Thursday, December 31, 2009

The rain in Spain falls mostly on the... Costa del Sol, actually

Our view during a rare moment of sunshine

So, as Tea 'n' I were packing for our eight days in Andalucía, she noted that the long-range forecast called for rain every day; I think it even covered the whole trip, or certainly most of it. Now, you have to remember, we're both from the school of "Yeah, right" when it comes to forecasts more than a few days out: on the east coast, and in Ottawa, I don't know how often they're right, but I'd doubt they're batting .500; and, the thing is, they know it. They're purposely vague beyond 24 hours or so. In England, it seems to us anyway, there's something almost supernatural going on: they will forecast rain for 3 p.m. the following day, and be bang on, again and again; within a half hour, it'll rain -- I'm not kidding. That said, though, old habits die hard, and we were hopefully about seeing lots of sun as we left for southern Spain.

U'm, not so much.

We had rain, and hard rain at that, for seven of the eight days there; no word of a lie. Most of Spain had rain and snow for that week, actually, but the south continued to get drenched when things were clearing up in the north. We're talking incredible flooding; it was all over the news -- I had a lot of fun trying to translate the subtitles, actually. During a brief window of sunshine near the end of the trip we were in a restaurant -- in the marina of the beautiful Puerto de la Duquesa -- and we overheard a woman say, “My grandmother is 82, and she said she's never seen a Christmas here like this.” It really was extraordinary.

I mean, I don't want to be all doom and gloom here: Tea and I were both under the weather (in more ways than one, I guess you could say) so the forced relaxation was actually nice, and we still made it out for at least an hour or so most days, between downpours. On Christmas Eve, for example, the sun made a few appearances, and we were lucky enough to be enjoying mussels, prawns 'n' scallops in the Brasserie on the beach during the worst of the rain. We also drove to Gibraltar one day, stopping at a beach near San Roque so that Tea could dip her toes in the Med. And the local Mercadona had this amazing fish counter, so we were eating like kings at the apartment: prawns the size of my hand, and beautiful fillets of hake; Tea made her own paella, salsa, and guacamole; fantastic wines for one and two euros, and Brandy de Jerez for seven. Just incredible. We cooked up a chicken with it all on Christmas, and watched reruns of the Nochebuena shows. (Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas in Spain.)

At the beach-front Brasserie in San Luis de Sabinillas

Tea on the beach near San Roque


Check out the (not-so) shrimp!

Aside: one final point on the rain: so I brought my copy of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Trilogy in Five Parts," and had to laugh out loud when I got to So long... and thanks for all the fish: at one point a producer is talking to Arthur about this guy, Rob McKenna, he's discovered who's amassed all sorts of data supporting his theory that it always rains, no matter where he goes. This producer goes on to say that this "Rain God" is about to hit it big, and does Arthur realize how much he's being paid by tour operators to stay away from Málaga.

Málaga is just an hour down the road from us. So that's it: the Rain God couldn't resist a Costa del Sol vacation during our week there.

True to form, the day of sun that was forecast for our last full day there came to fruition: we decided to do the Land of the Bandits driving tour out of our Michelin Guide to Andalucía -- great book, by the way. We swung down to Algeciras -- where you can catch a ferry to North Africa -- and then back up to the beautiful fortified city of Castillo de Castellar, on the way to Jimena de la Frontera; from there it was an incredible drive through the mountains, stopping at the picturesque town of Gaucín -- a highlight of the trip for us, with local music and lambs' bleating to accompany our short walk -- on the way to the birthplace of the corrida, Ronda. You can see the best of our pictures, including captions, in my Navidad en España album in Picasa.

In Castillo de Castellar

Tea, with Gaucín in the background

Monday, December 21, 2009

Navidad en España

Our afternoon flight allowed us a nice, leisurely morning; we made it to Bristol with plenty of time to spare, even considering the long check-in line for Ryanair. What Bristol International Airport lacks in size, it makes up for in foot and air traffic; that little airport was simply hoppin' when we went through, and it was all the more chaotic with severe weather conditions closing airports in Northern England and the Netherlands. We were happy that our flight was only delayed an hour and a bit, and that they actually announced it early on (as opposed to the fifteen-minute intervals we were used to with Air Canada).

