Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and Stardust at Hoyts, Broadway

I’m not a huge Neil Gaiman fan (except for Good Omens) but when I found a copy of Stardust going cheap, I thought I might as well read it before seeing the film. In some ways, it reminded me a bit of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, in that both books are written in a very self-consciously twee style (particularly at the beginning), and yet their purpose is really to subvert the conventions of fairy tales. While I quite enjoyed Stardust, I don’t feel that my life would be any less if I had never read it. It is probably more subversive than Howl, but I think Howl is a bit more fun.

The film of Stardust, on the other hand, is not really subversive at all. It was all very nice and pretty, and there were some fun performances (Robert De Niro, playing a part that basically didn’t appear in the book, was having just way too much fun) – but ultimately it was fairly lightweight and forgettable. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, and I have even recommended it to people, but if it was trying to be this generation’s The Princess Bride (and I think it is), well, it just doesn’t come close.

Being completely honest, I probably preferred the film to the book – in that I’m slightly more inclined to see it a second time than I am to re-read the book. However, I think the book had more substance to it: it was deliberately playing with the genre, whereas the film was just trying to be a crowd-pleaser.

Various movies seen on international flights

Music and Lyrics
This was pretty much a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. The scriptwriter knew how to write exactly the kind of dialogue that Hugh Grant delivers particularly well. It probably also helps if you have a bit of a soft spot for 80s music.

I think maybe I was watching this one a bit too late at night, but it didn’t really work for me. It wasn’t happy enough to be a romantic comedy, nor really clever enough to be quirky and interesting. I guess “bittersweet” is possibly the best description – and quite likely what they were trying for – but for some reason it didn’t quite make it. I think I just couldn’t care enough about the characters to really see the point of it all.

Shrek the Third
Not unfunny, but rather underwhelming and fairly forgettable. Not a patch on the first one, and probably a step down from the second as well.

The Last Mimzy
Very much a Disneyfied version of the short story “Mimzy were the Borogoves”. Some of the same central ideas, but thematically quite different as it was turned into a kids’ adventure (the original short story was NOT aimed at children). Mildly pleasant, but not particularly inspired.

Ocean’s Thirteen
The mixture as before. And for me, even Ocean’s Eleven had too many characters.

Spider-Man 3
It had some okay moments, but there were too many different plot threads happening, so none of them was explored as well as they might have been.

Amazing Grace
I really enjoyed this. I know pretty much nothing about William Wilberforce, but I found the story well presented and quite comprehensible. I thought they did a good job of covering the timeframe, but still maintaining the character focus (in other films covering a long period of time, it often seems like they are so busy fitting in all the events they don’t give you a chance to connect with the characters). I was even able to keep all the secondary characters sorted out (though I was probably helped in this by the fact that I recognised almost all the actors from other British costume dramas).

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
The whole film seemed to consist of everyone setting and resetting double- and triple-crosses to serve their own agendas. Which is fine as far as it goes, but isn’t really enough of a story to carry the whole film. Not that there weren’t some fun moments, but the franchise has completely lost the freshness of the first film.

Rome Again

Our last two days were back in Rome, and we stayed at Eva’s Rooms again – a different room this time, on the third floor, rather smaller and somewhat cheaper.

After getting the train back from Florence, and checking back into the hotel, we went to the Via Appia. We got off the bus at about the 6th mile and walked all the way back to the start. We really enjoyed it. On the way, we stopped at the Catacombs of San Callisto. This was actually a bit disappointing. The catacombs themselves were fantastic, but the tour through them was very short, and we were rushed past a series of rooms with frescoes in them.

On Monday we went to the Vatican Museums. We mostly looked at the Roman collection, plus going through the Room of Maps, the Library, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel itself was horribly crowded, which is understandable I guess given the quality, and fame, of the art. By contrast, the Roman collection was much easier to move around (lack of tour groups, for one thing) and was an interesting mix of gods and mythic heroes with real people. I particularly liked a bust of Hadrian.

The rest of Monday was spent doing various errands. We went to Statzione Termine, to find out about shuttle bus services to Ciampino Airport (for Michael, who is flying RyanAir to the UK) and the train to Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport for me (flying Cathay Pacific/Qantas back to Australia). We also posted some books back to Australia, did a bit of shopping, and then spent the evening packing.


