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Why were plane tickets to Stockholm in January so cheap? Because it was cooold. Beautiful! But cold!

See that boat over there? It was our hostel, the af Chapman and highly recommended. Went into several bookshops looking for books in English by Swedish authors to get as souvenirs (as I’ve done in the past), but everything seemed to be dominated by Stieg Larsson. Only read the first in the trilogy and although I found it hooking, I still don’t get why the big fuss.

(by Andre)

I’ve been making my way through Fables ever since reading the first volume back in November. It keeps getting more and more addictive. I wonder is Bill Willingham already knows where he wants to go with the story or if he’s just playing it by ear. In the long-term the first option of course works better (think Lost), and it’s especially rewarding as a reader to see certain details being slowly explained over different volumes – why is Bigby always smoking? Why is Flycatch always doing “community service”?

Another thing I really like about the series is how in every volume a different artist is invited to draw a short-story about the past of one of the characters. Favorite so far: War Stories, about Bigby during WWII.

Only volume 4 and 5 are valid for the Graphic Novel Challenge as they were the only ones read in 2011.

There are spoilers all over this post as from this point, so read on at your own peril!


Animal Farm (Volume 2)

We discovered in the first book that Fables who don’t look human and can’t afford to (or don’t want to) look human live on “The Farm”. Now we travel there with Snow White, on one of her regular control trips. She takes Red Rose with her as an attempt at a reconciliation after what happened in Volume 1, and the story develops after they discover a plan by some Farm animals to invade the Homelands and defeat the Adversary.

More than in the first book I was impressed by the double-page scenes where hundreds of characters seem to be moving independently. It’s great to spend 10 minutes on just one of these pages, trying to identify each Fable. It’s like looking at a painting by Bosch.

Still, it was probably my least favorite of the books so far, mostly because there’s not nearly enough Bigby and Snow’s naivety starts to border on stupidity. Everyone could feel the building rebellion except her, the cunning woman who single-handedly runs Fabletown.

It was only after some Googling that I realized that Red Rose is not actually Red Ridding Hood. She was Snow White’s sister in the original story, but (Disney’s fault?) somehow didn’t made it into present-day lore. This is a major issue in Red Rose’s life, especially because Fables physically resiliency increases according to how much they’re remembered by mundanes (similar to fairies and believing in them). It made me wonder about the amount of fairy-tale characters which have fallen into oblivion and give a mental thanks to Bill Willingham for reviving them.

Highlight of the book: Reynard the Fox. He’s cunning, witty, utterly charming and I hope we get to see more of him in the future.

Storybook Love  (Volume 3)

A mundane journalist who’s too smart for his own good, threatens to expose what he thinks is Fabletown’s secret: they’re a vampire society! Bluebeard is for outright murder, but Bigby get his way and comes up with “softer methods” which involve very cleverly crafted blackmail.

The tension between Blackbeard and Bigby, which has been an undercurrent in past books, really comes out here and culminates in Blackbeard’s attempt to get rid of Bigby and Snow by obliterating their memory, dumping them in the middle of some far-away woods and ordering Goldilocks to kill them.

The scenes where both of them are in the woods are beautifully drawn using complex backgrounds and unusual arrangements of the boxes. It was the perfect setting to get to know them a bit better and see their relationship evolve. Another character that also gets some attention and growth is Prince Charming, who starts becoming more than a womanizer. He doesn’t really change, we just get to know him better (didn’t Elizabeth Bennett say something similar about Mr. Darcy?).

The enormous possibilities offered by the Fables world is further exploited in the two short-stories in this volume: “Bag O’ Bones” about Jack’s adventures during the Civil War (you can almost hear the Southern accents!) and “Barleycorn Brides” which can teach you a thing or two about preserving an extinct race 😉

The storyline introduced in Animal Farm about the plan to attack the Adversary is not further developed in this volume, but you do get a lot of juicy character development.

March of the Wooden Soldiers (Fables 4)

My favorite so far. It has action, adventure, romance and tragedy, and above all, a very pregnant Snow. A pregnant heroine in an action comic book: how cool is that?! She’s even coordinates a battle through binoculars, walkie-talkies… the whole shebang! Right after Cuddy from House, Snow is the woman I want to be when I grow up!