Thanks to careful packing, our checked luggage was under 15 kilograms and our two carry-ons were under 10 kg each, thereby avoiding a number of Ryanair's many surcharges. Once we boarded the plane, it was easy to see why they have to limit the size of carry-on luggage: it was as cramped as I've ever seen a plane – they don't even have pouches on the backs of their seats, 'cause there'd be no room for your knees! – and, with the free-for-all seating (198 seats!), it was even more chaotic than the terminal. At one point, Tea and I were thinking about offering our seats to a family of four, as the youngest son was terribly upset that he couldn't sit near his mom, who was across the aisle from us; however, eventually they sat him across the aisle from his older brother, which he seemed quite happy with.

I mean, don't get me wrong: the flight was fine; it's just that I'm not a big fan of air travel to begin with. And the prices really are worthy of all the talk they generate, particularly if you can take advantage of their deals. One final point: what's with the colour scheme, Ryanair? Honest to goodness, I felt like I was on an enormous life-raft for the entire flight; a sensation that's no doubt enhanced by the emergency information that's printed on the back of the seat rest, which, thanks to the cramped quarters, always takes up a large portion of your field of vision at any time. That said, it was a smooth flight, and we even managed to make up some time in the air.

Aside: O.K., I lied; one additional point: smokeless cigarettes. The image of a smiling stewardess walking down the aisle, asking, “Cigarettes?” as she offers the tray of glossy packs in her hands was one that I thought was relegated to the movies of my parents' day. I gather they contain some nicotine, but I can't imagine it's very satisfying; first of all, how do you know when you're done? And while I'm on the subject, the catalogue in Ryanair's magazine includes a USB-charged, smokeless cigarette. Have you seen this thing? Apparently, while the charge lasts, it produces a 'harmless' vapour – that allows you to blow authentic smoke rings, the ad highlights – that simulates the real experience; can't remember if they contain any nicotine. The charger was the best bit: it looked like a cigarette holder for your computer, and, hey, those jokes just write themselves.

The car rental went smoothly as well, considering we booked it the night before and required an automatic. (It's bigger than we would've liked – an Opel Astra – and semi-automatic, which means it drives much heavier than we're used to, but I think that, second only to our fantastic apartment, it, and the freedom it gives us, will really make this vacation.) It was well after dark by the time we got on the road, but since we took the A-7 all the way from Málaga to San Luis de Sabinillas, Tea had no problem with the drive. (They also drive on the right in Spain, which no doubt helped.)

The final leg of our journey, however, was anything but smooth. We found our way through Sabinillas with little difficulty, but quickly realized that we'd failed to grasp the extent of the construction going on around our apartment complex, Arenal Duquesa: nobody, and I mean no one, was about, and most of the windows were dark; metal fences abounded; and there was little street lighting. Combined with the heavy rain, it was very eerie, to be honest. Worse still, there were many blocks of identical complexes, all gated, with no signs and few numbers to speak of. We really had no idea which complex was ours, and eventually decided to try our electronic fob on a random gate.

While I got a green light from the panel, the gate remained locked. Having driven around aimlessly for some time at that point, we decided to park the car on the road and see about exploring on foot. The pedestrian entrance associated with that gate didn't seem to work, but we found one further down the road that seemed to have a working keypad that accepted the code we were given. I should really pause here and note that it didn't look like more than five to ten percent of the apartments were occupied yet; the whole area felt like it was months from being ready for occupancy, to be honest, but we pressed on, in bull-headed fashion, really (upon reflection).

Since we'd been given directions to the apartment from the parking garage – it had been assumed that we'd find the appropriate gate and drive in – we went in search of the garage associated with the gate we'd just entered. The inner vehicle gate was down and locked, but the door off to one side was open, so in we went. The first thing that struck me was the lack of cars – none, to be precise – quickly followed by the few lights. As we explored, looking for the appropriate parking spot number, we passed all sorts of construction equipment, our footsteps echoing in the distance. We were out of sight of the door when we heard an enormous bang; it sounded like the wind might've caught it, but those few moments of doubt, surrounded by all those dark doorways (that would lead to the elevators at some point, but were just yawning empty then), had our hearts racing.

As we headed back to the first gate we'd tried – now inside the series of walled, attached complexes – we noted that the keypad on the pedestrian entrance was emitting a piercing alarm – and had been for some time, we realized – and the associated vehicle gate was now open to the street! Had we failed to wait long enough earlier? We had no idea, and were even more spooked to be standing around listening to this alarm that no one was paying attention to. Either way, we knew that even if this did turn out to be the right parking garage, this inner vehicle gate was still locked, and, unlike the other garage, we couldn't find another way in to explore.

