table overlooking the Seine

Name: La Tour d’Argent
Address: 15 Quai Tournelle, 75005 Paris, France
Phone: +33 1 43 54 23 31
Type: Restaurant
Cuisine: French
Opening hours:  closed Sunday and Monday, and August

The fame of La Tour d’Argent is at once its greatest asset and greatest burden. Reviews and reports on this restaurant by the Seine are laden with superlatives – the restaurant is “legendary”, they say; quite possibly “the most famous in the world”; its wine cellars are “magnificent”, its wine list “biblical” (this one is literally true – but we’ll come to that). It is surrounded by mystique, at least partly consciously cultivated by the late owner, Claude Terrail – it will be 430 years old next year; it was a favourite of Henry IV of France; its guest register lists emperors of Russia and Japan, kings and presidents; Marcel Proust wrote about it; Salvador Dali liked the duck; Pixar’s Ratatouille drew on it for inspiration.

Christmas tree in the ground floor foyer

G and I stepped into this mass of history for a Christmas day dinner (Christmas 2010) and found the restaurant still five star despite its age. We were welcomed into the ground floor reception area with a cup of warm consommé, which we savoured while admiring the centuries of culinary history represented in the displays there. When our table was ready, we were taken to the top floor dining room. We were given a window table with magnificent views over the Seine and out to the Notre Dame. We were especially impressed by the way the staff went out of their way to make everyone feel at home. When we moved to taste each other’s dishes our waiter was quick to switch our plates for us with a happy reassurance. The champagne and wine were, as befitting La Tour’s reputation, excellent, and the legendary pressed duck also lived up to its reputation. The very knowledgeable sommelier (and the bible-sized wine list) were impressive. We loved the little surprises like the amuse-bouche, the cake and little chocolate desserts – not your usual petit-fours! We got a discrete and helpful card at the end of the meal reminding us that the waiters can arrange taxis leaving the restaurant, and loved the caramels “for the road”. All in all, the beautiful food, wine and views made especially memorable by the service. Definitely an experience to share with your special someone!


We recommend:

– the Champagne Authentique

Pike dumplings «André Terrail»

– Duckling “Tour d’Argent”, souffleed potatoes – the famous “blood duck”


Blood duck course 2: duck breast with souffled potatoes

Food: 10/10

Service: 10/10

Ambience: 10/10

Value for money: 7/10

Overall: 9/10

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Itinerary: Nanjing in two days

October 23rd, 2011 No comments
Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum

This is the first in hopefully a number of posts where I put up travel itineraries which have worked well for me. See notes below on my choice of sights and alternatives.

Where: Nanjing is a historic city located in eastern China, about 300km from Shanghai as the crow flies, or roughly 1.5 hours by bullet train. Today, Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu province, but for centuries it was the capital of various regimes throughout Chinese history, and the capital of a unified China in the 14th century and again in the early 20th century. Its long history has given it many poetic names, but its modern name means, simply, “the southern capital”, mirroring the name of Beijing, “the northern capital”. Culturally and linguistically, Nanjing is a thorough mixture of northern and southern China, reflecting successive influxes of northern rulers and its location in the heartland of Wu culture. Visitors to Nanjing are usually attracted by its great monuments, including the tomb of Sun  Yat-sen, the “father of modern China”, but it is also famous for its food, boulevardes, lakes and mountains, and the legends that still echo from laneways to ruined palaces.

Read more…

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Tiananmen Square – 22 years on

June 4th, 2011 No comments

Le Carré d’Encre – a little shrine to the art of writing

January 14th, 2011 No comments

My souvenir from Paris

It was a grey morning with a light sprinkle of rain in Paris. G and I had been wandering the laneways near the Madeleine and the Palais Garnier looking for coffee, when we chanced upon a little store. We were intrigued by the window displays, an eclectic mixture of writing instruments, stamps and cards, all stylishly designed. We went in. It being fairly early in the morning and close to Christmas, we seemed to be the only visitors, although there were quite a few staff tending various departments. The store was modern and minimalist in decor, and was organised into several somewhat disparate departments. There was a philatelic department, equipped with mounted magnifying glasses for examining stamps; an area for designing (and printing) your own envelope and parcel wrappers; as well as a large range of pens, cards, writing paper, and equipment and material for creating your own stationery.

