Cruise on the Middle Rhine in Germany a charming way to travel

Wine region: Cruising the Rhine takes in the sights of Assmannshausen on its banks, renowned for its red wine. Photo: German National Tourist Office
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Way to cruise: The Viking Var, docked at Kehl, is a fine way to travel. Photo: Brian Johnston

Wine region: Cruising the Rhine takes in the sights of Assmannshausen on its banks, renowned for its red wine. Photo: German National Tourist Office

Wine region: Cruising the Rhine takes in the sights of Assmannshausen on its banks, renowned for its red wine. Photo: German National Tourist Office

Spectacular: The meeting of the Rhine and Moselle rivers at Cologne. Photo: German National Tourist Office

Drowning in scenery: The Viking Sun sails past Cologne on the Rhine, Germany. Photo: Viking River Cruises

Wine region: Cruising the Rhine takes in the sights of Assmannshausen on its banks, renowned for its red wine. Photo: German National Tourist Office

The engines of Viking Var rumble and, with a toot of the ship’s horn, we’re off again. I stand on deck, shading my eyes, as we sail out of Rudesheim. Vineyards cling to the hillsides and a castle tower crumbles. Ahead, the entrance to the Rhine gorges gapes. For centuries, this stretch of river has tantalised travellers, invited poetry and song, and lured traders with the promise of riches. As a waiter carries out a cold beer and I settle onto my deck chair, I anticipate a memorable day.

Any cruise down a European river is a fine way to travel, and perhaps nowhere more so than on this section of the Middle Rhine as it flows through Germany between the wine village of Rudesheim and the town of Koblenz. In all truth, the rest of the Rhine has wonderful culture and cities but no grand scenery: the passing landscape is either flat or industrial, and often both. The Rhine gorges are different and the highlight of any journey. Mediaeval villages, vineyards and a fine collection of castles flow past the ship on a stretch of river that has been long celebrated. Goethe was entranced by the Rhine’s romance, Wagner wrote operas about the river’s mythical Nibelungen race, and Turner captured is misty sunsets in paint. You can visit the Middle Rhine by road or rail, of course, but a river journey best captures its essence as you float not just through space, but culture and history too.

My Viking river cruise starts in Basel in Switzerland and finishes in Amsterdam. It takes in almost the entire navigable length of this famous river. We dock at Rudesheim on the afternoon of the fifth day, and I spend my free time on a tour of Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Cabinet, a rather curious museum of automated musical instruments. It proves to be fascinating and amusing, with everything from quaint musical boxes to mechanical violins and barrel organs that hoot and thunder.

Later I walk up into the hills. Vineyards spread out around the town. Rudesheim sits in a wine-producing region famous for sekt, the sparkling wine that is Germany’s answer to champagne. It’s the most popular of several wine villages and can often get crowded with river-cruise passengers and residents from nearby Frankfurt. Cobbled lanes lined by leaning half-timbered houses are sometimes elbow-to-elbow, but I reckon the village’s wine taverns are at their best when busy. That evening, brass bands compete with groups of singing revellers to create a maximum of oomph. I try some white wine with traditional accompaniments: cheese with vinegar, oil and finely chopped onions, accompanied by knee-slapping and singing.

Next day, as we sail into the gorges, it’s easy to see how the region is so suited to the cultivation of grapes. Vineyards cling to well-drained slopes, get maximum sun from southern exposure, and are sheltered from cold north winds. The soil – according to our cruise director, who provides commentary over the PA system as we sail – contains quartz and slate that retain heat during the night.

Some of these vineyards have been producing wine since the 12th century, and it made the Middle Rhine rich on trade. As the Rhine wends its way through steep wooded hills and cliffs, each bend is guarded by another fortification perched on an inaccessible crag. Many have crumbled into ruin, but even their dilapidation is splendid. Burg Rheinstein, refashioned in high mediaeval style in the 19th century, is fanciful as a fairytale. Along the river lies Burg Sooneck; apparently you can stand on its terraces and see another seven castles.

You can’t get views from on high on a river ship, but I do have the joy of admiring both riverbanks at once, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to look. Passengers dart from one railing to another. As we sail past Oberwesel, fellow passengers click cameras: the town’s 16 remaining mediaeval towers rise above the fortified town walls. Above, Burg Schonburg, although ransacked by the French in 1689 and never rebuilt, still has massive walls nearly two metres thick in places.

It’s a glorious few hours in the sun, sailing past a string of vineyard villages punctuated by steep church spires and golden weather vanes. Earlier we passed Mouse Tower, standing on a small island, and learn it was built in the 13th century by a bishop who wished to extract customs taxes from the passing river traffic. The rapacious prelate grew so unpopular he was eventually forced to barricade himself in his own tower, dying alone.