Eventually, after we'd been wandering blindly in the rain for a good forty minutes, we spotted a man leaving his apartment to walk his dog. Luckily he had an excellent ear for English – and was even able to say a few words – such that we could confirm that we were in the right general area. However, the letters and numbers on our keyring were as foreign to him as they were to us (still are, in fact; they seem to bear no resemblance to the few numbers on the outside of the building).

We were a few minutes away from calling the owner of the apartment when we stumbled upon a vehicle gate leading to two separate parking garages. Like something out of an Indiana Jones or Mummy movie, Tea and I looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “A gate leading to two parkades!” – honestly, it's like our page of written instructions had become an ancient map to a long-buried treasure, and now, almost upon it, we were able to decipher the previously-cryptic direction markers. In all the confusion, we'd forgotten this key piece of information; all the outer vehicle gates to this point had led to one parking garage.

When we tried the fob on the outer gate, we got a green light again, but it also began to open. We ran down the ramp, sensing that we might soon be warm and dry, and quickly found our parking spot. From there we were able to locate the elevator, fumbling for the keyhole in the dark, thanks to poor lighting again, and finally, to the apartment itself.

There were other difficulties – the heating took a long time to kick in, which meant that the marble floors were unbearably cold, and, now getting on for 11 p.m., we couldn't get any groceries – but the worst was behind us. We couldn't help but laugh and shake our heads as we snacked on what food Tea had squirreled away in her carry-on throughout the day; as the kind gentleman who'd helped us said, we really set ourselves up for quite the first evening in Spain.

Up next: the rain in Spain...

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Forest of Dean: the Sculpture Trail

We started Sunday in style with chocolates from Black Peter – yup, he managed to find Tea's shoes all the way across the pond – and pancakes made with Aunt Jemima's mix – Thanks, Michelle! Unfortunately we discovered that the washer wasn't working, but when I suggested that we might hit a laundromat, Tea snorted and began bandying about day-trip ideas. Given the nice day over our heads – have I mentioned how much I love our windowed 'conservatory' lately? ;-) – we quickly settled on the Sculpture Trail in the Forest of Dean.

The Forest of Dean is just a short half-hour drive from us, through some truly picturesque countryside. The small town of Cinderford, in particular, just calls you to pull over and explore (which we did on the way back – but I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual). The information centre sells a nice map of the Sculpture Trail with pictures and descriptions for £1, so we picked up one – as three excited dogs competed for our attention (we love this dog culture) – and hit the trail!

The first sculpture is tough to miss – I think they want to get your confidence up: the chair is enormous, with a fantastic view of the surrounding forest. Any worries that I had about the trail being hokey were quickly dispelled by the second sculpture: Dead Wood really spoke to me; while it wasn't cold, the stark stumps and blanket of pale needles reminded me of those horrific scenes from the Battle of the Bulge in Band of Brothers.

It started to rain partway through, but seasoned as we are now to English weather, we simply pulled our raincoats out of the backpack and continued on; with proper gear, you don't even notice it. Some of our favourite sculptures were the House, Raw – this block looked like something out of a horror flick; I was happy that the sunset was still many hours off, even though I had a flashlight – Echo, and Hanging Fire (see my Best of December 2009 album for pictures of them); but we both agreed that the Cathedral was the most impressive by a good margin; particularly the way the light hit it at that hour of the afternoon. It was truly breath-taking!

On the way home, we decided to stop at the White Hart Inn in Cinderford for a pick-me-up. This was a whim – yes, I do leave the house without the Good Beer Guide on occasion! – but as soon as we stepped inside the cozy front room, we knew we had a winner. The bartender got up from the table of folks she'd been chatting with and served me a pint of Butcombe Bitter and Tea... well, some tea. :-) We sat back by the fireplace beside the other full table, and at one point Tea and I shared a look and laughed out loud: I don't know where they were from, but we both felt we could've been in any Mom 'n' Pop shop in Newfoundland. It was great!

Once home, we decided to clean up and walk over to Zizzi's for a bit of a treat; an Italian restaurant inside a converted church, the atmosphere can't be beat – well, maybe by their delicious breads and pastas. A tasty end to the weekend!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas in Bath

Pub planning 101
Tea's been talking about Christmas markets -- and all the wonderful childhood memories she has tied up with them -- since we arrived, and after seeing some of the stuff in Cardiff and in town -- not to mention the Good Food Show in Birmingham, although I didn't go with her for that -- it was time to head out for our first one... in Bath. We'd heard that parking was extremely scarce, so, much like our trip to Wales, we packed a backpack and jumped on a train. (We even threw in our swimsuits in the hopes of spending a bit of time in the Roman baths, but, being the last weekend of the Christmas market, it was far too busy.)