I especially liked the philatelic counter – where I bought my favourite piece of Paris souvenir. Le Carré d’Encre literally means “Ink Square”. The store brought to mind what a post office shop could be like if it was given a complete redesign by someone with both a sense of style and a love of writing, in all its forms. In fact, that seems to be how the store came to be – it is a project of Phil@Poste, the stamps and stamp-collecting section of the French postal authority, La Poste. They  took all the fun bits of a post shop (stamps, stationery, cards, even creative envelopes and parcel wrapping) and gave it the glamour treatment – but left out all the boring bits like the queues, teller-style counters, and computer-printed text labels.

Even surrounded by all the grand magasins of Avenue Haussman, this shop definitely stood out as my favourite.

Who: Le Carré d’Encre
Where: 13bis, rue de Mathurins, 75009 Paris (nearest Metro: Havre-Caumartin)
What: Stylishly designed stationery and stamp store

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Tommy’s travel tip #15: Rome (Part 2)

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

Colosseum from Roman Forum
Travel tip #15: To avoid tourist trap restaurants, make sure you are at least two blocks from any tourist attraction.

The next day – our last day in Rome and my last day on the continent – we woke to the newspaper headline: “Shootout at Chinese-Italian Trattoria: dispute over inferior wine and salty spaghetti.” Not wishing to repeat our mistakes, this time we decided to go far, far away from any tourist destinations. After a day of literally running from sight to sight, we ended up at the base of the Spanish Steps (Zegna was on 50% off). We searched in vain for a restaurant with any semblance of normal pricing, and concluded that our rule needed to be modified to “to avoid expensive restaurants, make sure you’re at least 25 blocks from the nearest Zegna store.”

Stained glass window

That was when we spotted the entrance to the Spagna metro station. “By my projections, if we go into the metro station and come out the other side, we should be at the other end of the Spanish steps – i.e. at the top of the hill and far enough away from Zegna and Armani,” I said. We were both too tired at that point to think of an alternative plan, so in we went to the station. At the end of the concourse was a set of escalators. Score! I thought. We rode the escalator up, but instead of an exit at the top of the hill as I expected, we saw another set of escalators. Well, the hill must be taller than we thought. We took that. At the end, another set of escalators. And another. And another. And another. Five sets of escalators, twenty minutes, and a bizarre tunnel full of miniature shop windows later, we finally made our exit, and found ourselves on the Champs Elysee.

Along the long, long corridor

No kidding – the plane trees, the road side seating, the Third Empire buildings – all the restaurant names were in French. We had the strange feeling of having crossed half the continent in 20 minutes. We found a street sign eventually – this was the Via Veneto – indeed the “Champs Elysee of Rome”. The escalators had taken us halfway across Rome, yet we were even deeper into luxury territory.

Mushroom risotto, one of my

Tired, hungry, cursing the lack of consideration of the builders of Spagna station to link one luxury shopping district with another, we admitted defeat and trudged back towards our hotel near the station. Gioanna, the local dragon head who doubled as the kindly proprietress of our hotel, had been right – eat right here around the station. Any problem, she said, call Gioanna and I sort them out.

Palatine Hill of Rome

Well, that’s it folks. Tomorrow I fly home via London. Despite all the fun, I’m kind of looking forward to my own bed.

Until next time from home,

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Tommy’s travel tip #15: Rome (Part 1)

April 2nd, 2010 3 comments

St Peter's, Vatican City
Travel tip #15: To avoid tourist trap restaurants, make sure you are at least two blocks from any tourist attraction.

When we formulated that rule, we didn’t take Rome into consideration. Rome, the eternal city, is littered with the debris of 2,500 years. You can hardly walk down a street in Rome without bumping into a classical ruin here or a medieval palace there. Finding a non-tourist-trap (or, on the west bank of the Tiber, “pilgrim”-trap) restaurant is hard enough. Finding one that’s two blocks from a tourist attraction proved to be a major endeavour requiring careful triangulation on our maps.
We did manage it, though, the first night we were there. Two blocks from Piazza Navona (location of the Fountain of Four Rivers), we spotted a little alleyway, which could only be reached from our side of the main road through a pedestrian tunnel which was, in fact, a bookshop (“Underground bookshop! Admission Free!” said the sign at the door in English). It claimed to be a trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery, and the prices displayed at the door was very reasonable. The fare seemed Italian – we were glad – with no sign of a fillet mignon or a wienschnitzel in sight.

