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.)