The humor was top-notch. Although most fans elected as their favorite LOL scene the “Young Republicans” comment, I beg to differ and offer this one instead:

Bigby: I don’t believe you got mugged. You’re up to something and I don’t have time for it.

Jack: I am not! Look at me!

Bigby: You’re lying now because you always lie.

Jack: Not this time!

Snow: Jack, did you ever hear about the boy who cried wolf?

Jack: Sure Snow. He lives up on the seventh floor. So what?

Snow: Nevermind.

The story starts in the Homelands, with Little Red Ridding Hood riding for her live as she tries to reach the last safe refuge against the Adversary. The Fables trapped in this last Castle know they have no chance to resist the Adversary for much longer, so they plan one last journey to our World before closing all gates to the Homelands.

Ridding Hood is though to have been killing during that last escape, until she shows up in Fabletown with a story of enslavement and escape. Her gazelle eyes fools everyone except Bigby, who smells fowl (pun unintended).

There are a lot of parallel story lines going on in this volume, from the election for Mayor  of Fabletown (Prince Charming vs. King Cole) to the appearance of three ruthless, mysterious, sadistically-funny men who are just the start of a full-blown invasion by the Adversary. The final battle scenes were exciting and I was glad to once again see the Crow brothers, who stole my heart during the story of the Last Escape.

The Mean Seasons (Fables 5)

While “The March” was all action and adventure, this volume is much more subdue, but definitely out to pull at your heart-strings.

Snow gives birth to not-so-human babies, so they need to be raised at the Farm. Bigby on the other hand, is not allowed at the Farm because of his less than pleasant dealings with some of the creatures living there. To top all, both Bigby and Snow have been fire by Prince Charming, the new Mayor of Fabletown.

In the end, they decide, on less than friendly terms, to go their separate ways – Snow and the babies to the Farm, Bigby to an unknown location away from mundanes. I confessed I found it this decision a bit implausible, especially considering Bigby’s character – would he really be able to abandon Snow with 6 kids to raise?!

Though not so good as the previous one, I still enjoyed it more than the first volumes. I got a kick out of seeing Prince Charming’s struggle with the reality of running a Government and thought it a great twist the appearance of Bigby’s father, the North Wind (love the hair!), in the Farm to give Snow a much needed hand with raising her pups.

The ending was a bit of a blow – didn’t see that one coming! – sad in a beautiful way (or beautiful in a sad way?) and it made me go straight to BookDepository to order the next volumes.

I’m a big fan of historical novels, they’re more than 1/3 of what I’ve read in the past 5 years, and if I had to take only one genre to a desert island that would be it. As far as that makes me an expert (!), believe me when I say that Dorothy Dunnett is the best. No one can put me there like she can.

I’m always surprised at how she’s not more famous – I only know two people in person that have read her and not that many more in the virtual world. No… to be honest, I’m not that surprised, because I’m always afraid to recommend her, especially to people who don’t read much (sounds snobbish, but it’s not, believe me!). Dunnett can write the most satisfying books, but they’re not a light read. The plot is intricate and there are many characters, at times you don’t know what’s happening until two chapters later a character says something and then there’s glorious light. Dunnett never spoon feeds you and makes you work for your rewards… but oh the rewards!

The House of Niccolò series was written after her first books, the Lymond Chronicles, but follow one of Lymond’s ancestors: Nicholas vander Poele, an apprentice in a dye shop in Bruges who, with mathematical precision and the clever use of his dimples, climbs the proverbial corporate leader until he becomes head of the company. In the Lymond Chronicles, each book is set in a different place (Scotland, France, Malta, Turkey, Russia), and Nicholas also treats the world as his oyster. Book 1 starts in Bruges, with glimpses of Geneva, Venice and Milan, and this second book takes us further East.

