Cornwall and beyond.

Encouraged by friends who had recently visited the southwest of the UK – mainly Cornwall and Devon – we decided to take advantage of low airfares to jet in for a long weekend and see what we could fit in. We had not anticipated doing this in the middle of a heatwave, but you have to take life as it comes and certainly the fact that our car had air conditioning was, literally, a life-saver. Or at least it felt that way…

We flew into Bristol at an obscenely early hour on Saturday morning, and left late on Monday night. So more or less three full days for a whistle-stop tour. In retrospect, flying into Bristol was a bit too far North, we should have tried for flights to Exeter or Newquay. And we also should have based ourselves further south hotel-wise, rather than our excellent hotel on the edge of Dartmoor. But you live and learn, and next time I’ll know better.

Saturday benefited from the fact that England were playing in the World Cup Quarter Final, so traffic was probably lighter than otherwise. We spent the day exploring around Tintagel, reputed site of ‘the court of King Arthur of round table fame’ and then on to the pleasant town of Padstow where we had reserved an early table for dinner in one of Rick Padstow’s multiple restaurants. Both Padstow itself and the restaurant were lovely, and we headed back to our hotel by driving across Bodmin Moor.

fullsizeoutput_43de

I should at this point say that once you get off the main roads in Devon and Cornwall, the driving is hair-raising. I have never gone around so many blind corners in second gear in my entire life, and I eventually had to turn off the SatNav because of some of the roads ‘she’ was sending me on. Truly scary.

After a VERY good night’s sleep on Saturday night (England won  their World Cup match comfortably also) we rose early and drove down to the south coast – about 90 minutes away. First stop was the wonderful ‘Lost gardens of Heligan’ which are, basically, a gardener’s dream outing. Wonderful walks, hidden gardens, history, vegetables, ferns, wildflower meadows etc. We dragged ourselves away reluctantly (as the temperature headed toward 30 degrees) and headed in our car toward the Lizard peninsula – the most Southerly point in England. It’s very pretty, and the walk down to the point itself in the heat sapped whatever energy we had left. So a Cornish ice-cream was called for to restore energy levels. Which we ate in the shade.

fullsizeoutput_43cb

We headed on to the nearby town of Penzance, and more specifically to see St Michael’s Mount, which is a church/castle on an island just off the coast, joined by a causeway at low tide. At this point it was around 4pm and the heat was intense, so rather than visiting the island we lounged on the beach opposite, and gazed across at the mount and the blue horizon on the sea. I swam briefly in the very cold but clear waters, dodging the jellyfish that occasionally appeared. They were not too big, so I reckoned I’d survive an encounter, albeit none appeared.

Last stop for the day was Land’s end – the southwest-most tip of Britain – and about 10 miles away. The temperature was still 30 degrees, and the sun was shimmering on the sea as we did a brief walk along the cliffs. Unfortunately we still had a two hour drive back to the hotel – it would have been so nice if we’d been staying closer. But them’s the breaks, and we made it back to the hotel in time to eat in the Beer Garden and explore the wine list. Another good night’s sleep, needless to say.

On Monday the plan was to ‘explore Dartmoor’ – given that we were on its doorstep, and after another ‘full English’ breakfast (diet begins tomorrow) we set off. Once again, the roads we travelled in getting TO the moor itself were scary in the extreme. High green hedges, no-where to allow cars you met to pass, and generally we alternated between praying and cursing loudly. We finally made it and drove up, up to the high moors. Which were, in fairness, very impressive. The Dartmoor ponies are friendly, the scenery intriguing, and the sheep lie on the roads panting in the heat, so you have to drive around them, with care.

We climbed Haytor (most of the ridge tops are called ‘tors’) and enjoyed a great view over the surrounding countryside as we wiped the sweat from our eyes. On to the beautiful Widdicome in the moor, as picturesque a village as you are likely to see, and then some more scary roads until I got to the old Clapper bridge at Postbridge, which apparently is one of the oldest bridges in the country. Basically it’s a set of granite slabs laid across the river. Then on to some more scary roads all the way into Exeter, where I got lost despite SatNav lady’s best efforts.

I eventually managed to find the M5 North and we headed back toward Bristol. I had one more stop planned. I wanted to see Glastonbury Abbey and the nearby Tor. Having tried and failed on multiple occasions to buy tickets for the rock festival, this was my ‘next best thing’. The Abbey itself is largely ruined, and was closed down by King Henry the Eighth in the reformation in 1539. But we had a great guide, who brought it all to life, and it really is worth a visit. Very easy to get at also – you basically park at the front gate and walk through the entrance. These things are important when the thermometer is once again hovering around 30 degrees.

We made a short tour of Glastonbury itself, grabbed a restorative coffee, and marvelled at the many ‘mystical’ and New Age shops on offer. How do they all survive? We also noticed, from our roadside coffee point, the numbers of people wandering around in tie-dye outfits – there’s definitely a ‘different feel’ on view in this town. A short spin in the car out to view the legendary Glastonbury Tor was followed by setting the SatNav for Bristol Airport, which we found despite some false turns. As in ‘does she mean turn here or further on’? And we made it back on one piece. Just about.

fullsizeoutput_442d

In one sentence, I’d say… Lovely place, great vistas, way too much for one weekend, scary roads, nice food, and we survived the heatwave. I think we’ll be back…

