Monday, September 28, 2009

Close to home: walks and drives

Tea with Merlin
We've been enjoying things a little closer to home since our vacation. The Sunday after we got back was the first annual Cheltenham Cricket Club Beer Festival. We biked over, enjoyed a few pints -- I had a pint of Centurion's Ghost and a pint of Bristol Stout, and this was Tea's introduction to all that is the Old Rosie 'scrumpy' cider -- and burgers, and the beautiful view of the surrounding hills; Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds, is visible from there. (Unfortunately, I forgot my camera!) Then we got to sample many of those ales and ciders again at the Jolly Brewmaster pub a few weeks later; I've heard they have the best selection of real ale in the town.

The weekend past, we rented our first car! Before I go on, a few general points about driving:
  1. It's much tougher than it looks! We decided to split the driving over the weekend, with Saturday being Tea's day. Well, I was completely laid back in the passenger seat, thinkin' all was well, and then Sunday came. Driving on the other side isn't so bad, roundabouts are O.K., but the narrow roads and quasi-intersections are really very nerve-racking.
  2. You know those folks that drive down the highway for 10 km with their signal light on? I'm bettin' they're Brits. The signal indicator clicks back to neutral immediately here, with the light going out after the turn as you'd expect.
  3. Our Garmin Nuvi GPS (or sat-nav as they say here) can be configured to stick to paved roads, but that really doesn't save you over here: I swear some of the roads it sent us down were only suitable for horses.

We became English Heritage members soon after arriving, and decided that we'd start the weekend by visiting one of the sites close to home: the Belas Knap neolithic long barrow. I don't know if it's typical of the heritage sites, but it was so understated: the number of times we looked at each other, after walking for 10 or 15 minutes, wondering whether we were going the right way was really funny; small signs offered only the slightest of encouragement. When we finally found it, Tea's arms flew up in the air in a victory 'V'. :-) As we were making our way back down the steep slope towards the car, wishing we'd brought some water, we spotted a town in the distance, and that's how we ended up in Winchcombe.

We found ourselves outside the Plaisterers Arms pub, and I'm so glad Tea suggested we stop -- I'd been leaning toward the White Hart Inn that I'd read about in our book of Cotswold walks and cycle rides (more on that in a bit). I think it's my favourite pub so far; even above St. Georges Vault and the Jolly Brewmaster. It has so much character, a fantastic selection of real ale, great food -- the steak and ale pie was amazing -- and an award-winning garden out back.

Our new pig friends
With our whistles wet and bellies sated, we set off on one of the Level 1 walks in our guide book that would take us past Sudeley Castle. Navigating the first part was a breeze, but as we were trekking across a field, avoiding the sheep and their droppings, we came across this description of the next leg:

Maintain your diagonal course through a break in the middle of the right-hand hedge until you reach a protruding corner and then turn with the fence up the hill to a stile in the overgrown corner.

What the heck is a stile? I know now, but we were pretty far from Wikipedia at the time. Still we made due, cutting across a farm and being chased by some really big pigs! It was one of those train-wrecks where the pigs started walking faster, then we did, 'til we were practically running and scrambling over the gate just as they caught us. Good times!

Sudeley Castle
At that point I was able to sync up with our guide book again, and just as we were running out of steam, Sudeley Castle appeared on the horizon. They gave us a discount on admission since it was close to closing time, and we still had time for some refreshments in the cafe, got to see a few exhibits, and took in the beautiful gardens and church as well. Then it was back to the White Hart Inn for a pint and a Ploughman's platter; strange music, but the Jouster went down well. (It's so much better on draught than in the bottle, incidentally.)

