DIARY OF A RETIRED RUGBY LEAGUE WRITER
WEEK 36 2019
Bratislava proves underwhelming. My wife, Marie and I opted for a coach trip to the Slovakian capital, from our berth in the Austrian capital, Vienna on the Danube River on the 13th day of our Scenic Crystal cruise. Our female guide talks constantly. She is proud of Slovakia, but a professional guide should realise that tourists do not want to know about every car that comes off a production line, or the number of megawatts a power station produces. It must be something about the former eastern bloc countries! Our female guide in Slovenia, in 2017, was of the same ilk – constantly talking. Morning tea at trendy ‘Beyond Media Cafe’. I try turmeric latte. Never again. There are three other Aussies in the cafe, one wearing a Canberra Raiders’ rugby league polo.
Back on board our boat, the curry chicken is the best lunch Marie and I have had on the cruise. Dinner is also special – lobster, followed by Bombe Alaska. Tour director, Tadej gives a farewell speech, and says we were one of the best groups in his long experience. I bet he says that to everyone. Captain, Plamen takes several ladies to dinner and that night it is disco time, with the crew joining in.
Today is the 20th anniversary of my wife starting work at Brisbane’s Windsor International Hotel – in reception.
Clear views of beautiful Hungarian countryside, as we leave Austria.
Amazing entry into Budapest, under its bridges. Up on deck, I have a nice chat with James Regan, whose father, Don played rugby league with Parramatta, from 1949-53.
Out city tour guide is quite elderly and has an excellent sense of humor. He is passionate about Budapest, but not over the top with detail. His grandfather worked on the construction of the city’s St Stephen’s Basilica.
Back on board, the Hungarian Folk show leaves me a bit cold, although the costumes are good.
Tonga rugby league coach, Kristian Woolf has been appointed new coach of English club, St Helens, whose current boss, Justin Holbrook will coach Gold Coast Titans next year.
Aussie rules followers on our boat, are in shock at the death of former St Kilda player, Dan Frawley, in a single car crash near Ballarat in Victoria.
Disembark after breakfast; check into the Marriott Hotel, and then explore Budapest’s old markets, before walking to the Jewish quarter, where we have drinks at quirky Szimpla Bar, where there is live music. Dinner at oldest restaurant in the city, with John Borseky and his wife, Lyn from Western Australia. John has Hungarian heritage, and is in his element, as gypsy musicians reach our table. Our waiter, Roberto Bader, is excellent. Marie and Lyn finish with a sweet wine, Tokaji. Roberto insists on John and I having grappa. We had hoped to be joined by Brisbane university lecturer, Peter Long (from the cruise), but, all that partying on board, saw him have an early night. John and Lyn have been such great company, and we will miss them, as we will any number of people from the cruise, which we thoroughly enjoyed. We will do another one.
Our late nephew, Kieran Ricketts is remembered at his alma mater, St Joseph’s, Banora Point in New South Wales, Australia, with the unveiling of a memorial plaque. He was a student there from 1995-2000, a talented musician and a passionate film and television producer. His parents, my brother, Jeffrey, and Ann are in attendance.
Walk to Parliament House, and have morning tea at posh ‘Borze’, where there is a strong smell of soup.
Our cabbie to the airport is efficient and doesn’t talk at all.
On our flight to Lyon, in France, there is a chap, I would describe as a concern. He gulps down three small bottles of spirits before take-off, before being told he is in the wrong seat. And then, as we land, he gets out of his seat, while the plane is still moving. He looks like someone of Romany descent, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Our (Algerian) cabbie into Lyon does well to negotiate heavy traffic, and remains cool, until we pull up outside our accommodation. He says not to worry about the traffic behind us (people beeping their horns), but then gets upset when I produce a credit card to pay the 65E fare. I insist on paying that way. After catching a four person lift, and then walking up medieval steps, we are delighted with our apartment.
Walk to the busy local square for two drinks at Dams Pub – where there is a strong smell of dope – before dinner at a Le Bouchon des Filles, almost next door to our accommodation. We had dressed well, in anticipation of a meal at a good restaurant, but shouldn’t have bothered, given the informal dress of those near us. The bloke beside us (Michel) seems rude, given he is obsessed with chats on his phone. But, when he decides to chat (to us) he is helpful and interesting. Originally from Paris, he is based in Marseilles, where he has a restaurant. Married to a Creole woman, he says Marseilles is ‘crap’. When we talk sport, he says rugby league (Rugby Treize) is the ‘real rugby’. What a man. And of course, Marseilles was once a hotbed of rugby league, with Jean Dop its most famous player.
Baguettes and chocolate eclairs from Boulangerie St Vincent, near the River Saone, as a tour bus pulls up, to allow people to take photos. Lunch (oysters, langoustine and quiche) at a restaurant in Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, which looks like it is struggling, in terms of attracting custom. A bit too flash, I suspect. Marie shops while I have beers at the central bar, where a Canadian couple beside me have the same opinion as me, of the bar staff – they are rude. One barman looks like former Australian rugby league Test prop, David Shillington, the other like Murwillumbah league product, Damien Quinn. Shillington and Quinn are both top blokes. From what I have seen, these two barmen should not work in the hospitality game.
Marie and I walk back via an area dominated by people of Algerian and African descent, with lots of men ‘loitering’. We have one drink at a riverside bar, before exploring an Italian expo, with Sardinia, a place on our bucket list, highlighted. For dinner, Marie cooks veal, bought at Maurice Trolliet’s butcher shop.
This is a day that proves memorable, for all the wrong reasons. I mean, you couldn’t script it.
First of all, it takes forever to flag down a cab for the trip to the hire car place. The car itself is resting in a multi-story car park. Reception staff give us a pass to get out of the car park, but, of course, it doesn’t work. French people are particularly patient when held up in traffic and we have a queue behind us. Thankfully, a hire car staff member, a bloke of Caribbean descent, is part of that frustrated line, and uses his generic pass to free us, for the drive south.
We had been to Lyon before, and I know how to get out of town. But all the bridges over the Rhone are shut for maintenance. Plan B. Head south on Motorway and exit at ‘St Etienne’. It is shut. Not sure why. Still manage to head in the right direction, but then we are forced into a massive detour, because of a landslide. The detour, along winding roads, up into the hills, bring us back to a point only a few hundred metres on the other side of the landslide.
It is dark by the time we arrive at our accommodation, Chateau de la Caze in the Gorges du Tarn. In keeping with the events of the day, I back our hire car into a wall, attempting to negotiate our parking spot.
The four-course dinner, in the chateau itself, is substantial compensation for a hectic day. One of our waiters is Indian, and a cricket tragic. Afterwards, Marie and I chat to English couple, Andrew and Judith who have two greyhounds as traveling companions.
In the daylight, we become aware of the grandeur of our setting, in the gorge, with kayakers going by. After breakfast, on the balcony, we walk across the shallow river and follow a wooded path, along the Gorge, to the nearest village, Pougnadoires.
Optometrists take over the chateau tonight, as part of a bonding trip away.
1 Steve Ricketts (left) and Parramatta rugby league stalwart, James Regan in Budapest
2 Our Budapest tour guide
3 Marie Ricketts and Scenic tour director, Tadej
4 Peter Long and his cruise ‘harem’ (from left) Lyn, Kylie and Marie
5 Steve and Marie Ricketts – cruising
6 Marie Ricketts enjoys a drink in Budapest
7 Roberto Bader – our excellent Budapest restaurant waiter
8 Marie Ricketts and Michel, in Bouchon des Filles, Lyon
9 Gorges du Tarn
10 Chateau de la Caze
11 Our accommodation in Gorges du Tarn.