In 1461,  20 years-old Nicholas is in Florence, where he persuades Cosimo de’ Medici to back him up on an ambitious trade journey. He will sail to the Black Sea until Trebizond, last outpost of the Byzantine outpost, and the last jewel missing in the crown of the Ottoman Empire. But things of course never run as smoothly as they should: Nicholas’s younger stepdaughter, 13 year-old Catherine, elopes with his rival in trade: a Machiavellian Genoese who races ahead of Nicholas, setting traps at each port he lands. Trebizond is a key trade connection to the East, and home to a decadent court who refuses to admit that at any moment they may fall to the Turks. Not all traders in the city are that blind and the plot is mined with political and commercial intrigue.

As always, Dunnett shows off her meticulous historical research and ability to blends historic characters with fictional ones. The meeting with Cosimo de’ Medici was especially well done –  Nicholas gets into the old man’s good graces by enchanting his grandson Cosimino with a yo-yo he made himself. But the highlights are really her descriptions of the wonders of Trebizond, the incense in the air, the languid day-to-day life of its court, the hot-baths, the arrival of the camel caravan.

Also, in this immediate-world we live in, I’m also always fascinated by a past where news traveled at a slow pace. People could take months to arrive in Trebizond from Europe, a letter just little under that time, if a ship heading for the destination you want  happens to pass by. It really makes me wonder how could anything outside one city could work and… be done. But it did and Dorothy Dunnett, better than anyone, gives you a glimpse at how trade, politics and personal relationships developed in the expanding borders of the mid-XV century.

I’d like to go to visit Trebizond – maybe to a trip around the Black Sea? The closest I’ve ever got was the entrance to the Sea, when we went to Istanbul. We were close to the ruins of a Fort that might have been the one in Dunnett’s description:

Then, three weeks on their journey, they reached the end of the Black Sea and faced its only exit: the waterway of the Bosphorus, lined by the guns of the Turks. They chose to sail through it in daylight. The ponderous Anadolu Hisari on the Asian shore and, on the right, the massive round towers of Bohasi-Kesen, its new partner. The throat-cutter, they called it; or the strait-cutter; because no ship could survive between the mouths of the two sets of cannon. They entered the Bosphorus, and the gun from Bohasi-Kesen fired.

Where Lymond was about dramatic escapades and a world changed by the ideas of the height of the Renaissance, the Niccolò series is about trade, the delicate balance of power it builds, and how it ultimately started globalization. In The Spring of the Ram, the journey undertaken by Nicholas is portrayed almost as a quest, right down to the mythic parallels. The sign of the Ram (or Aires), is the first in the Zodiac. Aires sometimes represent the Golden Fleece, sought by the heroic Jason and his Argonauts, whose steps Nicholas follows on his way to Trebizond. Dorothy Dunnett liked to play these little tricks. In Lymond, the titles were all chess moves and the story reflected it, and with Niccolò they’re all references to star signs. The next one, Race of Scorpions, will take me to Cyprus. I could go straight to it, but I want to make them last. You can only read Dorothy Dunnett for the first time once.

As a rule, the first couple of weeks of November are extremely busy in Brussels. This year we had five events in three days, the culmination of weeks of hard work, but in the end, all extremely rewarding. The downside is having no time at all for blogging. It was the first time I spent so many days away from the blogosphere since I started, and I’m afraid I had to hit the “mark all as read” on my Google Reader, so please let me know if I missed anything important.

At the end of The Crazy Period, and as a well deserved reward, we did a road trip to visit some friends in lovely Zaragoza, where the sun was shinning and the tapas were to die for. Andre’s own pictures:

(Zaragoza sunset)

(it’s things like these tapas that make us realize just how
southern Europeans we are, although sometimes we forget…)

I still managed to get through five books (mostly audiobooks) and would like to do a longer review of three of them, but meanwhile, and to get me up to speed, I’ll just quickly go through the others.

Court Duel (The Crown and Court Duel, Book 2) by Sherwood Smith

I decided not to go for a long review of this one because honestly, I don’t really have much to say about it. I read the first in the series during the Trans-Siberian and wasn’t very impressed. While that book was all about adventures and battles, this one is a fantasy of manners. Our heroine Melaria, after overthrowing the Evil King and a period of self-education, agrees to spend some time in court and has to deal with the expected gossip, politics and general backstabbing.

