Friday, April 14, 2017

My first trip to Wales!

Back in December, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to the UK, where my parents were staying. I've been to north-west England a ton of times, but this was Jules's first visit somewhere other than London (and Edinburgh, if we're talking UK), so we aimed for a blend of old favourites to introduce to him and new places for me.

Hence my very first trip to Wales! It seems strange I've never been before, since my family has Welsh ancestry on my father's side, and Wales is really not far from where my parents are from. Plus it has some pretty cool features - like the Snowdonia national park (which we didn't go to, but got close enough to see the Snowdonian mountains), and more castles than any other country in Europe (if you count Wales as a country, which it's not really, but over 600 castles is still very impressive).

And it was to one of these castles, Caernafon, that we headed for my first taste of Wales. Caernafon is really impressive. It's pretty huge, seems fairly intact in terms of the stones, although not as far as whatever was inside is concerned, and has an amazing location by the sea and mountains. And we were super lucky with the weather, as you can see.

View from the town side

Caernafon as it currently stands was built from 1283 under Edward I of England, as a way to keep the Welsh down, man. Edward took the pretext of rebellions in Wales to wage a war of conquest against the country, which was previously divided between a largely independent (although feudally linked to the English crown) Welsh principality and spheres of Anglo-Norman control. After Edward's war and the construction of the castle, it was captured in 1294 in a Welsh rebellion and besieged at the beginning of the 15th century, but subsequently things calmed down in Wales and it lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair over the centuries.

On the battlements
I'm not good enough at mountain-spotting to tell if one of those is Mt. Snowdon, but it's a pretty view in any case

The large circular bit in the middle is where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969. The first Prince of Wales, Edward I's son (later Edward II) was supposedly born in the castle. Legend has it that Edward I promised to give them a prince born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English - and fulfilled it with his baby son. (It seems that this bit is bogus though, even if Edward II was born there.)

Me in the courtyard and Mum and Dad on the battlements

View from the towers of the River Seiont

Caernafon is known for having polygonal, rather than round or square towers. It was intended to be particularly impressive as a symbol of English power in Wales, with a design perhaps inspired by Byzantine or Roman examples.

A dragon sitting on top of a war memorial
Cute painted houses seen from the castle

 Afterwards, we grabbed a light lunch on the square in the photo above. I was mildly surprised that the staff working in the café spoke Welsh. I have known at least one Welsh-speaking Welsh person before, but it was kind of cool to see it in action as a working language, rather than something just taught in school or something. About 19% of the population of Wales said they could speak Welsh in the 2011 UK Census.

Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i'w gyfieithu, everyone!

Thursday, March 30, 2017


On my last day in Sicily, I decided to make the trek out to the town of Cefalù, about an hour by train. According to the internet, Cefalù was a cute town, with a nice beach and, of course, the last of the great Arab-Norman edifices in the region. Unfortunately, the weather was grey with occasional showers, so that ruled out the beach, and the Cefalù cathedral is definitely the least impressive of the buildings I saw. It looked pretty bare online, but I thought it might have hidden treasures. But, yeah, most of it is plain, with really just the apse covered in mosaics. After the splendours of Monreale and the Palatine Chapel, it was a bit of a let down. The outside is pretty, though. 

The famous Christ Pantocrator
 I didn't stay inside too long, there just wasn't that much to see. So I headed next door for more cloisters. Again, these were slightly disappointing after the beautiful Monreale cloisters. What there was to see in the cloisters was nice enough, but only half of the pillars survive. Even worse, the other half were destroyed during World War II. That sort of thing particularly gets my goat. It's one thing if something fell into ruins back in the 15th century or something, and another thing entirely when you think it survived some 800 years only to be destroyed so recently. As frustrating as this is, on the bright side, there has been a lot of restoration work carried out in recent years, and as part of this project, you can look online to see detailed photos and explanations of all the capitals. Since I couldn't remember what all the carvings meant, this is what I did for the photos below.