The Middle Rhine is full of improbable stories. Just past the castle of Pfalz, the river valley narrows dramatically, producing swift currents and eddies hazardous to navigation, though now tamed by dynamiting. This gave rise to the legend of the Lorelei, a beautiful siren who lived in a cave on the cliff face and lured sailors to their doom with her singing. The legend was immortalised in a poem by Heinrich Heine. Later set to music, it’s the unofficial anthem for the region. The song of Lorelei plays over the loudspeakers of Viking Var as we sail beneath the cliffs. The river swirls and gurgles as we pass majestically (and safely) onwards.

At Boppard the river becomes more gentle. On some Rhine cruises, ships call in here so passengers can promenade along the waterfront and pop into the mediaeval Carmelite Church, where grotesque figures in wood grimace down from the choir stalls. Viking Var calls in at Marksburg instead, reached by coach on a corkscrewing road that showcases the driver’s nimble skills. Built to guard surrounding silver and lead mines, Marksburg proved the most formidable of all the Rhine castles, and was never taken in battle. Its interior is unadorned, and its rooms too cramped for a tour group this size. We make a slow shuffle from dungeon to great hall, but there are splendid views from its battlements. The forested hilltops hint of wildness but, beneath, vines are neatly pegged and village houses smug with geraniums.

You know the Rhine gorges have ended when you see your first bridge as you sail into the large town of Koblenz. Koblenz lies at the meeting of the Rhine and Moselle rivers (or Mosel in German), and the river is busy with cruise ships and barges carrying goods into the heart of Europe from the ocean port at Rotterdam. One of its landmarks is the Rheinkran, a giant crane built on the riverbanks at the beginning of the 17th century to unload cargo.

Koblenz’s convenient river location was noticed by the founding Romans, and the city grew powerful on trade in the Middle Ages. We tie up for the evening, allowing plenty of time for a look around the old town and adjacent shopping streets. But the best place to end the day is on the riverfront. There’s a fine view across the Rhine to the massive bulk of Festung Ehrenbreitstein, one of the largest fortresses in Europe.

At the intersection of the promenade and Pfaffendorfer Bridge I find the Weindorf or ‘wine village’ of taverns set in small gardens. It was originally set up in 1925 for an exhibition of German wines, but has been maintained as a lively tourist venue. Jazz brunches and summer evenings of live music mightn’t quite be the song of the Lorelei, but I reckon they may seduce you anyway.

FAMOUS SITES

For many, the Middle Rhine gorges are the highlight (certainly the scenic highlight) of a Rhine river cruise, but the Basel-to-Amsterdam itinerary takes in other impressive sights too.

Breisach, Germany

This rather charming little port town has wonderful views from its hilltop church terraces and is the jumping-off point for a visit to the rugged granite mountains of the Black Forest, with its baroque churches and cuckoo-clock workshops.

Strasbourg, France

The ship ties up at Kehl in Germany, and it’s only a short coach ride across the bridge to Strasbourg, a lovely, flower-filled mediaeval city built on canals, notable for its Gothic cathedral and home to the European Parliament.

Heidelberg, Germany

At Mannheim, passengers disembark for a tour of Germany’s oldest university town, topped by the sandstone ruins of Heidelberg castle high above the scenic Neckar Valley. The long pedestrian main street is lined by restaurants and shops.

Cologne, Germany

Walk from the ship straight into town to see one of Europe’s largest and most incredible cathedral facades. The city also has great museums, shopping and nightlife and a very lively atmosphere.

Kinderdijk, Netherlands

This World Heritage site features a series of windmills used over the centuries for flood management. Learn how and why they were built on a guided tour, and clamber inside a working windmill to see how millers once lived.

The writer travelled as a guest of Viking River Cruises. Follow his river-cruise blog at rivercruiseinsight老域名出售

GETTING THERE

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi (14.5hr) with onward connections to Zurich (7hr), an hour from Basel by train. Return economy fare from $1953 from Melbourne and $1969 from Sydney low season, including taxes. The airline also flies to Amsterdam. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad老域名出售.

CRUISING THERE

Viking River Cruises’ eight-day “Rhine Getaway” cruise between Basel and Amsterdam is priced from $3195 a person twin share, including meals and guided shore excursions. Several other itineraries also pass through the Rhine gorges. Phone 1800 829 138, see vikingcruises老域名出售.au.

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Hydro Majestic serves very high tea

Time for tea: Patrons enjoy the atmosphere in the Wintergarden room at the Hydro Majestic. Photo: Cole Bennetts A tasty view: High tea is served with stunning scenery in the background. Photo: Cole Bennetts
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Melinda Robley and her son, Logan, with Grandfather, Geoff Smith, attend the first high tea at the Hydro Majestic. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Blue Mountains Hydro Majestic makes a $30m return to former glory

It was high tea for 200 at the reborn Hydro Majestic.

