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Through My Lens: Dunluce Castle (aka Pyke Castle)


It’s finally over. After months of build-up and hype, the series finale of Game of Thrones has aired. I can’t remember the last time a TV show was talked about as much as this one has been.

I’m not going to get into the what-ifs and wherefores of the finale — this is a travel blog, after all. But much of the series was filmed in Northern Ireland, where I have been to a handful of times.

Although my last trip to that part of the world predates Game of Thrones, it did occur to me that I may have inadvertently visited some of the filming locations long before anyone was talking about the show.

Turns out I have.

And so, this being a travel blog, here is a photo of Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, which dates back to the 1500s. It’s mostly ruins now, and to get to the rocky outcrop on which it stands, you have to walk across a narrow bridge.

On the show, with some help from CGI, Dunluce Castle served as the location for Pyke Castle, seat of House Greyjoy, rulers of the Iron Islands.

E. Dehillerin

Dehillerin Exterior

There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.

That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.

In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.

Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:

We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.

But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).

Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.

A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.

Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.

But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.

Back to my journal:

January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.

I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.

The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.

I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.

So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.

That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.

No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.

Which is every day.

Dehillerin Interior

Reel Life: Julie & Julia

Julie & JuliaI had the opportunity this past week to introduce some friends to the film Julie & Julia. I was secretly pleased when they selected that DVD out of the pile I had brought, but I had no idea when I grabbed it at the last minute that most of the group had never seen the film.

Julie & Julia was Nora Ephron’s last film and stars the legendary Meryl Streep and the charming Amy Adams. It was Ephron’s producer who had the brilliant idea to combine into one screenplay two memoirs published around the same time. Julia Child’s My Life in France is about her life in post-war France, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen evolved from Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in post-9/11 Queens, New York. Beyond their names, Julie and Julia had in common the love and support of a devoted husband, a love of food, and the need to find some meaningful work to fill their days.

Early in the film, Julie Powell’s husband declares that “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child” ― and that’s precisely what makes the film so entertaining. Although I’m as fascinated as the next traveller about the daily routine of life as a New Yorker, the depiction of Julie Powell’s long subway commute and soulless work cubicle ring a little too close to home. But when the action switches to France, you’re transported to another time and place to witness the transformation of Julia Child, ex-pat American wife, to Julia Child, chef, author, and TV star.

Julia Child’s introduction to French food ― mere hours after she arrives in France ― is sole meunière. The epiphany she experiences in the look, smell, and taste of that first meal is, for me, the essential moment of the film. And it reminded me of the moment when I had my own epiphany about French cuisine. It was in a small restaurant in Perpignan where two friends and I shared a meal after a long day of sight-seeing. I ordered a tomato salad. It looked so simple ― a single layer of tomato slices on a small plate, sprinkled with an herb vinaigrette ― but I knew with my first bite that I was tasting something unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The French don’t make simple tomato salads; they create spectacular tomato salads.

As much as my friends enjoyed Julie & Julia, they were a little more circumspect than I about the film; one remarked that she wouldn’t have reacted nearly as well as Julie Powell if the first words out of her partner’s mouth after disappearing for two days following a heated argument were, “What’s for dinner?”

As for me, whenever I’m homesick for French food, I’ll be (re)watching Julie & Julia.

Through My Lens: The Alcázar of Seville (aka Dorne)

Alcázar Gardens

As per usual, I was late to the party in discovering only recently how entertaining Game of Thrones is ― years after the rest of the planet. Now that I’m a fan (better late than never!), and now that I’ve had a week to recover from last Sunday’s Season 5 finale, I thought I’d make a connection between the TV show and travel.

Because Game of Thrones has some awesome filming locations.

It’s filmed in a few places that are on my bucket list (Croatia and Iceland), and in a few places where I’ve already been (Northern Ireland and Spain).

A new location that debuted this past season was the Alcázar in Seville, Spain. It was put to good use standing in for the Water Gardens, the palace of the rulers of Dorne.

Alcázar comes from the Arabic word al-qasr, which means “the castle.”

Happy Birthday, Ringstrasse!

I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.

It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.

And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.

This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.

Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.

(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)

In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.

And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.

All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.

But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.

Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walkabout by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.

But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).

At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.

I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.

All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

Happy Birthday to The Sound of Music!

Hohensalzburg Castle

Fifty years ago last month, The Sound of Music had its cinematic release ― and “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” has been an earworm plaguing moviegoers ever since. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the film, but I have strong memories about a handful of viewings.

My first memorable viewing was, of course, the first one. It was on our small colour TV in our small family living room with my not-so-small family. I had to be coaxed into watching it ― for some reason, a movie about a not-so-small family in 1930s Austria did not interest me in the least.

My dad promised me I would love it.

Of course, I became an instant fan, besotted, as most kids are, by all those children in funny clothes and by all those catchy tunes.

Another memorable viewing of The Sound of Music was just last fall, when I had the privilege of introducing the film to my then three-year-old niece. She was captivated (if a bit confused) by the sight and sound of Mary Poppins singing “Do-Re-Mi” and her response when the last “So-Do” sounded was instantaneous.

“Again!” she commanded from her perch on my couch. I dutifully obeyed and rewound the film to the start of the song. When it was finished, she again called out, “again!”

You get the picture.

It took my sister, who arrived halfway through the movie, to do what I wasn’t able to ― convince my niece to continue watching past “Do-Re-Mi.” (Note that, being responsible aunts, we turned the TV off after the wedding scene and told her that was the end of the movie ― no need to traumatize a young child with scenes of goose-stepping Nazis.)