Advertisements

On the Ile de Re…

We were spending a week on the French coast in the Vendee region, and decided that we’d do a day trip to the Ile de Re, an island that juts out into the sea just off La Rochelle. We’d heard it was very pretty and – being flat – a cyclists paradise. But I was unable to elicit much interest from my fellow-travellers, and in fairness the heat meant that the car provided air-conditioned refuge.

fullsizeoutput_4391

The island is accessed by a long bridge/causeway which is well signposted from the North side of La Rochelle. There’s a hefty fee to cross, but no choice really. After we reached the island itself we decided to head to the very end – about 30km away – and the Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of the Whales) and work our way back from there.

fullsizeoutput_438a

We did not climb the lighthouse, but the views from its base across to the mainland were stunning anyway. We treated ourselves to a strong, reviving Café Crème, and a crepe to go with it. On a few km to the ‘cant not go there’ town of Arse n Re. It’s sleepy in the heat, but very pretty, with hollyhocks and geraniums adding a touch of colour. The hollyhocks seem to be able to grow in virtually no soil and the worse the location the more profuse the flowers… We also stopped a few times to get some photos of the profuse wildflower meadows that lined our routes. With light enough traffic we were in a good position to take advantage. On the edge of Arse en Re are salt pans where sea salt is dried in the sun – very organic and – obviously – we bought some to bring home.

To cool down, we got in for a swim near Couarde-sur-Mer. The sea was quite warm, which was a surprise, as about 100km North where we were staying, it was rather cold. Maybe it’s less exposed near Ile de Re. The landscape of the island is very flat, which means there are lots of cyclists, cycle hire shops, and dedicated cycle paths also. I’d imagine that in peak holiday season it must be impossible to get around – there are many campsites, hotels and other complexes that are obviously there to cater for the ‘French holiday rush’ in August. We traversed the town of Loix and had a late lunch under a spreading plane tree in the town square. Moules/Frites and a class of chilled Rose – the perfect combination.

There’s an old monastery (ruined) near the East end of the island, and by now it was glowing in the evening sun as we made our final few stops on the ‘big day out’.

fullsizeoutput_4386

Our very last stop threw up what we agreed was the prettiest spot that we saw on the island. St Martin de Re is a small town on the North side of the island, facing across to the mainland. It has a very pretty old tower/church, and the ancient walls of the town are pretty much intact. However the piece de resistance is the little harbour. Lots of yachts, clear blue/green water, and lined with restaurants, bars, ice cream parlours and the like. A really beautiful spot to while away an hour and indulge in the classic French pursuit of people watching. I could see myself returning to Ile de Re, and if I do this little town would be high on my list of places to stay. A bientot, as they say around here.

Arrivederci Puglia…

The bride wore white, and looked radiant, as brides tend to do. Her intended was dressed in what seemed to be a colourful military costume, and was flanked by an honour guard of his peers. Many of the men attending the wedding wore shiny suits and sunglasses, and looked like extras from the Sopranos. The women looked elegant, and kids were all dressed up for the occasion. I was in Lecce, in the Italian region called Puglia, and was a casual and opportunistic observer of a real Italian wedding in a baroque cathedral, smack in the middle of the old town.

 

IMG_0177

But like the Talking Heads song goes ‘Well, how did I get here’? Back in the cold and snowy days of the Irish winter, we had decided that a Springtime trip to somewhere warm, pretty and picturesque was in order. And thereafter, a trip to Puglia began to take shape. Direct flights to Bari, hire a car and drive around for an extended weekend. And it turned out to be great, from beginning to end. We flew into Puglia on Friday morning, and back out Monday evening. A bit of a whistle-stop tour, but we made the most of it, as you’ll see.

DSCN8932DSCN8942

The itinerary, briefly, was to land at Bari, head for Alberobello, then on to Matera. Then, after spending some time there, head down to the heel of Italy and loop back to stay overnight in Lecce. And finally, back to Bari and home. Distances not too great, and the late April weather a pleasant 25 degrees, we eventually managed to figure out the controls on our hire car and rolled out of Bari. We were a party of four, so one driver, one navigator, and two back-seat drivers, effectively.

Alberobello is the place you may have seen pictures of, with stone roofed houses called Trulli the main attraction. We were impressed by the first few we saw, got really excited at seeing about 10 in succession, and then realised that on the hill across the way there were about a thousand of them clumped together. Worn out by the excitement, we had pizzas for lunch (about 6-7 Euro each) and the non-drivers treated themselves to glasses of chilled prosecco at 3 Euro a pop ( and twice the size of the glasses we get at home). Things were already looking good…

IMG_0108fullsizeoutput_41ac

On to the ancient town of Matera, with the sat-nav lady guiding us expertly through the trulli-dotted rolling Puglian countryside where wildflowers were erupting into bloom. There are two towns in Matera. The new town, which is nice enough, on one side of a ridge. And the stunning old town, on (yes, you guessed) the other side of the ridge, dropping down to a deep, deep ravine. So Matera turned out to be simply wonderful. It’s one of the oldest towns/cities in the world, it seems. It’s going to be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and back in the mid 20th Century it had some of the worst slums in Europe, with 44% infant mortality and people surviving in caves in the company of their meagre livestock. Today much of the town has been (or is being) restored, is pedestrianised, and chock full of rock churches, dizzying views across the ravine to the plateau and caves on the other side, and much more. Specifically there are great ice-cream parlours, coffee-shops, bars, trattoria, piazzas, and just about all the other great stuff you would want to find. We wandered around all day, took in the sights, and generally chilled out. The car was parked for the duration in a supervised garage, and we had hired a two bedroom house for our stay with a small balcony that overlooked the old town. Magic.

mGcZi0OPQu+Nj40417OzQQ

Nobody told us, but Wikipedia soon filled in the gaps, that Matera is one of the primary breeding sites in the world for Lesser Kestrels (small hawks). They nest on the rooftops, and forage for lizards, voles and other prey in the ravine and the park on the plateau beyond the ravine. The locals put up breeding boxes to encourage them. They’re everywhere. And so, Matera is a wildlife photographers dream.

