Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese
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Researching in the National Library of Scotland and prolific lavender in the garden

July 19, 2019

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh many years ago, access to the National Library of Scotland was denied to undergraduates until they entered their honours year – the fourth year of study. I spent much of this final year in the National Library as I could get documents relating to my dissertation which the university library did not have. I also found it a very conducive place to study as it was quiet and had an academic atmosphere. I was took one of my friends to the Reading Room and he had to leave after a short period of time as he said it was too quiet. Study habits, such as where and when to study, tend to be formed when students are in their early teens and, despite claims you will find on the internet about e.g. the study habits of successful students, individuals differ in the preferences. When I took up local history research a few years ago, after retiring, I went back to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) to get books and articles relating to my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. I still find the NLS an enthralling place to visit.

Stairs up to the Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The photo above (taken on my phone) shows the stairs which lead up to the main Reading Room and the NLS have taken to insert quotations from famous scholars on view here. David Hume was an eighteenth century philosopher who was born in Edinburgh and is recognised as one of the most important philosophers in the world. So there is a grand stairway leading up to where the real research is done.

Looking down from the Reading Room level at the NLS

This photo shows the view from the 2nd flight of stairs above the main stairs. The window frames at the top right are only part of this huge window ” comprising square glass panels each etched with alternating panes of a thistle and Scottish crown and the arms of the principal benefactors of the library”. The ornate banisters on either side are “painted in black with gold leaf and [each] has a mahogany handrail”.  A fuller description can be found here. On the walls are framed examples of some of the illustrative work to be found in the NLS archives. Many visitors come up to this point to admire the interior but only NLS members i.e. people doing research, can enter the Reading Room.

Inside the NLS Reading Room – upstairs

Once you go through the Reading Rooms, you have to place your NLS card on a reader to go further. To get your reserved books – and this is still a predominantly book-based library – you go to a desk where the assistant will retrieve your ordered material. I reserved three books yesterday and collected them today. It is an excellent service as you can return the books and and get them back for another five days. The NLS is not a lending library. Upstairs in the Reading Room, in the photo above, you can see the domed and squared roof windows which let in natural light. This library is for serious research, so it is quiet and therefore conducive to learning. This is not to say that all libraries should be quiet. Far from it – lending and children’s sections of public libraries should encourage conversation and school libraries (one of my former areas of research) should be places where students, teachers and school librarians can discuss what is being studied. The NLS also has regular free exhibitions which are certainly worth visiting.

It is now midway through our summer in the UK and in our garden, the lavender bushes are now at their peak. Lavender plants are prolific growers, with their abundant stems reaching up to one metre above the base. In the winter, the lavender is almost invisible – a series of grey patches in the garden – but in summer, it shoots up to dominate the landscape in a furious burst of colour.

Prolific lavender in our front garden

The photo above shows how the lavenders of different kinds have spread themselves across the garden. Every time I walk into the house, I rub my fingers on a lavender head and take in the wonderful scent provided by the bush. After a shower of rain, if you open the front door, the lavender scent wafts across your face and you can inhale the welcoming odour.

Lavender, hydrangea and roses

The photo above shows how the lavender provides height at the back of our small patch of garden outside the front door. Near the front, the smaller lavender, with its much thicker heads has spread itself over the ground in the past year. The poppies still in flower on the right hand side are accidental i.e. not planted by us but spread by the wind or the birds. Lavender has featured in literature for many centuries. Shakespeare (Winter’s Tale) wrote ” Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;/ The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun”. Lavender has also been seen as health giving. A 1545 herbal states ” I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head”.

A rose after the rain

Finally, one of the climbing roses, seen in close-up – my favourite form of photography. There is startling beauty in this rose – the delicate petals still holding on to the raindrops and the exquisite centre, with its pink and orange. The flowers may only last for about a week in total but the look and smell of them linger in the memory for much longer.

Rembrandt TV series: group and self-portraits

May 6, 2019

I’ve been watching a fascinating series on BBC4 (unfortunately probably not available outside the UK) about the painter Rembrandt, featuring not only his work but his life. While the artist earned sizeable fees for his many paintings, but especially the portraits of wealthy individuals or groups and from fees made by his pupils, Rembrandt was not financially astute. He bought a large house in 1639, which came with a sizeable mortgage and Rembrandt could not keep this up and was declared bankrupt in 1656. He also spent money which he did not have at auctions. There is an excellent overview of the artist provided by the Het Rembrandthuis museum.

