All Roads Lead to Rome


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Strange and wonderful, isn’t it, how when you’re travelling, unintended themes emerge.

The last few weeks, it’s been the Romans!   Of course they’ve left their traces all over the place around here – Mani’s family home is on an old Roman road – but on our recent travels, there the Romans have been lined up, front and centre.

That always makes me feel very ‘new world’ and aware that our history of habitation in New Zealand is as shallow as our topsoil.  In Switzerland the topsoil can be metres deep.  And right through those layers, are layers of human history.  The wonder works both ways of course.  A well-educated friend asked me the other day “You don’t have Roman ruins in New Zealand, do you?”  “ Uh, no.  We didn’t even have formed roads until a couple of centuries ago.”

So, the first encounter was, naturally, in Italy.  We’d gone to Sirmione, on Lake Garda for a few days.

Rocco Scaligera, Sirmione, by Tom Esplin

Rocco Scaligera, Sirmione, by Tom Esplin

Old Sirmione, on a narrow tongue at the foot of Lake Garda, has its sentinel castle, Rocco Scaligera, at the entrance to the bulbous end of the peninsula.  Many photos were taken, but imagine my delight when a Tom Esplin painting of the castle came up at Dunbar Sloane’s auction this week and I managed to snaffle it!  I’ve always liked his work, and this makes a fine souvenir.   Better still, it will be waiting for me in NZ – no carrying!

Back to the Romans.

Grotte di Catullo, no small matter!

Grotte di Catullo, no small matter!

A little tourist-train ride up to the top of the Sirmione peninsula – just to see what was there – took us to the entry of the Grotte di Catullo, most important example of a patrician Roman villa  in Northern Italy.  The blasé Europeans of our party opted for more cool drinks, but I sweated my way around the huge site, some 20,000 square metres. Extraordinary – and perhaps the prime piece of real estate in the region; lake views on three sides, and a climate moderated by the water.IMG_9181_1

There’s a bit of a conflation in the name of the place: the poet Catullus did have a family villa up there, but his death predated the construction of this particular villa by perhaps a century, so it doesn’t do to picture him declaiming here.  And the “Grotte” (caves) part of the name was because by the Middle Ages the buildings were largely buried by dirt and vegetation  – so it’s better just to let the place speak for itself. As it does, of sophisticated engineering and society.












Heat circulated under the floor, and up wall vents.

Heat circulated under the floor, and up wall vents.

We got a really good look at that engineering later, in the Mosel Valley.  There are a number of Roman villas there, and in the one at Mehring you can get a good look at the hypocaust, the system that provided under-floor heating through the villa, and hot water to the baths.


The other quite contemporary thing about it was the way the owners added on rooms as their establishment increased.  Another child, more servants, perhaps a granny flat… ending up with 34 rooms by the time the Germanic peoples decided to take back their land in about 355AD.

Roman, taking a proprietary stance outside 'his' villa, the Roman Villa Rustica at Mehring (2 - 5C AD)

Roman, taking a proprietary stance outside ‘his’ villa, the Roman Villa Rustica at Mehring (2 – 5C AD)


But by then, the glorious foundations of the Mosel were well and truly laid … in the Roman Wine Road, which complemented the less-reliable river.

1 of 4 stone wine-boats made as a substantial gravestone.


A reconstructed Roman wineship made by the present folk at Neumagen Dhron

The gang approaching a reconstructed Roman wineship made by the present folk at Neumagen-Dhron

Bless the Romans desire to have wine wherever they went: we’ll tag along joyfully.

Adam (right), tastng a wine as old as he is, from our favourite Trittenheim winemaker Peter Arenz (left)

Adam (right), tasting a wine as old as he is, from our favourite Trittenheim winemaker Peter Arenz (left). Vreni and Martin are hiding behind the glassware

And this visit, we really sampled Trier, at the southern end of the Mosel Valley. The first time we went to the Mosel, we drove into Trier, the wrong way, up a bus lane. Inauspicious start.  Found a carpark, enquired at a hotel and were quoted an eye-watering price.  Out of there!  The upside then was discovering Trittenheim, a small town dedicated to wine and good food in a hairpin bend of the river, to which we keep returning.

Trier seems much more approachable the second time around! Porta Nigra in the background

Trier seems much more approachable the second time around! Porta Nigra in the background.

This time finally we risked Trier again, and loved it.   The city was developed as the second Rome – the Romans’ ruling base this side of the Alps. Augustus established the original town in about 16 BC, and  by the end of the 3rd Century AD it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.  A bridge built then still carries city traffic. The Porto Nigra stands sentinel, and huge bath complexes are still being excavated.

The bridge pilings are 2nd Century, still holding up 1717/1718 arches, and 21st C traffic.

The bridge pilings are 2nd Century, still holding up 1717/1718 arches, and 21st C traffic.

Much of the amphitheatre has disappeared, its stones being recycled over the centuries.  But you can explore the cellars under the arena. A while back we’d seen a television programme reconstructing the underground stage machinery for lifting cages of lions, gladiators, and other entertainment into the centre of such arenas.  Amazing to be able to visualise that.    A couple of weeks before in Verona I’d just prowled around the outside of the arena, saving the excitement of being inside for when we go back there for the opera, maybe next year.  But here in Trier, you could stand in the centre and conjure up the thunderous reality of roaring crowds and animals, the terror, the horror, and the exaltation.


Under the arena


Mani and Vreni face off…







Awe-inspiring, those ancient Romans.