On Sunday morning myself and the other driver/navigator hiked the ravine, packed with wildflowers, to see early sun on the town we had set off from at 6.30am. While the backseat drivers slept on. We regrouped and hit the road around 10am, to ‘do’ the coast drive around the heel of Italy.

uBGO1RnLQYiLwomfGiWYOA

It was a great day. We lunched in Gallipoli (another one) on a promontory jutting out into an azure sea. We headed on to Santa Maria de Leuca and watched surfers while I sipped a Red Bull (the 6.30am hike was catching up on me). On up the last stretch of coast to Castro, heading North-East. Beautiful coastline, light blue sea on the right all the way. A brief halt at the elaborate seaside baths of Santa Ceserae Terme, sunk into a rocky coastline, and finally on through Otranto and into the baroque city of Lecce.

IMG_0095

At first sight, from the street our one-night B&B looked underwhelming. I felt panicked. But 24 hours later I gave it a 10/10 review. Two adjoining en-suite rooms on the second floor of an old city centre house. High, high ceilings. A big reception room in between and a rooftop balcony half the size of a tennis court, to watch the moon rise later over the city. Our hostess got us settled in, recommended some good restaurants and pointed us toward the 8-10 minute walk to the city centre. Where we rounded a corner, saw Piazza del Duomo (site of the wedding on the Monday) as the moon rose behind the dome, and went ‘wow’. Again.

After a lovely local meal, we wandered the narrow pedestrianised streets. The local football team got promoted that night in a home game, so around 9pm we heard a murmur through the streets. And it got louder and louder and announced the arrival of about 4-5,000 jubilant football fans with flares, banners and flags, marching and dancing through the streets and chanting in unison. No hassle, no threat, just a lot of people of all ages having a great time together. Another nice coincidence for us to see. We wandered back for a great nights sleep.

fullsizeoutput_41b5

Monday morning started with a home-grown and home-made breakfast of local produce from our hostess. Just wonderful. After which we toured the city sights, all very close by and easy to navigate. Some four hours later, and over a large bowl of handmade ice-cream (4 euro each, coffee 1.50) we decided to head back early toward Bari and spend a few hours on the coast at a small place called Poligano a Mare, which is (it seems) a resort that people from Bari frequent. I could see why, when we got there. Steep cliffs and an old town ringed a small cove with a stony beach and deep, clear, shimmering water. After a light lunch beside the bridge, I scuttled down the ravine onto the beach, and managed a short dip in the Adriatic. Cold (but not the extreme Irish sea-cold) and refreshing.

IMG_0106

And that was more or less that. We headed back to the airport after an enjoyable four days in a lovely place. Distances are short, country beautiful, it’s not ‘too’ touristy, and prices are extremely reasonable. I’m definitely going to return, and for longer next time. Arrivederci Puglia…

DSCN9067

Follow me up to Carlow.

Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be this hard (The Scientist : Coldplay)

The idea

It started as a ‘what if’ and turned into a plan. To canoe in Indian-type canoes down the Barrow river to the point where it becomes tidal near St Mullins in South Carlow. Four people, two canoes, camping wild, bring our food (and drink), leave no trace. And so it came to pass…improbably.

fullsizeoutput_411c

Reflections

The reality – Saturday

Up 6.30am, drive the 50k to meet up in Athy, drive the backroads to St Mullins 80 minutes away to drop the ‘end car’, then back to Athy again through beautiful South Carlow landscape. It’d take us the best part of three days to paddle the same distance in due course. Four guys, two boats. Friends asking us if we’d ever watched ‘Deliverance’. Not funny.

 

Back in Athy, final checks, get on the water at 12.30 – much later than hoped. We struggle with locks on the way to Carlow – Ardreigh, Grangemellon (my original home patch), Maganey, Bestfield, on into Carlow. Slow going, with portages around the locks. We’re not good enough at this. Yet. Man overboard at Maganey – quickly fished out and no harm done. We realise it takes minimum 25 minutes per lock (and there’s lots of locks)…

fullsizeoutput_411e

Levitstown Mill – my father worked here once, a long time ago.

We end up at Clogrennan (just south of Carlow) around 8.45pm – starting to get dark. Best we could do in terms of the day, pile out onto the bank and get sorted. Very heavy mist that night – fog wetting everything. We realise our tent is crap. Bonus is an amazing 5.30am dawn chorus – coincidentally the same day as RTE Broadcast on the topic. At least the sun burned off the really thick fog quickly to create a scorching day.

 

Sunday

On the water eventually by 10.20 and off down the river. Another beautiful day with amazing reflections on the water. More locks. Very few villages for some time. No-one else on the water. Some people walking the Barrow way, some just local walkers, some people cycling. Lot of fishermen. I managed to lose the Barrow Guidebook – I still don’t know how. So we were blind, relying on google maps. Not ideal.