The boot sale meat auction!
After all that walking, a slower day was on the bill for Sunday. We started with the boot sale -- car boots, that is -- at the Cheltenham Raceway, which was basically a big garage sale, and then went to Staples to buy the printer that we never could've gotten home without a car. While Tea was setting that up, I kicked back to watch the Sunderland vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers Premier League match on our new Sky TV set-up; even paused it while I mowed the lawn. Ah, the comforts of home. :-)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Vigo: "Man, I'm gonna mow through some oysters"

The Swimmer abstract art

My first steps on mainland Europe came in Vigo, Spain beside Francisco Leiro's The Swimmer. As we made our way into the city, I felt a familiar awe coming over me, different, but reminiscent of my first steps out of Knightsbridge Underground station in London. You can't help but compare the narrow, winding cobblestone ways to scenes you've read about or seen in movies; it just doesn't seem real. Stephen actually said that it was like we were in Epcot's (planned, but never completed) Spanish pavilion. (And it seems to be a fairly common reaction, as I just remember a Brit uttering the same thing -- i.e., Disney-like -- as we toured Bletchley Park a few weeks ago.) We walked by a quiet alley called Oyster Street with one man just setting up a stand with an enormous wooden crate of said shellfish on it, and while I was impressed, I really didn't anticipate what the area would be like in full swing.

Almost at O Castro now
The streets started widening as we moved away from the port, widening and rising, as we worked our way up the hill topped by O Castro Park. It was actually a good hike, and we all were winded by the time we made it to the monument to the Rande Galleons -- which were sunk at the battle of Vigo Bay in 1702 -- still a bit of a climb from the park proper. While the view from the park was very impressive, I was puzzled by the proliferation of antennae and power lines that took away from the beautiful statues and buildings, to say nothing of the fortress's state of disrepair. (I really had to work to keep my pictures free of this stuff; guess I won't be winning any journalism awards. ;-) )

Since the ship was set to sail at 3 p.m., we decided that we'd have a later lunch on the water and try to see as much as we could in the meantime. Well, I don't think we'd made it halfway down to the port before I muttered, out of the blue, "Man, I'm gonna mow through some oysters." There was some laughing, and Tea's sarcastic "Nice, Jae," but no one seemed to mind my change of plans. :-) And change they did as we came upon a transformed Oyster Street, with stalls and people everywhere. There were ladies shucking oysters with an ease that comes with uncounted years of experience, their lined faces full of stories. I think we had two big plates of oysters, one of sardines (that reminded me of the caplin runs we used to do as kids in days gone by, fish cooked right there on camp fires), and one of calamari. What a feast! I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. (Tea wasn't a big fan of oysters -- neither was Stephen, come to think of it, although I won't tell you what he said they taste like :-) -- but I was proud of her for trying 'em.) It was the highlight of the cruise for me -- in fact, I'm sure I said to Stephen, "Best day ever!" -- which is really saying something when I think of how great Madeira and Tenerife were (in very different ways).

Up next: back to our home away from home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Canary Islands: above the clouds and to the moon


Above clouds at the first stop
Our first stop in the Canary Islands was Tenerife, famous for Teide, the third-largest volcano in the world, in the middle of the nicely-named Las CaƱadas National Park. The park was well inland, so we set about finding transportation there immediately, and while the cabbie we settled on didn't speak much English, his price was right.

Mt. Teide; still 50 km away
I pointed out the volcano when we were still some 50 km away, and no one would believe me! We were so far up at that point, and the peak really did look like it could be three hours away, or three days away; the scale was hard to grasp.

As we drove, a forest that would remind you of any Canadian national park became steppe, and finally a blackened tundra. In this silent, empty landscape sat a cable-car to the summit. Well, 500 metres shy of the summit; you need a permit -- a free permit, apparently -- to hike right to the top. So there we were, some 3200 metres up; it's tough to describe... I mean, we were in short-sleeves, but all you had to do was run a few steps and you knew where you were; winded in a second. They limit your time up there to one hour.

Gran Canaria

After the excitement of the previous day, a beach day at our next stop, Gran Canaria, was in order. The waves were a bit rough -- the yellow flag was out -- but, really, we couldn't've asked for a better day. It's funny: frolicking in the surf, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Caribbean, but one glance at the skyline dispels that: Las Palmas is a bustling, developed city. This, in stark contrast with our last stop in the Canaries.