And of course, you can’t help but wonder what the traces we leave will say about us.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner

Enough Rain Already


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I rain

Because your meadows call

For God.

Hafiz, 14C Sufi poet.

(This entire poem at the end.)

Thank you Hafiz, but enough already.

It’s been an exceptionally cool and soggy June – though fortunately here we’ve not had the deadly floods that Germany and France have suffered.   But there’s been enough rain that Bodensee (Lake Constance) is full-to-nearly overflowing.


Storm-clouds over Bodense

So there’s only one thing to do – celebrate the drama of the weather, and the ingenuity of engineers as they find ways to deal with it!

I’m reading Gaia Vince’s “Adventures in the Anthropocene” at the moment, which deals with not just the human-caused climate changes, but also some of the extraordinary innovative options for adaptation.  We need such creative brilliance more than ever.


A newly re-engineered river on the other side of the Alps. (Not so much recent rain there!)

Of course, we’ve been adapting nature’s waterways for centuries, and here we live by the banks of an example.

The very top part of the mighty Rhine river (the part technically called the Alpine Rhine) runs through the Rheintal and into the Bodensee.  It always flooded with rain and snow-melt, which is why all the old towns lie up along the foothills.

The 19th Century was a time of great re-engineering along the entire Rhine, and the Alpine Rhine was rechannelled, straightened and deepened to increase its flow, and contain its waters – and offer a rich valley floor of alluvial silt for more secure farming and horticulture.  The ‘new Rhine’ flows out through Austria.


The ferry returning from Rheineck when the Alter Rhein is full, but not TOO full.

The ‘old Rhine’ (Alter Rhein), which still forms the border with Austria, was left as a swamp,  which was later dug out to make a navigable river up to Rheineck. Between the two is all nature reserve – and some of our favourite bike tracks.


Iron sculpture at the mouth of the Alten Rhein, celebrating the dig-out


Post 1999, all the properties along the rivers have flood protection. A barrier comes across to shut off the gate.

And right now – it’s full!  The new Rhine had filled up the channels either side between its first and second stop- banks, though it’s now back in line, and the old Rhine – itself further reengineered after the 1999 floods – overflowed the path I normally walk.


The Alter Rhein last week

The ferry landing / wading

The ferry landing / wading

The Weisse House restaurant rebuilt after the 1999 floods. The log was souvenired from INSIDE the old restaurant.

The Weisse House restaurant rebuilt after the 1999 floods. The log was souvenired from INSIDE the old restaurant.










Along the Alter Rhein and around Bodensee, water-birds’ nests have been flooded, and we’ve had flocks of gulls shrieking overhead as they look for options. There are a few floating nesting platforms – now highly prized and contested real estate.


To compare and contrast….


2011 – only the fishing boats could come up the river. Too shallow for the ferry.


Bodensee 2011 (from the local paper)


But the show must go on…

Margrit, Maria and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Kloster St Gallen for the outdoor opera. This year was Le Cid by Massenet, which I’d not seen before but now add to my favourites. It started in the rain, singers all exposed, and audience all in rain-condoms (or so I titled the multi-coloured plastic hooded capes that people pulled from their handbags for protection).  By mid-opera, the rain had stopped; still a great night.


Margrit under the red umbrella, and half of Maria!

And, as in New Zealand where a post-rain trip in Fiordland offers the best gushing roadside waterfalls, our trip through the passes to the sun of northern Italy was highlighted with full mountain streams.IMG_8977_1_1

So… to celebrate the rain.  The refresher of streambeds, the greener of pastures, the reminder of the source of life itself!

And, confession time – it’s easier to finish writing this after a few days in the sun of Lake Garda (of which more later), and with sunshine (and lawn-mowing!) waiting for me outside.


A postscript.

A couple of years ago (it can’t have been 2012) I reported on a snail that had improbably taken up residence in our little wind-machine.   Here’s its kin, inside the bird feeder suspended by wire, and firmly capped.  The only way in was through one of the feeding holes towards the bottom.  How? And more puzzlingly, Why?  Most fanciful explanation so far is that a bird might have seen the feeder as a larder and popped the snail in there for later. Other ideas welcome!IMG_8856


The previously inhabited wind-machine is still there to the right

Back to the Wetness…..


…  For some creatures that love the rain…..

I Rain

I rain

Because your meadows call

For God.

I weave light into words so that

When your mind holds them

Your eyes will relinquish their sadness.

Turn bright, a little brighter, giving to us

The way a candle does

To the dark.

I have wrapped my laughter like a birthday gift

And left it beside your bed.

I have planted the wisdom in my heart

Next to every signpost in the sky.

A wealthy man

Often becomes eccentric.

A divine crazed soul

Is transformed into infinite generosity

Tying gold sacks of gratuity

To the dangling feet of moons, planets, ecstatic

Midair dervishes, and singing birds.

I speak

Because every cell in your body

Is reaching out

For God.

From The Gift, a collection of poems by Hafiz, whose given name was Shams-ud-din-Muhammad (c. 1320 – 1389), translated by Daniel Ladinsky.  Pub. Penguin Compass,  1999.


First, Gather your Herbs


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The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.


As Mrs Beeton might have said –  “First, gather your herbs”.  (Actually and disappointingly, Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, doesn’t have a rabbit pie recipe starting “First catch your rabbit”, so let’s just stick with might have said….)

First, gather your herbs….


Easy pickings – horsetail at a miniature railway.