It kept me interested enough (as all ugly-duckling stories do), and the romance had a good pace, but in the end, it was just too YA. This is a recurrent problem with some of this year’s books: a bit too predictable, a bit too formulaic, a bit too… cute.

The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

Audiobook heard on the way from Zaragoza and which kept us sane during the traffic jams around Paris. It’s a set of 9 stories, read by different people, including the man himself – David Suchet – and Hugh Frasier (Captain Hastings). I’ve read “And Then There Were None” and “Endless Night”, but these were my first Poirot and Miss Marple. I was enchanted. Now I really understand Christie’s power as a story-teller. Even in a very short story, such as for instance, Yellow Iris, she’s able to create the right atmosphere and play with the pace so masterfully, that she has us wrapper around her finger in a matter of minutes.

In particular I liked “Problem at Pollensa Bay” because it was the first time I came across Parker Pyne (have you ever heard of him?). After some Googleing I find out that not only he seems to be inspired by Mycroft Holmes (a secondary character I was always curious about), but that he once employed Miss Lemon. So you see, he must be someone worth knowing.

He’s the type of men who makes people comfortable and has an instinctive way of solving problems – any type of problems. In “Problem at Pollensa Bay” be helps a mother and her son see eye-to-eye on the subject of his bride, and in “The Regatta Mystery” he solves the theft of a diamond during regatta festivities at Dartmouth harbor.

Someone at Goodreads commented that Parker Pyke is the most emotional of Agatha Christie’s detectives, since he prefers matters of the heart to pure puzzles. I definitely want to know more about him now.

What are you favorite Agatha Christie’s? Any recommendations?

Quotes by Mr. Pyne:

I have had a long experience in the compilation of statistics. From that experience I can assure you that in 87% of cases dishonesty does not pay.

Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads–no more, I assure you. Once you know the cause of a malady, the remedy should not be impossible.

I think I mentioned before that I’m a member of the Brussels Brontë Group. Charlotte and Emily lived here for a while and their experiences inspired Charlotte to write The Professor and Villette. The Group has about 50 members of 20 nationalities. We organize talks, Brontë city walks, visits to museums and last weekend, 25 of us went on a Literary Weekend to London.

Day 1 was spent with the local Brontë Society and on Sunday our hosts were the Dickens Fellowship. Day 1 started at the National Portrait Gallery where the Gallery’s Collections Manager gave us a special talk about the two Brontë portraits painted by Branwell Brontë: the “pillar” portrait and the remains of the “Gun Group Portrait”. It was quite a feeling to see them live and knowing them  so well from books and the internet.

By chance, we were there when the famous George Richmond’s chalk portraits of Charlotte and Elizabeth Gaskell were on display. For conservation reasons, this only happens for 6 months every 5 to 10 years. It’s also in the NPG you can see the only portrait of Jane Austen painted during her life, the one by Cassandra. It’s an amazing museum and I’m determined to spend a morning there in the near future.

After this, we lunched at the Stand Hotel with the London Brontë Society. According to them, the Hotel is exactly on the spot where Charlotte and her editor George Smith came to visit a phrenologist. The “report” is still available at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. It was also a member of the Society who afterwards took us on a Brontë tour of the city. In the evening we still had enough energy left to go to the theatre. We saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, with David Suchet (Mr. Poirot!) and Zoe Wanamaker in the lead roles. They were amazing – highly recommended.

Day 2 started with a visit to the Dickens House and then Anthony Burton of the Dickens Fellowship took us on a literary tour of London, into places most of us had never seen before.  We finished the morning with an amazing lunch at the George Inn, mentioned in Little Doritt. Shakespeare was apparently also a patron as it’s a short walk from the Globe Theatre.

During lunch we were already discussing other possible weekends. Edinburgh, Dublin and (my suggestion) Bath, with its Jane Austen connections, were put forward. I’ve been there, but wouldn’t mind a second look. I need to do a post about literary tourism, which I’ve been doing a bit in the last years.