But before I get to that, a few points about that evening on the ship:
  • Stephen and I finally got around to trying the Flow Rider, which is a simulated surfing pool at the back of the ship. Stephen kicked my butt all over the place with a fantastic first run that didn't even turn out to be beginner's luck. I, on the other hand, left with a sore neck (to say nothing of my pride).
  • Later that evening we took in a show with the hypnotist, Christoper Caress. He started off with an exercise for everyone, at the end of which you were supposed to feel like your hands were drawn together; well, he'd barely gotten the words out before mine were clasped. At that point, at his direction, I, and bunch of other folks with 'magnetized' hands, volunteered to be part of the show. Tea, Nancy and Stephen said I did a pretty good job of milking an ephemeral cow and dancing the Riverdance, but I don't remember much.


Finally, we stopped in Lanzarote, not far from the capital, Arrecife. Well, we thought Mount Teide was desolate; the landscape in Lanzarote is often described as lunar or Martian, and it isn't hard to see why. That said, the beach that the cabbie dropped us at was really nice, and we had another good stretch of Frisbee and lounging.

Up next: Oyster Street!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Setting sail and Madeira: Cart!

The Independence at Funchal
We had a typical English send-off of fog and drizzle as we left Southampton on the Independence of the Seas. With a gross tonnage of 160000, not even the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny, with winds in excess of 60 knots -- just shy of hurricane force -- and waves over six metres, could faze it much.

Setting up for another run
Our first port of call was the Portuguese island of Madeira, and the beautiful city of Funchal. It wasn't long before the oppressive heat sent us looking for a bus tour, followed by an amazing gondola ride some 560 metres up the Monte. It's from there that you can take the famous 'toboggan ride', which Stephen had been trying to sell us on all day. I'd expected something much sturdier -- and, I dunno... wheeled -- from his description of the 'carts', but Nancy said they actually looked more stable than she'd expected.

It was a moot point as it turned out: the line was too long for us, and so, in our infinite wisdom, we decided to walk down the Monte, along the same path as the carts. We passed a cabbie leaning against her car, takin' in the crazy tourists on that first stretch of the toboggan ride, just as the insanity of what they were doing was starting to take hold, no doubt. We hadn't made it too far down -- alternating between ducking in doorways and running for the next one -- before we realized she'd passed us, and was idling at a clear point up ahead; she'd obviously spotted that fare from a mile away, and we were all the happier for it.

As luck would have it, there was a wine festival going on in Funchal that very day, so we got the cabbie to drop us off near there, and waited for the stalls to open following the siesta. Stephen was so parched that he apparently forgot where he was, and happily paid £1.50 for a Dixie-Cup-size sample of what he thought was juice. Now you need realize just how much Stephen hates alcohol: he may have half a beer if there's nothing else to drink, and that's about it. Well, you should've heard the gasping cries of "Poison!" coming out of him when the fortified wine that was mixed with the tropical juice hit the back of his throat; you'd've sworn he was suffocating. Tea 'n' I, on the other hand, loved it, and picked up a bottle of both the dry and sweet Madeira wines (a form of port).

We ended the day on a great note: the previous evening, Tea, Nancy and I had attended a charity auction on the ship, and Tea won the opportunity to blow the ship's horn as we left Madeira the following day. We surprised Stephen with it in the morning, and he'd been looking forward to it all day. It was a fantastic experience -- much more than simply pressing a button a few times -- as we had a long conversation with the captain -- "Three cups of water will raise that ship," he said, as we talked about a previous cruise of the Panama Canal -- on the biggest bridge in the world, and got to see how they get this floating hotel out of such a small port.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Vacation: Day 5: Southampton: shopping Mecca

At Waterloo train station
Our trip to Southampton was fairly uneventful; the original train was cancelled, but we managed to find an identical car – really like a semi-private cabin, with two sets of bench seats and tables between for our many computers (tough life, eh?) – on a replacement train that was immediately called up. An hour and a half later, we were standing in the oddity that is Southampton.