I’m with Voltaire.   Getting on our bikes and getting out in the spring air (I’d like to say “spring sunshine”, but that’s been a little scarce) to gather herbs is in itself a cure for whatever ails one.

We’ve been out for stinging nettles and horsetail – both so plentiful around here.

The nettles throng the edges of the bike-tracks, all the better to whack naked ankles if you carelessly swerve too close.  A good pair of gloves and some secateurs – utu!

I laugh a bit at myself: in New Zealand I’ve gone to great pains (literally!) to get nettles to flourish.  One established itself in my herb garden in Kapiti – of course right beside the little garden gate to attack passing legs – and threw a great crop of seedlings which I transplanted to less threatening parts of the plot just before we left.  Perhaps it would be easier just to dry heaps more over here and take it back!  And in case you worry about us starring in a Border Control reality show, everything we carry gets powdered and put into capsules, or steeped in 70% alcohol and made into tincture.  Much safer all round.  We amuse, but don’t perturb, our friends at the border.

First gather - then cut - then dry - then powder - ready to use!

First gather – then cut – then dry – then powder – ready to use!

The horsetail (Equisetum arvense) we haven’t found growing wild in New Zealand – which is not to say that it doesn’t, just that we’ve not stumbled across it yet. The one we want is the short version – the tall one doesn’t have the healing powers.

Here it has many local names  – twenty-seven in Mani’s favourite herb book.  Schachtelhalm is its formal German name, but around here we call it Katzenschwanz (cats-tail).  Actually, make that 28 local names – I see Katzenschwanz isn’t in that list!

It’s such a valuable herb.  I used to head for the herbal medicine shelves for it whenever my hair or fingernails needed a boost of silicon.  But it does much more –  building up tissue, boosting collagen production and so skin elasticity, works on everything from gout to smelly feet, kidneys, bladder … I think it earns its 28 names.

Bruno Vonarburg's Consulting room

Bruno Vonarburg’s Consulting room

Said favourite herb book, Natürlich gesund mit Heilpflanzen by Bruno Vonarburg, who’s a lovely guy with the most wonderfully ancient apothecary rooms not far from here, also advises horsetail for tomato blight and mildew on roses. And we think that works too!

We’ve had that nasty late tomato blight around here for several years. Last year we sprayed ours with a tea from horsetail rotted in a bucket of water. Smells atrocious, but our tomatoes held out against the blight much longer than any of the neighbours’, and we got our full crop.  This year, I’ve mixed the green herb into the potting soil, and we’ll see if that plus the ‘tea’ stops it altogether.

A bit further afield, and up more hills than I fancy even with the e-bikes, we’ve been in the forest.

Immergrun (periwinkle) and Waldmeister

Immergrun (periwinkle) and Waldmeister

In one clearing, we found so much lovely stuff.  We gathered Kleines Immergrun – that’s the small periwinkle (Vinca Minor).  I only see the large periwinkle (V major) in New Zealand, and sadly, since it grows so wildly there, the large one doesn’t have the medicinal benefits.  Imagine if we could rip up all that pretty weed and turn it to good use. Meantime, Kleines Immergrun travels with us as both powder and tincture.

We picked Waldmeister (Asperula odorata) . It pleases me that the name ‘Master of the Forest’ should be given to such an inconspicuous herb, delicate, unshowy, honoured for its virtues not its bombast. Yes, I’ve probably been watching too much American presidential campaign coverage!!

Such lush Herb Robert

Such lush Herb Robert

And in the same spot, Storchenschnabel which we know as Herb Robert (Germanium robertianuum).   That’s a wonder for skin problems, eczema, fungus infections and the like, and always in our cupboard.

In New Zealand we used to gather it on the Paekakariki Hill road – and then we found it in our own Kapiti Village bush-walk.  There, it can look like a weed to the gardeners – instant death by spray-squirt  – so before we left I transferred some into the safety of the herb-garden.

Waldmeister, Herb Robert, and for the beauty of it, forget-me-nots

Waldmeister, Herb Robert, and for the beauty of it, forget-me-nots

It’s quite a dance  –  working out what can we gather here in Switzerland but not there in NZ?  What’s worth cultivating – or easier to carry?  Here’s a last fine example.


Silybum in the Herb Garden at Jurisich (formerly Esterhazy) Castle, Köszeg


In NZ, Mani was reading up on Mariendistel (Marian thistle, or milk thistle – Silybum marianum  – my inner 3-year-old loves that Latin name). “I want that”.   I went on line, found seeds for sale in Canada, contacted MPI over bringing them in – “No way”.   We came to Switzerland, went to an old-favourite Hungarian town called Köszeg, and in the castle herb-garden, there it was, with a ripe seed head which was quickly snaffled.  So at the end of last season here, I had three fine seedlings potted up.

Back to NZ.  Back to the herb garden, where before we left I’d made a large dung-heap of horse manure and pea-straw to rot down in our absence. Growing out the middle… a Marian Thistle with its distinctive white veins.  I now know why MPI don’t want any more brought in. They’re vicious! It’s the sharpest, strongest thistle-spike I’ve ever met.   But since it had insisted on arriving, I grew it into a monster which had the neighbouring gardeners looking anxiously over the fence, and diligently harvested each thistle-head as soon as it was ripe but before it could fly.   Heavy gloves and pliers extracted the seeds for Mani’s use, and three for next season had already sprouted before we left.

The things we do for love – and health.

Health is a cumulative experience of the mind, body and consciousness.

Sri AmmaBhagavan




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Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.

