Tuesday 19 September 2006

The Costa Del Sol

Get comfy, this is a long one. =)

When one's company decides to whisk you away to a sunny resort for an extended training session, one takes full advantage of the situation. Which is how last weekend Stephen and I found ourselves on Spain's aptly named Costa del Sol. Specifically, we were in the little town of Fuengirola, which despite some not so nice rumours, turned out to be a delightful little town with surprisingly much to offer.

The hotel (Beatriz Palace) was absolutely gorgeous and situated right on the beach. As if sandy beaches weren't enough, it had a wonderful pool and full (though smallish) spa at our disposal as well. The massage I had was particularly nice, and had me completely relaxed for the weekend to come. As an added bonus, our room overlooked both the pool and the beach, facing East, so the morning sun came streaming in through our windows. I'm not typically a morning person, but it is difficult not to smile in the face of such a cheery waking.

Stephen flew in on Friday evening, and that night we took a little walk down into the town along the pier, stopping at one of the many little seafood resteraunts for a truly excellent shell-fishpaella accompanied by a local white wine.

Paella is a particularly wonderful Spanish dish that is much like Chinese fried rice, only with saffron, cumin red chilis and then whatever meat and veggies you care to add. Usually the meat is seafood in Andalucia, but it's not uncommon to get sausage either. A really yummy dish that I've never had a bad variation on.

Then we went to bed early as the next day was a full adventure - our first scuba diving lesson. It was with a local Padi centre, that Stephen booked in the next town over. They ended up taking us over to the Marina del Este. We have both really been wanting to try scuba for some time, and were quite excited. While Stephen seemed to take to it quite easily, I had a few difficulties.

A few of my thoughts on scuba:
- It is not nearly as easy as it looks. In fact I never fully squared with the idea that I was both underwater and able to breath easily. Not that it was actually physically difficult to breath, just that psychologically it doesn't seem quite right. That and taking "yoga breaths" is not the way to go nor is trying to "breathe normally". What worked best was actually using the lungs as a bellows and keeping air constantly moving.

- From what I gather from other seasoned divers (my mom and colleagues), is that our first dive was really quite deep (6-14 meters or 20 to 40 feet), which might explain why the surface of the water looked a bit more like sky than water. That was another thing that made it a bit difficult to adjust.

- The cincher for me was letting water into the mask. You see, I don't like having water around my eyes and when I then tried to clear the mask, I started to float off (the instructor had us kneeling on the seabed holding onto a rope) when the instructor grabbed me. So I had a mask full of water fighting the current and being held onto by who knows what. Nope, I was done. So I went back up to the top and after that wasn't really able to take the plunge to go back down. The panic reflex was much too strong. As as a result, I ended up missing the best part of the dive, which was swimming over to the reef and actually seeing fish and an octopus!

So, yes I chickened out, but I'd like to give it another try before completely deciding that it's not for me. Maybe something a bit more shallow (10-12 feet max) that lets us explore more without the focus on performing skills. As far as I see it the skills are a means to an end, the end being seeing stuff you wouldn't typically just snorkeling.

So that was pretty much the whole day, and since most of it was spent wet, the digital camera never made it out of our backpack, which was a real shame as the little bay was absolutely gorgeous. Oh well, getting an underwater disposable next time!

On Sunday, we decided to take some time and actually explore Fuengirola itself. Right next to the hotel was our first stop - Sohail Castle. A ruined castle from the Arab times that has now been converted into a concert space. It overlooks the bay and city (once a key fishing and trade post), providing the ideal defensive location for the region.

One of the things I always find fascinating about old buildings is how the various layers of construction is betrayed by the strata of stones.

From there we wondered through the town itself, taking any alley or street that took our fancy. Being a fairly traditional place, it was pretty quiet and people were sparse on this Sunday afternoon. I loved the architecture though, such a wonderful conglomoration of styles and periods.

We ambled past the main mosque, behind which we found a lovely little market with more people in a single street than we had yet seen all day. Fortunately, it was market for locals, which meant we got a to see a nice variety of goods and just enjoy the buzz of walking through a crowded space - stall keepers trying to attract shoppers, children talking their parents into buying sweets, people stopping and chatting with friends.