The official website for Galleria Ferrari was notably lacking in information on how to get there by public transport. We eventually worked it out by means of other people’s blogs, plus some minimal (though better than nothing!) instructions from the Florence tourist office. So, since other people’s blogs helped us, I thought I’d add to the internet-based information.

Step one was to get from Florence to Modena – fortunately we got a direct train, rather than having to change.

From the Modena train station we got a Number 7 bus to the main bus station. Actually it would only have been a 10 minute walk, but since we didn’t have a map (there was no tourist information at the train station – or, indeed, at the bus station) we thought the bus would be safer.

Finding a bus to Maranello was quite easy, as the bus station had a central ticket office, numbered bays and an indicator board, though it was about 40 minutes before the next bus was due. On the (very good!) advice of the ticket seller, we bought four tickets – two to get us out there, and two to get us back. What we didn’t think to do was ask if there was a timetable so we would know when the busses back were.

The bus trip took about 30 minutes, and the bus driver shouted out “Ferrari” at the appropriate stop. The stop was outside a Ferrari shop, and after that was the restaurant Enzo used to eat at, and then another shop (this was the actual, official one). The factory was across the road, but factory tours are only available to owners. To get to the Gallery we walked down the road between the restauarant and the official shop, around to the left, and then around to the right.

The actual gallery was a bit smaller than we had expected, but there was a good collection of F1 cars (there were important early ones, plus a range of relatively recent ones – three of Schumacher’s, plus one of Prost’s, one of Mansell’s and one of Berger’s), as well as road cars (I particularly liked the new 599 in a stunning shade of metallic red, slightly deeper than the traditional Ferrari colour) and an exhibition of sports prototypes. In total, Michael took 350 photographs at the gallery, and of cars in the carpark.

We had hoped to have lunch in the restaurant across the road from the factory, but it was full (something we should have anticipated), and this was the point at which we realised our error in not asking about bus times, as the bus stop didn’t have any timetable on it at all. But by an incredible piece of good luck, while we were standing there debating whether it would be better to walk into the centre of Maranello or just wait for a bus, one arrived!

We had considered seeing a bit of Modena, but in the end we just got the train back to Florence. Rather than wandering around looking for somewhere to have dinner, when we got back to the hotel we asked them to recommend a nice restaurant. The place we went – Giovanni’s – was expensive, but far and away the best food we had eaten. Michael had the suckling pig, which he said was the best he had ever had, and I had the tuna, which was also cooked superbly.


Once we had actually found the bus station in Florence (after walking right past the entrance at least three times), getting the bus to Siena was quite problem free. It seemed that almost everyone on the bus was a tourist rather than a local!

Siena itself was just beautiful. I loved the gold colour of the buildings. We spent the morning walking around, had lunch on Piazza del Campo (where the horse race is run) and then went into the Museo Civico in the Palazzo Communale. There was an amazing range of decoration within the rooms, and the view from the top floor (even though we didn’t actually go up the bell tower) was wonderful.

In the afternoon we did a walking tour, with a really good tour guide who not only told us about historic Siena, but also about the more modern aspects – especially the full details of how the horse race is organised: it is entirely a competition between the districts of the city, once the horses for the race have been selected they are actually assigned to the districts by lot, but each district organises its own jockey. I said I didn’t see how people standing in the middle of the piazza would be able to see the race at all, and she made us all laugh when she replied “If you are Sienese, you feel it.”

When the tour was finished, we went into the Duomo – which has the most amazing floors – and then up into the Museo Dell’Opera museum, which is in what would have been the nave of the never-finished extension to the Duomo. From the top, we got another magnificent view of Siena.

Getting a bus back to Florence was slightly less straightforward than the morning, but only because the bus was delayed, and there were no indicator boards or anything to tell us.


We caught the train from Rome to Florence. Our hotel in Florence is in a 15th century building and the rooms are lovely. It is also conveniently located close to the station, and walking distance from the main part of Florence. The only downside is that our room overlooks the road, so is a bit noisy.