"Capital with acrobats"

"Capital with fabulous creatures and birds of prey'

"Capital with griffin, lizard and lion". I assume this toothy fellow is the lizard, enjoying a bite of lion bum
Since the weather wasn't nice enough to go to the beach or sit outside, and I was getting a bit too tired to wander around the city or look in the many small shops, I caught the train back to Palermo and pretty much just sat around (thankfully, it wasn't raining there) until it was time to get the bus to the airport. The last day of any trip is often a bit tricky - either you have to get to the airport at a time that doesn't really allow for sightseeing, or you end up hanging about uselessly with no hotel room to retreat to. I had left my suitcase at the train station for convenience, so at least I didn't have that worry, but it was a bit of a flat end to what was an overall lovely trip.

Outside the Martorana

Some extra photos of the "fountain of shame" I didn't have space for before

So voilà, that was Sicily! I really enjoyed it! It's a big island, so this definitely made me think I'd like to come back and see more of it, from the ancient temples and Roman villas, to Mt Etna to the Aeolian islands. It wasn't nearly as daunting as I'd been led to believe, and although you'll meet more non-English speakers than in, say, Rome, I didn't have any particular communication problems and got around to all the sights on foot, by bus and by train with no issues. A good reminder that there is still a "brave" solo traveller hiding inside!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sicilian scenery

So, with all the wedding excitement and a lot of redundancy stress at work (I start a new job next week!), I never finished my Sicily posts. I know, you've been waiting on bated breath this whole time.

Monreale, as you may remember, was another amazeballs Arab Norman cathedral. Like the Palermo cathedral, you are also able to go up on to the roof for some nice views down into the cathedral and also a panoramic view of the surrounding landscapes.

It's always a special feeling getting a sneak peek from a different point of view

After navigating through the inside of the cathedral, you emerge to a view over the cloisters

Up close and personal with the roof architecture

Standing in the roof guttering

I had the roof mostly to myself, but a passing American couple were kind enough to take my photo on the stairs

View of Palermo on the way up to the cathedral from the bus stop
After the cathedral, I had lunch in the sun, which started out quite pleasant and quickly turned terrible as the guy next door whipped out an angle grinder. The restaurant owners must have paid him to take a lunch break just as the tourists started trickling in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Diamond shopping in Antwerp

One of the best things about living in Europe is the breadth of different experiences you are exposed to with a much lower entry barrier than back home. I can't say I grew up dreaming of buying a diamond ring in Antwerp, but if I had, it would have required meticulous planning, a month off work, days of flying, and thousands of dollars of expenditure before you even got to the diamond itself. Here, it was more like, okay so we're going to buy a diamond? Well, obviously we'll drive 45 minutes up the road to a city which has been synonymous with the diamond trade for centuries. I couldn't find a definitive answer on whether it is actually cheaper to get diamonds in Antwerp (and a lot of the online advice was based on people having to travel to and stay in Antwerp for the purchase, thus inflating their budgets), but the amount of diamonds you have to choose from is unparalleled anywhere else. According to Wikipedia, as of 2012, about 84% of the world's rough diamonds passed through Antwerp's tiny "Square Mile" diamond district, with US$16 billion in polished diamonds going through the Antwerp exchanges annually. So whatever you're looking for, chances are you can find it here, and if you can't, they'll make it for you.

What I don't think I've ever heard anyone say about buying a diamond ring is, holy hell it's intimidating. We first went on a bit of a dry run in Brussels, trying to get an idea of what things cost and what our budget should be. (I know that's not the way round you're meant to set a budget, but hey.) I wanted first to go to sort of chain or mall type jewellery shops, as I thought that would be less intimidating. Turns out chain jewellery shops don't really exist in Brussels. We found a few larger places in the middle of Brussels and circled nervously, gathering the courage to go in.

Once inside, the service wasn't great and the selection wasn't great either. They seemed to have only a couple of different models of diamond solitaires, which seemed strange. Plus I asked to see diamond solitaires in French and the woman brought a tray of wedding bands. We looked, confused, for a few minutes wondering if you first chose the metal you wanted, and then they made you choose the setting, and then the stone, but no, she just didn't understand. So we tried again, and she brought out weird dress rings. "Oh no, I just want something plain with one diamond", I said. "Oh, you want a solitaire" she replied. Um, yeah.