What was odd, is that in all our wanderings, we didn't see a single Catholic church. I can only assume that's because they were tucked into spaces we didn't happen to peer into or, like in Singapore, you really had to know what to look for to tell. Oh well. After a while we headed back to the water front for a cervesa and chat overlooking the beach and waves. The weather couldn't have been more perfect - brilliant sun, blue sky and water, white sand and a cool breeze that just hinted at autumn.

Unfortunately, from there it was time to collect our luggage and catch a taxi to the train to the airport, and the end to yet another adventure.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Scotland 2006 - Day 6 - A drive

For our last day, we decided to take a long drive towards Mallaig (The Road to the Isles to see a variety of sights.

We stopped first in Glenfinnan, where the Jacobian revolution began. It is also home to the famous viaducts that were used for the Hogwart's Express in the Harry Potter movies. Next time I think it would be worth taking the steam train as a day trip, though from what I hear it books up quite far in advance.

Along the way, we found a neat little hydro-electric power station near the town of Morar. Stephen nabbed the camera and he and Gib went exploring.Cherrie and I enjoyed watching their excitement.

From there it was only a short drive to the Silver Sands beach, which is one of Scotland's most beautiful beaches. A lovely, lovely area, and very clean. Probably one of the cleanest beaches I've ever been to actually.

From Silver Sands, we decided to take (what we thought would be) a small detour to take in Castle Tioram. It turned out to be something of an adventure as Gib braved even more one lane roads circling Loch Moidart. We finally got there and it turned out to be worth the hunt. The ruins of what was once a very impressive and imposing structure lie just off the shore, at high tide connected to the main land by a very thin strip of land indeed. The guidebook made references to it as the Mont Saint Michel of Britain. It was torched in 1715 during the Jacobite revolution in order to avoid it falling into the hands of a rival clan that supported the English throne against the claims of Bonny Prince Charlie.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few castles not owned either by Historic Scotland nor by the local council, but rather by a private individual. Due to a dispute, the rennovation of the property hasn't been able to take place, so you can't actually go in it (which is a real shame).

From the castle we drove towards the town of Strontian, where the element Stontium was discovered. We had intended to take a hike from the village to the mines (now abandoned), we arrived too late to make the full 6 hour round trip journey before dark. So we had a lovely snack in the local cafe before heading back through some beautiful lochs back to Fort William for our last night in Scotland.

Needless to say it was a very full trip, and we are very grateful to both Gib and Cherie for the car and for doing the driving. Because of them we got out to places that we wouldn't have been able to by public transport. That and they are wonderful company.

Another adventure under our belt and yet another resolution, that someday we must go back.

Tuesday 12 September 2006

Scotland 2006 - Day 5 - Hiking in the Highlands

After spending all of the previous day in the car, we decided that a day of walking would be a good idea - the area around Fort William is reknown for its variety of trails, so we had lots to choose from.

The most popular option (which the other half of our group opted to take, but we didn't) is climbing Ben Nevis, the highest mountain (or Munro, in local speak) in Scotland, at just over 1300 feet. For those who are more familiar with Coloradian or Alpine peaks, this doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that the base is just a few meters up from sea level, it's a much more challenging climb than most people give it credit for. In fact, more people die or are injured climbing Ben Nevis annually than Mt. Everest.

Gib, Cherrie, Stephen and I decided to got a bit further off the beaten path and headed toward the visitors centre for a map and some guidance - nothing too hard, just a nice walk with some lovely views. Since the two main valleys, Glencoe and Glen Nevis, were glacial, this did not prove difficult. On the advice of one of the visitor centre guides, we headed first for The Pap of Glencoe.

This turned out to be a little more than we bargained for (and a failure to understand exactly how steep that all of those little map lines very close together meant), so after some serious scrambling (read: hands and knees across bare rocks) and some very steep trails (most of which honestly were more like river beds than a true trail) we decided that half-way was perfectly good enough for us, and at 375 feet not exactly wimpy. We did get some awesome views though, which made it worth it.