“The Lonely Goatherd” and “So Long, Farewell” proved to be big hits as well and that afternoon made me realize how timeless The Sound of Music is. My niece was just as enthralled with the film as I had been all those decades earlier.

My most recent viewing of The Sound of Music was a couple of weeks ago when I saw it for the first time ever on the big screen. I was shocked at the packed movie theatre ― as full as if the film were a new release ― and at how compelling I found the nearly three-hour film ― as if I were watching it for the first time. The entire audience burst into applause at the end.

But my most memorable viewing was in the city of Salzburg, where much of The Sound of Music was filmed. My friend and I were backpacking around Europe, making all the usual stops ― including Salzburg ― and doing all the usual touristy things ― including the obligatory “Sound of Music” tour of the filming locations. After the tour, we were dropped off at the youth hostel that hosted a daily screening of the film and we watched and laughed along with the rest of our tour group when all of the Salzburg locations we had just visited showed up on screen.

I live in Vancouver (aka Hollywood North) and am used to seeing my town turned upside down by film crews. For the past two weeks, one of the main routes out of the downtown core was closed to vehicle traffic during business hours to allow for the shooting of a scene from Ryan Reynold’s next action flick. Vancouverites put up with this kind of nonsense because we know how lucrative a successful film industry can be.

I suspect that the residents of Salzburg are just as OK with the tourist dollars that The Sound of Music has brought them. But my best guess is that none of them had any idea that the film would turn out to be one most commercially successful motion pictures of all time ― or that the hoards of pop-culture tourists such as myself would still be beating a path to their door some 50 years later.

Reel Life: Gettysburg

GettysburgOne last post about Gettysburg, and then I’ll stop. Promise.

If you’re keen to see the battlefields of Gettysburg, but can’t make it to Pennsylvania in person, you might consider watching the 1993 film Gettysburg. I recommend the film only because it was shot on location at Gettysburg, so it gives you an accurate look at the landscape and physical layout of the two battle scenes featured in the film: the defense of Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge.

The film was made pre-CGI, using real cannons to reenact the artillery barrage that took place on the morning of July 3, 1863. Even when using only quarter rounds, the cannons in that scene are far more impressive than any blow-’em-up scene I’ve seen in recent years.

Other than the principal actors, the cast consists entirely of Civil War reenactors ― some 13,000 of them. These guys take their roles pretty seriously, living and sleeping as Civil War soldiers did, wearing the same type of wool uniforms, and carrying the same type of weapons.

I saw the film Gettysburg in the theatre the year it was released and it motivated me to one day visit Gettysburg for myself. However, I recommend the film only if you’re really, really interested in the story of the battle. At four and a half hours, it taxes the attention span of most casual viewers.


By happenstance, I was in Toronto this year during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Which led to me taking the above photo.

I was walking up Yonge Street one afternoon on my way to meet a friend. I liked the look of the lights underneath the canopy at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, so I stopped to take a photo. Within seconds, several people stopped to see who I was taking a photo of (and by “who,” I mean which celebrity) and they began pulling out their own cameras and phones. At which point I smirked to myself, put my camera in my pocket, and continued on my way. Only during TIFF would pointing your camera at a movie theatre cause a traffic jam!

That night my friend and I saw a French film set in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a beautiful park in Paris I have yet to see for myself. I tried to get tickets to a few more films, but no luck there ― the ones I wanted to see were selling out as fast as I was trying to buy them online. No matter, though. Two of the films I was able to see a few weeks later at VIFF.

TIFF is a smaller festival than VIFF ― it shows fewer films and is five days shorter ― but it’s an industry event, so to speak, and therefore gets a lot of attention because Hollywood and the world’s media comes to town. I could feel the buzz in the air the entire time I was there, which makes September an exciting time to visit Toronto.


Travelling to another country doesn’t always require that you get on a plane. One of the best alternatives to travelling (for me) is hanging out at an international film festival.

Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) is held every October and is one of the largest film festivals in North America. This year, I had a choice of 380 films from 75 countries. Which meant that this month, for the price of a movie ticket, I saw Serbia, Bosnia, South Africa, France, and the Czech Republic.

How cool is that?

Reel Life: Nora Ephron’s New York

Everything I know about New York, I learned from the movies. (Until I finally went there in real life, of course.) But really ― if you think of setting as character (which I do), then New York is one of  the hardest working actors in the biz.

Nora Ephron’s trilogy of New York films are among my favourite of the lot. I went up the Empire State Building because of that last scene in Sleepless in Seattle. I spent an afternoon wandering the Upper West Side because I loved how it was portrayed in You’ve Got Mail.

But my most surreal New York moment (thus far) was when I crossed Washington Square and had a sudden flash of recognition because of a scene in When Harry Met Sally. Washington Square is where Sally drops Harry off after the longest car ride in history, somewhere near the beginning of the film.

That flash of recognition happened on my first-ever evening in New York. Since our arrival a few hours earlier, I’d literally been pinching my arm every five minutes to make sure I was awake. The air was electric ― I never knew what that phrase meant until I went to New York ― and I swear I could feel the city’s energy envelop me as my friend and I walked from Times Square to Greenwich Village.

I pinched myself one more time when we reached Washington Square. It’s such a cliché of our times that we measure our real-life experiences by comparing them to what we see on the big screen. But we do. And that’s why I was so thrilled to walk onto what for me wasn’t so much a public square as a movie set used by one of my favourite filmmakers.

After hearing of Nora Ephron’s death last month, and in light of my upcoming visit to New York, I’ve rewatched all of her New York films. They’re classic. There is nothing like being in New York in person, but, if you’ve never been, they’re a marvelous substitute.

Washington Square