The second place we tried was an "Antwerp diamonds" place, which seems to be the Belgian way of indicating a shop that has a lot of different rings and different grade diamonds and you just put two and two together and they set the ring for you. This place had some pretty rings but it was a warm late summer/early autumn day and the shop was tiny and overly hot and I just spent the whole time in there dripping with sweat and feeling like the frumpiest mess on the planet, and so I couldn't meet the jeweller's eye, let alone concentrate on the glamorous business of diamond purchasing when I felt like my face was melting off. I've yet to see a movie where the dashing heroine goes diamond shopping with her foundation dripping, but trust me to make the occasion as unromantic and unaspirational as possible.

We retired defeated from the field of battle, and between the trauma of our first attempt and being busy with other things for a few weeks, it was over a month before we tried again. I did some further research online, locating specific places in Antwerp with a good reputation and drilling myself on haggling techniques and the fact that they're not better than me just because they work in a shop that sells expensive things. (They're not worse than me either, of course, but just trying to buck myself up.)

After a walk up and down Vestingstraat, a drab street currently undergoing roadworks but probably not very fancy at the best of times, we finally felt ready to move from window shopping to going into our first store. We started with Adin, which sells antique and vintage jewellery, partly because I thought it would be kind of cool to end up with a piece with a history and a one-off design, and partly because either you love it or you don't. You're unlikely to end up fussing around for ages trying to find what specific combination of the 4 Cs fit your budget and heart's desire. Luckily for us on our first attempt, the woman who helped us was super sweet and friendly and very patient with showing us everything, and the owner (I think) also came over and explained how diamond cuts were different in antique jewellery. We saw some beautiful pieces, but in the end I decided they weren't quite my style for something I'd be wearing day in and day out. I tend to go for plain jewellery, and was sure I would end up with a classic solitaire. But it was fun to see the vintage pieces just in case.

If I was going to go for something out of left field, this would have been a strong contender

The emerald Art Deco one was pretty, but I couldn't see wearing it every day

You really notice all the little cat scratches when you go ring shopping

These used a sort of illusion setting to make the centre stone look bigger. You could definitely get some decent-value rings if you committed to the vintage route
There was no hard sell and we left with a lot more confidence than we came in with, so I'm glad that was our first port of call. We went a couple of doors down to a place that wasn't on the list, but had some pretty designs in the window, Diamonds on Vesting. Again, there was no hard sell, and there was no problem writing down all the different specifications and prices and taking photos. There was a lovely twisted "coquette" ring, which really highlighted the diamond without being too obviously twisty.

It was kind of frustrating that many of the rings didn't fit on my fingers, but oh well.

We went to one more place on Vestingstraat, where they didn't let us take photos, but where I tried on a blue diamond (kinda cool), and then went to Diamondland, which has the biggest diamond showroom in Antwerp. A lot of reviews online said they took the time to really explain all the different diamond information to you, and so this was a good place to start. We actually went here first but they were too busy to see us, and I'm glad they were. They didn't do a hard sell, exactly, but this was the only place that made me feel uncomfortable out of all the places we visited. Rather than an aggressive approach, they took the buddy buddy "what's your name? wow, that name's so popular in my country! where do you come from? you look so much like my daughter it's amazing!" tactic. I did like that when she "swore", she said "corpus Christi!" though, which gave an agreeably medieval flavour to proceedings.

She took us to an upstairs room and started pulling out little envelopes full of different diamonds, from tiny .15 carat up to a carat. It was kind of cool to see the sparkly little beggars rolling around (and I actually managed to drop a one-carat diamond (supposedly) worth about 10,000€ which she had put loosely into a setting for us to look at), but it didn't take long for us both to (silently) be quite sure we wouldn't be buying here.

The sales technique was also not cool. She took a diamond which, according to the envelope it came in, was worth around 4,200€, and put it together with a ring that apparently she didn't know the price of, but guessed was worth around 300€. Put those figures together in the calculator and magically came up with 5000€. I didn't bother pointing out that you didn't need to be a maths genius to see that didn't add up, but she next assured us that she would go and talk to her boss and see if she could get a good discount for us. Normally they could give around 8-10% and she wasn't sure she could get that much, but she would really try hard for us. We had barely time to stifle our eye rolls before her boss "accidentally" came in, found a price tag of 200€ on the ring (yay! it's already cheaper!) and did some sums on the calculator, which ended up reading 3955€, although she said 3900€ out loud. Our original saleswoman cooed over what an amazing deal it was, and once her boss had left, wrote down the price of 3950€ for us, pointing out that she was even taking an extra 5€ off. In the store, we both politely said thank you very much, we'll have to think about it, yes, 5000€ down to 3950€, that is quite the discount, we'll sleep on it. But once outside, we were both like "geez, trying to take us for a couple of country rubes?!?"