Unlike some of our other day trips, we got started nice 'n' early, arriving just after the market opened at 10 a.m. Before long we were snacking on banana and caramel crepes and sipping mulled wine -- it was almost noon, Mom, honest! -- taking in all the festive sights, sounds and smells. Somewhere between the curried parsnip soup and the bratwurst I realized that I was already close to topping out my short-term memory, and fished out my notebook. As I'm scratching down some key details, I hear this older lady's voice from somewhere in front of me say, "Would you like my number? Or am I too old for you?" Awesome! (My little black Moleskine does look like an address book, although I hadn't noticed it before.) There were also stalls that didn't serve food or drink, of course, and I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight the Wooden Ties one: I'll have to put something up on YouTube demonstrating the fantastic tie I picked up; it was quite a hit at work.

Bath is absolutely amazing to walk around, but we decided that we'd focus on the market areas this time, knowing we'd be back again soon. We had some great chats with folks, like the guy who'd set up an enormous Christmas card for passers-by to sign that'd be sent to British soldiers serving overseas. He got really excited when we found out we were Canadian, talking about how much he liked the idea of the Highway of Heroes, and how folks were trying to get a similar designation for the M5 over here. Then there was the local in the Old Green Tree pub who was still up 'n' at it from the night before! He felt so bad about mistaking us for Americans; he kept offering to buy our round, but I knew we were only stopping for a quick one. (At some point, early in the conversation, he leaned over all conspiratorially and said, "Do you realize there's a lady rootin' around in your pack?" He was just tickled that she ordered a full pint too.) It was such a beautiful find -- that Good Beer Guide is worth its substantial weight in gold! -- with a great selection: Tea had Butcombe's Christmas Steps and I had a Keystone Porter. Don't miss this gem of a pub if you're in Bath!

Tea with our new friend
in the Old Green Tree

PS: I'm experimenting with some new features in Blogger, so let me know if you notice any changes in the layout, etc. that you like (or don't like). Thanks.

Update: One thing I've already noticed is that Blogger copies over the pictures, as opposed to linking to Picasa. You can always go there to see all the other pictures associated with any of our adventures (i.e., Best of December 2009 in this case); plus, the slide-show to the right pulls them from there as well (and may even show you ones that I haven't got around to posting about yet.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Walks: Beware of bull

Our car, in Northleach
Well, the big news is that we bought a car! It's an older, lightly-used Yaris with an automatic transmission -- key, since neither of us drive stick. It's small, which is great for parking and the narrow roads, but it's also a four-door, and roomier than you might expect. We're really excited about the weekend travel possibilities now, as you can imagine, particularly with our seat-of-the-pants (u'm, that'd be trousers for you local readers) lifestyle.

It was raining Saturday with no signs of letting up, but we decided to head to Bourton-on-the-Water anyway, eager to take the car out of town. The name suggests quaint to me, and it really was quite cosy and picturesque -- our good, waterproof shoes and raincoats made sure the weather didn't detract from that feeling. The River Windrush dominates the centre of town, and there was already a big Christmas tree on one of its little islands, which Tea particularly enjoyed. I love how all these towns have big war memorials to those they lost in the wars, still covered in poppies at this time of year, of course.

After browsing a local book sale, it was off for a walk on the local paths that surround the town. A couple was just coming off the public footpath as we approached, both of them covered in thick, wet mud to their knees. Tea gasped and exclaimed, by way of introduction, "Please tell me we won't get that mucky!" They laughed and assured us that we wouldn't. (To this day, I have no idea how they got so dirty; and we've been on some muddy paths, trust me!) We had a great time, and made it home before dark (always nice for novice drivers). Check out the latter half of our November album for some pictures from the walk.

"U'm, what's that
sign say?"
We slept in a bit late on Sunday, but still managed to make it to Northleach in the morning. (Unfortunately, I forgot to charge the camera, so we didn't get many pictures of this great day; the funniest part is that the clouds rolled in as my camera died, so the beautiful sun I did catch isn't really representative of the day.) We'd barely started the walk from our book when we both did a double-take by the "Beware of bull" sign. Tea, always sharp, was immediately out with, "Thank goodness I'm not wearing red!" You can't make this stuff up! Still, that's where the book directed us, so we pressed on.