Not high tea because Medlow Bath, at an altitude of 1048 metres, is one of the highest points in the Blue Mountains.

But high tea as in that most English of dining traditions, and a celebration of the culinary abilities of the students at the Western Sydney Institute, as part of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Month.

The spectacular view of the Megalong Valley from the tables in the imposing Wintergarden room was somehow appropriate, given it was the source of some of the regional cuisine on the menu.

John Rankins, head teacher at the Blue Mountains TAFE, said the intention was to showcase local products.

“We are in the mountains, so we do have to venture out of our normal 100-mile radius a little bit,” he said.

“We are fortunate we have got the Hawkesbury Valley there and we go right up to Mudgee and Orange. Even the beef in the sandwiches is from the Megalong Valley. It has all been slaughtered at Wilberforce near Windsor, so it has never left the area.

“The rainbow trout has come from near Mudgee – we smoke it ourselves – and we have a lot of blackberries we have used throughout the menu, all from around the Hawkesbury area.”

The menu included smoked chicken from Windsor, Oberon truffles, curd cheese from Mudgee’s High Valley Wine & Cheeses and goat cheese from Jannei at Lidsdale.

Expectations for the event at the Hydro Majestic would also be high, Mr Rankins accepted. Guests from across Sydney paid $75 each to attend. “I think we will pull it off today,” he said. “It’s hard to pull off a big event like that when you come in from a college and have to bring everything in.

Among those attending was Daniel Myles, chairman of Blue Mountains, Lithgow & Oberon Tourism.

“This event means we are back, we are credible,” Mr Myles said.

Referring to the bush fires that destroyed more than 200 properties in the region a year ago this month, he added: “We went backwards a long way with the fires but we bounce back from these.

“The bush regenerates and the society regenerates.”

Also attending was Melinda Robley, nine-month-old Logan and parents Geoff and Lesley Smith, in 1920s period dress.

Mrs Smith said she had last visited the Hydro Majestic six years ago, before it closed. Asked how it compared with then, she said: “There is no comparison.”

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Blue Mountains Hydro Majestic makes a $30m return to former glory

Back in business: The Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. Photo: Cole Bennetts A grand welcome: The foyer known as The Casino at the Hydro Majestic. Photo: Cole Bennetts
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Finishing touches: Staff decorate the hotel during its refurbishment. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Big ideas: Hydro Majestic Director, Huong Nguyen. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Flying high: An aerial shot of the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the 1940s.

Hydro Majestic serves very high tea

Premier Mike Baird won’t see it until Thursday – but here is a preview glimpse of the majesty and ostentation of the soon-to-be-reopened Hydro Majestic.

Such was its opulence and role in Sydney society that the Blue Mountains Echo in 1909 would publish a list of visitors to the Hydro Majestic in Medlow. It was the place to be seen.

The pleasure palace began its life as a health retreat, titled the Belgravia Hotel.

Then along came wild child and retail baron Mark Foy, a Gatsby-esque kind of guy (although this was slightly earlier than the time of Fitzgerald’s novel) who is said to have owned the largest fleet of motor vehicles in Australia.

He purchased the site in 1902 to create a hydropathic sanatorium and shipped in from Chicago the bones of what was to become the familiar lantern-shaped dome of the casino.

Such was his influence that he successfully petitioned the NSW government to change the name of the area to Medlow Bath.

Foy built gardens, brought in his own herd of cows for milk and, not a man to be bested, is said to have had electricity and a working telephone four days before metropolitan Sydney.

He then chauffeured in his friends from Sydney in his fleet of vehicles. It was time to party.

Times and fashions change. The original hotel was badly damaged in a bushfire in 1921 and there were a number of refurbishments as the Hydro tried to reinvent itself.

Now, after being closed for six years, it is about to reopen with all of that original ostentation.

Peter Reeve of interior designers CRD has almost finished transforming the building’s strange fusion of Victorian, Edwardian and art nouveau architecture and design.

“People have a romantic vision of this building,” said Reeve. “I think part of our job in bringing it back to life is to enhance the romance and to not contradict history, and not to make it fake, but certainly to make it as glamorous and desirable as possible.”

The casino, with its original stained glass, has been returned to its monochrome origins, with intensely patterned Edwardian carpets and an imposing chandelier.

Most of the furniture was sold off in the 1960s and ’80s and much was also lost in fires – but there are still a few chairs with “property of Mark Foy” inscribed on their underside and a number of imposing Edwardian sofas.

Adjacent is The Wintergarden, with spectacular views of the Megalong Valley, which Reeve describes as being designed in 1930s streamlined modern style – the end of the deco and the beginning of the modern era.

The room that best sums up the mood of the time is known as Cat’s Alley, featuring Zimmerman paintings and drapes trimmed with peacock feathers.