The best part of the programmes is about Rembrandt’s many paintings and self-portraits. One of the artist’s specialities was group paintings and the first painting below is The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild and is also known as The Syndics. What Rembrandt did, unlike many other artists of his time, was to present the officials as individuals with different facial expressions. There appears to be a discussion going on between the men, with a servant observing from behind, as the man third from the left holds his hand in a way which might suggest him saying “What about these figures in the book” or “Do you not see what these figures imply”? We do not know and neither do we know what the men might be looking at. Is Rembrandt painting the figures to look at us, the viewers or have they seen someone approaching? It is a fascinating work of art and like all great works, the more you look at it, the more you see.

The Syndics by Rembrandt van Rijn 1662 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Rembrandt’s most famous group painting and one which is studied in detail in one of the programmes is The Nightwatch, and this large group portrait is one of the most famous Dutch paintings. The painting shown below, like the one above , is downloaded with permission from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a stunning and detailed work of art, with a host of characters, mainly of militia men who were to protect the city from outsiders. The focus is on the captain who is giving orders to his lieutenant to his left, to lead the militia men out. This is a very active painting, with people talking and gesturing, a man preparing his rifle, a drummer on the right and a girl in a dress with a chicken hanging from the dress’ belt. Some of the detail is symbolic, like the chicken, and Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a group of men. some of whom were very wealthy. What distinguishes this work from other contemporary group portraits is the variety of characters and expressions which the artist captures, as well as the detail shown in the clothing worn by the militia men. The title of the painting was changed to Nightwatch at a later date and it is inaccurate as Rembrandt use of a dark interior was misinterpreted.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn 1642

Throughout his painting career, Rembrandt completed a series of self-portraits, so we have a record of what he looked like or certainly a record of his interpretation of what he looked like. The first portrait below is an etching and shows a wide-eyed and open-mouthed young man who looks surprised or maybe frightened. Rembrandt did these drawings in front of a mirror and it was part of his learning to be a portrait painter. The unruly hair fits the expression on the face and one of Rembrandt’s great skill as an artist in many paintings, including those above, was to depict a range of human emotions.

Self portrait in a cap by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

A later example – seen below – shows the artist at the age of 63 and was downloaded with permission of the National Gallery. This was one of Rembrandt’s last paintings and shows him in a stoical mood, perhaps accepting what his life has brought him. There was no attempt by Rembrandt to enhance his looks and this makes the portrayal of the artist as more likely to be true to life. The broad forehead and the prominent (and once broken looking) nose plus the wispy hair, plain hat and comfortable, but probably not fashionable coat, give the impression of a man of some status in life, but not wealth in Rembrandt’s case. The hands are clasped and there is a definite air of contentment in this painting. Rembrandt is relaxing, looking straight at us and commanding our attention and admiration, which he would enjoy were he still alive.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63

So a very enjoyable and informative TV series on this great artist – watch it if you can. This reminds me that I must go back and see Rembrandt’s Self Portrait Aged 51 (below) at the National Gallery of Scotland, when I’m next in the capital city.

Self Portrait Aged 51 by Rembrandt van Rijn 1657

Fever by Don Meyer and two SOC artists

April 1, 2019

My first experience of the South African writer Deon Meyer was his novel Icarus (blog review here) and I was very impressed. I have just finished reading his dystopian book Fever (review). The story is set in South Africa after a deadly virus – the Fever of the title – has destroyed the world, with only a few people surviving in each country. Willem Storm and his son Nico are the main protagonists of this well written and well plotted novel. Willem Storm takes his son to set up a new town called Amanzi in rural South Africa and they are joined by a variety of fellow survivors. There are some very tense scenes as the town is attacked by motor cycle gangs whose only aim is to plunder. There is also the story of Nico’s teenage years as a member of the Amanzi “army”, led by a powerful presence in the book called Domingo. The town expands and prospers but has to be constantly vigilant. Philosophical and religious differences emerge amongst the community and Willem Storm’s presidency comes under threat. It is an intriguing and often exciting tale of survival and progress. Like other reviewers, I found the ending unconvincing but not everyone will take this view. It’s a long book – over 500 pages – and very well worth reading as Meyer is a consummate story teller, who brings his characters to life extremely well. Buy it and see what you think.