Saturday's rain made for an extremely muddy walk; particularly in one bit that was like walking through a field of cabbage -- we were in danger of losing our shoes at times! (Wellies are on our shopping list now, incidentally.) So many wonderful sights, though: we saw this huge field of sheep -- marked with dye in what looked like that means of determining which ewes the ram has been with -- and just one black one; that's right, I met the black sheep of the family, and have no picture to show for it!

There was much high-fiving as the beautiful Northleach Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul appeared in the distance: this marked the first time we'd followed a walk from our book without getting lost once. Unfortunately we missed the carvery at the Wheatsheaf Inn, but we still enjoyed a pint in front of fire while playing with the three puppies that were scampering around. We stopped in a local bakery for some pasties before heading home, and any chill we still had didn't last long against the hot drinks we whipped up: rum hot toddy for me, and a Caramel Baileys hot chocolate for Tea.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wales: "We're Motörhead! We play rock 'n' roll!"

In one of those coincidences that you just love to talk about we found ourselves with tickets to Ballet Ireland's rendition of Cinderella one night, and Motörhead the next. Beyond that, and maybe our sitting on something like the bleachers you remember from school, the two events shared little in common, I'm sure you're surprised to learn.

The ballet was great, making very entertaining use of artistic license: it opened with the clock striking midnight, and the ringing was still in the air as the prince displayed a side a far sight short of charming. Probably the most consistent entertainment (i.e., laughs, which is always important in any stage production) came from the two ballerinos -- yes, I had to look that up, and I'm trustin' Wikipedia on it -- who played Cinderella's step-sisters. As a guy who always thinks of Disney's interpretations of many of these tales, I was happy to see that Ballet Ireland took the ugly bit very seriously. ;-) But, in all honesty, they didn't just ham it up: these guys did an outstanding job, looking at every moment as if the prince's heart (or maybe the glass slippers) was all they wanted in the world.

And then, the next night, it was off to Newport by train; this was complicated a bit by the landslip -- no, I didn't look that one up; they're common over here, in fact -- that took out the direct line through Gloucester, but we made it to the Kings Hotel with plenty of time to spare. With three opening acts, the Newport Centre was hoppin' by 7 p.m. (That, and they just start these things earlier over here: I think everything was all said 'n' done not much after midnight.) In line in front of us was a guy with a mohawk, a leather jacket under a denim vest, all marked-up and torn to c**p, and... a boy of ten, maybe, in identical attire (right down to the mohawk!). As they got up to the ticket-taker, we learned it was his first gig. :-) Hope Dad brought earplugs!

As we walked in the door, I could've sworn I was in the Walter Baker Centre or the Nepean Sportsplex: people could've been walkin' by in trunks on their way to the pool. (All the better, 'cause it never quieted down in the lobby, I'm sure, with the bar in the opposite direction to the show and up a floor.) And the show was in what looked like a big high-school gymnasium, right down to the multi-coloured lines they use for the basketball court. (Can't imagine how many marks everyone left on that surface, though. :-) )

We wandered over to the many levels of bleachers that lined the walls, and hadn't been sat for more than a minute or two before a guy directed an obviously-drunk companion to a seat in front of us. Before I continue, a word on my attire: I chose to wear a tie to the show; just to be a bit cheeky, and since I figured my black Mullet Rock shirts wouldn't stand out in that sea of black, white and denim. (Incidentally, I've never seen so many of the main act's shirts at a show in my life; one more of the many ways Motörhead just chews up the rules 'n' spits 'em out.) So the guy sits heavily in front of us, and his brother (as it turns out) turns to me and says, "Bit formal, innit?" He returns my grin, and, my tie in his hand, quickly follows that up with, "That's quality, that."

I wish I could've understand their accents a bit better, 'cause what we did catch of Rob and Steve's (I hope those were their names, although they don't sound very Welsh to me) stream of consciousness was fantastic. They were from a little village to the north (of Newport) called 'Glencairn', although I can't find it on a map for the life of me. (Rob did say that I pronounced it better than people who lived 10 miles down the road from him, though, so it may be my inability to spell Welsh names that's the problem.) But from Rob's talkin' about how his wee... u'm, wee wee that can only make girls, to his askin' our advice on men-less places in Canada he could move to with said girls, to the much shaking of hands and kissing of heads, these brothers were a show in their own right. Steve was even back out on the floor, half-naked, swingin' his shirt over his head -- and there's no band up yet, mind -- before we made our goodbyes and went for a drink.