Betty Smith

Local bike-ride view: Fresh snow on the mountains, but spring in the fields.

Local bike-ride view: Fresh snow on the mountains, but spring in the fields.


A Horsetail shoot pushes through forcefully enough to take the moss with it.

Spring springs here in Switzerland.  Things thrust out of the ground as if propelled. Buds truly burst.   Flowers open as if in time-lapse photography.   It seems as if there is no time to waste to get on with the business of flowering and fruiting and setting seed, beIMG_8677_1cause winter cold must surely be just around the corner.

Only three weeks after I cut the scarlet runner beans off their frame in Kapiti and harvested some ripe pods for re-planting, those same beans have already pushed above the ground in Altenrhein.

Mind you, there were some dirty days between-times with emptying the compost bin, and mixing the fresh new goodness with the soil from last year’s pots (mainly the previous year’s compost) – and preparing for planting.


At the foot of our gingko tree

Somehow I feel the same urgency that nature does: get those tomatoes in as soon as the Ice Saints Days have passed.   Depending on what part of Europe you’re in, there are between three and five saints whose feast-days fall between May 11th and May 14th.   Those dates often coincide with a late spell of cold weather – hence the saints got their collective name of Eisheiligen – and farmers and gardeners take good note of their reputation.   It’s a little like Queen’s Birthday weekend being the “safe” time to plant tomatoes in New Zealand.

Now with the beans up, we’ve stuck the poles in place, and laid a strut from there to theIMG_6658t elder-tree – partly as steadying mechanism, partly as a further run for the runners, and partly for our furry friend!  Last year “our” squirrel used that strut to try to access the sunflower seeds from the bird feeder.  We think it’s the same little creature who was raiding the feeder the year before in the gingko tree.    And last week – could it be it’s the same chap or chappess bouncing round the lawn?



The earlier model bird feeder, lid knocked off and open to temptation.

got lid lifted

Got the lid up … now how to reach in….


Thinking of repeat visitors – last night a laubfrösch (leaf frog) appeared at the windowIMG_8686 – of
course more interested in catching the insects attracted by the light than in observing us.  It was small, even by laubfrösch standards, so more likely to be a youngster than the return of our visitor of a couple of years ago.

IMG_8682_1Back to the garden – we’re even harvesting already.  The alpine strawberries are giving us a handful of intense flavour each day.  Friends say they wouldn’t pick the berries from the forest edges any more, for fear of a nasty parasite that a passing fox might deposit on them.  We think ours, along the house-wall and path, are safe enough – though no doubt all sorts of wild things pass that way when we’re not in residence.

And while I’ve been planting flower-boxes, nature has been setting out her own array.



Even Rorschach’s busy rail yard flowers





Field flowersIMG_1403



The yellow iris in the foreground reminded me of a wonderful field of lilies by the lake (Bodensee). I was too late to walk among them this year. In the back are the old stalks of schilf,  with the new growth pushing through.


Sibirische Schwertlilie in the wetlands nature protection area by Bodensee (Lake Constance)


… And of course it wouldn’t be spring without a little of this… 


Weinberg snails with the joy of spring. These are a protected variety, so we left them to it, with our with encouragement.

Remember the quiet wonders. The world has more need of them than it has for warriors.

Charles de Lint


Why did the caterpillar cross the lawn?


Silk anchor in place, a caterpillar prepares to pupate

Silk anchor in place, a caterpillar prepares to pupate

Grand migrations of wildebeest make riveting armchair viewing – but here’s a much smaller intrepid tale.


It’s a prolific season for monarch butterflies here in Kapiti – almost anytime I look up, there are several flying around the swan plants, sipping from the echinacea, sitting sunning themselves in the golden glow of the Breath of Heaven bushes.


We watched an early caterpillar make a low-slung chrysalis on an iris

Caterpillar skin shrugged off, the transformation continues within

Caterpillar skin shrugged off, the transformation continues within

leaf, and eventually emerge into a butterfly.  And of course, many full-sized caterpillars just disappeared.

We hoped they made chrysalises we simply couldn’t detect in the shrubbery – but feared they’d more likely succumbed to wasp larvae laid in their plump bodies.



Into the energising sun

Into the energising sun







And then  –  this remarkable journey.

Around here, we have sparrows with a habit of harvesting insects and spiders from the brick-work of our walls.  They hover, dart, and cling in a most un-sparrow-like, but very effective way.  We were watching one by the ranch-slider – suddenly saw a monarch chrysalis under the eaves.

It had crawled a good five metres over the grass, then another three up the rough brick, to anchor itself to the soffit.

The crawl-way - from where Helen is photographing a butterfly, to the geranium planter....

The crawl-way – from where Helen is photographing a butterfly, to the geranium planter….


...and up the wall

…and up the wall









I imagine it, all the time we thought it was totally focussed on the swan-plant leaf it was demolishing, actually gazing around and assessing chrysalis-sites.  Those tiny eyes being able to even see so far.  That tiny brain deciding that going so far, in the opposite direction to all the twigs and leaves and branches right beside it, was a good strategic move.  Then – when? – perhaps at night? -setting off, down from the swan-plant, across the lawn, somehow holding its intended direction in its mind, to the wall, and up – there to make its silk fastener and start its transformation.

Wing veins show through the gold-ornamented jade

Wing veins show through the gold-ornamented jade


We watched it as we wined, and dined, and played chess at the outdoor table – then one day the dark veins of the wings were visible through the pale jade of the case.