After checking in, we walked to the Doumo. The exterior is incredibly ornate, but the interior, while vast, is relatively plain. Though from the normal access areas, you can’t properly see the painting on the inside of the dome. After that, we went to the baptistry, which had a magnificent ceiling, and then the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo where we saw Michelangelo’s Pieta and some of the original door panels for the baptistry (the baptistry itself now has replica panels on the door). The Museo was surprisingly uncrowded.

Finally, we climbed the 463 steps up the dome. This meant that we got to actually see the ceiling painting, and also the magnificent view of Florence from the top. Fortunately, the weather is still clear and sunny.

After this, we wandered around the streets of Florence for a bit, and ended up in the Piazza della Signoria, where we admired both the fountain and the sculptures in the Loggia della Signoria. I particularly liked the Perseo. We also went into the Palazzo Vecchio – like the Museo, surprisingly uncrowded.

The hotel had been unable to get us tickets to the Uffizi, so on Thursday morning we wandered past to see how bad the queue was (very!) and then went to the Museo del Bargello where we saw yet more magnficent sculpture – and which again (compared to the queue for the Uffizi) was relatively uncrowded. I loved seeing the original Winged Mercury. Donatello’s bronze David was undergoing restoration – it will take approximately two years – but they are actually doing it in the museum, so you can see it and learn about the process, which is partly good old-fashioned manual cleaning, but which also uses high-tech laser work.

The hotel had booked us tickets for the Galleria dell’Accademia at 1:00, which we were very pleased about when we saw the queue was around the corner. Seeing Michelangelo’s David was incredible – from all the pictures, plus the copy outside the Palazzo Vecchio, I thought I knew what to expect, but walking into the gallery and seeing it at the far end of the room I realised that I actually had no idea just how impressive it really is. This was definitely the high point of the Accademia – but it is still surprising how many people seem to focus entirely on that (and the Uffizi) and yet don’t bother with the other museums. And of course, there were many, many museums we didn’t get to at all, so I can only imagine what we might have missed.

We still have two more days in Florence, but we had planned to have a day trip to either Siena (for me) or to Maranello (for Michael to see Galleria Ferrari). After discussing various options, we decided that while we could try to brave the queues for the Uffizi we were actually feeling a bit galleried-out – and there is sure to be another trip to Florence some day, when we will book the Uffizi well in advance – so instead we would have two day trips rather than one. So we are going to Siena on Friday and Maranello on Saturday.

Adventures in Rome

We arrived in Rome on Sunday evening. The place we are staying – Eva’s Rooms, recommended by Barbara – is about two minutes walk from the foot of the Spanish Steps. The bed is a bit hard, but there is plenty of space and the location is great. The breakfast is a minimal – coffee/tea/chocolate and glazed croissants – but it is served in the room which is very convenient.

Monday dawned with a bright blue sky, and remained clear and hot all day – quite a change from the weather in Ireland. We had planned to spend the morning at the Vatican Museums, but after we saw the length of the queue, which looked like it would involve several hours standing in line, we changed our plans and went to St Peter’s Basilica first. There was something of a queue there as well, but nowhere near as long, and it was in the decorative piazza, rather than running along the outside walls of the Vatican, with nothing to look at but traffic. The interior of St Peter’s was awe-inspiringly vast, and full of breathtaking artwork, but all felt a bit impersonal. Though maybe this was partly the effect of a million tourists (including us) taking photos.

For the afternoon, we switched from Christian to Imperial Rome, and went over to the Colosseum. It was certainly bigger than the amphitheatres I saw a few years ago in Nimes and Arles! From the Colosseum we went to the Palatine. We joined on to a tour group with a quite engaging guide, but partway through the tour he was approached by a member of the police (apparently, though we didn’t see him show any identification) and was told he had to stop as he wasn’t authorised for the area. Fortunately the Rome guidebook that Brendan had loaned me had a detailed map and enough information that we weren’t completely at a loss.

From the Palatine we walked down through the Forum, again making extensive use of the guidebook. I generally prefer taking photos of ruins with as few people as possible in them (don’t always succeed) but in this instance I actually felt that having crowds in the photos worked, as it gave a sense of bustle and activity, and being the centre of Roman life.

On the way back to the hotel we walked past the Trevi Fountain. It was certainly impressive (as were the sheer number of tourists looking at it), but I thnk I actually prefer some of the smaller fountains.