And this 'bar' was somethin' else too; more of a place for a wedding reception you'd figure, were it not for incredible amount of leather and facial hair on display. The best part, though, was that they were all just gentle giants, from what I could tell: it's so hard to keep from laughing when a crowd clears from around the bar to make room for a tattooed, ZZ Top beard-sporting Goliath carrying this little dainty tray full of glasses of beer, like he was off to some totally freaky tea party.

After we finished our drinks -- I had a Guinness and Tea, seeing the lady in front of her order it, had some blackcurrant cordial in a cider, which I've now learned is a popular drink called Cider & Black -- we headed back to the packed gymnasium, now well into The Damned's set. (Incidentally -- yes, I know I say that a lot, :-) it really seemed like lead singer, Dave Vanian, was going for a Bono thing, and it wasn't just his shades: he had a monologue in the middle of a song that you could've played right along side Silver and Gold off Rattle and Hum.)

And then it was time for the main act. Five years ago, my friend, W., saw Motörhead (in the exact same spot, I believe), and I always remembered how he said Lemmy came out and, really quickly, said, "Y'o'right? We'll soon fix that," and just started givin' 'er. Well, no word of a lie, he said those very words this time too, followed by the title of this post. It was a fantastic moment.

For me, they played a perfect set: a mix of the oldies like Bomber, Ace of Spades, and Overkill, along with stuff for the new album -- can't believe they're still making albums! -- with just enough chatting in between. I particularly liked the opening to Just Cos You Got The Power: "This one's about politicians..." [much booing] "Wha? You don't like politicians?" [much yelling] "Me either, thievin' bastards!" :-) Oh, and the acoustic Whorehouse Blues in the encore was great. They ended the show sayin' we were the best crowd they'd had in Wales in ten years! (Sorry, W. ;-) )

On the train to Cardiff
The next day we puttered around Newport for a bit, and then decided, spur of the moment, to take the train to Cardiff. Little did we know that it was the day of an International Friendly football match between Wales and Scotland in that city's very stadium! The dozens of lads in kilts at the Gatekeeper pub just down the road from the Millennium Stadium sort of gave it away, though. :-)

It was a bit of a rainy day, but we made the most of it, takin' in the Christmas market, which included plenty of mulled wine and bratwurst, of course.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sapperton: "Are there bears in England?"

The day couldn't really decide what it wanted to be this morning, but that didn't stop us from tagging along on "one of Chad's little adventures," as his wife, Heidi, says; this one to the Sapperton Canal Tunnel, along the abandoned Thames and Severn Canal, just outside of Cirencester.

While that section of the canal was abandoned in the 20s, the area around the tunnel portal at Coates looks to be in great condition; as Chad said, "Give it a coat of paint 'n' it's good to go." The Daneway portal at the other end is a different story, however: you're hard-pressed to find the canal walls before you're even out of sight of it. It was a lot of fun to explore, though. The Daneway portal in particular didn't have as much standing water around it, and as you stood on the threshold, peering into the depths, you'd swear there was a crowd of explorers in there splashing about in the wellies, but for the absence of flashlight beams. There was no reply to Chad's shouts, however, and we busied ourselves with less spooky explanations for the voices we were sure we'd heard earlier as we made our way up the steep grade, toward what we learned was the steeple of St. Kenelm's Church. Any remaining tension was dispelled in the laughter that followed Chad's clear-blue-sky question, in what must've looked to him like a particularly wild part of the area around Sapperton: "Are there bears in England?"

I forgot to mention that all this hiking was possible thanks to bellies full of fantastic roast pork and beef from the Daneway Inn; it was a great little spot we found near the portal of the same name, after failing to find room at the picturesque Tunnel House pub near the Coates portal. Walking up to the Daneway, I felt like I was approaching the back porch of a familiar house -- like coming home or visiting old friends. The hodge-podge of furniture and knick-knacks only added to the sentiment. And as if that wasn't enough, they had four real ales on tap too. (Just realizing now that I forgot to take pictures there, darn it.)