Photo captions

1. The group at the National Portrait Gallery in front of Branwell’s painting
2. John Milton plaque at the St Mary-le-Bow church, in Bread Street, where he was born.
3. 65, Cornhill, HQ of the Bronte’s publisher.
4. The Stand Hotel.
5. The group in front St Mary-le-Bow church.
6. The group next to St. Paul’s cathedral. Charlotte visited it during a trip to London in 1842:

Above my head, above the house-tops, co-elevate almost with the clouds, I saw a solemn, orbed mass, dark-blue and dim – THE DOME. While I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fetted wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never truly lived, were at last about to taste life. (Villete)

7 + 8. The group admiring the wooden door of 32 Cornhill. The bottom right-hand panel was carved to commemorate the first visit of Charlotte and Anne to their publisher in 1848 (number 65) and meeting Thackeray.
9. All My Sons at the Apollo Theater.
10. The group in front of the Dickens House.
11 + 12 + 13. Detail inside the House.
14. Plaque outside the George Inn.
15 + 16. Sunday roast and treacle sponge pudding (huuuuuumm).
17.  Charles Lamb, whose name you’ll probably recognize if you’ve read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peal Society.
18. A beautiful tree Woodsworth immortalized in the poem The Reverie of Poor Susan:

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years

19.  The city has changed so much we needed a bit of help to visual how it looked in Dickens’ time

What hobby compares to reading? Travelling! And I love to combine the two, so every time I travel I hunt down the local English bookstore to buy my favorite type of souvenirs: books set in the country/city I’m visiting.

One of the best things about living in Brussels is how close you are to so many different places. It’s very central and has fast and cheap rail and air connections, so Andre and I sometimes go on short breaks. Whenever I need to travel for work I also try to squeeze in a visit to a bookshop.

Do you also do this?

This is the loot I brought from some of our most recent destinations.

Scotland (June 2009)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
Scottish Queens by Rosalind K. Marshall
Pocket Scottish History
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Selected Poems by Robert Burns

Read the rest of this entry »

In our hotel room in Beijing…

(photo from here)

Dear all,

I’m off to my Big Adventure. See you at the end of July!

My Final Trans-Siberian Reading List:

(photo from here)

In almost exactly 1 month I’ll be on my way to check mark one of my bucket-list items: doing a Trans-Siberian. We’re starting in China (Beijing), cross Mongolia and finish in Russia (St. Petersburg). It will take about 3 weeks to complete. We’re planning how to spend our time in the long train hours, especially the 4-nights stretch between Lake Baikal and Moscow, and my preparations of course involve the development of my Ultimate Trans-Siberian Reading List 🙂

When I started compiling it in my head it was already waaay too long. We’ll have a lot of free time on our hands, but I also hope to do some sight-seeing, talk with fellow travellers, play board-games (our Settlers of Catan: Travel Edition is already put aside), and idly ruminate about life, the universe and everything else. So the list will have to come under control. I’ve made up my mind about the categories but still need to make a final decision on which books to include in each. The categories are:

  • One book from/about each of the 3 countries
  • One BIG book I’ve been wanting to read for ever
  • One Portuguese book from my TBR shelves
  • One random book from the TBR shelves
  • Two random audiobooks from my To-hear folder

6 + 2. I think that’s a good number for this trip. As much as possible I’ll try to find Sony Reader’s versions or paperback editions of the ones I don’t already have, so I don’t have to carry them around in the backpack.

Completely split between Dr. Jivago and The Master and Margarita. Help! Although I’ve had bad experiences with surrealism, the story of Master and Margarita seems right up my alley. On the other hand, everyone I know that ever read Dr. Jivago fervently vouches for it – in my mind it’s a sort of Russian Gone With the Wind. I know it’s likely I’ll just take both, especially if I get them in digital format, but I still need to prioritize.