“People would have to travel from the accommodation wing at the far end of the site all the way to the ballroom for dinner,” Reeve said.

“The husbands would sit there smoking cigars and playing billiards and the women would sit in this alley and bitch about everybody who walked past. About if they had the latest dress on or whether they couldn’t afford a new dress, or if that was really their husband,” he said.

“Our idea was to go back to this magical, crowded lounge space, where you could have a cup of tea, or a gin, or absinthe, if you felt like it.”

Jennifer Hill, a heritage architect who is president of the Art Deco Society of NSW, said: “What you have got to recognise is that places have to change. The reason places go into decline is because they haven’t kept up with the times – but keeping up with the times doesn’t mean losing the whole image of the place.

“The Hydro Majestic is extremely important because of what it is: a sanitorium-type hotel, it’s the best of the ones that were done, the grandest. What you want is a situation where people come to this building and it exudes all the qualities that it had in the past, which may not mean that it has all of the original fabric. If you are able to re-image this building as a 2014 spa, 110 years later, then I think that’s a fantastic outcome.”

Owners Huong Nguyen and George Saad are said to have paid $11 million for the property and have spent $30 million on the refurbishment.

But Ms Nguyen has even bigger ideas for the future of the Hydro Majestic – and she also gave an insight into the challenges of dealing with planning and heritage bodies.

“It is exciting,” she said of the project. “It is also the end of a very long chapter.

“I think we would love to see less red tape when you have got such a significant tourism investment in the region, definitely. I think something needs to be looked at in terms of – not so much incentives, but encouragement for more projects of this nature, otherwise we won’t be able to see iconic buildings and heritage richness such as the Hydro brought back to life.

“Besides all the actual venues, that’s only the hardware. The program of entertainment and of experiences that we are looking forward to bringing for day tourists, as well as the overnight tourism, will be very exciting and we look forward to unrolling that in the next few months.

Ms Nguyen said well-known artists would perform at the Hydro, “and that will provide what has been lacking in the Blue Mountains”.

“We are known as a nature-based tourist destination. A lot of the feedback we have been getting from tourist operators as well as tourists – particularly international tourists – is that we do lack the entertainment and attractions that keep them overnight.

“Good, solid Australian artists will be performing at the Hydro. It will be interesting, varied and certainly not boring.”

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Donations law blocks political candidates from bank loans

NSW Premier Mike Baird proposed the changes to electoral funding laws. Photo: Dominic LorrimerThe Baird government’s changes to electoral funding laws will block candidates from taking out bank loans to fund election campaigns, unhappy backbenchers claim.
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After the 2011 election, the Election Funding Authority reimbursed $4.9 million in public funds to candidates, compared to $15 million reimbursed to political parties head offices.

The reimbursement to candidates covered campaign spending up to a cap of $30,000.

Candidates unable to reach the fund-raising targets set by political parties would commonly take out a bank loan to bridge the gap if they were not independently wealthy.

The new law prohibits the direct reimbursement of public funds to candidates accounts.

“It has robbed candidates of $30,000 and puts more pressure on candidates to raise money,” said a NSW Labor insider, who claimed it worsened the problems exposed at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

One backbencher said: “The money will go back to head office. Because the money doesn’t go to the campaign account, we can’t get a loan.”

The ICAC revealed Liberal candidates were set fund-raising targets of up to $140,000 for a minister in a blue ribbon seat, while candidates in marginal seats had to purchase $35,000 campaign packages. It is alleged some candidates accepted illegal property developer donations at the 2011 election to meet the targets.

The Labor Party does not set fund-raising targets, but candidates are expected to have $50,000 in their account for campaigning.

Labor upper house MP Steve Whan told Parliament he wanted election spending caps wound back further, because of the pressure on candidates to raise funds.

“I see it coming to the point where people who do not have independent financial means and do not have the ability to partake in large fund-raising efforts will not run for Parliament,” he said.

Meanwhile, Labor was expected to win by-elections, which were forced by the resignations of Liberal MPs Tim Owen and Andrew Cornwell, in Newcastle and Charlestown on Saturday. Mr Owen and Mr Cornwell faced allegations at ICAC that they accepted illegal $10,000 cash donations from a property developer. The Baird government did not contest the seats.

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Sexting MP Dowling snubbed as candidate

Redlands MP Peter Dowling. Photo: TwitterRedlands LNP MP Peter Dowling’s political career may have plonked, with his branch members overwhelmingly voting no to his standing as their candidate in the coming election.
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Mr Dowling survived the LNP state executive vetting process by a reported one vote earlier this month, but was unable to stage a repeat performance in front of his local state electoral council members. The vote was confidential, but it is understood fewer than 40 of the 93 branch members who attended voted for Mr Dowling to remain in the ballot.