We'd talked about going shopping in Gloucester or Bristol at some point, and as the sun was setting we did make it to the Costco in the latter -- just like home, strangely enough -- where I picked up a good fleece jacket for the cooler weather. Just a great day all-round.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The relative calm of our early start Friday morning was shattered by the discovery of water running around and dripping from the light over the kitchen sink. After confirming that I had in fact shut off the shower upstairs – the dark patches on the ceiling corresponded to the main bathroom on that floor – we left a message with the landlord and were off. (What else could we do, really? The dripping was slowing as we stood there, so clearly the immediate danger was passing. Thank goodness the water was running directly to the sink.) The beauty of living close to the train station was vividly brought home to us again, as we made our train with time to spare, despite that sizable wrinkle.

After an easy switch at Birmingham New Street station – including a delicious croissant, according to Tea, at one of its cafes – our five-hour trip to Edinburgh began. Time after time the beautiful landscape would pull my nose out of my book; it really is a great way to travel. Our views of Newcastle were very impressive, but it was the miles of shoreline near Durham that really made me sit up; we'll have to make our way back there someday.

I was once again gobsmacked as I stepped out on the Waverley Bridge outside the train station of the same name. Edinburgh has to be one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. I found myself actually peeking around each corner, unable to wait that extra step to see what lay ahead. We quickly checked in at our hotel and then set off the short distance – almost straight up! – to Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately, they were just closing up for the day, but we were lucky enough to squeeze on the last tour of the nearby Scotch Whiskey Experience, just a short way down the Royal Mile.

The tour began with an entertaining explanation of how scotch whiskey is made, followed by a tasting. They did it really well, explaining some of the differences between the regions, and offering us a hint of what the Lowland, Highland, Speyside and Islay selections would taste like through smelling jars in front of us. Tea had a fantastic Highland called Glenfarclas and I tried a new (to me) Islay, Bowmore. They also explained a bit about the blending process, and then it was off to the highlight of the tour.

Diageo Claive Vidiz's collection of whiskey is the biggest in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records, and it truly took our breath away. Our guide pointed out some of the stars of the collection, and then left us to enjoy the view, and the attached bar boasting some 300 single malts; there I ordered my first cask-strength Edradour (the port finish, specifically), a real treat.

We finished the night at an Italian restaurant across from our hotel called Gennaro. To our surprise, there must've been eight or nine Italian waiters and waitresses relaxing behind and around the bar as we entered. A young man who spoke decent English sat us before heading back to the gathering. Any doubts we had about our choice of restaurant melted away as we were served fantastic minestrone soup and perfectly-cooked pasta, and watched the rooms fill to capacity. (They actually turned many, many people away without any indication of when there might be room for them; we later discovered that you really need to book a table no matter where you're eating, unless you show up really early – for them, which is between 6 and 6:30 p.m.) This theme of foreign nationals working in restaurants and pubs serving their native dishes has been repeated again and again throughout Europe (e.g., Irish lasses in the Irish pub near our hotel in Rotterdam) and I found myself wondering whether the EU and broader agreements might be behind it.

Edinburgh Castle, with its spectacular views of the city and staggering war memorial, was our first stop the next day. After a snack in their excellent cafe, we headed down the Royal Mile to take a bus tour. Sitting in the comfort of the double-decker, we got to see the more adventurous tourists climbing Arthur's Seat. I must admit that I was envious of the views that must've awaited them. Tea had decided that Thai sounded good for supper, so I quickly popped into the Scotch Whiskey Experience's store for a few samplers of the Islays I'd been dreaming about, ;-) and then it was off to a pub as we awaited the supper hour.

We'd photocopied a few pages out of the Campaign for Real Ale's (CAMRA) Good Beer Guide prior to leaving, and picked the Standing Order off its list of recommendations. The facade of this pub is difficult to relay: it looked like it should've housed a legislature of some sort, or at the very least, an exclusive club. (I actually asked Tea if she thought we were dressed well enough.) Well, nothing could be further from the truth: what awaited us was an amazingly warm and inviting atmosphere, especially considering the vaulted ceilings. As we enjoyed a pint – a Deuchars IPA, followed by an Abbot for me, and two Westons ciders for Tea – over a game of cribbage, I caught some grand gestures in my periphery.

A French student, only in town a month then, was practicing what turned out to be an impressive repertoire of magic tricks for anyone who cared to watch: he had coin tricks, rope tricks, sponge ball tricks and many, many card tricks, and we were still shaking our heads in wonder as we made our way out to the Thai restaurant Tea'd decided on.