The plan for Tuesday had been to see the Capitoline Museums, then the Pantheon, and then cross over the Tiber and wander around the Trastevere area. But a minor wrong turn meant we found ourselves passing by the Pantheon, so of course it made sense to change the order of things. This was actually very good, as it was a lot less crowded in the Pantheon at 9:00 than it would have been later in the day. Since we were in the area, we then went to the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (nothing much on the outside – except for the unusual Bernini elephant statue – but spectacular Gothic interior) and the Gesù (first Jesuit church in Rome).

After this we went to the two Capitoline Museums, and there were so many things to photograph that the camera battery ran out! So when we left, we went back to the hotel to pick up the other camera, and then decided to have a lateish lunch at Babbington’s Tea Rooms (in the Piazza del Spagna) – it was quite nice, but horrifically expensive.

We decided it was too much of a hike to go from there to the Trastevere area, so instead we went to Castel Sant’Angelo, where we also got to enjoy the views from the top terrace.

Adventures in Ireland

The flight from Australia to Ireland was remarkably incident-free, compared to my last overseas flight to Canada. The only problem was an extended delay in Frankfurt (not the world’s most interesting airport) due to my flight to Dublin being held up. Michael met me at Dublin airport (he had arrived from Tampere the day before) and we drove to Celbridge where we were staying. By the time we got there, and I had showered, changed, etc, it was too late to do anything much that day. We did go to a bit of a family get-together that evening, but left at about 9pm because I really needed to get some sleep.

The next day we went to Kildare, and saw the 13th century St Brigit’s Cathedral. The attendant inside was very nice, and pointed out a few interesting things (such as the fertility symbol on the underside of the Bishop’s tomb). He also let Michael ring the Cathedral bell.

Next to the Cathedral is a round tower – the second highest in Ireland (at 32.9m). Apparently it is also the only one people are allowed to climb. We got to the top by means of a series of ladders, and at times it was a bit cramped and awkward getting off the ladders and onto the landings. The top was a bit wet and slimy (the pigeons had been there!) but the views were great. I took some photos of the Cathedral and the surrounding landscape.

After that, we went to the Irish National Stud, which is just outside Kildare. We did a tour, where the guide showed us all the main areas, and explained the process. Some of this I was already familiar with from the Dick Francis book Banker, but some was new to me. For example, they have to take a photo every time a stallion covers a mare, to prove that it wasn’t done by artificial insemination, which is banned to prevent the gene pool being reduced (because if AI was used, each top stallion could inseminate far, far more mares than is currently the case).

He also showed us the stalls for each of the stallions, and told us about them. After the tour finished, we walked past the stallions’ paddocks to see them. Right at the end of the row was Vintage Crop, who won the 1993 Melbourne Cup. We were a bit puzzled that the guide hadn’t mentioned him, and that we hadn’t seen his stall. Then in the gift shop, we saw Vintage Crop t-shirts, but again he wasn’t mentioned in the list of "Stallions 1946 to Present Day". Finally all was explained when I saw a picture of him in the guidebook – he is on retirement at the stud, but not working there as he is a gelding!

The stud also has Japanese Gardens, created about 100 years ago. They were nice, though we probably wouldn’t have made a special trip out to see them.

On Saturday morning, we had a brief wander around the ruins of 13th century Maynooth Castle. However, the main business of the day was our primary reason for being in Ireland – my cousin Jessica’s wedding.

The day had dawned grey and drizzly, and there was no suggestion that it might clear before the wedding, which was at 1:30. But then at about 1:00 blue sky started to appear, and there was even some sun. And this lasted right through to the end of the ceremony, allowing for photos, and milling around outside afterwards.

The ceremony was in the Lady Chapel Church, near Celbridge. The flowers were lovely (all done by Richard’s mother) and Jess looked beautiful. As well as the bridesmaid and best man, there was a flower girl and page boy, who both looked very cute (if rather nervous as they preceeded everyone up the aisle).

The reception was at Kilkea Castle, Ireland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle (built in the 12th century, and completely restored in the 19th century). The decor was atmospheric, the food was great, the best man did a good job of MCing, and the speeches were the right balance of humour and sentiment – and none of them was too long!