Outside London, Southampton has some of the biggest shopping areas I've seen in the UK; the Ikea – which was a block from both the train station and our hotel, as luck would have it – is a four-storey temple to the gods of consumption that includes a full restaurant. And then there's the malls. Again, as luck would have it, our luggage was stuffed to the brim for the cruise, so we skipped the shopping and spent some time taking in what the Old Town had to offer. For example, I gather the wall that we walked along dates back to medieval times. But what's truly odd is that the town really seems to exist for the tourists. I kept thinking that the population couldn't possibly support it all. I could be wrong, but that was the first impression that hit me square in the face. (According to Wikipedia, while its High Street – the common name of commercial districts across the country – is one of the largest, Southampton is ranked 13th in the country for shopping. The population is around 230000 people.)

A story about the hotel: we're all hanging out in Nancy and Stephen's room immediately after checking in, and at some point I decide to head to our bathroom. So I'm going through my ritual of flicking switches to find their associated lights when I come to this thin red cord just inside the bathroom door. Now keep in mind that the light switch for the bathroom of the suite we stayed in during our house-hunting trip was just such a pull-cord, in just such a place; it wasn't red, mind you, but red isn't always bad, right? Wrong. I pull it, and barely have time to compose the thought, “Huh, doesn't seem to do a thing,” before the phone is ringing. I immediately run out and grab it, and the first thing that hits me is that there's some god-awful alarm ringing in the background as the caller shouts, “Sir! Sir! You triggered the disabled alarm!”

Honest to God, my first thought was, “Shouldn't that be impossible?” Luckily my mouth simply replied with, “How do I turn it off?” At which point I was directed to a button beside the bed. Turns out our room was equipped for disabled persons, which includes a pull-cord that hangs to the bathroom floor in case you fall out of the tub or some such. Still a poor choice of words, if you ask me.

One final item of note: we decided to go to a movie at the cinema just down the road that evening; the boys saw Inglourious Basterds and the girls saw The Proposal. Both movies were excellent; in particular, I thought Basterds was some Tarantino's best work in years. On the theatre itself, we paid a bit extra for premium seating – assigned seats, as usual – only to discover that they were exactly what we've come to expect of a theatre in Canada.

Up next: bon voyage!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Vacation: Day 4: London: It's dark underground

We decided to take it easy on our last day in London. First on the bill was a trial run of our departure for Southampton the following day. On the tube ride to the Waterloo station – where we'd catch our train – a family with the cutest little girl sat next to us. She kept insisting, “Daddy, I don't want to get off in the dark.” Which sounded like “dawk” with her cute little accent. (Hey, give me a break: I'm runnin' out of adjectives.) And then, as they were getting off: “Daddy, it's still dark.” Priceless!

Once we'd confirmed that our paper tickets were sufficient for the following day, it was off to Hyde Park Corner for a few things that we'd missed up to that point: mainly the war memorials for the fallen from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. I was really impressed by the Canadian war memorial – which I'd somehow managed to miss on the house-hunting trip – and the way the leaves from the maple trees surrounding it would mingle with those that had been carved into it.

Harrods was next on the list, after lunch at this fantastic corner pub in the area called The Tea Clipper. I tried a few new pints -- Hog's Back and Doom Bar -- to wash down the special that day: cottage pie. Tea had an amazing Med. platter... the spread really was quite something. And while Harrods was nothing to write home about, the tube ride back to the hotel was: without really thinking about it, we grabbed a Central line train and ended up smack in the middle of revellers returning from the second day of the Notting Hill Festival.

Note: Unbeknowst to me, I hit Picasa's upper limit of 500 pictures per album with my London set. As a kludge, I've made a separate album of our last day in London.