Monday, 31 August 2015

Travelling around Milan

Milan isn't a big city - or at least the bit most people are interested in isn't terribly large. The Roman walls enclosed an area of about 215 acres (87 hectares), and most of the sights you are likely to visit would have been inside the Roman walls or immediately outside them. This means that most of the time you will be most concerned with getting to and from the middle of town, because once you're there, just about eveything is walkable.

There is a wide range of transport available: trams, trains, metro, buses, trolleybuses, bike and car hire. We used the trams, mainly because two lines ran right past the front of our apartment: one to the middle of town, and the other to the Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle), the main metropolitan museum. The other reason we used the trams is that although they are slower than metro travel, you can actually see something of the area you are travelling through. And we like trams. (We also like trolleybuses, but they never seemed to be travelling somewhere we wanted to go, being run mainly on the city ring road).

You may have noticed that some of the trams look old. These aren't museum pieces trotted out for a special day, but Type 1928 trams (named for the year they were introduced) in regular service on half a dozen lines. Line 2 (the tramline from our apartment to the Sforza Castle) is run entirely with these old trams. Not fast or especially comfortable, but full of character.

There are also modern trams
(in a not so modern setting)
Using the public transport is simple - buy a ticket at a tobacconnist or a ticket machine, which gives you 90 minutes on the bus/tram network, or 1 ride on a train. All at 1€50 per ticket, or 13€80 for 10 rides (they call it a carnet, but it's just one ticket you repeatedly stamp). There is also a 1 day pass for 4€50, ideal for those days when you're buzzing backwards and forwards doing organising stuff. To ride a tram or bus, stamp your ticket in the machine when you board the first vehicle, and as long as you get on the last vehicle of your trip before the expiration of 90 minutes, you don't need to stamp it again. For the metro, you use the ticket in a turnstile to access the platform.

We were particularly taken by how comprehensive the transport system is - and how inexpensive. The longest we had to wait for a metro was 4 minutes, and a tram 6 minutes. Truly excellent.


Weather News:

Yup - it's that confused. This screenshot was taken yesterday lunchtime.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Katherine River Valley

Somewhere down in all those trees is a large river. Three weeks before this photo was taken the river flooded and rose 19 metres, causing a state of emergency to be declared by the Northern Territory government. The river and the spectacular gorge it has created form an important tourist attraction in this isolated area. The Northern Territory Tourist Office bill it, with considerable justification, as 'where the outback meets the tropics'. Aboriginal culture and heritage, outdoor activities, especially kayaking, and wildlife watching feature heavily on the agenda if you visit this area.
A la cuisine hier: I had a litre and a half of aging raw milk kicking about so I decided I needed to make some sauces. First I made custard, which promptly curdled (grrr!) then I used the rest for a blue cheese sauce. The blue cheese in question was a Stilton with a best before date of 1 June. It was perfectly fine in sauce. 

Also on the list of things that needed using was half a punnet of tiny teardrop shaped tomatoes from one of our local producers. I decided to tweak Jean's recipe for stuffed zucchini, and made smoked salmon and blue cheese stuffed zucchini. The zukes turned out well, even Simon voted them OK (although he was careful not to sound too encouraging in case I am tempted to make stuffed zucchini again...). If I do make something like this again I will use tuna. Smoked salmon is wasted in this with the blue cheese.

Also taking up a great deal of space in the pantry are trays of apples. You'd never know I'd picked any if you look at the trees in the orchard, but I have hundreds of apples in the pantry. So yesterday I made two big spiced apple and rhubarb crumbles and boiled up a ten litre pot of apples for jelly. They are currently sitting in the jelly bag to extract the liquid.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Mary I of Scotland, Queen Consort of France

Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots as she is more widely known, was born in Scotland in December 1542. Her father was James V of Scotland and her mother Marie de Guise, a member of a powerful French Catholic family. Within six days of her birth she was Queen of Scotland and her father dead.

A child on the throne is always a recipe for unrest, and in addition, civil war was brewing in Scotland just like it was in France, in the guise of the Reformation. Henri II was on the throne in France and just about keeping a lid on it. Henri suggested a betrothal between his infant heir and Mary, so when Mary was five years old her mother sent her to live with the French royal family. Marie de Guise felt the situation in Scotland was just too dangerous for little Mary to stay, but Marie herself stayed behind and ruled in Mary's sted as regent. 

Portrait medallion of François II and Mary, on display at the Chateau of Chenonceau.
On arrival in France Mary formed immediate friendships with the two oldest of Henri II and Catherine de Medici's children, the Princesse Elisabeth, later to become Queen of Spain, and the Dauphin François, her betrothed. Like the French royal children, Mary's education was put into the capable hands of the King's mistress, Diane de Poitiers and Mary became close to her too. The Chateau of Amboise served as the children's principal residence.

Mary grew into a lively and intelligent young woman. Her looks were striking as she was red-haired, pale skinned and extraordinarily tall. At 180cm (5'11") she towered over most people at court, including her husband to be, who was rather short. Average height for men at this time was 168cm (5'6") and average height for women 157cm (5'2").

She and François were married in May 1558. Secretly, Mary had signed an agreement that would have France control Scotland should she die childless. Later that year her second cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. For Catholics, she was illegitimate, and Mary, the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. The plots were thickening. In July 1559 Henri II was killed in a jousting accident and François and Mary found themselves the teenaged king and queen of France. Her powerful uncles stepped in to control the tangled web of intrigue that was being woven all around Mary.

The Protestants increased their political agitating in both Scotland and France during 1559-60, culminating in France in what is known as the Tumult of Amboise. Huguenots planned to kidnap young François and arrest the Guises. Word of the plot reached the ears of the Guise brothers and they hastily moved the young king and queen from the Chateau of Blois to the Chateau of Amboise as it was easier to defend. The conspirators stormed the chateau but were defeated and well over a thousand Protestants executed and their bodies hung from the Chateau. It caused such a stench that the court decamped and Amboise never regained the status it had previously enjoyed.

 17th century copy of a François Clouet portrait of Mary in mourning, hanging in the Chateau of Blois. She wears white as it was the royal colour of mourning.
1560 was a year of unmitigated misery and trouble for Mary. After the Amboise conspiracy in March her mother died in June, then her husband in December. Left a childless widow at 17, with her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici making it plain that she was no longer welcome in France, due to her close relationship with Diane de Poitiers, and Scotland at grave risk of being overrun by its southern neighbour England, Mary made the inevitable and fateful decision to return to her country of birth in 1561.

Well out of her depth politically now, and without the close presence of her uncles for protection and advice, nothing went right for her from this point onwards.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Max Ernst in Amboise

Although German born the surrealist artist Max Ernst lived most of his adult life in France. He produced the fountain on the Mail in Amboise in 1967. The creature on the top is known as the genie and is looking in the direction of Clos Lucé, the home of Leonardo da Vinci.

The sculpture was restored in 2014, a process that took longer than expected. When I photographed it in June 2015 the local authority was still engaged in landscaping and restoring the surroundings. Whilst the fountain was away an exhibition about Ernst was set up in a nearby church.
A la cuisine hier: Ten jars of apple jelly, from windfalls after the big storm a couple of days ago. Also a batch of stewed apples and blackberries.