From there, we decided to head over to something a little more rolling and much less steep. Fortunately, we found the perfect path just off the main highway, called The Study, which took us gently through the pass between two smaller Munro ranges. Again, lovely scenery and a very gentle ascent. We all wished that we would have found this place first, as the trail went on for several miles and included an alternative loop around back towards another area that looked just as lovely.

Needless to say, after all this we were well ready for a relaxing evening, and all of us slept well. The next day, was unfortunately, our last before heading back to London.

Monday 11 September 2006

Scotland 2006 - Day 4 - Iona

On Sunday, the decision was made to head towards Iona, a small island off the coast of Scotland, that is a well known pilgramige site.

In the middle of the 6th century, St. Columba (not to be confused with St. Columbus) arrived on Iona from Ireland after being banished, and set up a monastary on the island. It is thought that the Book of Kells was begun here, before being taken back to Ireland. (For those of you that remember, we saw The Book of Kells when we were in Dublin last year).

Needless to say, it was a good fit for a Sunday. =) Getting there, however proved to be a bit of a trip in and of itself, requiring no fewer than three ferries and hours of driving along one lane roads. yes, you read that correctly - one lane roads. But the scenery was beautiful. Unfortunately, due to the transit time, we only had but a few hours to spend on Iona itself, but we made the best of it.

First off, we headed straight for the Abbey, which is still home to the Iona Community. It's a beautifully peaceful place. Spending some time here in quiet contemplation would be a very welcome respite from the world indeed.

Then on the way back to the ferry terminal we explored the ruins of the 15th Century Benedictine Nunnery, that now serves as a lovely garden. Really beautiful.

On the the sea lion that accompanied our journey back to the Island of Mull, a sea lion decided to play in the wake of the ferry! Such a sweet face and a fantastic way to top off our day.

From Mull, we made our way back to Fort William and so ended another beautiful day in Scotland.

Sunday 10 September 2006

Scotland 2006 - Day 3 - The Highlands

Saturday, we headed out of Edinbrugh to Fort William where Gib and Cherrie and their French friends had rented a house. Of course, one can't just go straight there, you have to take a few detours!

So on the way, we hit both the Falkirk Wheel and Sterling Castle.
The wheel is a rather ingenious structure devised to eliminate some 18 locks to connect two of the major river ways in Scotland, and is a huge feat of modern engineering. It basically lifts boats from the lower level up to the higher level of the Union Canal that goes into Edinburgh. Really neat to watch.

Needless to say Stephen and Gib were enthralled. They got to talking to one of hte river guides, who turns out used to be an engineer himself. So one thing lead to another and the guide (Stuart) took us up into the control room!

From there we had lunch and then headed over to Stirling Castle, located in the town of Stirling (surprise, surprise).

Picture credit: undiscoveredscotland.co.uk

The oldest stoneworks date from the 12th century, with the vast majority of the existing buidlings are from the 1500s. It's set up on a rocky bluff, much like Edinbrugh Castle, over looking the city of Stirling itself and much of the surrounding area.

Most "castles" aren't just a single building, rather a whole complex, including Great Hall, Kitchens, Chapel, Guards' quarters, stables, etc. A small fortified city really. While we were there the great hall was undergoing excavation & refurbishment. They had just finished with the chapel, and while we were there they had a small concert, which we stayed for.

Evidently the whole chapel used to be covered in frescoes, however few have survived. The reason these manged to was due to a false ceiling that was installed during the Victorian times.

For the last number in the concert, they asked for a percussionist volunteer. Cherie, Gib and I all pointed at Stephen, so he was handed this beautiful stringed instrument sort of like a struck dulcimer only smaller. After, it turns out that one of the performers had actually made the instrument himself! He didn't actually know what it was, but had based it out of a design in a manuscript he had seen.

Also in the chapel were two tapestries from a series that the Historians have been trying to duplicate. Turns out that they are being woven on the premises - and they had the area open so you could watch the weavers work! Needless to say, we headed over there next.

From there we headed out to see the rest of the castle. We got there quite late so most of the exhibits in the other buildings had started to close. This was ok, as we enjoyed just walking around the grounds.