Inside St Peter's

We pushed open the lace-curtained door, and were warmly greeted by a Chinese lady and (I presume) her Chinese daughter, in English. We seemed to be the only customers in the shop. I asked for a menu, exchanged a look with Brian. I said, loudly, “hmm, this doesn’t seem to have that dish I wanted…”, then in a whisper, “okay, go or stay?” “Your call. I don’t give a fuck. They look Italian enough,” said Brian. We decided that we’ll brave the Asianness. Afterall, didn’t Enoch’s Chinese friend back in Sydney run an Italian restaurant that appeared to serve Italian food?

Staircase inside the Vatican museum

We sat down, and the girl – she couldn’t have been older than 13 – took our orders. “A bottle of your finest vino bianco, kind signorina,” I said, or words to that effect. I ordered a mixed seafood for my entree and a spaghetti with vingoli (“What’s vingoli?” “I think it’s a kind of shellfish.” “Cool.” “Or maybe it’s squirrel. Not sure.”), and Brian had tripe and another pasta.
We weren’t ready for the ambush at all. I’d been in Italy for a week, and was pretty confident I’d come to grips with the place. Then wham – it hit us like a frying pan in the face. Yes, that’s right. The wine was not that great – a tad astringent. “This wine – it’s probably worse than about 20% of Australian white wines!” I cried in horror. “It’s pretty shit,” Brian agreed, “But you can’t complain. I said it was your call!”

Angel on the Bridge of Angels

Everything went downhill from there. My cold seafood mix looked like it came straight from the fish shop counter. And the spaghetti with vingoli – well, it was stir fried pippies with a noodle base. “Does this look a bit Chinese to you?” I asked Brian. He looked down and looked up. “No.” “No? Look at this! It’s got bloody shallots! It’s stir fried pippies with –” “No,” he interrupted me, “because I can see into the kitchen from where I’m sitting.” “So?” I asked. “So I can see the chef. And he’s Indian.” My response was probably best summed up as -_-“.

At this point, though, we were disturbed in our enjoyment of our fine, traditional Italian meals. A distinctly Italian couple walked in – a man and a woman, both wearing a lot of black leather. They spoke rather sternly to the Chinese lady, who was soon joined by the proprietor – who we could now see was, in fact, Italian. The young girl – their daughter, I presume, started talking at length to the new arrivals. The conversation became rather intense.

Staircase inside the Vatican museum

“Mafia,” whispered Brian. I nodded. They certainly looked the part. Emboldened by my experience of watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire in Italian the previous night, I proceeded to translate their conversation…
“Fat Tony saysa to tell you he been hearing you been serving bad wine.”
“No! Curses to the lying son of a boar who spreads such lies.”
“Are you calling Fat Tony a liar?”
“No! I… ”
“I been also hearing where you been serving seafood salad straight from the fish shop.”
“Well, you know how it is, Indian chefs, seafood salad is not their traditional fare…”
“And worst of all, your protection money is late by three days…”
“Our business has been bad! We have no customers except these two stingy Asian boys who aren’t even going to tip! You know what they’re like!”

Mosaic inside St Peter's

The intense discussion seeemed to reach an impasse, when the woman in black strode into the kitchen – probably to quiz the Indian chef on his Italianness – while the man in black sat down at the cash register, and started to count money —
We took one look at that, and decided to make a dash for it, leaving our money on the table. The owner barely noticed us – he was staring at the mafioso thumbing through his cash register.

Until the next day,


Tommy’s travel tip #14: Florence

April 2nd, 2010 No comments

Before the cathedral
Travel tip #14: Don’t go to Pitti Palace

Florence. The capital of Tuscany. The home of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and the Medicis; the city of the Renaissance, of art, architecture, and finance. And it did not take long to see that the money-grabbing tradition of the medieval Medici Bank lives on in the city.

Italy in low season is great value. In Venice, we paid €25 each and stayed in a palazzo, 3 minutes from San Marco Square, breakfast included. Most major attractions, such as churches, are free, and €15 can get you a decent sit-down meal.

Ceiling of the Baptistery

The rules are different in Florence. The San Lorenzo Church, across the street from the Medici palace, fronted by a statue of Cosimo de Medici, attached to the Medici chapel, charges 10 euros for admission. But to get around the no-charging-for-church-entry policy, they cleverly disguise the fee as entry to the “museum”, except you can’t get into the church without going into the “museum”. And the “museum” turns out to be the church’s crypt, with the key attraction being the tomb of – there’s that name again – Cosimo de Medici.