Milford, Leighlinbridge, Bagenalstown, no evident toilet facilities on the riverbanks. Pity. Then a long, long haul from Bagenalstown to Goresbridge. As it was (only) 6pm at that stage we decided to keep going, with our limited food/drink supplies. We ‘took on’ two shallow weirs (a combination of derring-do and a burning desire to avoid at least SOME locks). And at the second one, a kind gentleman told us to head for Borris House Lock to camp, it was ‘just beyond Ballytiglea bridge’ and up a canal on the left.

 

We found it and got off the river around 7.30pm. A great location. Secluded, pretty, firewood everywhere, bluebells, wildlife. Pitched camp and cooked up a storm. Good food, few drinks, slept well, shoulders aching. Heavy mist again overnight. Wet feet when getting up to pee at 3am. By now my feet were permanently damp/wet.

Monday, Monday.

 

We had done 25km on the Sunday instead of the planned 20km, which meant we had about 15-16km to go to St Mullins. And that created a good buzz on the Monday morning. But lots of locks to extend the time. Amazing dawn chorus again at Borris Bridge. Bizarre combo breakfast – eating leftovers like cherry tomatoes, pastrami on sourdough, banana, water running out, no milk. The sun came out again – three days in a row – we were blessed.

Our second lock was Clashganny, with the famous big kayaking weir. We bumped into the guy I had rented the canoe from, and he offered us the loan of a lock key. Manna from heaven. AND they have the most amazing block at Clashganny with toilets, toilet PAPER and even showers. We celebrated with a can of lukewarm cider. Each. Onwards, with fresh enthusiasm (and a lock key). Next stop was a double lock. No problem. We even began to have people taking photos of us as we worked the lock gates. Superstardom of a kind. We also had (I suspect) begun to smell a bit ripe at this stage. No-one came too close…

KJL9+n%dRnONnMVZLsnJJA

A screen grab from our drone footage

We learned (in fact) that the key did not really speed up the lock transition. But it took a lot of the physical effort out of it. And that was a big plus by day three, when batteries were running low. On the South end of the river the locks come thick and fast. But one guy in turn did the sluices, the other three dawdled on the canal in the canoes and slid into the lock when the gates opened, then out again. We noticed some lovely lock cottages on the side. Took some drone footage which turned out to be superb.

W8M8DMZ1S2G%9KUNM2iiZw

Graignamanagh

We got to Graignamanagh (last town of any size) about 1pm and dawdled for a while, had some hot food and a coffee. Civilisation! Only 6km to the end, but also four locks. We mutually and tacitly decided not to shoot the weirs, last thing we wanted late in the day was a capsize. I already had been in wet footwear for 48 hours at this stage…foot-rot was setting in.

The last push down to St Mullins was tough – not much current on the river and a wind in our faces creating a chop. But we could smell the end in sight. Last lock was like a cruiser graveyard with semi-submerged craft everywhere. Finally (!) we swung around the bend to a St Mullins that was crowded with people, canoes, kids and dogs. We made it, maaan.

 

On reflection

Along the way – we saw mute swans, one whooper swan, kingfishers, dippers, yellow wagtails, buzzards, wood pigeons, pheasants. But no mammals at all, bar cows in the fields. Odd. Lots and lots of wildflowers that I could not readily identify. The lower river is definitely more scenic, but the regular locks can be a pain. The town of Graignamanagh  looks really pretty, probably the nicest spot on the river all in all. There were no pubs along the way actually on the river, but we were unlikely to have stopped anyway, it was all about ‘getting away from it all’…and enjoying the silence.

fullsizeoutput_4196

Mount Leinster looms

Obviously we were blessed with the weather. Three sunny days, cloudless sky, amazing visibility, stars at night, no rain at all. The heavy fogs made the grass really wet at night, but that was the least we could expect. Sore shoulders, some back pains, no fist fights or fatalities, and all in all a great experience. And we learned a lot too, for future reference. I can see another trip in the tea-leaves, just not sure where or when.

And finally, from my favourite poem, ever…

Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –

And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy

And other far-flung towns mythologies.

Patrick Kavanagh – Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.

The book club blues.

I am sure that there are some statistics available on what I’m about to discuss but it seems to me that more people of my generation are reading more than ever before. Now admittedly to my kids – all in their twenties – this behaviour would be anathema, but the word of mouth review, augmented by the book club phenomenon seems to be driving added impetus to book-reading. And I know it’s a cliche, but books really will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no books…

And the way that ‘everything is joined up’ now is conspiring with this in a sort of circular motion. The more you read, the more you are inclined to rate the book – say via Amazon itself, Goodreads, or the most recent place I have noticed this, my local public lending library. I’m also dimly aware that my Goodreads books are popping up on Facebook, so once you engage, and write some opinions, there’s really no place to hide. And comments thereafter are welcomed, if not almost expected. So welcome to the age of the citizen-reviewer, where books are rated just like restaurants and hotels.

olnme2auR9abnsuWQZCyoA

So what’s changed in the way I read? And also what I read? Well for starters as a member of a book club, I have to read whatever is picked. But the first downside/upside  of a book club is that there is a deadline. No longer can one dawdle through a tortuous epic. On the other hand, there is less likelihood of giving up (the shame, the shame) and in our book club at least, finishing is de rigeur. There is also much more likelihood of reading outside one’s normal comfort zone, though of late this has led to minor spats where a feeling is expressed that ‘the book was never given a chance’. In my book club the demographic of the members is similar. We’re all middle aged men. And we’ve been friends for a long time, which probably helps with the awkward verdicts on each others choices. But there have been some compelling rows along the way.

