big station heritage and arts centre

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Sis and I took my niece to visit tai kwun centre for heritage and arts at the site of the former central police station/prison. It’s free to enter but visitors need a reservation. Sis had lunch plans, so ony stayed with us for about 10mins, my niece and I explored the site together. Tai Kwun translates to Big Station, which was the nickname for the police station. It’s always been an imposing building as seen from outside, but we didn’t realise how large the site is. The station was decommissioned in 2006. The jockey club funded the 10 year, almost USD500million restoration to a heritage centre.

The visitor’s centre had a small exhibition showing the site’s history, from the first building put up in 1864 which then grew in size until the last building in 1925. Part of the site was destroyed by Japanese bombers during WW2, to newspaper clips of famous criminals and trials. The revitalisation project aims to set up the site as a centre for heritage and arts, with space built for concerts, exhibitions and education.

Our first impression, really nice. The complex was built in Victorian times and consisted of the police station, barracks, magistrate court and prison. There are 16 buildings in total and all meticulously preserved and restored. My niece says it feels very much like a National Trust property, a rarity here because the government has a habit of destroying and pulling down historical buildings so property developers can profit.

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The prison courtyard is now a pleasant sitting area with a smattering of sculptures and interesting pieces. Some of the prison cells are open for visit. None of the smell or dirt that presumably was there but we could see how crowded it was, they kept the beds in one cell and the entire cell is filled with one bunk bed and one extra bed. No space even to walk.

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The clever way they showed prison life is through projections of images and short animation onto the wall. We could see how many were placed in a cell, what they did during the day, hard labour, counting the days, and even an escape attempt.

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There are 2 new buildings, both will be used for exhibitions and concerts. Made from aluminium blocks, the modern and cubic designs contrast and compliment the century-old Victorian architecture of the other buildings.

Overall, 10 out of 10. We were both so surprised at the quality of the restoration, the aptness of the exhibit and the general sense of tranquility of the centre. We stopped at one of the caf&#233’s for mango smoothie and the café décor has the police staion feel. And the smoothie was made from real mangos. Even if they had charged a modest admission fee, it’ll be worth it.

flickr set: https://www.flickr.com/photos/invisiblecompany/albums/72157692568354080

museum wars

Thanks to my friend N (who works at the Smithsonian, how cool!) for linking to this.

The Natural HIstory Museum and the Science Museum had a twitter museum-off the other day. It started when someone asked who would win in a battle between the two. The social media managers at both places had a field day.

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First shot fired by NHM, and a quick return by SM. It got worse from there, when random ammo like vampire fish, polaris missile, cockroaches, wellies, dragons, submarines, fleas, balloons were brought out. When NHM fired a tweet with locust, SM fired back with pesticide. All were museum exhibits.

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Meanwhile, the V&A were sitting pretty.

Of course, civility returned. We’re British after all. Compliments all around and each took the opportunity to mention more of their interesting exhibits. The entire silliness episode here.

europe day 17: vatican

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9.30am mass at the Vatican meant leaving our retreat house at 8.15am, even though we were only 10mins’ walk away. Had to find the right queue, go through security and find seats. We sat around the middle of the basilica, together with many many faithful with tickets. Note to self: next time, apply for more tickets than needed because there were many fathers and sisters from all over the world without tickets. Hopefully they were able to watch the mass from outside in St Peter’s Square.

The mass was in Latin, with some Italian. We could follow as the mass booklet had English translation. This was the Chrism mass, or blessings of the oils—the oils that would be used for baptism, the sick and others throughout the year. They were containers as large as whisky barrels—must use up a lot of oil at the Vatican a year. Pope Francis delivered the homily in Italian, and it was quite lengthy, we wished we could understand it. It was still a blessed experience. Communion was very efficient, with many many fathers stationed at strategic points that meant we only had a few steps to move from our seats. Lots of people taking pictures, and we were a bit too far to take clear ones of the Pope. The mass was very long, finishing around 12pm. We didn’t mind, mm was a lot happier than me about it, obviously.

Quick lunch at a shady spot at the square next to the Vatican. Shared the St Francis bread we bought at Assisi. We probably looked like poor students, sitting forlornly there sharing one piece of bread, one of the the street vendors that were selling souvenirs, selfie sticks or fake handbags approached us, took one look at us, and walked away. Hahaha!