Belt stand near the Medici chapel

Then we made the mistake of heading to Pitti Palace. Built by the Pitti, another prominent family of Florence, it was acquired by the Medicis after they financially ruined the Pitti, and was the seat of the Medici dynasty for most of their reign over Florence. The palace was connected to the Town Hall, on the other side of the river, by the Vecchio Bridge. At the time, the bridge was monopolised by butcher shops. Not wishing to smell fresh slaughter on their daily saunter to and from the office, the Medicis ordered the butchers out, and replaced them with goldsmiths – which occupy the length of the bridge to this day.

Entry to the Pitti Palace costed €12. This seemed a tad excessive, given that the Galleria dell’Academia, home of the David, was only €6.50. We went in anyway, seeing as how this was the home of the Medicis. As it turned out, €12 gets you, well, not very much at all. A few mouldy rooms, a lot of second-rate paintings. All the pick of the Medici collection had been donated to the city centuries before, and are now displayed in the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery across the river. And no photography was allowed. Plus, the €12 covers only half the palace. The other half was another €8. AND the garden was another €6. My conclusion: don’t go there.

Dome of the cathedral

Writing this far, I’ve realised that the Medicis are really ahead of the curve on this one. Lorenzo de Medici must have modelled all this out way back when and decided – damn economic cycles, fleecing tourists is a much more reliable income stream than, say, selling hybrid securities. Hence why the Medici bank folded back in the 19th century and turned to ripping off tourists. Prescience!

* * *

Inside the town hall

We did however make two positive finds in Florence which gave us at least a psychological victory over the Medicis. The town hall, called Palazzo Vecchio, housed a number of museums, again with exorbitant entry fees. Normally, visitors climb a set of entry stairs to the top floor, and starting from the top floor, make their way down another set of exit stairs to each of the lower floors. Having been stung once, we clibmed up the exit stairs (unguarded) to the top floor. (“I don’t have a reputation to maintain in this country.”) The guy at the landing gave us a suspicious look, so we retreated back to the next floor down, and this time, we looked naturally like we’d just come from the top floor. By sacrificing the top floor, we toured the rest of the museum for free. That’s one for tourists, zero for the Medicis.

The other great find in Florence was a specialist pasta restaurant that served a pasta degustation for about €10. Every dish was awesome, as was the wine and the main that followed (not included in the €10). I had a steak in a mirtillo (cranberry) sauce. Awesome.

Until next time,


Tommy’s travel tip #13: Pisa

February 3rd, 2010 1 comment

Streets of Pisa
Travel tip #13: Three scams to be avoided at all costs:
– the Gypsy woman/girl who asks “do you speak English”?
– the Gypsy woman/girl who hangs around the station ticket machine
– the String Man

Continental Europe can be a pretty crap place if you get caught up by a scammer. These are three of my pet peeves.

“Do you speak English?” – This is almost definitely a bad sign on the streets of continental Europe, especially when asked by females dressed in colourful rags. Don’t respond. I did, once, back when I was a naive little Aussie on his first trip to Europe. The lady in question quickly clutched my arm and shoved a postcard in my face: it read “I’m a poor widowed mother of eight pitiful orphaned girls from Bosnia, all the men in the family were brutally disembowelled before my very eyes. I have been diagnosed with cancer of the ovulus and need a lump of money just to buy my daily bread…” or something along those lines. The truth is, these people are Gypsies, not war refugees. They are well organised and they are very, very good at what they do. The best response is simply to feign deafness – easier to pull off when you are Asian. Answering “no” – in English – is probably the dumbest response.

Streets of Pisa
Ticket machine scam – The more industrious Gypsy drifter works in one of two ways. Some loiter around station ticket booths and ticket machines, and offer to help you buy your ticket for you. They will then ask for a few Euros for their troubles. Not a good deal for the traveller, since all ticket machines in Western Europe have an English language option, and in any case the station staff (at least in the cities) are highly trained, very helpful, and speak English. The second, more resourceful variety, we saw in Geneva, and features an old lady who holds a stored-value ticket at a ticket machine, and offers to buy a ticket for you. I don’t know where she got her where she got the stored-value ticket from, but this is an even worse deal for the traveller, because Geneva has a scheme where all hotel/hostel guests receive free public transport. It is a little sad that these people are “working” in these trades, when they are obviously quite bright and speak English quite well. Perhaps if there weren’t such prejudice against Gypsies, they’d be able to make a living in a job that doesn’t depend on fraud.