The next morning, the case was transparent, and the monarch colours vivid through it.  Then – the emergence.

Emerging, wings still crumpled

Emerging, wings still crumpled








There are so many things I wish I knew…  like why and how the Altenrhein snail settled in the wind-machine – and now –  why and how the monarch caterpillar chose its transformation-site.


But even not-knowing can be wonderful  – and wonder-full.


More, More….Encore!


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Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Mae West

Can there ever be too much music?  We’ve just done a double-dose of opera, with the fourth reprise of a trip to Neusiedler See, on the Austro-Hungarian border.

This year, it was grand-opera Tosca in the old Roman stone quarry at St Margrethen, and operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig (One night in Venice) on the lake-stage at Mörbisch.  Too much?  –  just wonderful!

Part of what draws us back is the area itself – Austria’s Burgenland is rolling grape hills, charming wine towns, and the lake itself of course.

Almost every Rust-roost-roof has its residents,

Almost every Rust-roost-roof has its residents.

Rust (it’s easy to remember to pronounce that ‘Roost’ when you think of the storks) is an old wine-town with roofs supporting a whole society of storks, and courtyards of places to sample the local product.

Feeding time
Feeding time


Resting time

Resting time







And Mörbisch – our belief that Mörbisch is one of the most welcoming places in the world was reinforced yet again.

The story goes … when we were there in 2009 Margrit and I saw a sign with something about there being music in the town the next day.  So four of our party wandered down town, saw a tent straddling the whole street which had been closed to traffic, with a full brass band playing inside and tables set out with bottles of wine, beer and water. Looked right!  We made ourselves comfortable, then Roman and Mani thought they’d better find someone to pay.  A handsome woman in a dirndl looked like chief-of-staff. How much is the wine?  they asked.  Oh, she responded, this is a private party.  Apologies and hasty back-tracking… But you must stay she said. My husband is celebrating 25 years as the Chief of the volunteer fire brigade. Be our guests.   We stayed.  We sang along to the band and got introduced to the gathering by the band master. We had a ball. She even kissed us goodbye!

Welcomed gate-crashers, 2009

Welcomed gate-crashers, 2009

So – our determination was that next time we went to Mörbisch, we’d show we remembered the hospitality.

A bottle of homemade cherry brandy and one of Appenzeller schnapps were decorated with a photo of the 2009 party, and we started the search.

A friendly woman at the Gemeinderhaus  (Council building) thought she knew who we meant, gave us a name, and said he was at the Czardas restaurant most afternoons.  A waitress in a café serving us ice-cream said – yes, she knew that chap too, and phoned the restaurant to make sure that if he turned up before us they would keep him.

We went to the restaurant… and the chap arrived. Didn’t quite look as we remembered, but hey six years can do that to a man.  We launched our story … wrong bloke.  But he said, I know everybody. I can track him down. Off he went, to return not much later, with the name of the man we were seeking, his card (yes, that was the name we’d forgotten) and the news that he now divided his time between Mörbisch and his other place in Germany, and wouldn’t be back for a week or so.  And yes, of course he’d pass on the bottles and greetings.   A beer later, and a new friend, and Mörbisch’s reputation burnished.

So, to the performances.   The Steinbruch, the Roman stone quarry at St Margrethen is a wondrous place, on a huge scale.  The first time we were there was for Aida in 2004.  We had walked in, looked open-mouthed at the rock-solid (literally) stage – there could be elephants I, half-hoping, had muttered.  There were. Two of them.  And horses and chariots.  Then there was the Nabucco production with the huge fire-breathing war machines and the city ablaze.

What would they do for Tosca?    IMG_6966_1_1Well, there was this huge sculptured angel, whose wings opened to provide the main playing-space, and whose torso slowly turned on occasion to regard, or disdain, the audience.


Projected décor inside the opened wings took us to the church or the prison.  And even cleverer, during the major arias, when you really want to see the singers’ emotion but normally can’t in these big open-air venues, up came their projected images giving you sudden intimacy within the massive overall impression.

Mario, singing in front of Tosca's portrait, projected into the scene

Mario, singing in front of Tosca’s portrait right, projected into the scene centre

I’ll put more pictures at the end – it was so stunning!



A couple of nights before, we’d seen Eine Nacht in Venedig.

A glorious night, with the full moon rising.





IMG_6838Composer Strauss would almost have recognised the Venice the set portrayed at the start, but we the audience roared with recognition when in the second scene a hulking cruise ship appeared between the buildings.

IMG_6854The inside of the ship was the residence of the philandering Duke, and provided a fine setting for the French-farce-rushing-between-cabins of the second act.   

The shadowy officers on the bridge of the ship, and the magician directing the action added a frisson of manipulation

The shadowy officers on the bridge of the ship, and the magician directing the action added a frisson of manipulation

The lake-stage at Mörbisch is another wonderful outdoors venue:  you sit lake-side, with the stage a few meters over the water.  Of course I expected lots of gondola-action.

But there wasn’t.  Somehow, the water just acted as a bridge between stage and audience.


I Due Foscari, (The Two Foscaris) St Gallen. And no, there's not normally water outside the cathedral.

I Due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) at St Gallen. And no, there’s not normally water outside the cathedral.

Back in June we’d seen I Due Foscari (Verdi’s opera also set in Venice) outside the Cathedral in St Gallen.