We’d pre-booked tickets for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel for an extra €4. Totally well worth the additional cost, the queue for tickets looked like it was an hour long. We breezed through, got our entrance tickets, audioguide and went the the bathroom. Then we joined the masses. Oh boy, it was crowded. Lots of slow moving tour groups as well as hundreds of thousands of visitors.

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The whole place was a one-way system through the Vatican museum, full of ancient artefacts, sculptures as well as Renaissance paintings and frescos. The audioguide was helpful in explaining the history and story behind many of the exhibits. One of my favourite rooms was the Galleria delle Carte Geographie, with both sides filled with ancient and modern (for the period) maps of the world and Italy. The roof was more intricate frescos. I left the bottom of the pic intact, to show the sheer crush of the crowd. We were quite tired halfway through the museum, so we stopped for coffee, tea and a slice of cake at a strategically placed coffee shop.

The main attraction of the visit was the Sistine Chapel. For all the times I’d visited Rome and the Vatican, this was my first time there. There were signs before we reached the Sistine Chapel that it was a sacred place so everybody should be silent and no photography was allowed. The chapel was absolutely stunning. It was also as crowded as the Tube at 5.30pm. Difficult to find room even to stand. Every 5 minutes or so the staff had to announce to the crowds to observe the silence and no photography rules. The experience could have been ruined by the crowds, but it wasn’t, because of the unbelieveable brilliance of Michaelangelo’s work. The audioguide talked us through each aspect of the frescos, from the depiction of God’s creation of Man, Man’s temptation and the Original Sin on the ceiling; to the 12 frescos on the side telling various Biblical stories (Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus handing the keys to St Peter); to the entire wall at the entrance dedicated to the Last Judgement. We learned a lot, and didn’t want to leave.

Strolled through the rest of the museum, mainly consisting of gift shops and more exhibits. Since we’d only eaten half a St Francis bread the whole day we were famished. Went to the supermarket and bought a feast: lamb cutlets, rocket (on sale at 99c, we bought 2 boxes), tomatoes, burrata. Enough time to do some handwashing too. So happy to be back in our room before 7pm.

hokkaido day 6: sapporo

We woke up early to do laundry, which was one of the advantages of staying at an apartment as opposed to a hotel. All told the apartment wasn’t that much cheaper than a hotel, we wanted a different experience for our trip. We had bought brioche from café denmark yesterday so we had breakfast in the apartment while waiting for the laundry to finish.

Destination in the morning was the historical village of hokkaido. I’d read about it on my research and really wanted to go. Luckily we had the car, it would have been a bit of a hassle to go by public transport. We were also lucky to have a coupon from the shiraito onsen hotel.

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The village consisted of 50-60 buildings from all over hokkaido, dating from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. There were all sorts of buildings: inns, shops, post office, distillery, newspaper building, temple, church, farmhouse, residental homes. Some, if not all, the buildings had exhibits inside of furniture or equipment from that time. A guidemap suggested a 1 or 2 hour walk, but to explore the outside and inside took longer. We didn’t mind, we were completely enjoying ourselves. It rained and dropped sleet and was very windy so we were running from building to building. It also felt like we were the only visitors at times. Again, we didn’t mind.

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We were quite cold by the time we finished the tour, having covered about 75% of the village. Stopped at the cafeteria for much needed coffee and tea.

Next destination was outlet shopping. We had lunch at the food court, a great value meal of seafood donburi, tempura and soba for only ¥1080. The outlet itself was a bit of a let down and we quickly finished browsing through all the shops including the more interesting farm shop.

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Parked the car back at the overnight car park near the apartment and took the subway to susukino to visit the nikka bar. It was still quite early so we were the first customers. A nikka whisky fan’s dream bar, it had all the nikka whiskies plus a lot of other whiskies and liquors. We sat at the bar and had 2 flights: yoichi 10, 12, 15 and miyagikyo 10, 12, 15. It was the first time we tried miyagikyo and I like it better than yoichi. Guess we’ve decided on the next distillery visit, heehee. To finish, we tried a simple taketsuru NAS.

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Took the subway back to JR sapporo and had dinner at kushidori, a chain yakitori restaurant. Even after 9pm we had to wait for a bit, and were lucky to sit at the counter with an unimpeded view of the grilling stations. Had beef, ox tongue, chicken gizzard, chicken gristle, pork with asparagus, okra, mushroom, pepper and I had a half & half beer (half dark, half light).