Meyer’s post-apocalyptic novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The latest exhibition at the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in Aberlady features 4 artists, two of which I feature here. The exhibition finishes on 10 April and a visit is highly recommended because of the quality of the art and the spread of styles. The first work below is by Carry Akroyd who is a painter and printmaker and the show includes some of her stunning work. The piece below is a clever depiction of terns in flight as well as wind turbines in motion. The terns are displayed in full colour but also in white (like the turbines) with a small dab of black. There is a superb feeling of movement in this work and the streamlined birds look elegant and effortless in their flight – maybe in contrast to the more laboured motion of the concrete turbines. The variety of colours is also attractive in what is predominantly a happy picture. There is another version of this print which is a postcard entitled “Big Turns and Little Terns”.

Arctic Terns by Carry Akroyd

The second artist is Babs Pease, who is an artist, illustrator and printmaker. This print is simply entitled Swans and it is a very impressive piece of art when you see it in the exhibition in full-size. What intrigued me about this piece was the artist’s decision to show the swans not in their natural white but mainly in various shades of delicate blue. I liked the way in which the swans are taking up different postures and are facing different ways, as are the reeds in the background. The rivers of colour in the birds’ plumage take your eye across the birds and down to their solid dark grey feet. You then notice the splash of orange in their beaks. The curves and patterns in the birds and the reeds give it a hint of surrealism – like swans in a dream. The poet Yeats saw his swans ” All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings”. In the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats describes the swans as “Mysterious, beautiful” and Pease’s swans meet those criteria. We often see and hear swans as they fly past the house – Yeats ” The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – or, as yesterday, float serenely on the nearby sea.

Swans by Babs Pease

There is much pleasure to be had by visiting this exhibition if you can or by watching our for these artists in the future.

Spring tide in Dunbar and Caroline Jackman’s prints

March 24, 2019

Two days before the full moon this week, we had a huge tide in Dunbar, with the waves ripping along the coast and smashing into the rocks nearby. From my house, I could see that the waves were performing Fosbury Flops over the harbour wall, so I went along to try to capture the biggest of them. When I got to the harbour, the water was almost to the top of the main harbour, with the occasional splash along the walkway. I was standing opposite the large harbour wall which protects it from the worst of the elements. It is quite a long wall and the waves were coming over at various points, so I had to be quick – or lucky – to capture the action. In the photo below, the sun caught the wave as it leapt up into the sky above the wall and the wave looks as if it has merged with the clouds behind it. There was quite a severe undulation in the water in the harbour and at times the water rose to nearly the top of the stairs that you can see below the harbour wall.

Pink wave over the harbour wall in Dunbar (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The next photo captures a double over-the-wall splash – synchronised wave leaping. There is still a hint of pink in the waves and I like the variety of blues in the clouds above. What these photos do not show is the noise of the waves hitting the wall and pouring down the other side, on to the steps of the wall, then on to the walkway and then into the harbour itself.

Double action waves at Dunbar harbour

Looking back at earlier blog posts and identifying previous photos of spectacular tide events at Dunbar harbour, I found the photo below – from 2010. This was taken in the summer or early autumn, as the dinghies and yachts are still in the harbour. It is impressive how the waves completely dominate the scene and make the yachts look smaller. Meanwhile, in this photo you can see a group of male and female eider duck, who swam nonchalantly up and down the harbour, ignoring the action above them. The ducks have the splendid scientific name of Somateria Mollissima, which sounds as if it could be an Italian opera.

2 huge masses of seawater over the harbour wall

As a Xmas present, my wife’s sister and partner gave us a Caroline Jackman print as a present. It now hangs on the wall in the room where I write. The print – photo below – has very striking lines on the bird itself and on the foliage surrounding it. There is also an abstract quality to some of the print e.g. in the patterns on the leaves and on the bird’s back. The use of colour here – in clearly defined blocks – gives the image an unusual effect. I also think that there is a wonderful flow to the print which takes your eye both down the bird and down its subtle green environment. The more you look at this print – as I do daily – the more patterns you see. It is a very impressive piece of art and a very welcome present.

Caroline Jackman print

Caroline Jackman sent me some of her other work, one of which is featured below. I admired this work because of the delicacy of the colours and the vibrancy in the painting, both in the strutting?dancing? cockerel and in the streamer-like lines in the background. This is a vivacious, multi-coloured cockerel, with flamboyant tail feathers perhaps being used to entice females of the species to mate with him. There’s also a surreal quality to the background, as if this cockerel is so smart that he is walking above the clouds. This is a very stylish painting which demonstrates the range of this consummate artist’s vision, skills and talent.