The former ethics committee chair gained international notoriety when photos he sexted his mistress, of his penis draped in a red-wine glass, were made public.  He was quickly nicknamed “Plonker” and the moniker has followed him since last year.

Leaving the room after the firm no vote, with his wife Helen steadfastly by his side, Mr Dowling was visibly upset.

“I have invested a lot of time and effort into my community, absolutely, and there is still a great deal of work to be done, but the LNP will deliver for this community,” he said.

He could not say what his next step would be and seemed to stop himself from saying he would go home to enjoy a quiet drink.

“I have just been declined,” he said.

“So how about I go home and have a no comment and enjoy a quiet, err … actually, I have a function tonight so I’ll go out and attend the business awards association as the LNP member for Redlands.”

Mrs Dowling told the media she still loved her husband, despite his public indiscretion.

“There would be very few people here that actually could say they are perfect,” she said.

“He may not be perfect, but he is effective.”

The couple were not without their supporters – a group of people, wearing “I am backing Peter” T-shirts from the 2012 election campaign, stood outside the hall where the vote was to take place, but were understood not to be voting members of the local branch.

But others were not so understanding.

Many branch members left the meeting saying Mr Dowling should not have sought to be re-selected as the candidate, thereby forcing their hand.

One member, Helen McAllister, said her husband resigned from the party when Mr Dowling survived the executive vetting process.

“I am so, so determined that the LNP that is doing a great job is represented by good members,” she said.

“… We just have to maintain for our youth, for our grandchildren, we have to have standards and values.”

But Mr Dowling would not say whether he regretted his past actions.

“I am an effective member for Redlands and I have the support of the LNP team and I will continue to do that role until the next election,” he said.

“… I have still been doing my job.  I am the state member for Redlands and I will continue to be part of the Campbell Newman LNP team delivering for Queensland.  We’ve got an awful lot of mess to clean up thanks to 20 years of Labor.”

He ruled out standing as an independent, which he labelled as “a waste of space with one exception” but would not say whether he would attempt to stand as a candidate in the next vote.

But he may not be able to, with party president Bruce McIver saying the branch had spoken.

“The membership have made a call here today on this particular member, on this particular set of issues, and I’d say the state executive would have to take that into consideration if Mr Dowling chose to reapply,” he said.

Preselections have reopened in the seat.  Redlands is proving to be the second headache for the LNP executive, after Moggill branch members voted no to the candidate they were presented with after the party headquarters disallowed sitting member and former minister Bruce Flegg from re-contesting the seat he has held for the past decade. A date for the next election is still to be set.

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Painted ladies have brushed over past

Clare Miles has written a book about female tattoo artists in Australia. Photo: Michelle SmithWhen Clare Miles went looking for information on the history of female tattoo artists in Australia, she was amazed to find nothing documented.
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“So I thought, ‘Right. I’ll do this myself’,” she said. Painted Ladies: The History of Female Tattoo Artists in Australia was finished three years later.

A high-school art teacher who lives by the motto “live life, breathe art”, Ms Miles wanted to know about the women who blazed the trail she walks as a tattoo artist, a career she came to “fairly late”, in her early 30s, six years ago.

“I wanted to give something back to the tattoo community and I just found it astonishing that there was nothing already,” she said.

“There is a lot of information on American female artists, but I couldn’t find anything on Australian female artists. Not at the State Library archives, or anywhere. So I went looking.”

What she found was a rich history of pioneering women who were often overshadowed or sentenced to obscurity by their male counterparts.

“Women have been tattooing in Australia forever. For as long as men have been,” Ms Miles said.

“It was just never as widely known. I think a lot of it was because they weren’t deemed as relevant as men – a lot of the men had their names on the studio. It was their business and the women were never popularised as being successful artists. A lot of them were wives or girlfriends or the daughters of the male artists and they just weren’t promoted. People weren’t aware of them unless they sought them out or stumbled across them.”

Time, feminism and social media have each played a role in changing attitudes towards the painted ladies who came before Ms Miles and her fellow women artists.

But Ms Miles believes the differences between how men and women approach the craft have also played a part.

“I think women have a gentler touch,” she said.

“I think they have more of a sympathetic understanding of why somebody might want to get tattooed, especially if there is something personal, or it is a cover-up for necessity, like a scar cover-up for a C-section – I think women have a bit more empathy,” she said.

“They tend to have more time to put into a design for someone as well.”

But it’s not all tattooed roses and butterflies. The same complaints that had afflicted working women the world over also had stained the tattoo industry and, in some cases, still did, Ms Miles said.

“Now that women have shown themselves to be successful, well-accomplished tattoo artists in their own right, it has got better,” she said.

“But it is still around.”

But inclusiveness helps, as does supporting other women artists and mentoring the next generation. Ms Miles does both at her Brisbane tattoo studio, The Painted Lady.