Very though one. I’ve been searching for classic or contemporary Mongolian authors but so far no luck. All I have are three possibilities which, although they sound interesting, are written by foreign authors about Mongolia and that’s not what I was going for:

Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang
China’s runaway bestseller and winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. Part period epic, part fable for modern days, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf. (from Goodreads)

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Wilson
In early 14-century China, Oyuna tells her granddaughter of her girlhood in Mongolia and how love for her horse enabled her to win an important race and bring good luck to her family. (from Goodreads)

The Shadow Walker by Mike Walters
As winter falls upon the streets of Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, a serial killer is just getting warmed up. When the mutilated body of a fourth victim is found in one of the city’s most expensive hotels, Nergui, the former head of the Serious Crimes squad, is no closer to catching the killer and will accept any help he can get. (from Powell’s Books)

I’ve read Wild Sawns some years ago, and I must admit that my contact with Chinese literature is limited to the best-seller types such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstresses and Amy Tan. I really enjoyed most of them, but they were all written by Chinese-Americans or Chinese-French, so I feel I’m not tapping the source directly. There’s also Pearl Buck, which I’ve been meaning to try for ages.

I browsed my local English bookshop and Goodreads’ lists and came up with three options, but they also unavoidably fall into the Chinese-Western category:

Waiting by Ha Jin
Lin Kong is a devoted doctor in love with a modern young woman – a nurse who is educated, clever, and vivid. The only complication is the wife to whom he was married when they were very young – a tiny woman, humble and touchingly loyal, whom he visits in order to ask, again and again, for divorce. (from Goodreads)

Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie
When Puyi, the last emperor, was exiled to Manchuria in the early 1930s, it is said that he carried an eight-hundred-year-old silk scroll inscribed with a lost sutra composed by the Buddha. Eventually the scroll would be sold illicitly to an eccentric French linguist named Paul d’Ampere, in a transaction that would land him in prison, where he would devote his life to studying the ineffably beautiful ancient language of the forgotten text. Our unnamed narrator, a Western student in China in the 1970s, hears this story and pursues it.
(from Goodreads)

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

The setting is China’s Forbidden City in the last days of its imperial glory, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. In this highly ordered place – tradition-bound, ruled by strict etiquette, rife with political and erotic tension – the Emperor, The Son of Heaven, performs two duties: he must rule the court and conceive an heir. To achieve the latter, tradition provides a stupendous hierarchy of hundreds of wives and concubines. (from Goodreads) Anchee Min recently released a Pearl Buck biography which also caught my eye: “Pearl of China”.

The Big book
It’s decided: The Count of Monte-Cristo by Alexander Dumas

The Portuguese book
Although being my native language, ever since I’ve started comfortably reading in English I’ve read very few books in Portuguese. There are several reasons for this but the main ones are that I avoid translations as much as possible and I’ve always felt more drawn to Anglo-Saxon literature. This, mixed with my taste for historical fiction, led me the embarrassing point where I know more about British history than that of my own country.

That’s why one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more about Portuguese history in Portuguese. So far there hasn’t been much (no) progress…

The book in this category is also already chosen:  1808 by Laurentino Gomes. The book is about “How a mad Queen, a fearful Prince and a corrupt Court fooled Napoleon and changed the course of Portuguese and Brazilian history.” Basically, how our Court fled the country to escape Napoleon and established the first European capital outside Europe –  for some years, the capital of Portugal was Rio de Janeiro. This also contributed to the development of Brazil into an integrated country, with a unique cultural and national identity, which eventually led to it’s independence soon after. Sounds promising and I’m looking forward to it.

Random book
To be decided. Maybe some fantasy.

Two audiobooks
Only one decided: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson read by Bill Bryson.

I still plan to browse around and talk to people about this list before finalizing it, but meanwhile, actually planning it it’s been one of the best  parts of planning the whole trip. I’ll post the final list later in the month.

… according to The Guardian is the Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht.

What does a city do with an 800-year-old church with no congregation? Well, it could make like the Dutch and convert it into a temple of books. The old Dominican church in Maastricht was being used for bicycle storage not long ago, but thanks to a radical refurbishment by Dutch architects Merkx + Girod it has been turned into what could possibly be the most beautiful bookshop of all time.

They put the list together back in 2008 and shortly after I organized a trip with some friend to see what the fuss was about. We’re only about 1h30 away by car. I came across the photos today and wanted to share – makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

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