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.

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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)…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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’.

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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…

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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!

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Walking thru scooters in Vietnam…

This year was the one when we finally got to Vietnam. Most of my kids had been there, so it was about time we tried to catch up. We decided to go on a group tour with an organisation we’d used before. We like their model, structured but loose. With lots of time to ‘do your own thing’ if that’s what you wanted.

In retrospect the tour was a bit too short – eleven days from North to South. We had wanted to visit Hong Kong on the way and to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia at the end. So Vietnam did get slightly ‘sandwiched in the middle’, even if we added two more days in Saigon/HCMC at the end, independent of the tour.

Just prior to the holiday, we’d been lucky enough to see most of the amazing Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam war. That brought back a lot of childhood memories, of scenes from the other side of the world appearing on my nightly TV news feed. Not that I ever really watched the news in those days.

Back to the present with a bump, and first stop Hanoi. We stayed very centrally, and I was surprised that the old centre did not appear to have been badly bombed in the war. I really liked Hanoi, albeit we only really saw the square kilometre in the centre. It’s a teeming mass of humanity, accentuated by the narrow streets. People push bicycles laden with fruit, pottery, garments, anything. There are thousands of restaurants, hardware shops selling plastic buckets, basins, birdcages, motorbike helmets, and so on. And all the time a constant hum of scooters and motorbikes, with the associated fumes.

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One thing I realised quite quickly was that photographing people was very easy, because a) everyone seems to live on the street, outside their dwelling, and b) they seem relatively relaxed about people taking photographs of them. As a result, while I took a ridiculous number of photographs (victimless crime, in my view), an unusually large number of them were of people. And they are photogenic. As far as I can see, Vietnamese people are very open and friendly toward tourists too, and seem to have a very industrious approach to life. Nice people.

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After two days soaking up the sights, smells and food of Hanoi, we bused it down to Halong Bay, and a boat trip. Too short a time, sadly, but the bay is beautiful and the sheer rocky islands are memorable. We didn’t like the bit we saw of Halong City – it seems like a very spread out place. On the waterfront they seem to be creating a massive amusement park (with Chinese investment apparently – China is only about 50km away). And when we explored a bit up behind the coastal strip, the food market we found was really basic, dirty and even a bit disturbing. Ah well, the photos of the bay will stay in my memory a lot longer.

Back on a bus to Hanoi, straight to the railway station for the overnight sleeper to Hue, down the coast. I had been dreading this trip, but it turned out to be a real experience, decent bunks in a four bed carriage, and we even managed to sleep because we got to stretch out properly. We woke around 5am and watched the flooded paddy fields with water buffalo sweeping past. At 7am our guide stuck his head in to say that we were now arriving in the DMZ (De-Militarised-Zone). Very memorable.

Hue proved to be great, the historic Citadel (made famous by the Tet offensive during the war) proved very interesting, and we visited an ancient Buddhist Temple/Monastery after a boat ride up the Perfume river. I must say that monastery really exuded a sense of peace and calm, more so than the many other temples we visited. I don’t know why, but I really felt a sense of tranquillity there.

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Next day we traversed the high Hoi Van pass in driving rain, to arrive in Hoi An. My kids had told me that I’d love it, and they were right. It’s smaller than most of our destinations, but beautiful, all along the river banks. Many photo opportunities, friendly people, great food and even a chance to get some tailoring done at breakneck speed. Our last day there was wall to wall torrential rain unfortunately, and about five days after we left the city was flooded by a combination of high tides and torrential typhoon-driven rain. But we did see it at it’s best, and I loved it.

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Next day we flew from Danang down to the city with two names – Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC for short). It’s a place teeming with life, millions of scooters, and a very vibrant feel to it. There are many remnants of the French and US occupation if you know where to look. We did all the usual tourist stuff, including excursions to the Mekong Delta and to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The food was amazing, no matter where we ate. It’s fresh, flavoursome, not too spicy, and just says ‘more’. I think Saigon is the ultimate metropolis I have visited, not necessarily because of the number of people but because they are packed in so tightly. We developed skills in walking through swarms of scooters that I would never have believed possible. We had to, frankly.

My one downside to the whole trip was that because it was quite short, it became very urban-based. I’d like to have seen more of the countryside, and it just was not possible in the timeframe available. But I would definitely go back – it’s a fantastic country and I only have good memories. Plus about two thousand photographs, should my memory fail me…

Angkor Wat

I have to confess that Angkor Wat was not originally on my ‘bucket list’, certainly not to the extent that (say) Machu Picchu is. But given that we were ‘in the neighbourhood’ in SE Asia, we decided to make a side-trip to visit it. And I’m very glad that we did, because it really is a memorable place.