There, they’d built a canal into the set, and the water was a major presence. There were gondolas as transport, singing-stage, and prison cage; the chorus spent a lot of time singing from in (not on) the water which emphasised their separation from the grandeur of the Doges’ chambers; and as the Doge himself descended into sorrow, remorse and death, he stumbled down the steps and into the water. Brilliant symbolism.

Somehow I felt Mörbisch missed their watery opportunity.  But … nonetheless, a great night.

But fireworks plus water-play at Mörbisch ... spectacular!

But final fireworks plus water-play at Mörbisch … spectacular!

Funny, I haven’t mentioned the music. You know, I think we take it for granted now that the singers will be great, and able to act and move as well – and that the orchestra will be full-scale fine, and that the sound production will be impeccable.  It’s the overall production that stays in the mind.

As these will.   Too much?  Never!

So, a few more photos too.

Another nice symbolism - a wrecked gondola being lifted from the canal during the overture to Eine Nacht.....

Another nice symbolism – a wrecked gondola being lifted from the canal during the overture to Eine Nacht…..

The prison scene for Tosca

The prison scene for Tosca

They put the fireworks into the interval at Tosca - not to overwhelm the final tragedy of the ending, I think.

They put the fireworks into the interval at Tosca – not to overwhelm the final tragedy of the ending, I think.

IMG_6996 bloghead

And looking back to 2007 at the St Margrethen Steinbruch, just because we can …

Nabucco enters on his war-machine, 2007

Nabucco enters on his war-machine, Nabucco 2007

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Nabucco 2007.

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Nabucco 2007.


Music Soothing my Breast


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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

William Congreve “The Mourning Bride”, Act III, Scene 2.

William Congreve had it right.  My breast has been right savage. I might share the story when I can write sanely about what can happen when you think you’re making a simple change in technology (AAARGH) – but meantime let me share the joy.   There’s been such music!

Some huge scale performances – grand opera on a grand scale, some much more intimate. IMG_7081_1

The latest first. This weekend, the SchlossKonzert at Schloss Heerbrugg, just a bit up the Rhine Valley.

IMG_7085_1This one was a serendipitous surprise. I’d seen a sign, grabbed a pamphlet, seen “Sergei Nakariakov & Gershwin Quartet”, failed to properly follow the double negatives in the German description which actually pointed out it wasn’t a jazz quartet but a proper string quartet, got the tickets, and off we went.


IMG_7083_1We were a small audience, close up to the stage, in what I think was originally a hay-barn.

The walls were aerated in a quite Moorish pattern of openings, now wind-sealed but light-permitting. The high wooden ceiling made for a fabulous acoustic.

And the music, breath-holding. Mozart, Kreisler, Poulenc, Borodin for the “ah yes” response, and other composers who were new to me but extraordinary.

Sergei Nakariakov

Sergei Nakariakov

But Sergei Nakariakov – wow! He was called “The Paganini of the trumpet” when he was only 13, and his virtuosity was as extraordinary as his back-story (literally). As a boy he’d been studying to become a pianist. He had a spine injury, and decided he needed an instrument he could play standing up. Piano’s loss, trumpet and flugelhorn’s gain.

What stays with me is his complete focus on the music, on producing not just passages of incredible speed and dexterity, but exquisitely shaped long legatos,   And while the string quartet were in constant eye contact, sparkling at each other as they threw phrases back and forth, he played eyes-down after the “ready-to-start” glance at the leader.   Only during the applause (and there was a lot, with a standing ovation), did he engage at all with the audience. Otherwise, it was just him and the music. And we felt privileged just to watch and listen. Nothing more was required.


Sergei Nakariakov & Gershwin Quartet – and they were generous with their encores too.

Mani was enthralled. He’d famously played first trumpet in the Rheineck City Band as a youth, and a group of them had done the dancehalls and pubs, playing the standards for 5Francs a night. His mouth and his breathing remembered, as he listened.

I was going to go on to write about more music. But .. now I want to let the memory of this performance stand alone. If you want to hear what I mean… there’s some samples on

Glacial Thoughts from a Heat-wave


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We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

 Anais Nin

Europe is having a heatwave.   In the zoos, the big cats are getting blood iceblocks, and the monkeys, frozen fruit.

I shall think of glaciers.

On the way to Switzerland, we cruised south-east Alaska. It had been on the wish-list for a while. Then a well-priced opportunity to do it on the way to our Swiss summer, and have a few days with old friends on Vancouver Island into the bargain, presented itself. Opportunity exists to be grabbed, yes?

So – glaciers. Fabulous glaciers. And many of them.

I sit here with sweat trickling down my back, and think of huge expanses of ice, flowing imperceptibly, but flowing, into rivers and arms of the sea.

Glacier 1. The Hubbard.

IMG_5223_1Oh the drama of it.

We cruised into Yakutat Bay in a blanket of heavy sea fog.

Nothing but nothingness.


We set up the chessboard in the glassed-in Horizons lounge – then looked up.

...through the blue tint of the windows....
…through the blue tint of the windows….

A glimpse of mountain tops.




IMG_5258_1And with every metre, more – the bay unveiling itself Salome-like until only a decorative wisp of mist remained, and then revealing the glacier glistening in full sun.

IMG stitched 5413 5414

All six-miles-wide of it (9.5ks) leaning into the sea with chunks constantly cracking off and dropping in.   And behind what we could see, more cracks and rumbles like an unseen thunderstorm as the whole glacier moved onwards.

