Posted by: scribe9 | December 29, 2009

Flow gently, sweet Avon

We visited Christchurch the week before Christmas, thinking it might be more Christmassy than Whangarei. It wasn’t–see the lonely Santa–but we had a good time, anyway.

Part of what makes central Christchurch so delightful is the River Avon, which with its banks makes a pleasant long narrow park. It’s spring-fed, so it flows clear all year long, and is home to trout and ducks. Because it’s shallow, the boats on it can’t draw much. Hence the introduction, twenty-five years ago, of punts—flat-bottomed craft that are poled rather than paddled or rowed, and are popular in Oxford. Whenever I think of punts, I remember a line from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, in which Lord Peter Wimsey tells Harriet Vane, “I admit it is more fun to punt than to be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.”

Part of the Avon’s course is flanked by Oxford and Cambridge Terraces. That stretch of Oxford Terrace is lined with restaurants, which advertise champagne as much as beer, and whose patios would be much more pleasant if they didn’t allow smoking.

The Avon also flows through the Botanic Gardens, which got started a century and a half ago and are worth wandering just as a park. On a fine spring day it’s hard to beat the large and varied canopy of mature trees,

 but there’s also a long perennial border, and a little forest of maples. The roses were in full bloom.

Behind the rose garden is a conservatory,

 home to banana trees and giant passionfruit, as well as a quilt of smaller tropical plants.

Passiflora quadrangularis, giant passionfruit

The Botanic Gardens are in a very large park with a number of cricket grounds, all in use on the Saturday afternoon we wandered around. No, we haven’t fully figured out cricket, but we’re working on it.

Another source of Christchurch’s charm is the architecture, particularly the mid-Victorian through ’30s Art Deco, all on a human scale and with detail to delight the eye. This street of pastel California Mission storefronts was built in the 1920s or 30s.

New uses were found for the lovely old buildings vacated by Canterbury University and various levels of government.  Cathedral Square is flanked by lovely old buildings on one side, souvenir shops on the other, and a tram through the middle, past a large-scale chessboard.

 

We climbed the 134 steep steps of the Cathedral’s tower, and gazed from the balconies on each of four sides. In the former post office—that cute red building with white trim, center right—is a Starbucks.

Emily went in for an iced coffee, and said that all the customers were foreigners. Not surprising, since New Zealanders know that you can find great coffee almost anywhere in the country.

Fortunately, we’d scheduled a wine tour for the one rainy afternoon. The first of the three small wineries was very green—organic grapes, and the winery itself was built of straw bales. Tasting rooms are called cellar doors, and this one was just a corner of the winery. We tasted five Rieslings—all the way from very dry to syrupy sweet—along with a couple of Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir. One of the wines we liked best was a Syrah, which unfortunately wasn’t available for purchase—our samples came via a wine thief from a cask. The wine world is very small; the winemaker had spent some time at Domaine Drouhin in Yamhill County. The region, just north of Christchurch, is called Waipara, which is Maori for muddy water, and that’s the name of the winery, too.

At the next winery, Greystone, the cellar door hostess was from the Border Country in northern England, and not particularly interested in going back. She’d been to Oregon, too. We particularly liked the Gewürztraminer, the Pinot Noir Rosé, and one of the many Rieslings.

The third winery had two separate labels—one on oak, one in steel—and we bought a Riesling and a port from one and a Pinot Gris from the other. Thank goodness one can take liquids on flights within New Zealand! We were able to bring eight of the nine bottles home, but the Gewürztraminer didn’t survive an al fresco supper.

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