Incidentally, and as a complete aside, does anyone remember a BBC TV series from (probably) the 80s called ‘The Book Group’. It was only ever scheduled very late, but it was rather fascinating – at least to me at my then age. From memory there was a guy in a wheelchair who worked at a swimming pool reception desk, a nymphomaniac, a footballer’s wife, the footballer himself (who barely spoke English) and a few other very diverse characters. I really must see if it’s view-able somewhere on YouTube these days. But I digress.

My current book club (featuring a very normal cast by comparison) does always read the book in question, we have a bit of banter, munch some cheese and snacks (a topic in itself, the quality of book club grub) and then we discuss the latest selection. The guy who chose it goes last, and usually by that point he’s either glowing with all the praise or frantically building a defence (ie I ‘heard it was good’ but….). Sometimes, this phase does become deeply comical, with people ready to be hung, drawn and quartered, only for a gallows reprieve to arrive via a vaguely complimentary comment.

L7xsDih6TneL1p49fww9qQ

The slight dilemma is that when we started we all agreed that we wanted to ‘get out of our comfort zones’ and read a different kind of book than we’d normally buy. But lately I have noticed that it’s nearly always ‘good’ novels. Nothing trashy for us. Oh no. It tends to be a book that is either in the critics choice of top 100 books of all time (which unsurprisingly do tend to be pretty good) or else they are current press darlings. Or Booker prize winners – generally a safe bet. We have had a ‘Historical’ round (ie old books), a recently published round (self evident) and a few books which resist categorisation. But they are few and far between, and the Booker prize type of novel has become the benchmark. So I have a feeling that we need to put the cat among these particular pigeons and re-open the debate about ‘who are we’. Or, indeed, who do we want to be? Do we know?

I do also ‘read on the side’ which I suppose enables me to personally look at more oddball titles. And in that vein, my recent discovery that I can download e-books from my local lending library to the Kindle has thrown up a few gems from left-field. It’s a lot easier to experiment at zero cost. Nonetheless I will be interested to see the reaction when I put this conundrum of ‘where are we going’ on the table in a few nights time. More anon.

World of Podcasts

You know when you are dimly aware of another world, or a facility that you never quite use but always meant to? Well it’s always been a bit like that with me and podcasts. I knew they were there, but the idea of actually sitting down and listening to one was a step too far. If I’m sitting down, I’m either occasionally watching TV, or more likely reading a book while the music I’m playing washes over me. Manifestly, it’s not possible to read a book and listen to a podcast at the same time.

However, as usual, I have friends who say ‘You really should listen to X and Y’. I guess if I could listen to podcasts on my daily commute to and from work it’d be a logical fit, but I’m usually either listening to the new, sports results, weather forecasts or traffic jams to avoid. So no podcasts. But one of my New Year resolutions was – ta-da – to walk at least 20km each week. Nothing fancy, no hill climbs, just a reasonably paced saunter around my neighbourhood. As my remaining dog is, sadly, unable for anything that resembles exercise and has a pace which enables snails to overtake us, I do these walks solo. But this is where the podcasts come in…

fullsizeoutput_36b8

With my smartphone primed and my earphones clamped into my ears, I set off into the evening gloom and I find that having a good story to listen to shortens the road. Sometimes I’m even go engrossed in what I am listening to, I pass by our gate on my return and do a hairpin loop up the road to get to the end of the podcast. I try to manage them on the smartphone so as not to end up with ridiculous numbers of downloads, and I have evolved to having a few real favourites. Which, since you ask, are as follows…

  1. Desert Island Discs – the BBC perennial. It’s been going for a long time, and obviously there are archives going back to the sixties and seventies. I tend to listen to more recent episodes, and I think the style now is more breezy and chatty – there were a few earlier offerings which I found to be too ‘solemn’ and reverential in their tone. Listening to the current crop, there are some people I have only vaguely heard of, but sometimes they still create a great episode and can be heard to have a great empathy with the presenter. The discs themselves are just snatches of songs (for ‘copyright reasons’, the voice-over always intones), but that’s fine with me. My favourites so far have been John McEnroe (truly funny, amazingly engaged and entertaining), Christopher Nolan (lots of insights into his life on film), Nigella Lawson (from the archives, but great fun), and Jack Whitehall (just flat out funny). I tracked down a Clive James episode from the archives, but it was early in his career, and I think he had a lot of anecdote gathering in front of him. And I was surprised he mostly chose classical music. There are many more for me to listen to – and they never disappoint.
  2. The Guardian Football Weekly Podcast – manned by a floating population of football completists, this comes out each Monday and Thursday, at least during the football season. For someone like me with an abiding interest in the game, it’s great. They just simply talk about football and associated tributaries, some of which are only vaguely connected to the topic. For example, ‘have you ever seen a live weasel’ or ‘who is the best person called Jack who ever played for England’. And they all seem to know one another and they all have blogs or write columns in the Guardian, so there is a sense of continuity to the whole thing and a ‘matiness’ quotient. They do however also provide great insights into recent and upcoming matches, rip the proverbial out of top players and especially managers, and topics such as VAR and player ineptitude when diving are also regularly covered. I do like it because it seems adult, it’s not too ‘laddish’. I have tried other football podcasts and sometimes the participants seem to be trying way too hard to be permanently excited. There’s nothing wrong with gentle reflection in my book. These podcasts also last about an hour, so great value for (no) money and a good soundtrack to my walk.
  3. Documentary on One – from RTE. These are produced on a one-off basis by the Irish National broadcaster and there are some really interesting ones in there, even the ones that may be ‘revived’ from some years past. They are often on Historical themes or looking at social phenomena. Recent highlights have included a program about the shooting of the ‘Ballroom of Romance’ movie, by visiting the location where the real thing was based down in County Mayo. A program about Roger Casement was fascinating, both from an Irish history viewpoint and also about his work in the Belgian Congo. More recently, a documentary that chronicled from the inside track the goings on at the pre-teenage disco known to all and sundry as ‘Wezz’ was a hoot. In fact there was a complaint (not upheld, happily) that the podcast glorified teenage drinking, which just goes to show, well I’m not exactly sure what. But it was a great podcast.
  4. The Rest? – Well I do listen at times to Dan Snow’s history podcasts, the BBC itself has a good series of documentary podcasts, many of them historic, and I have listened to some Penguin ‘World of Books’ podcasts. In general the BBC also has some great music podcasts.  But to be honest I felt that even entertaining people seemed to struggle to engage me on that one. I do keep my eye open however and I know there are many more podcasts out there, too many for me to listen to at my current mileage. But I’ll keep my ear to the ground and see what captures my imagination going forward.