But she believes it is just as important to acknowledge the past and the present, which is why she hopes her book will reach artists and arts devotees of all ages and both genders.

“It’s for everyone,” she said.

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Top 10 television bars: switch on, sit back and drink up

Pick-me-up joint: McLaren’s Bar from How I Met Your Mother. Spending too much time in a pub or a bar probably isn’t the healthiest way to live – but you’ve got to admit, on screen at least, it’s where the fun usually starts.
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Friends gather, strangers meet, relationships bloom or kaboom … anything can happen in a TV bar.

Here are 10 fictional places it’d be great to sit back and sink a few.

Cheers Bar (Cheers): Sure, Norm (George Wendt) is a borderline alcoholic, Cliff (John Ratzenberger) might be an idiot savant who forgets the  savant bit most days and the staff stick their noses way too far into your business, but this is the bar where (as the song says) everybody knows your name. It’s home, safe, a refuge from the everyday and in TV’s Boston, Cheers bar would be THE place to stop for a drink.

 Moe’s (The Simpsons): Pickled eggs on the bar? Check. Pickled customers at the bar? Check? Duff on tap? Of course. Then it has to be Moe’s. This might be a seedy dive, but to Homer and his friends, Moe Szyslak’s far-from-salubrious watering hole in downtown Springfield is everything they want.  It includes some awesome bands on occasion: Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Waits have all dropped by.

The Bronze (Buffy The Vampire Slayer): More a nightclub than a regular bar, it’d be worth dropping in on Sunnydale’s The Bronze just to check out the clientele. “They let anybody in,” Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) told Buffy in the first episode of the series, and she wasn’t kidding. It was a hangout for jocks, goths, punks, geeks …and vampires, demons, witches et al. Pretty much anyone or thing who could pay for a drink was allowed in.

McLaren’s Pub (How I Met Your Mother): Located just below The Apartment where Ted (Josh Radnor) and almost every other character in How I Met Your Mother lived at one time or another, McLaren’s is the logical place for the gang to meet. And so they do. A quintessential New York bar, it has booths, quirky regulars and a steady stream of newcomers for Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) Stinson to hit on. Oh and good food.

The Officers Club (MASH): Built by General Maynard Mitchell as a thank you to the doctors who saved the life of his son, the 4077th Officers’ Club was unique in that after a very brief moment of enforcing the access-by-rank rule, they expanded entry to “relatives” of the commanders. And, funnily enough, everyone in the camp turned out to be related to Hawkeye or Trapper. A true egalitarian watering hole with a great jukebox.

The Clubhouse(Sons Of Anarchy): A bunker with beer, perfect for bikies who spend most of their time looking over their shoulders and just want somewhere safe to relax. Even better, the drinks are free (to members), the regulars are all “extremely keen” to be “very good friends” with the drinkers and, if you pass out, there are rooms down the corridor with beds for the night. Plus, your bike will be cleaned and fuelled by a prospect when you wake up the next day.

Bada Bing(The Sopranos): Possibly a good place to drop in, pay your respects and get out before something bad happens. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his mafia crew loved to hang out in Bada Bing, watch the dancers, sip a cocktail and plan whatever piece of mayhem would bring them the most cash that week. For anyone else it was a good venue to become a friend of the family and start that climb through the ranks … But, be warned, it’s an equally good place to wind up sleeping with the fishes.

The Rovers Return(Coronation Street): Given it was actually on the street the series was named after (on the corner of Coronation and Rosamund, to be precise), it was natural all the locals would pop in for a pint and a chat. Why visit? To meet those locals, of course! And to resolve the spatial anomaly that seems to place the toilets through a dimensional vortex into the Barlow’s kitchen next door.

Ten Forward(Star Trek: The Next Generation): Speaking of dimensional vortices, where better to relax after escaping one than the USS Enterprise’s shipboard “lounge and recreation facility”? There’s alcohol for those who can drink it, synthehol for those who can’t, and a spectacular view through the front windows for those sipping an Aldebaran whisky as they boldly go where no drinker has gone before.

The Gem Saloon (Deadwood): Keep in mind this is where the fast-shooting, foul-mouthed, morally questionable residents of Deadwood did most of their drinking (sorry, that should be drinkin’) – and the fact it was also a brothel – so it’s probably an idea to leave the kids at home. Venture in, though, and it’s a shot of whisky and a seat with easy access to the exits for when the inevitable bar fight breaks out.

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Ben Lawson has the ‘all-American look’ for Modern Family

Lookalikes: Ben Lawson, second from left, in a scene from Modern Family. Embassy row: Trudy, Bee and Val star in The Embassy.
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The cast from Red Band Society, a high school drama about a group of teenagers who meet in hospital.

The Australian actor Ben Lawson has a strong suspicion about why he was given the role as one half of “the perfect all-American couple” in the episode of Modern Family being shown on Sunday, October 26, in Australia.