Painting by Caroline Jackman

Kathleen Jamie poem and trees and ewes at Smeaton Gardens

February 5, 2019

In the latest Poetry Book Society Bulletin (Winter 2018), there is a poem from the well known poet Kathleen Jamie. It is from her latest book Selected Poems and is entitled Skeins O Geeese – a poem written in Scots. It begins

Skeins of geese write a word / across the sky. A word / struck lik a gong / afore I was born. / The sky moves like cattle, lowin’.

I found two interesting aspects of this poem. Firstly, the dramatic images and secondly, that it reads as well in English as it does in Scots, although the poet herself (and others) may not agree, of course. We often get skeins of geese above us in the autumn (going south) and in the spring (going north) and it is a wonderful sight – a moving V across the sky. I had never thought of the onward skein as words being written in the sky, but I do like the image. The second image here – of the sky moving like lowing cattle – is also eyebrow raising and the next time you see clouds slowly moving across the sky, you might think of cattle. The poem is not just about the sky. On the ground,

Wire twists lik archaic script/ roon a gate. The barbs / sign tae the wind as though / it was deef. The word whustles / ower high for ma senses. Awa.

Only a poet as perceptive and lyrical as Jamie could see twisted wire on a farm gate as archaic script, but it is an apt simile if you picture hieroglyphics on a stone. The image of the wire using sign language to the deaf wind is also striking and the poet accepts that, as a mere human, she cannot hear the words of the wire. Again, if you read this in English, it loses none of its effect. Whustles or Whistles? Is one better than the other? Jamie obviously prefers the Scots. You can read the whole poem, as published in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement here.

New book by Kathleen Jamie (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Another cold winter’s day but with a brilliant blue sky and we parked the car at the bottom of the hill and walked up to Smeaton Gardens (good photos). Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a fascination with trees and on this walk up to the garden centre, there are a variety of kinds of trees, tree shapes and tree silhouettes. The first tree below is an evergreen but despite searching for a similar tree, I do not know what type of tree it is, but it could be a Scots pine. It stands out in the winter as most of the other trees are bare. This tree is obviously quite old as it has grown separate trunks above the base. It is an untidy looking tree, with its floppy branches and gaps everywhere and yet it stands in its own magnificence and looks warmer than its naked neighbours.

Evergreen tree at Smeaton Gardens

The second tree is a polar opposite to the first one. This tree looks as if it has suffered a lightning strike to its top and an electric shock to its branches, which although static, appear to be waving about. In the background, to the bottom left, North Berwick Law (good photos) can be seen above the distant forest.

Damaged tree at Smeaton Gardens

As you enter the grounds of Smeaton Gardens, there is a sign saying “Pregnant ewes” and warning dog owners to keep their beasts on a lead. We saw the ewes at the top of the drive. These are no ordinary ewes and the photo below shows their thick woollen coats and muscular looking bodies. The ewes were feeding amongst the horse jumping arena near the garden centre and you half expected to see one or more of them leap over one of the obstacles on the course.

Ewes amongst the horse jumps at Smeaton Gardens

On closer inspection (photo below), some of the ewes appeared to be small brown bears which had stolen in to the ewes’ enclosure to feed on the lush looking grass. The ewes were at first curious and came near us but, maybe working out that we were not going to provide them with extra food, they meandered off, looking none too pleased at our potential intrusion. It’s now February, so lambing cannot be far off for these expectant mothers.

Brown bear looking ewes at Smeaton Gardens

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.

Tiles on the Cafe Royal Oyster Bar and the Tauranga beekeeper

December 24, 2018

My cycling pal John gave me his copy of Pints of View (cover below) which is the magazine of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland branch of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). The magazine has news on new real ales and on pubs in the area which sell real ale.

Pints of View – the real ale magazine (Click on all PHOTOS to enlarge)

My attention was drawn to an article in PoV by Michael Slaughter and Geoff Brandwood entitled “Tiled paintings in Edinburgh pubs. Part 2: The Cafe Royal Oyster Bar”. The Cafe Royal is a very well known pub just off the eastern end of Prices Street in Edinburgh. The main bar itself is highly decorated and you can walk around the bar, with its beautiful wood, before choosing what to drink and perhaps eat. On the walls are large tiled depictions. The Oyster Bar is the restaurant next to the main bar. The photo below shows the lavishly decorated room – the exquisite ceiling tiles, the eye-catching tiled pictures on the walls, the impressively marbled bar and the inviting tables with traditional chairs and sparkling white table cloths. The article notes that behind the marble topped bar, ” The windows of this room have eight large stained glass depictions of British sportsmen, designed by Ballantine and Gardiner of Edinburgh” and the sports include fishing and rugby. When you are in the Oyster Bar, these windows are a magnificent backdrop to those dining at the tables.