Tea's winning streak
However, having failed to book a table, we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being turned away – much as we'd watched others from Gennaro the night before – from three Thai restaurants before settling on the Castle Arms pub. (Never fear, though; we had a fantastic meal at Thai Orchid the next evening -- picture right.) Thankfully, they were still serving delicious, hot food – Tea had steak 'n' ale pie and I had haggis, neeps and tatties – and we ended up spending the rest of our evening there over pints and crib. (Incidentally, Tea won all seven or eight games over the course of that evening; three or four by a single point, much to my frustration. :-) )

For our last full day in Edinburgh we decided to do a bit of shopping; well, Tea shopped and I took pictures of churches. Then we met up again and went for a pint at Barony Bar; well, I had a pint – Old Peculier, which has a fruity start that doesn't survive to the bottles I've had – and Tea had... a pot of tea. :-) With cookies, that upon discovering, Tea exclaimed, “I love it when I get bickies I didn't order!” The bar itself was another find from the Good Beer Guide, and what a find it was! One of my favourites to date, certainly, with its warm atmosphere and excellent selection of ales.

Looking down the Royal Mile
At that point we contemplated heading down to the port of Leith, but, with 5 p.m.-ish tickets to the Real Mary King's Close tour and the shops closing early on Sunday, we decided to head back to the Royal Mile for a last round of scotch shopping. I picked up a bottle of Edradour's Straight From The Cask Bordeaux Finish, a small bottle of Caol Ila (another Islay), and, finally, a bottle of Big Peat, which is an Islay whiskey blend that includes the rare Port Ellen single malt, amongst others.

After dropping that lot back at the hotel it was time to descend well below the street level of the Royal Mile to the closes (including Mary King's) that now form its foundation. A fantastic tour guide, understated props, and plenty of mood lighting (i.e., next to none) made for a truly entertaining time; don't miss this gem if you're ever in the city for even an afternoon!

Outside Auld Jock's
Traveling home on Monday was a piece of cake; it actually seemed to take less time, for some reason. Maybe it was the hearty breakfast we had at Auld Jock's Pie Shoppe; the haggis was excellent! Oh, and as a final note, that reminds me: I had blood sausage for the first time the morning previous; it was O.K., but the texture was a bit hard to take at times.

As usual, there are lots more pictures on my Picasa account, in the Best of Edinburgh album in this case.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rotterdam: ♪ This could be... ♫

As I exited the train station at Rotterdam, I was struck by two things: first, by the rain – it continued to rain heavily over the three days I was there, in sharp contrast to the beautiful weather I'd had in England over the past two months – and, second, by the sheer scale of construction going on. As my guide was explaining on a walking tour the following evening, Rotterdam has had to start building a second time: first, after the bombings of the Second World War that left all but three structures in rubble, and, second, as the hastily-constructed buildings from that period and up to the 70s started to fall apart (somewhat en masse, if I've understood her correctly).

Particularly in those first hours, and in the hustle between the hotel and the conference, I thought of the term concrete jungle often. I'd often hummed the Beautiful South's light tune Rotterdam (Or Anywhere) to myself upon learning about the trip, and the title took on a more derogatory tone when my companion unconsciously quoted it at one point during our walks. Happily, however, the rain let up for that guided walk one evening, and for an impromptu midday walk the following day, when I was able to see more of what is really a beautiful city, particularly around the canals of the old port – a new one was built some 12 kilometres away to accommodate the bigger ships – that now host a variety of living museums, I guess you could say.

Everyone was really so friendly and accommodating; honestly, it must be stressed. At times, I thought I was in England, their English was so good; but their dress was much different: smarter (as my companions would say), with more wraps, diagonal cuts, and wool, as well as the truly pervasive orange. And I can't forget the bicycles, of course.

So many, many bicycles. And, sturdy, heavy specimens at that, with large metal racks on front and back, and big curving handlebars. There's whole lanes for them, separated by other sidewalks, and woe betide the pedestrian who wanders into them. There is no cycling attire, either. Ladies in elaborate skirts – carrying umbrellas, no less! – ride beside gentlemen in full suits and kids in uniform; clustered together too. It isn't uncommon to see a tight grouping of half a dozen, that will then easily split to allow a motorized bike or scooter to fly up between them; it's organized chaos, really, when you add in the trams that run through the middle of the roads, presenting the befuddled newcomer with no less than five lanes of traffic running at different speeds. (Truly the best representation of Frogger I've ever seen.)