KaJW6kbnRH+C8Yev0L%YTA

Old dog struggles with new tricks.

Perhaps surprisingly, this post is not about my dog, although she is ageing gracefully. It’s about my recent experiences with the world of Bridge (i.e. the card game – although its adherents might regard it as more of a lifestyle instead than a mere ‘game’).

But first, to put this in some kind of context. For most of my adult life I have deliberately avoided pastimes or pursuits which look like they require a deep level of skill to participate in, or which had the prospect of being a massive ‘time-eater’. So, for example, I have never really gotten into chess, despite knowing (in theory) the basic moves. I have avoided crosswords on the basis that they are just designed to fill up time, when I could be reading. I have, on multiple occasions, tried to learn how to play guitar. And on multiple occasions I failed. I’m quite good on air guitar though, when needed. However Bridge sort of caught me unawares as a ‘bottomless time-eating pit’.

fullsizeoutput_3d2f

My wife has played now for about five years and, despite her modesty, in quite good. In fact by my pathetic standards she’s at International level. And I heard all the stuff about ‘great social outlet, great for keeping your mind active, really popular’ etc. And I reckoned ‘Hey, it’s something to explore, after all, how hard can it be’? It’s just a card game. Right?

Well, as I have now discovered, the answer is VERY hard. In fact it’s almost impossible to comprehend. For the first time since I was about 12, I feel in my beginners Bridge class that sense of panic, when the teacher asks ‘what is your bid’? I find that despite all of the rules I have learned, the number of ‘practice hands’ that I have played online (yes, the InterWeb is chock-full of Bridge tuition platforms), and my desperate desire to please, I am clueless. So, like the 12 year old me, I simply guess an answer, pitifully. And obviously I guess wrong. And feel really dumb. So as an exercise in personal self-humiliation, this is going swimmingly.

A few other points – and if you are starting to think ‘Well, maybe Bridge is not really for me after all’ – you may well be correct. Bridge seems, from my vantage point, to be an endless series of utterly complicated rules, which one must (attempt to) remember. Then there are exceptions to those rules, there are ‘conventions’ which seem to bend the rules, and there are many other angles to consider, such as the very formalised conventions around physically playing the game. And every so often you think to yourself ‘It’s only a card game’.

It’s a team game of two people. You speak in code to your partner. You have to learn the code.  Your partner has to learn it too. Then you have to gauge if your understanding is the same as your partner’s. Then you try to ‘converse’. And if you get it wrong, you probably feel a migraine coming on at the same time as you see the pity/glee in your opponents eyes. And after all this, mentally exhausted, you actually have to play the cards. Another chance to feel stupid and demonstrate it to three other people.

The plus points? In fairness, I can see why it’s addictive. Perversely, it’s because it’s so hard and you ‘don’t want to let it beat you’. Mostly because on a personal level you don’t want to feel inadequate. So you practice, practice, practice, and hope the mists of confusion will clear. You realise there are literally thousands of people playing this ‘game’. Like rats, there are Bridge players everywhere. They appear like normal people, strangely. You look into the ‘big room’ where the ‘regulars’ are playing and you think/hope ‘there has to be at least one person in there that’s dumber than me’. You informally rank yourself against your fellow beginners and enjoy the feeling that at least some of them appear less confident and capable than you are. You consider the time-investment you have made so far and decide that it’d be a waste to quit now. But deep down you think about those fellow beginners classmates who never re-appeared after Christmas. And wonder if their lives are any less fulfilled because they stopped. For now, I’m sticking with this. But maybe I should be doing crossword puzzles instead. I hear they’re great for your literacy levels, and don’t damage your self-esteem…

Sourdough, again.

It seems like time to return to this theme again. I’m now up to loaf 41, and despite continued general scepticism I plan a family event when, hopefully, I get to my half century loaf. The event format remains to be seen, however.

The good news is that the texture of the loaves has improved. I’m seeing lots of air pockets, flavoursome, chewy. Part of the reason for the ‘double bake’ is to share some with my friends and see what they think. So I do the rounds, sharing is caring. Feedback has tended to be good, happily. So this is the routine now going forward – mix two loaves worth of dough. Shape, fold, all that stuff. Then divide, final folding and shaping, separately into the fridge and then bake side by side. It works…

xsUpT+enRMSZNGByEsIp9A

What has been increasingly interesting has been the way that Winter temperatures have affected the proving period for the dough. I have had to resort now to using the airing cupboard. I think at this time of year, it’s inevitable. I debated putting in a dedicated ‘sourdough shelf’ but reckoned I’d get such grief that I’d just continue balancing the bowls precariously on the piles of clothes instead.