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Sis and her family came up to London today. I met them at Victoria station and we had lunch at Yo!Sushi, lucking out on it being their Blue Monday and many dishes at £2.40. Then we went to the science museum and mostly spent the time at the hands on area. We were all tired, so we got a taxi back home to rest. Dinner was at Hawksmoor — Sis and I had the D-rump and sirloin while little one had mac’n’cheese and mash potato. Again, we lucked out on it being Monday, with BYO at £5 corkage. We bought a Malbec at my local wine shop for the surprising price of £6.99, it was a bargain. R came after his drinks. Sis and little one stayed in the spare room and R slept in the living room, I’m happy that my flat is large enough for all of them.

field museum

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Today’s itinerary was to meet up with my great-aunt and her family to go to the field museum. I hadn’t seen my cousin patrick in many years, and my great-aunt for a couple of years. They live in toronto and are in chicago for my cousin’s work convention. Their whole family drove down. Their 2 kids are so cute and well behaved.

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I’m not so much a museum person, but I loved the field museum. The most famous exhibit, Sue the T-Rex, was right up there in the entrance hall. The other exhibits were impressive too, especially the evolving earth and nature walk. Unlike some museums where the exhibits were in a glass cabinet and that’s it, the layout here was interesting and informative. The kids got tired so we left before going to all the exhibits. Well, that means a return visit is necessary.

They went back to their hotel to rest, and we came home. Met up for dinner at ed debevic’s, a fifties type of diner place. The waiter was fake rude, and it was kinda fun. We shared a full rack of ribs, roast turkey plate and dinner salad and there was plenty left over. We treated my great-aunt and her family for dinner, it was a pleasure to spend the day with them.

big trip day 10

Washington DC: National Shrine, Air & Space Museum, American Indian Museum, International Spy Museum

We planned the day well, were off by 7.30am. The main destination in the morning was the National Shrine, full name the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We took a metro to Brookland CUA station and walked through the Catholic University of America to reach the shrine.

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The Basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and there were smaller shrines inside for many incarnations of Mary. We were early and pretty much had the place to ourselves. So many photo opps, the main church was beautiful, and the crypt also.

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At the back of the basilica was the peaceful and pretty Mary’s garden.

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From the Basilica we took the Metro and stopped off at the Spy Museum to buy tickets for later in the day. Admission was $16 and organised by time. We got the 5pm tour so we had plenty of time to explore.

It was still mid-morning, and it was off to the National Air & Space Museum, the most visited of all the Smithsonian museums. It was not hard to see why, from the moment I entered into the huge bright lobby I was overwhelmed by life-sized planes and rockets. We were conscious of the time so I whizzed through the galleries as efficiently as I could. All the historically important crafts were there, from the Kitty Hawk to the Spirit of St Louis to Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega to Apollo 13 to models of the shuttle to a simulation of the bridge of an aircraft carrier.

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Remember the American History Museum was closed? They took a small (150 exhibit) selection and placed them in one of the Air & Space’s galleries. There was a little bit of a queue to get in, but it was worth it to see, among others, Dorothy’s shoes and Abraham Lincoln’s hat.

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We finished a little later than our intended schedule, at 1.30pm. Next stop was the American Indian Museum next doors. Now here’s a comment about “next doors” — on the map the museums along the Mall look like they’re close together, but given the size of those buildings walking between them could be 10 minutes.

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The American Indian Museum is the newest museum, with a beautifully curved exterior design that strangely reminded me of Easter Island. The interior design was based on a curved central atrium and there was hardly a sharp angle or straight line in place.

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Well put together exhibits showed history, culture and costumes.

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And so it was almost 5pm. We got to the International Spy Museum with enough time to sit at the spy city café to have a drink and snack. Photography wasn’t allowed in the spy museum, which actually was great, because I could play around with the exhibits. It was an interactive museum, with gadgets to play with, ciphers to decipher and even a mock duct for us to crawl through. Educationally it traced the history of spying from early times to the Cold War and current issues with terrorists. There was even a section dedicated to spies in TV and movies. Lots of videos, interesting exhibits and wonderful theme. Before we came to DC, this was my “gotta see” museum and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m hoping I get to visit again and next time I’d like to participate in the Operation Spy game.