I’m still a bit hazy on the origins of the city (for that is what it was) but I know that at one stage it was the biggest city on the planet, and in the end it was over-run by Thai invaders. It was originally a Hindu temple, and many of the statues reflect that, but there are Buddhist influences also. Now, it’s a massive series of ruins, spread across about a 10k square area. It’s very close to a medium-sized town called Siem Reap, and that’s where we flew into. On the way in, we could see through the plane windows that the huge lake called the Tonle Sap was in full flood, due to the heavy rains. And it really expands massively across the countryside because the terrain is so flat. I’ll come back to the Tonle Sap in a bit.

After a complicated and confusing entry Visa process, we exited and met the tuk-tuk driver sent by our hotel to greet us. We became big tuk-tuk fans over the next few days, although the fumes at times can be a bit overwhelming. We found our hotel, a nice place and well-located close to the centre of town but far enough away from the noise and bustle to let us gather our wits.

We realised early on that we’d never see all we wanted to at Angkor in one day, so we bought the three day entry pass (these are rigorously checked, so no avoiding this). And then off we set, north toward the ‘Temple Zone’. We had been told by a fellow traveller that Angkor Thom was her favourite, so on day one we had an appetiser of Ta Prohm – which is the temple where the trees have largely been left draped over the ruined temples, and made ‘famous’ (like it needed that) by Angelina Jolie in Tom Raider. It is pretty amazing – the photographs are the proof I guess.

By now we had figured out that hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take us around was the best course of action, and typically we arranged to meet them at the other side of the temple we were traversing. However our limited communication skills, and the fact that there are hundreds of tuk tuk drivers milling about, made finding ‘our’ guy a bit of a lottery. In fairness they normally found us, and somehow we all made it work.

The traffic jams coming back from the temples to Siem Reap in the evening are massive, because everyone wants to see the sun go down before heading back. At the other end of the spectrum, we got up one morning at the ungodly hour of 4.30 am to get up to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. Definitely worth it – an unmissable experience. And the temple moneys are pretty cool too – if a bit scary. We then went off to see Angkor Thom, with our trusty driver, and when we headed back to the hotel at 9.45 (AM!) we discovered they were still serving breakfast. After which we (yes) went to bed. What a topsy turvy day…

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Siem Reap itself is a bit rinky-dink. I think that the Cambodian culture has been submerged under a tidal wave of visitors, and as it’s a poor country the lure of the tourist dollar has taken over. The street called ‘pub street’ is literally that, with dozens of bars offering beer and cocktails at ridiculously low prices. We found a few nice restaurants – mostly away from that area – and had some amazing spicy Thai food at very reasonable prices. It can be very humid too, and you have to get used to dealing with that. The central food market in Siem Reap is also an experience in itself, and not for the faint hearted. The fruit and vegetables are ok, but the fish and meat sections are a voyage of discovery. Let’s just say that there were things in there that will never make it onto my menu.

We also did a trip down to the Tonle Sap to see one of the ‘floating villages’ that are built on stilts and so can deal with the rise and fall of the lake water level. The people mostly have a subsistence level, based on fishing the lake and growing rice in the shallows. The villages are scenic, but it’s evident that the people are very poor. We had a short excursion to a mangrove forest, which was beautiful as we were rowed through the backwaters by a local.

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And then, all too suddenly, it was time to exit Siem Reap and head to the airport. By tuk-tuk, obviously. I took way too many photographs, but really enjoyed the trip. I’d like to have seen a bit more of the countryside itself, and there are organised trips to do that, some of them by cycle. But I think hiring a tuk-tuk driver for a morning or a day and saying ‘take me to the country’ would also be an interesting and practical way to do the same thing. Next time perhaps…

Asia in Black and White

I was recently lucky enough to do a multi-country trip through Southeast Asia. Starting in Hong Kong, we then flew to Hanoi and did a group tour North to South, ending up in Saigon/HCMC. After that, next leg was on to Siem Reap in Cambodia, specifically to see Angkor Wat. And then, sort of ‘on the way home’, we had a few days in Kuala Lumpur (I now know it’s ‘KL’) before picking up our Air Malaysia flight back home.

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Three weeks ‘on the road’. During which I took a quite ridiculous number of photographs. A surprising number of these were of people. I say surprising because it’s not a subject that I often zero in on. But in Southeast Asia, it seems like all human life happens on the street and in full view. So people, and their actions, really do present themselves as an obvious subject.

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Last comment, for now, as I wanted this post to focus on photographs (the usual cliché that a photo is worth a thousand words, etc.). Although the colours of Asia are so vibrant, when I looked at my photographs I could see that a large number looked great in B&W. So this post is just that – monochrome images from that part of the world. And I think these particular images benefit from that perspective. Expect some more material as and when I get my thoughts and photographs together

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