I actually collected snow in the recent arctic spell to provide water, but didn’t like the grey residue I noticed once it melted. So that was a short-lived idea. No point in killing anyone!

VBaBUl1TRnayPJ+jciSyVQ

And all in all, it’s been a lot of fun. I am now regularly adding fresh chopped Rosemary from the garden into the mix. I have also experimented with dried cranberries, raisins, sunflower seeds and chia seeds. They all add different flavours. I keep meaning to read up more stuff online about other people’s experiences, and hints and tips. But so far I have, in general, tried to stick to building a coherent routine. I do struggle to fit it into my working week, but often I’ll start the ball rolling on Thursday night, and finally bake on Saturday. But longer term I want to figure out a cycle that works within the work week too…

fullsizeoutput_3a27

The latest twist was to try baking Sourdough Rolls. I made them a bit too big (see photo) but next time I’ll know better. I also, on a recent weekend away, had a bread roll that had a scattering of salt on the top, and it tasted great. So when I made the Sourdough rolls, I followed a hint I saw in an online recipe, of brushing with melted butter 5 minutes before the end of baking, and sprinkling some milled sea salt on top. I tried it, and it tasted quite good. Maybe it’s self-induced hysteria, but still it’s fun.

ybP7qrMfSquitra0ZBiqRg

The Sourdough Rolls

Next report somewhere around Number 50, whenever that happens. I’m forecasting early April, with any luck.

Chilled out in Prague

Prague had been on our ‘must see’ list for quite some time. So taking advantage of low airfares, and the prospect of seeing the city without the teeming crowds that they apparently get during the Summer, we set off in late February to see what was on offer. Ironically, the trip almost ended in disaster. Despite the fact that it was -12 in Prague, we had no difficulty in taking off, but sudden snow at Dublin airport (in a balmy +1 degree) meant that we just about managed to land. But we knew none of this as we arrived into the city on the Vltava.

 

Night one was a brief orientation tour from our city centre hotel, up to see the Charles Bridge by floodlight, the Old Town Square, and on to find a warm corner in the historic U Pinkazu beerhall, where the first local draught Pilsner Urquell flowed in 1843. Truth to tell, it was a bit nippy for beer drinking, but we compromised by trying the local liqueur also. I have no idea what it was called, but it put some fire in our bellies.

One of the reasons that Prague is such a tourist draw, is that not only does it have a complicated and interesting history, it also managed, despite successive regimes, to maintain and preserve the architecture intact. There were successive regimes and rules, from the holy roman emperor Charles around 1300 all the way up to the post WW2 Communist occupation. And there are traces of all these eras on view. The centre of Prague is compact and walkable, and probably due to the extreme cold there was no snow or ice underfoot. So once you went in for coffee or brandy every so often, and wrapped up like the Michelin man in between, all was well.

Sunday was our first full day, and as I could not sleep I got up early and headed the 300m or so to the Charles Bridge to get some photographs of the sun rising over it. The only other people around were fellow insomniac photographers. I’d say in Summer, with the crowds, an early start is even more essential. But at this time of year, I was back for a hearty breakfast by 9am with the feeling that I’d earned it.

fullsizeoutput_3aa8

With some hot food on board, we headed off for the Jewish Quarter, also called Josefev. While the Jews of Prague fared no better than anywhere else in Europe during WW2, their synagogues and museums were preserved, and there were some really informative exhibitions about both their history and religious habits. Centrepiece of this whole area is the ‘Old Jewish Cemetery’ with ancient gravestones piled against each other, right in the middle of this crowded residential area. Very moving and an essential sight to see. We had gotten a ticket that covered all of the historic monuments in this part of Prague, and that took most of the morning.

Pausing only to feed the swans on the Vltava (bread rolls from breakfast, and a wonderful episode, see photos) we strolled across the Charles bridge, and then made it to the Savoy Café downriver for lunch. This is an Art Nouveau masterpiece – it’s not cheap but it’s worth visiting, even for a coffee.  En route we passed by the ‘John Lennon wall’ – a graffiti painted homage to the artist, and with a nice stroll through an island on the river thereafter. After lunch we headed to the Frank Gehry-designed ‘drunken building’ (also facing the river) and en route we remarked on the amazing architecture. I am no expert in this field, but nearly every building in Prague has a fantastic doorway, cherubs halfway up the wall, angels in the architecture, naked modern sculptures lying across rooftops. You keep seeing details that are rare in other cities, but here appear commonplace. The rest of day one was a brief visit to the extremely disappointing ‘U Fleku’ beerhall – where service is truly awful and it’s plain that it’s geared toward big parties without any critical facilities. Pass. We got to a chamber music recital in the Spanish Synagogue which was wonderful, and then had dinner in a Benedictine Monastery to finish off the night. Although we did manage to fit in a nightcap at a chilled out bar called Jewel just round the corner from our hotel. While we’d always try to find a central hotel anywhere we’d go, I think in Prague it’s even more essential – being able to stroll around is just so handy. So we slept well, in the Hotel Perla on Perlova Street. Highly recommended.