From here we went to Fort William, which would be our base for the next few days to explore the Highlands. It's situated right on the banks of Loch Linnhe (pronounced like the female name Lynne), which lead up from sea level to the highest point in Scotland, Ben Nevis. Really beautiful country.

Saturday 9 September 2006

Scotland 2006 - Days 1 & 2 - Edinburgh Fringe!

This year as our annual big week long outing we joined Stephen's parents in Scotland for two days of what is perhaps the largest art festival on the planet, <a href="http://www.edfringe.com/">The Fringe</a>, and then 5 days of touring, mostly in the Highlands.

Fringe was intense - 7 shows in 2 days, none of it like anything else.  A quick run down:

Thursday mid-day was <i>Devil's Advocate</i> which was a play based around the events leading to the surrender of General Noriega, specifically focused on his relation with the Archbishop Jose Laboa (The Guardian's review can be found <a href="http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/review/0,,1641945,00.html">here</a>. if anyone is interested).  As for me, while I agree that it was a good play in that it really made people think (and was the root of some really good conversation for our group),  I didn't like it, though I did in principle agree with the gist of what they were trying to say.  2 hours without an intermission is quite intense anyway.  But in the end, glad that I saw it.

Thursday afternoon was <i>The Adventures of Bitter and Twisted</i>, a little bit of puppetry and music around a typically Gothic style story.  Cute and fun, which was exactly what we needed after the hefty piece of theatre earlier.

Thursday evening was the ever memorable <i>Havana Rumba</i> (good 3rd party review can be found <a href="http://www.edinburgh-festivals.com/reviews.cfm?id=1164512006">here</a>).  I was expecting something in more of a cabaret setting, but it turned out to be an absolutely amazing stage show.  There was a "narrator", for lack of a better term, who's job it was to try to turn the show into more of a story, but the real feature was the dancing.  And ladies and gents could they dance!!  Absolutely amazing and it really made you wonder if music flowed in their veins instead of blood.  A really good mix of solos and group numbers meant that the dancers stayed pretty energetic througout.  I don't remember the last time we had such a fun evening out.  No one in the audience could sit still.

Friday late morning was an adaptation (mainly through substantial cutting to get it down to one hour) of Marlowe's <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tragical_History_of_Doctor_Faustus"><i>Doctor Faustus</i></a> which turned out to be pretty good.  The one particular part of this adaptation that I liked was how they split Mephistophilis into 2 people, a man and a woman.  Excellently done.

Friday afternoon was <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins_%28musical%29"><i>Assassins</i></a>, the Steven Sondheim musical.  Unfortunately, the music seemed to be above the abilities of most of the performers (including the pit), though they gave it their all, and there were still some really good moments.  In particular, the actors who played John 'Wilkes Booth and Leon Czolgosz were very good, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them in a major theatre at some point in the future.

Friday early evening was <i>One Set to Love</i>, a comedy about two very English gentlemen exploring their past and making up after their recent estrangement.  This was a two man setting, which they played extremely well.  Good stuff.  

Friday late evening was <i>Knots</i>, which was the best show of the festival for us (review can be found <a href=http://www.edinburgh-festivals.com/reviews.cfm?id=1158962006">here</a>).  It was based on a set of writings by RD Laing, it explored the theme of modern British dating and relationships through both movement and speech.  Just incredible both in terms of character development (3 pairs, the women all called Jill and the men all called Jack), dance, and variations on the themes.  Difficult to describe on paper, but stunning, just stunning.  

I didn't take any pictures during this time, mostly because, as you can see from above, we spent almost all of our time indoors.  But walking through the streets of Edinburgh  was absolutely electric, the air literally crackled with the energy.  The city during the rest of the year is fantastic, but during Fringe it's something altogether different.  During those four weeks, it is indeed the centre of the arts universe, and everyone there is just having a good time.  Amazing, and will definitely be something that Stephen and I turn into an annual event.