It was still light out when we got back to the hotel. Didn’t really feel like dinner so we snacked on nachos and chocolate while packing. Good trip.

big trip day 09

Washington DC: Holocaust Museum, Smithsonian Castle, Arlington Cemetery, Union Station

Our intention was to leave early, by 8am, to go to the Holocaust Museum to get tickets. Tickets are free but there’s a quota. Of course with the full day yesterday we should have known. By the time I woke up it was 8.45am. We got ready quickly and made our way to the museum by 10am. There was a short line for the tickets, which ended at a cheerful lady asking “how many?” and tearing off tickets. She didn’t ask if we wanted a particular time, but since we got 11.15am it was fine.

With an hour to kill we walked (again! lots of walking) to the Smithsonian Castle for a breather. I had diet coke and a lemon pie. There was just enough time to take a look around the inside of the castle and the gift shop before we needed to head back. The Castle is the face of the Smithsonian — it’s officially known as the Smithsonian Information Center and basically acts as a focal point. It’s the oldest Smithsonian building and the only one in red brick.

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Photography wasn’t allowed in the Holocaust Museum. We spent a lot of time inside, mainly because there was so much to see but also people were crowding around the exhibits reading everything. The Holocaust Museum has been described as a “must-see” for any DC visit and I totally agree. The museum managed to strike a perfect delicate balance between factual and emotional. It was enough to let the words, experiences of survivors and pictures tell the story.

From the Holocaust Museum we took the TourMobile to Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was a powerful place, at once a historical site and an active cemetery. Over 300,000 soldiers, government officials, explorers, persons of importance and their families are honoured there. Usually cemeteries are a little creepy, but this one wasn’t. Yes there were lots of visitors but it was also peaceful. It’s hard to describe exactly.

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The tour had 3 stops. First was the Kennedy gravesite where the eternal flame marked the graves of JFK and Mrs Kennedy overlooked by the Custis-Lee Mansion. A short distance was a simple wooden cross marking RFK.

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We reached the Tomb of the Unknowns in good time to catch the changing of the guards ceremony. The tomb is guarded by the US Infantry constantly and the changing of the guards ceremony takes place every hour / half hour depending on time of year. The ceremony is formal and immaculate. The guards obviously take immense pride in their task, and it felt like it was our privilege to witness the ceremony.

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Next to the Tomb was the Amphitheatre as well as memorials to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia. The Challenger disaster was the “where were you?” moment for my generation and I still remember that moment clearly.

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The final stop was the Arlington House, or Custis-Lee Mansion so named because it was originally the house of Mary Custis, wife of General Robert E. Lee. The history of the Arlington Cemetery was closely linked to General Lee, who “defected” to the Confederates during the Civil War so the Unionists started burying their dead in the house’s gardens in order to prevent him from returning. The earliest gravemarkers were there at the mansion. The view from the house was of all the important sights of DC, we could even see a part of the Pentagon.

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It was a hot day and we were in the sun for the hottest part of the afternoon. We got back to the main gate around 4-ish and took another TourMobile back into the city. Rode it most of the way, past the memorials, the Mall, museums, Capitol and finally to Union Station. No photologue of DC is complete without shots of the Capitol so here it is.

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Dinner was at the Food Court of Union Station, after which we took the Metro to Dupont Circle. Nice little area over there with restaurants and bookstores. We bought a few books, some drinks and walked back to our hotel.

Here’s the route map for day 2.

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big trip day 08

Washington DC: Washington Monument, Natural History, National Gallery, Archives, Memorials

We set out reasonably early. No breakfast at the hotel (well, there was but it was extra) so we decided to see if we could find something outside. Long walk downtown but again, pleasant. Lots of important grand looking buildings — I was pretty much walking with my head looking up and camera at the ready all the time.

The first major attraction we hit was Lafayette Park, with a view of the back of the White House. I hadn’t gotten used to the layout of the attractions yet so I actually didn’t recognise the White House. At the centre of Lafayette Park was a statue of Andrew Jackson, which was one of three identical memorials around the country (the other two are at New Orleans and Nashville).

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An interesting sight — there were several protesters outside the park, which didn’t completely surprise me (though they were the only ones I saw the whole time). And there was a group of Korean tourists taking pictures with them. I wasn’t sure if the tourist knew the theme of the protest, but it seemed like the protesters have become a tourist attraction. Only in DC.