The Hubbard is not what they call “glacially slow” – indeed, in glacial terms it’s galloping!   A couple of times in recent years it has moved forward sufficiently to block off the Russell Fjord which (should) flow into Disenchantment Bay, and created a short-lived lake.

Russell Fjord to the right

Russell Fjord to the right

Landsat colour-adjusted image ex Wikipedia

Landsat colour-adjusted image ex Wikipedia

Oh – a wry smile.   I’ve just looked up Wikipedia – and it seems that Hubbard’s progress is partly driven by a tributary glacier – Valerie – which joins with it just a bit “upstream”, and pushes it along.

Valerie wasn’t mentioned in the on-board lecture about Hubbard. All the Valeries in the world know why I’m smiling.

Our Oceania Regatta nosed close to the snout.

viewed through the bow screen --  the excitement of the first ice-fall

viewed through the bow screen — the excitement of the first ice-fall

One of the officers said, rather proudly, “our captain will go much closer than most”.

And there we stayed, apart from a slow turn to give the starboard side a half-hour full facing, and then the port.

The initial rush to get an elbow’s-width of railing space relaxed.

The urgency of catching the moment a chunk of ice plunged into the water diminished as we realised there were heaps more to come.   Mani and I identified two splendid cracks and put a bottle of bubbly on which would break away first. Neither did – and if either had, the ship would certainly have rocked from the ensuing wave!

See the crack of the right-hand pillar? There's a smaller calving to the left.

See the crack of the right-hand pillar? There’s a smaller calving to the left.

Our second crack-contender.  The wave is from a smaller chunk dropping. Imagine if "ours" went.

Our second crack-contender. The wave is from a smaller chunk dropping. Imagine if “ours” went.





IMG_5364_1Time slowed, and we were quietly watching for long enough to track the shifts in colour as the sun moved over the ice.


Post-cruise, we heard of friends-of-friends who’d been there when there were three large cruise ships negotiating viewing space – and only then realised how lucky we’d been to have such an experience of splendid isolation, IN splendid isolation.


 Glaciers 2-6.

That was the “Five Glaciers and Taku Lodge Feast” excursion, out of Juneau.   Juneau must be the only state capital without road access. Float planes rule! OK – we’ve been in an alphabet of aircraft, from Aeroflot, to Microlites to the Zeppelin, but a float plane, not yet. So this ticked the boxes – flying over five glaciers, and landing by one for a feast of barbequed salmon.IMG_5539_2_1


Glaciers where the surface looked marble-smooth, with pools of deep turquoise water

Glaciers where the surface looked marble-smooth, with pools of deep turquoise water

glaciers where the ice was crushed to look like frosting on a cake,

glaciers where the ice was crushed to look like frosting on a cake,




glaciers where you could see the merger-lines as the rock-scrapings from the sides of two valleys converged


…such ice, so many centuries of ice and inexorable movement.




AND – yes Daniella – there was a bear!   Up till then, it seemed the animals themselves were slow to leave their hibernation and show themselves, as we’d peered out from the ship and the plane.   But….

Black Bear contemplating BBQd salmon

Black Bear contemplating BBQd salmon

But – we landed the float plane at Taku Lodge, walked up the path …. And there perched in a tree hopefully surveying the BBQ grill – a black bear. They’re resolutely not fed, but our guide tells of seeing one licking the still-smoking grill plate on a previous visit. Cast-iron tongue on cast-iron plate.

One of the staff stood by with a sturdy pole to ensure that the animal headed for the woods rather than into the clicking claque watching it.

Taku Lodge guy on bear-patrol. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier behind.

Taku Lodge guy on bear-patrol. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier behind.

Object of desire...

Object of desire…





Mani with plane on Taku River. The Hole in the Wall Glacier was named when it could only be seen through the gap in the hills, which it has now advanced through.

Mani with plane on Taku River. The Hole in the Wall Glacier was named when it could only be seen through the gap in the hills, which it has now advanced through.

Taku Lodge famously belonged to a woman, Mary Joyce, who bred huskies and proved both her dogs’ and her own mettle by sledding from there to Fairbanks – a 1000-mile journey through ice, and snow, over glaciers and frozen rivers.    Her story was proudly told by the team there – how she’d started out at Taku Lodge as the nurse-companion to a chap whose mother had bought the lodge as a detox facility for him… and went on to create her own fame and fortune. No “Valerieism” there.


Mani with Capt Meinhardt Hansen, and (needed today ) ... ice picked up from the Hubbard Glacier - or was it Valerie?!
Mani with Capt Meinhardt Hansen, and (needed today ) … ice picked up from the Hubbard Glacier – or was it Valerie?!


Back to thinking cold thoughts in a heat-wave.

Let me think again about ice.

And check the fridge.


Requiem for a Gull


Over the last few days a question-mark has come and gone from the title of this piece.

A black-backed gull – karoro – has been our “resident gull” since we came here eight (heavens!) years ago. From his perch on the neighbour’s roof he has ruled the roost, keeping a beady eye on the kitchen window for emerging tidbits, and noisily seeing off competitors. We inherited him from the lady who had our house before us, and for a long time he seemed to be a solo act – an older gent with a gammy leg, who’d found himself a nice spot in the sun for his declining years. Mani fed him bread laced with comfrey tincture to help his knee.

IMG_2430_1Then one spring four years ago  while we were still in Switzerland, an email from Rosalind told us he had allowed a girl-friend to move in, and was engaged in amorous – if precarious – adventures on the streetlight.

With success!


2011 - surprise Dad!

2011 – surprise Dad!