Tuesday 28 February 2006

Skiing the 3 Valleys

We're back!  Actually, we got back yesterday afternoon, and very reluctantly.  For 3 days we did nothing but eat, sleep and ski - phenomenal.  Turned out that we had booked more of an organised group trip than we originally thought, which actually turned out to be ok, as they arranged everything for us: transfer from the airport to the hotel (which turned out to be a good two hour drive), skis and boot rentals in the hotel itself, lift tickets ready on arrival, breakfast downstairs, transfers to and from the gondolas (walking in ski-boots is NOT fun), everything except lunch and dinners was already done and paid for.  The only real downside is that somewhere along the way we got signed up for a twin room instead of a double, which meant two dorm room sized beds instead of one large bed and the hotel was full, so no way to change.  Not a huge issue, but not ideal either.  The hotel itself was standard ski resort fare; nothing super luxurious, but very simple, clean and accessible.  A solid 2 star hotel, which suited us just fine.   Our room though, did have a very nice view, looking out over the little town of Brides-les-Bains.  

The ski area itself covered three HUGE valleys (ironcially called The Three Valleys, pdf map is <a href="http://www.courchevel.com/img/leski/domaine/plan-3v.pdf">here</a>), supposedly the largest skiable area in the world, and I certainly believe it.  We had access to all of it too. *insert big grin here*.  The heart of the resort is Meribel, which the gondolas from Brides-les-Bains, the little town our hotel was in, arrived at.  From there you could head East across the first range into Courchevel or West into Val Thorens or Les Meniures.  For the first day, we decided to stick to Meribel, since that's where Stephen's lesson would be based.  We got there as soon as the gondolas opened and skiied several green runs to get warmed up, remind Stephen how to do a wedge, turn, and generally avoid other skiers/obstacles before sending him off to his lesson, while I sought out some of the blues higher up the mountain.  The weather was just ok - rather cloudy and the runs were a bit icy, which was something of a bit of a disappointment, but worked ok for the first day.  We got to talking with some of the other skiiers and heard that the snow in several of the other valleys was much better, so after looking at the map we decided that Courchevel looked the easiest to get to, so we resolved to head over there for day two.  Wow, were we glad we did!!  Not only was the weather better (sunny, and rather warm), but the snow was much better, helped by being much higher up than Meribel and getting several inches of snow the night before.  Not only that, but the views were AMAZING.  We got up to the top and just gawked.  

After picking our jaws up off our skis, we headed off for our first full day.  We skiied mostly blues, staying in the central part of the valley and had a grand time.  In fact, the skiing was so good that we decided to head back for day three as well.  Again sunny, a bit colder than the previous day, but with the same great snow.  We spent the day in the far east corner of the valley, tackled several really fun red runs (equivilent to an easy black or blue-black in the Rockies) and generally had the best time.  The latter two days we brought lunch with us - oranges, local cheese, salami and freshly baked bread from the boulangerie around the corner from the hotel.  Talk about fabulous.  The second two days we made a short pit stop at the base for mulled wine and a bit of a rest in mid-afternoon.  We skiied until we could ski no more.  

After skiing our little bums off, we headed into town for food.  This took a bit of adventuring, but we did hit one gem in particular.  It was Saturday night, and we had originally planned to do a bit of apres ski organised by the tour company, but there was some sort of mix-up with the venue, so we had a couple of extra hours to kill.  We hadn't had great luck with food so far, nothing really terrible, but very touristy.  Stephen was particularly set on finding a REAL french resteraunt, and after walking through the town several times, we found one tucked away on a side street - Val Vert.  The menu was entirely in French with several set meals that looked quite good.  So, in we went and it turned out to be fabulous!  It was a bit of a marathon though, we were there for over three hours and five amazing courses including wine, dessert and digestifs, and practically rolled out of the resteraunt.  The service too was brilliant - the perfect balance between attentive and giving us plenty of time to work our way through the meal.  I couldn't have asked for anything better.

All in all, it was exactly the kind of trip we needed, and we were able to come back completely relaxed and rejuvenated.  We couldn't have asked for a better vacation.

Sunday 12 February 2006

Weekend in Canterbury

So we decided to take an early Valentine's Day and head off to Canterbury for a few days.  We arrived Friday evening around 8pm, checked into our B&B (<a href="http://www.yorkelodge.com/">Yorke Lodge</a>), and then headed out for a pint and a late night snack.  We found a delightful pub called the Unicorn just on the edge of the city centre, and one of the local brew-masters was in the pub, so we had a pint of his ale (quite good) and chatted with some of the locals while watching the opening ceremonies.  A quick bite (generic Italian) and then back to the B&B for an early night.