So, drum roll... What did we end up getting? As I said, I was always sure that I would go for a plain solitaire - timeless, elegant, classic. But the more I researched and thought about it, the less sure I got. Maybe it would be better to go for something with a slightly less icky reputation than diamonds, both in the blood diamond sense and in the monopoly cartel sense (although apparently the monopoly has been broken/weakened in recent times)? I'm certainly not going to start accusing people of being sheeple falling for the slick marketing of Big Diamond, but I started to think more about the possibility of getting a coloured stone, even in the diamond capital of the world. Our reason for going into the aforementioned Diamonds on Vesting was actually some "sapphires" in the window (turns out they were tanzanites). Tanzanites are a rare gemstone (much rarer than diamonds) only found in a small part of Tanzania, with a blue-violet hue which can change depending on the angle. They are also one of the birthstones for December, which is a fun coincidence. Jules made me sleep on it - for longer than I would have liked, since the jeweller went away to China in the meantime - but we finally decided on something that I would not have imagined but I absolutely love!

Two tanzanite and diamond rings to choose between

Final choice! Thought I'd better get a manicure for when we actually got to bring this baby home
Transformed to a vivid blue in the early morning light
And, you guys, guess what??? I bargained! Me! Who's scared of everything! The ring was in platinum, and on our first visit the guy mentioned that it would be cheaper in white gold. So Jules and I fixed some numbers between ourselves that we would be willing to go to for the white gold or the platinum setting, and then I said to the guy, "our budget was X" (about 2500€ cheaper than the sticker price), "how close could we get to that figure with the white gold setting?" He didn't want to go quite that low for the white gold, but he offered us the platinum setting for basically the secret price we had agreed beforehand we wanted to pay for it, which saved almost 1500€! Possibly we could have haggled harder and got more off, but I was pretty damn proud of myself and pleased we got to the price we wanted, so I'll take that as a big win :)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Is this the Monreale life? Is this just fantasy?

You know who loves massive, gaudy, ostentatious displays of gold? In honour (choke) of the stumpy-digited madman, here's another of Sicily's bling-tastic sites. Except this one manages to be tasteful, a word Trump wouldn't know if he tripped over it.

Monreale Cathedral, the second of the great Arab-Norman sites I visited in Sicily, is located in a suburb of Palermo about 20 minutes away from the centre. Getting there took a bit of research online and some wandering around the Piazza Indipendenza (outside the Norman Palace), but was otherwise straightforward. The larger scale (102x40 metres) makes it harder to see and to photograph the mosaics than in the Palatine Chapel, which is my overall favourite, but the incredible number and quality of mosaics is still unforgettable.

The history of the church in Monreale goes back to the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 9th century. The Arabs converted the Palermo Cathedral into a mosque and exiled the Bishop, who settled nearby on the hill of Monreale, overlooking Palermo, where a small church was built. The Normans conquered Palermo in 1072 and re-consecrated the cathedral. However, the story of the exile to Monreale was not forgotten, and in 1174 King William II ordered a new cathedral to be built in Monreale. Amazingly, the cathedral was consecrated in 1182. I don't know how the Normans managed to move so fast on these things, considering all the cathedrals you hear of taking hundreds of years to complete.

The interior consists of elegant columns, an elaborate wood and mosaic roof, patterned marble floors and walls, and most importantly, more than 6500 square metres of glass mosaics which mostly depict Biblical scenes and figures.

The relatively plain cathedral façade

One of the side entrance towers

Christ Pantocrator

The back wall 

I suppose this is Lazarus? Quite the belly, anyway

Ornate Baroque chapel. This is in a roped-off section you have to pay to get in to

Chapel ceiling

The inlaid marble floor

William II, founder of the cathedral, offers the building to the Virgin Mary

Noah's Ark
Top: Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden. Bottom: Rebekah giving water to the camels

St. Peter