Initially she seemed only to be permitted to stay over during the courting season, but over a few years she is more often there than not.

Earlier this year, I was grumbling at him for being a dog in the manger. He would gobble everything coming from the magic window, and chase off his shyer partner if she looked like trying to get something for herself.


But then I saw him back up on the roof, regurgitating food for her. An old-fashioned chap indeed, certain that his role is bringing home – and up – the bacon.

He’s been very assiduous in this “good provider” role, gathering and presenting choice bits of nesting material to her.



I wasn’t sure how to approach the neighbours if it looked like the couple were serious about building on their roof.   Accommodating the tap-dancing and raucous calling is one thing. But hosting a nest – that might be pushing it. Happily, they had the rituals here… and the real thing somewhere else.


Or this?

Or this?

What pleases you m'dear?

What pleases you m’dear?







But perhaps he was feeling his age pressing on him, in his need to be a father yet again.   It looked like he’d had some tough competition for her continuing favours; he’d turn up with a dented head, dirty and not his normal immaculate self.

Then a couple of times, we saw him standing on the lawn, trembling all over.

“Not good” we thought, having just had Mani doing the same with a high fever from an infection.


Anyway … after six weeks away, we got back from our South Island round-trip. No gull to greet us. “Perhaps off on parenting duty”, we tried to convince ourselves. But the next day – no gull. And so it’s gone on. “Well, he’s had a good life” we consoled ourselves.

Then suddenly – the question-mark appeared on the title of this piece. The girlfriend was on the neighbour’s roof, calling loudly. I’m not fluent in gull and can’t differentiate between the warning “you’re in my air-space – leave immediately or take the consequences” call and the “ welcome home” call.


But in flew a young gull, still in camouflage brown feathers. Clearly this year’s offspring.


And then…. in flew another adult, also welcomed.   Our old chap?   I couldn’t tell. But I could hope.




Reconstituted family?

No. If it were “our” gull, he’d had have quickly been down as soon as he saw we’d returned – on station outside the kitchen window, gulping down food to feed the family.

Like the girlfriend, I think we have to accept it’s a relationship finished.   Will we be as fast to move on?   Perhaps not.

Requiescat in pace, old boy.




Kapiti Island, Peel Forest – a nice conjunction


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How tidily sometimes things click together.

I started writing this in the DOC camp at Peel Forest in Canterbury, with bellbird song loud around us. There’s no comms here and I’m in holiday mode, so who knows when I’ll post whatever this turns out to be, but… here’s the conjunction.

Kapiti Island. Peel Forest. Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens.

The book first. It’s an extraordinary scan over the last 70 millennia and into the near future. One of the themes is how fast our species has been able to change its culture (way of organising, belief systems, way of relating etc) over recent history.    Click.

Dry feet landings are always appreciated

Dry feet landings are always appreciated

Then Kapiti Island. With it right on our doorstep at Paraparaumu, and its birds and reputation spreading, it really needed to be seen again.

Many years back we had our Navigate family work picnic over there.   I remember that trip most for the return from the top of the hill. We’d taken the gentler track up, which left the steep one down. We ‘navigated’ that, as I recall, mainly by bum-slide, as the Duignan boys sprang past on young legs that held no fear of tree-roots, rocks or wash-outs.

I am totally converted to walking with sticks - thank you Helen!

I am totally converted to walking with sticks – thank you Helen!

This time, Helen and I opted for the tour to the North End. The trek to the top of the much smaller hill was quite enough for a late January super-hot Sunday – and we timed it perfectly for a return to the Lodge for lunch.

The thing that has stuck in my mind this time, thanks to the great info-sharing by our hosts and guides, is the timescale of the change there.

It was way back in 1870 when the need for, and potential of, Kapiti Island as a conservation site was seen – and it was reserved as a bird sanctuary in 1897.

Slowly and steadily in campaigns over the nearly 120 years since, pests have been removed and the land allowed to regenerate.

Our guide was talking about what they expect to see in the next 40-50 years, as if that time-scale is was more like weeks. So – click! At the same time as land was being relentlessly cleared, and the last huia shot, some of our farther-seeing forebears were starting the culture-change we take for granted today.

Back from the brink - this Takahe is one of a pair having a second crack at nesting this season. Obviously they know we're counting on them....!

Back from the brink – this Takahe is one of a pair having a second crack at nesting this season. Obviously they know we’re counting on them….!

So thence to Peel Forest.   From about 1855, hectares of forest were milled there. Huge kahikatea, totara and matai were ripped out.    But – we’ve just been touching trees estimated to be maybe 1000 years old.

The blip on the side of the trunk is Mani's head!  This totara is almost 3m across.

The blip on the side of the trunk is Mani’s head! This totara is almost 3m across.

Thank you, Arthur Mills. He was a British MP, visiting his brother-in-law who was one of the early settlers/landclearers, and he was so horrified at the destruction he bought 16 hectare of uncut forest, and deeded it on his death. Saved by foresight. Click!

And about touching trees… there’s a nice DOC “touch” in Peel Forest. A sign in one place encourages you to feel the bark of a totara, and consider what you’re experiencing. The texture, the temperature…

Another further along urges you to do the same with the kaihaktea. And yes, it’s cooler to the touch, scalier, quite a different energy sensation. A tactile surprise.

I’ve always touched trees… but now I’m doing it more thoughtfully, expecting different sensations.

Back to Sapiens and how little it takes for us strange creatures to add something new to our thinking. Click!