Saturday wasn't terribly sunny and a bit chill, but other wise a great day for sight seeing.  Our first stop was to the church down the street from the B&B, which turned out to be St. Dunstan's, the burial place of the <a href="http://www.apostles.com/thomasmorehead.html">head of St. Thomas Moore</a>!  Talk about a surprise!  The church itself is quite humble, but with a very warm and welcoming air.

We hung around for a bit, noting the irony that the church is now Anglican, and then headed off into town itself.  We next found the <a href="http://www.eastbridgehospital.org.uk/pages/eastbridge_introduction.htm">Eastbridge Pilgrims' Hospice</a> not far down the street.   They had the main chapel closed off, but the Undercroft -- where the 12th century pilgrims would have slept -- had a great exhibition on the history of the building.  Most of it is currently used as residences for retired citizens of the Canterbury community.  A very suitable use, we thought.  The interesting thing was the number of icons and Eastern Orthodox influenced works being used in the various chapels.  The guides didn't really think much of it, but mentioned that the residents liked the symbolism and found it helpful to their prayer lives.  

The guides themselves were very helpful and kind, pointing us over to one of the oldest Franciscan orders in the country, <a href="http://www.eastbridgehospital.org.uk/pages/greyfriars_introduction.htm">Greyfriars</a>.  The chapel is the only building of the original 12th century abbey still standing, and was unfortunately closed.  

Around the corner, we came across Canterbury's <a href="http://www.canterburytrust.co.uk/schools/keysites/castle.htm">Norman Castle</a>.  The local historical authority had lots of informational points put up around it, but it seems that previous care-takers were not so concientious.  We learned to much dismay that the building was in fairly good repair up until the Victorian times, when it was used alternatively as a store room for <i>coal</i> and the city's water supply.  This meant the interior was completely gutted and various bits of piping were attached.  Talk about a travesty!!  

Then it was off across town (with a pit stop for lunch at Cafe Saffron, great carrot and coriander soup) to the famous <a href="http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/"> City Cathedral</a>.  As the story goes, it was founded by Saint Augustine himself.  This is the fourth building to stand on this site, but quite a few of the original walls were used in the many phases of construction, which gives it kind of a matroshka feel.  We were quite fortunate in that while we were there a choir and orchestra were in the middle of rehearsal when we came in.  They only had the central Quire closed, everything else was open.  My favorite way to tour churches is when someone is practicing in them.  You get so much of a better feel for the character.

From there it was getting on fairly late in the afternoon, and it being the off season, we had to make a mad dash to the <a href="http://www.canterbury.gov.uk/cgi-bin/buildpage.pl?mysql=113">Westgate Towers</a> to be there before it closed.

Much like Marble Arch in London, it sits in the middle of the main roundabout in the town.  Easy to find at any rate, it serves as the western boundry of the old Roman wall and the main gate pilgrims had to pass through.  For most of its modern life, it served as a jail, and the top portion of the gates has a little museum and observation deck.  

At this point, we were quite tired, and so headed back to the B&B for a nap and some relaxation before heading back into the city for dinner.  It took some doing, as most places were booked up with people (like us) celebrating Valentine's Day early.  We did find this fantastic gem - "Tapas" off of Palace Street.  Not only was the food great, but it had THE BEST service we've yet found anywhere in England.  We stayed until they closed and tipped well.

Sunday was a bit more relaxed.  We got up fairly late to a wet and dreary English day.  A great day for staying indoors, but not especially for being out and about.  We had plans for going out to St. Augustine's Abbey, but after the walk to town and getting quite damp, we decided that being out on an exposed hill in abbey ruins wasn't exactly what we were up for.  So we spent some time poking around in various shops and tea rooms, getting lunch at Marlowe's, a restaurant dedicated to the playwright Marlowe and his theatre in Canterbury.  We then picked up our bags and headed back to the train station for the afternoon service into London.  

So, here we are, rested, enriched and ready for the week ahead.