NLEmdo0KTuCe%zysF1TB4Qfullsizeoutput_3ac7

Day Two dawned, and we could see it was getting colder outside. Thermals were in order, although the reality is that you can’t really put on all the layers before going to breakfast. So it’s a last minute job. The plan was to (gasp) figure out how to take a tram. So after actually asking someone ‘how do you buy a ticket for this thing’ we acquired said tickets in a newsagent and hopped onto the Number 22 tram (having checked out the correct direction). This wends its way across the river through very scenic streets, and then up to the top of the hill overlooking the city, from whence it’s a downhill walk all the way. This way was mainly focused on seeing multiple Catholic baroque masterpieces, and so we began with the Strahov Monastery, moved to the Loreta Convent, had coffee, went to the castle and St Vitus Cathedral (in the middle of the castle grounds), dropped down to St Nicholas church and finally to the Church of our Lady Victorious, where the ‘Holy Child of Prague’ is on view. By now, we could take no more Baroquery, so we went into a wonderful coffee-shop called Carmelitske cukrarna about 100m away (left out of church, toward Charles bridge) and regrouped. The coffee revived our spirits, so we meandered back across the Charles bridge to the hotel and ate local that night, in a packed pizzeria – always a good sign.

On our final day we were headed for the airport around 1pm, so we ‘did’ Wenceslas square, saw the balcony where Vaclav Havel launched the ‘Velvet Revolution’, passed the memorial to Jan Palach, and looked at the art deco buildings en route. Next to the Powder Tower and the Municipal Building, which apparently is Prague’s most fully realised Art Nouveau building. It’s an auditorium with (you guessed it) a classy coffee-lounge, where we topped up our central heating. And then a short walk back to the hotel for our airport pickup. Our driver confirmed that in Summer ‘it’s crazy’, so despite the cold, I think we made the right decision. No queues, lots of coffee stops, and an occasional ‘local liqueur’ to warm the bloodstream. It worked for us…

The Sourdough Chronicles

It seems like time to return to this theme and document my experiences with Sourdough baking over the last 3-4 months. In general, it’s been a lot of fun, a lot of learning, and surprisingly few disasters along the way. I’m now up to loaf 31, and to snorts of derision at home, I plan a family event when, hopefully, I get to my half century loaf.

IMG_9017

Along the way, a few things have evolved, quite naturally. I have now gotten to the point where I make two loaves at the same time. I do the whole process, doubling all the measurements, and then when I get to the last stage of shaping the loaf, I simply chop the dough in half and finish the kneading and shaping. I have two baskets, two iron saucepans to put them in, and effectively I get two loaves for the same amount of effort. And I only have to clean up once, even if (apparently) my cleaning effort is not up to the expected standard chez moi. Ah well, it’s a small price to pay.

fullsizeoutput_35e2

What has been interesting has been the way that varying temperatures have affected the proving period for the dough. I have resorted at times to using the airing cupboard, but I also feel that sort of ‘forces’ the rise, so I try to let it happen naturally for longer periods at room temperature. I have also invested in multiple small bits and pieces as I keep discovering ‘new needs’. In summary, I have added a second proving basket (souvenir from Vietnam), second iron casserole pot, a scalpel for scoring the dough, a thermometer for my airing cupboard, some added kilner jars for yeast cultures, brushes to clean the baskets, and a bunch of teatowels. I have discovered that you can NEVER have too many tea-towels.

I’ve gotten better at not letting the dough stick to the tea-towels. I have gotten a lot better at the folding and injecting the air into the dough to get a better rise. I have discovered fresh yeast (in Polish shops) and a bit of that in the initial ‘mother culture’ seems to bring an extra vigour to the mix. I use bottled still water for the yeast culture, to avoid the chlorine and whatever else in the tap water. I have considered collecting (clean) rainwater to see if it makes a difference. So far, I have not actually done it, but it’s a possibility…I also use the best ‘strong white flour’ I can find. No point in cutting corners.

IMG_9025

On the negative side, I forgot to ask someone to feed the ‘mother culture’ while we were away on a three week trip, so it…..died. I had to borrow a fresh culture from a friend to get going. That was my one total disaster, the bake I made when the culture was flat. It went in the bin. RIP.

IMG_9042

And all in all, it’s been a lot of fun. I have started – on occasion – adding items like raisins and sunflower seeds into the mix. I have also put in milled Chia seeds, although they don’t really taste of much. Next time out I am going to pick fresh Rosemary from the garden, chop it finely, and see how that works out. I have a feeling it could be good, but time will tell. I keep meaning to read up more stuff online about other people’s experiences, and hints and tips. But so far I have, in general, tried to stick to building a coherent routine. I do struggle to fit it into my working week, but often I’ll start the ball rolling on Thursday night, and finally bake on Saturday. But longer term I think I will try to figure out a cycle that works within the work week too…

I give away a lot of what I bake, as I feel a) it’s sociable, b) my real fun is in the making and c) practice makes perfect, but if I/we ate all I produce, we’d be total blimps by now. So all in all, sharing makes sense. And finally, I have to say that the big kick I get from all of this is just messing around in the kitchen and actually producing something that (nearly always) tastes good. It’s quite relaxing, and I half-think I may be getting to the point where I actually can feel that the dough is becoming springy and ready to shape. Maybe it’s self-induced hysteria, but still… I also know a few other people who are on the Sourdough train, so comparing notes is a lot of fun. Sourdough banter is an evolving medium, but I’m well able for the comments.

D101B4FF-949B-41E1-B481-D7CFAD7F8E8D

Next report somewhere around Number 50, whenever that happens. I’m forecasting April, with any luck.

g88CswgJSXO3fmtfUNFxGA