It might have been because the director of the episode, Emmy Award winner Gail Mancuso, knew his work from when she directed him in an episode of another sitcom, Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23. But in that show he played an Australian. Or it might be because he has demonstrated in a multitude of bit parts that he can do a middle-American accent better than many young American actors.

But most likely there’s another explanation – that he looks like a handsome version of Ty Burrell (who plays the bumbling Phil Dunphy).

“I can’t answer to a certainty but there’s no doubt in my mind that we look very similar, so I think it was deliberate,” Lawson told me. “In a lot of ways my character is like the younger, slightly more together version of Phil. Me and my wife mirror the Dunphys in a way – a more attractive, more successful couple who they kind of fall in love with when they are going to buy the house next door. They are more glamorous than the Dunphys, but not in a threatening way.

“My character and Phil have this bonding moment where they make cheesy dad jokes together. My other half is Fiona Gubelman [who was in the American version of the series Wilfred]. She’s petite and blonde just like Julie Bowen. When you put us side by side, it’s too much of a coincidence.

“We rock up to check out the house one last time. Phil and Claire go to extreme lengths to try to convince us, but in classic Dunphy style they kind of push too hard and end up ruining it for themselves. I won’t tell you how that goes down.”

Lawson, 34, is one of the more successful young Australians auditioning around Hollywood, although he has yet to get a long-lasting series like his brother Josh (one of the stars of House of Lies).

Lawson says he’s occasionally asked to play an Australian (most recently in Friends with Better Lives and The Deep End) but he’s adopted a policy of speaking with an American accent whenever he goes for an audition.

“They love Australians in LA, but for safety’s sake, I will go into rooms, even with people who know very well I’m Australian, and I will just use the American accent off the bat,” he says. “If they hear my Australian first, they start hearing things in the audition. They’ll go ‘Oh, I feel like I heard an Aussie sound there, I heard a little slip’. You don’t want that. It’s hard enough getting the job without that as an added worry.”

Does he have any tips for new arrivals in Hollywood on how to speak American? “Aside from being incredibly lazy in our speech, Australians talk in a different place in the mouth,” Lawson says. “When we do an American accent  we must activate the muscles in the back of the mouth to articulate, which we don’t typically use.

“I reckon the most difficult sound for Australians is the ‘oh’ sound. That’s the sound that Americans find funniest when we say it.  When we say ‘na-ooh’ (no), or ‘avucahdah-ooh’ or Jennifer ‘Lah-oo-pez’, they find it hilarious. We almost turn the ‘o’ into a song; we add notes in there that no other dialect does.”

So it’s not Lawson’s thongs you need to look out for at 6.30pm today on Ten – it’s his diphthongs.

The dramatic truth

“Scintillating personality” is not the first phrase that comes to mind if you have to describe the stereotype of the typical public servant. So that was the major worry for Craig Graham and Laurie Critchley when they set out to make a series about the public servants who work in the Australian embassy in Bangkok, and spent a year arranging access via the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

After a decade of “reality” programming, an observational documentary these days is expected to have all the elements of great drama – a narrative arc, emotional involvement and, most important of all, intriguing characters.

As Graham says: “Ten years ago you might have gone ‘Great, I’ve got some access here and I can go and film some stories’, but for us the access was simply the starting point. We wanted to be able to go ‘OK, is there a strong core cast there?’ We moved past the access into how will these stories be told so it will feel fresh and beautiful and cinematic as well as having all those wonderful collisions of culture of Australians in Thailand.”

As Critchley says: “Close to a million Australians go through Thailand every year. On average, an Australian dies in Thailand every three days. We were very clear. We wanted the most dramatic stories. We wanted to explain what the embassy means for Australians, both here and abroad. We went over for our preproduction before we committed, to meet the consular team and the diplomats of the embassy. I think everything hinged on those characters and what they were like.

“If they were very boring or procedural or guarded in what they said, if they weren’t compelling characters that you wanted to spend time with, then we didn’t have a series.”

And did they discover any stand-out stars among the public servants they profiled?

“They’re all stars, and that’s not intended to sound glib,” Critchley says. “I think we can both put our hands on our hearts. I hope they come across on screen as they did when we were filming them, because we feel they are really terrific characters, all five of them, in very  different ways. Hopefully you’ll be laughing one minute and shed a tear the next.”

This may explain why the last week’s first episode of The Embassy drew a bigger audience than Big Brother.

Episode 2 of The Embassy airs on Sunday, October 26, at 6.30pm  on Nine. 

Probably not coming soon

With the exception of Gotham, Australia’s commercial networks have not rushed to fast-track the 25 new series that got launched in the US this month. They are avoiding embarrassment by waiting to see how they are received over there, before making promises for them here.

This has proved a wise policy in the case of four highly-hyped productions.