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I was duly impressed with the Executive Building next to the White House; again the sense of great importance pervailed. A short walk from the Exec Building was the World War 2 Memorial, which unfortunately was closed. Got a good view from behind the barriers, and I could imagine how meaningful it would to walk within it.

From the WW2 memorial we walked round almost to the Tidal Basin and then to the other side of the Washington Monument. The Monument is one of the constant focal points of the city, I found that we returned to it time and time again. Here’s a couple of shots from different angles.

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At the Monument we got tickets for the Tourmobile — $35 for 2 days hop-off-hop-on including Arlington tour. Turned out to be a real bargain. We were tired from the walking at that point so we stayed on the tram while it took us to the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, over to the Arlington Cemetery and back towards the White House and Mall museums. By that time we were hungry so we got off and traipsed over in the direction of the American History Museum hoping for lunch. But horrors!!! The American History Museum was closed for renovations — and it was one of the highlights of our visit.

Hunger prevailed so we went to the Natural History Museum where I had a pastrami sandwich, half a cookie and half a brownie (we were sharing the dessert). I was hungry so I ate too fast and had a big of indigestion. Seeing the dinosaurs and the Hope Diamond helped. There was also a photo exhibition of Nature’s Best that was simply stunning. We went looking for the book of the exhibition but there was only a magazine article. I would have bought the book without question.

By the time we exited the Natural History Museum it was raining. Undaunted, we donned our hats and waded through the puddles to the National Gallery of Art. What I liked about this museum was the fountain areas at either end; walking through the various galleries and then coming across them was like hitting a calm oasis. The Gallery had the only Leonardo da Vinci in the US, Rodin’s Thinker and many more that I have little knowledge of.

After touring through the inside, we quickly visited the sculpture gardens outside. Very interesting modern sculptures in a nice surrounding.

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By then it was almost 5pm and many of the museums were closing. Except the National Archives were still open. It was a long queue to get in, with the security check and crowd control. But we got to see the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. These documents were hundreds of years old and in pretty frail condition. Especially the Declaration, which was almost completely faded. No flash photography was allowed, and I could see why.

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We finished at around 7-ish, and took a taxi back to the hotel. We asked them for a recommendation for a restaurant and they directed us to the Lauriol, a very happening Mexican place. I had a couple of beers and the Guadalajara Plate which consisted of one cheese enchilada, ground beef taco and chicken tamale. Good food and hip atmosphere.

Annnnnd the day wasn’t over! Took a taxi down to the Lincoln Memorial and I took lots and lots of pictures with my new tripod. The Lincoln was breathtaking. An interesting tidbit was a security guard told me I couldn’t use my tripod in the area immediately in front of the Lincoln statue but I had to go back towards the pillars — where people entered the area and was a bottleneck. Weird. Plus it was 11pm and the place was hardly crowded. Again, weird. I took a lot of pictures there on different exposures. I like this one best.

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The Lincoln Memorial overlooked the Reflecting Pool and the sight of the Washington Monument, with Capitol in the background, was spectacular.

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A short walk from the Lincoln Memorial was the Korean and the Vietnam Memorials. Very powerful memorials both, especially the Korean with the larger-than-life soldiers treking through the undergrowth and the images etched into the black marble wall.

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Oh, I made a map of our route today. The red line was walking and the blue line was on the TourMobile.

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europe trip day 02: cheesey stuff

So, you’re taking your gf to Switzerland, you’ve lived there for a while and have visited tons of places with your friends. She’s only been to a few. You want to impress her and bring her to a nice place for a day trip, meaning no more than 3 hours drive from Zurich. Where do you go?

Gruyères of course!

Beautiful cobbled street, castle with a view to die for, photogenic houses and of course, cheese, cheese and more cheese! We saw the cheese making process (a bit sterile cos of the semi-automation if you asked me) and had our first Swiss meal together on this trip. She had macaroni cheese and I had bratwurst. Yum.

We walked around the castle, which, truth be told, is a bit empty but is a nice way to spend an hour or so. It was still strange to see the Giger Museum at the entrance, now they have the alien bar opposite, it’s so weird to find alien art in the middle of a medieval castle, but yet it’s so Swiss. Hmmm.

Had tea outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and clean air. Too full to try the meringue and cream though.

On our way back we stopped at the Coop at Bulle and bought ingredients for dinner. Grilled veg, stuffed peppers, good wine, good company.