The String Man – If the “I’m Bosnian rescue me” scam is just annoying, and the ticket machine scam is at least a fee for a service, then the String Man is downright dangerous. The scam works like this. The African man (they are usually black) approaches you, offers to tie a string around your wrist “for good luck” – then demands 5 euros to take it off. “Just walk away”, you are thinking, right? The reason the String Man is dangerous, is because he is not reluctant to use force – first grabbing your arm or bag if you try to ignore him, then blocking your way if you try to walk away. The antidote? I saw it firsthand in Milan. A group of String Men were pestering tourists on the square before the Duomo (cathedral), when a bunch of young mafia bloods spotted them and approached them. The String Men dropped everything and fled – ran – out of the square. It’s great. After the Carabinieri (national military-police) and the Polizia (provincial and specialist police), the Mafia is pretty much the third police force for maintaining public order.

Until next time,


P.S. my bear does not appear in this post because I thoughtlessly left him in Florence during this leg of the trip. He will return for the next leg of the journey.

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Tommy’s travel tip #12: Venice

November 29th, 2009 No comments

The Campanile on San Marco Square

Travel tip #12: When visiting a foreign country, all the vocabulary you need to survive is the numbers 1-3, the characteristic food item of the place, yes, (no is a valuable bonus) and thank you.

Venice is truly the promised land. It’s been my life-long dream ever since this time last year to eat spaghetti with squid in ink in Italy. We dined last night at a restaurant in Venice recommended by Lonely Planet. It had an English menu, was fully of American tourists, and surly waiters. Have you noticed how tourist traps always have surly waiters? It’s as if they view you with contempt because you fell for their tourist trap. The meal costed €35 each (about $70). I couldn’t stop thinking about how many lobsters I could buy at home for that much money (okay, about one), or how many Armani ties I could get at the Harrods sale back in London.

The Grand Canal, Venice

So it was with some despondency that we took the boat out to Murano, an island in the suburbs of Venice renowned for glass-blowing. Venice, by the way, is a collection of marshy islands connected by bridges and separated by canals. There is just one road that fits a car – running alongside the railway line to the mainland. Whereas in any other city you see a cab rank when you come out of the train station, in Venice you see a line of wharves, with boat-busses, boat-taxis and gondolas waiting to take you downtown. We took one of the boat-busses out to Murano, and after getting lost down a tiny alley-way, saw a tiny restaurant across the church square. We decided to chance it, and the place was simply awesome! It had no signs indicating its name; it had a squat toilet; it was full of serious Italian men (no women) who looked like they worked down on the docks and were ducking in for their lunch. The menu was in Italian, and I had to fall back on the Italian I picked up from half a year of proper study back in year 7 and then randomly over the years. Between my broken Italian and the waiter’s broken English (“polpo, is a kind of…” [indicates many wavy arms] (it means octopus)), we managed to piece together the menu, whence comes my tip #10 above. Instead of a multi-label winelist as favoured by the pretentious arseholes at Lonely Planet, this place had just two – bianco o rosso – white or red. I’m probably sounding a bit like those spoof travel guides Molvania/Phaic Tan – The bits that go “Twenty years ago this place had no chair lifts. It took me 20 days of hard hiking and hacking through the jungle to advance 200 metres, and I was infected by malaria. Twice. But it was priceless…”

The wine came in a clear glass jug and was probably better than 80% of wines I’ve tasted in Australia. But the best part was the food. I had sardin a saor, sardines marinated in vinegar and other condiments, a Venetian delicacy, and spaghetti seppie, i.e. with squid in ink. The food was delicious, no-nonsense, not overly rich as Italian meals sometimes can be. In a word, it was perfect. And the price? €15 including the wine and water. Brilliant.

The Ducal Palace, Venice

My second life-long dream, ever since the calzone shop on Norton Street closed down like 10 years ago, has been to eat a cheap calzone in Italy. I managed that tonight. Having gotten to Venice station for the train to Florence with an hour to spare, I decided to find a cheap calzone shop (which in some ways is the Italian equivalent to our kebab shop), so I struck off in a random direction, and two canals later – voila. I march in and, with my broken Italian, ask for “due calzoni tradizionale, per favore”. Dude doesn’t even blink, and replies in perfect American English “Mushroom and ham? Won’t be a moment”. I’m happy though. I may have been outted as a fobber, but he understood me.

So, language lesson of the day, your essential first aid kit of Italian:

one – uno
two – due
three – tre
essential food item – calzone
yes – si
thank you – grazie

Until next time, from the land of good beer and good wine,


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