Red Band Society (on the US Fox network) was described as a “teen hospital dramedy”. An industry insider told the business site Wall St Cheat Sheet: “It’s the toughest call of all the new shows – if the show becomes about the kids suffering, it’s going to be rough, yet if the kids are cured there’s no f—ing show.” Variety’s critic Brian Lowry articulated a basic principle of television programming: “You should never have your show narrated by a kid in a coma.”

Mysteries of Laura (NBC) is a crime dramedy starring Debra Messing (Will and Grace). Matt Roush, the critic for TV Guide, said: “It’s beneath her. It’s beneath us. It’s beneath the whole idea of what it means to be a working, single mom … The mystery is how it gets on the air.”

Bad Judge, starring Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice), provoked a complaint to the NBC network from the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, who said the judge is depicted as “unethical, lazy, crude, hyper-sexualised and unfit to hold such an esteemed position of power”. That might have encouraged some viewers, until Robert Bianco, critic for USA Today, said: “I thought the pilot was hideous … If it’s still on the air at episode five, call me and I’ll watch.”

The worst reaction has been to Selfie (on American ABC), a comedy allegedly inspired by My Fair Lady, starring Karen Gillan, best known as the long-legged Scottish companion to Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.  A TV executive who asked to remain nameless gave this review to Wall St Cheat Sheet: “Selfie is such a piece of s–t.” Now that is something to look forward to.

For more, go to smh老域名出售.au/entertainment/blog/the-tribal-mind.

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Should we book ahead in French villages?

On tour: The French countryside near Tours. Photo: iStock On tour: The French countryside near Tours. Photo: iStock
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On tour: The French countryside near Tours. Photo: iStock

On tour: The French countryside near Tours. Photo: iStock

WE INTEND SPENDING THREE TO FOUR WEEKS DRIVING FROM PARIS TO FLORENCE AND WOULD LIKE TO VISIT INTERESTING VILLAGES BETWEEN RENNES AND AVIGNON. WE ARE GOING IN APRIL. SHOULD WE PRE-BOOK OR CAN WE TRUST TO CHANCE?

J. GRIFFIN, BREAKFAST POINT

In April you should certainly be able to find places to stay along your route, but I’d book ahead. Accommodation in villages is often in short supply, particularly in the characterful French villages on your wish list. Booking in advance also gives you more hours for leisure and pleasure – finding a place to stay can take a couple of hours out of your day. Booking ahead comes at the expense of flexibility but if you choose well, it’s a sacrifice worth making.

To help plan your trip, look up Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (france-beautiful-villages.org/en) for a guide and handy map. You can find some great accommodation at sawdays.co.uk. Also, check out Relais Routiers (relais-routiers. com), a truckers’ guide to fine dining in France – great for anyone keen to experience unpretentious regional gastronomy at a cheap price, with salty company.

Since you have a generous amount of time, you could stay three nights in each village, which gives you two full days for exploring and experiencing French provincial life.

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Where should I get a GPS for driving in England?

On the road: York city walls and York Minster. Photo: iStock
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On the road: York city walls and York Minster. Photo: iStock

On the road: York city walls and York Minster. Photo: iStock

I’M PLANNING A FOUR-WEEK ROAD TRIP AROUND ENGLAND. HIRE COMPANIES SEEM TO CHARGE MORE FOR HIRING A GPS THAN THE COST OF BUYING ONE. COULD I BUY A GPS HERE AND LOAD IT WITH UK ROAD MAPS, OR IS THERE A BETTER IDEA? HOW DO YOU PAY ROAD TOLLS IN THE UK, DO YOU NEED A TOLL TAG OR CAN YOU PAY WITH CASH?

 C. WILKINSON, BATHURST

Buying a GPS device in Australia and downloading the UK maps you need is one option, but not the best if you’re looking to save money. You could achieve the same result for less if you simply buy a GPS navigator when you get to the UK. For example you could purchase a TomTom XL for £79 ($145) preloaded with UK maps from Tesco at the moment. Argos  and Halfords are other high street shops with similar deals. When you return to Australia you could even sell your device over the internet and recoup some of the cost.

If you are travelling with a smartphone or tablet you can also purchase and download the maps you need from Sygic (sygic老域名出售). These enable your phone or tablet to function as a satnav device, with turn-by-turn voice prompts as well as a visual feed. I’ve used Sygic maps on an iPad for several overseas self-drive trips and they work well, they’re cost effective and once downloaded, no expensive data connection is required.

Toll roads are rare in the UK, unlike most of continental Europe. Those that do exist are almost a anachronism, such as the Aldwark Bridge in North Yorkshire where the toll is 40p. The one major road where you will encounter a toll is a section of the M6. This is a major highway, and easily avoided, but if you do pass through the tollgate you can pay with cash, a VISA card, MasterCard or American Express cards.

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