The Oyster Bar in Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

One of the most striking of the tiled panels is one showing two of the leading lights in the earliest photography in Europe. This panel (see below) shows Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre .  There is no agreed inventor of photography but Niepce was certainly the earliest to experiment into what was to be become photography. Daguerre’s work took the process further and the two men became partners in 1829, after which they made further experiments and were able to produce more sophisticated images.

Louis Daguerre (left) and Nicephore Niepce who pioneered photography
(Photo by Michael Slaugher LRPS)

The 3rd photo (below) sent to me by co-author Michael Slaughter shows a cherub playing the Pan Pipes and while the 4 cherub tiled panels are not examples of high art, they are nevertheless quite singular and joyful additions to the varied panels around the Oyster Bar. The Cafe Royal main bar is always busy and it is often difficult to get a seat. You need to book a table in the Oyster Bar but it is a rewarding experience – especially if you like oysters.

Cherub tile from the Oyster Bar
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

On our visit to Tauranga in the north island of New Zealand, we stayed at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It has a large garden and next to the well-filled woodshed, there is a beehive. The bees are looked after by another Scottish emigrant to New Zealand – Heath, who was a renowned ships’ captain before retirement. This beekeeper hails from the bonnie wee village of Echt (good photos) in the north of Scotland. The first photo shows Heath taking out one of the internal boards in the hive and inspecting it. As you can see, he is very well protected and your photographer was keeping his distance from distracted bees who had been disturbed from their hive activities. This is the equivalent of a giant lifting up a whole village or town and shaking people out of their houses, so it’s unlikely that the bees welcomed this intrusion. You can see the structure of a hive here.

Echt beekeeper in Turanga NZ

In the second photo below, you can see how the bees have filled holes in the mesh structure and formed combs. The beekeeper will inspect the combs from time to time to ensure that the bees still have room to expand their food store. It looks a very complicated life that these bees lead but hives are highly structured in terms of hierarchy and what work is done by the different bees. In terms of logistics, bees can teach much about organisation of production and management of the workforce.

Close up of bees on hive board

I took a video of Heath checking various boards in the hive and you can hear his commentary on the healthy state of this hive. For those not accustomed to Scottish accents, you will hear phrases such as “drones – useless brutes o’ things”, and “they’ll run out of space and say that ‘we’re oota (out of ) here”. So, it’s probably worth viewing twice. It was a fascinating visit from this expert on bees and a real learning experience for me, who had never seen the inside of beehive before. Click on full screen to get the best effect from the video.

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

I have just finished reading Donal Ryan‘s excellent novel All We Shall Know. It has a dramatic opening – “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I’m thirty three. I was his teacher”. The book’s chapters follow the weeks of the pregnancy – 12 to 39 and introduce some very interesting characters. The narrator is Melody Shee – a troubled woman and at the start of  the novel, I thought this might end up being a misery lit novel as Melody is depressed and angry. This does not last however and although we do hear about Melody’s failed marriage, there are incidents from her childhood and  school days. Melody then meets Mary, a traveller girl who seeks refuge with Melody from her family. Mary is barely literate but is lively and has a sharp wit. Another key character in the novel is Melody’s father, who supports her through thick and thin. He is a charming, quiet man and a devout Catholic. He also has some Irish phrases that many will not have come across before. When Melody visits, he says “You’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring”. This reminded me of the Robert Burns song “You’re welcome Willie Stewart” which has the lines “There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May, That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!”. Here is Eddi Reader singing that song.

Ryan is an often poetic writer – “As she turned away again and I admired the sway of her, the queenly straightness of her back, the sceptred sureness of her step”. He also gives an insight into the culture of the travellers in Ireland – their extended family ties, their  disrepute (often undeserved) in the general community, and their feuds, in one of which Melody and Mary become involved. The ending is plausible but not convincing, whereas the rest of the book is well plotted and full of well-developed characters. Ryan manages to capture the Irish humour with some captivating dialogue, but he never lapses into cliches. I will be reading more of Ryan’s work in the future and I encourage you to do so as well.

Donal Ryan’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the UK, the clocks have now gone back and it is now dark by 6pm and much colder, although this does not stop us getting rugged up, as the Australians say, and going for a walk after our evening meal under a bright, starry sky. Just before the time change, we had one brilliant sunset which turned the partly cloudy sky into a stunning array of pink. This photo  shows the still blue sky scattered with pink-ribbed clouds, in contrast to the dark landscape of the town, with scaffolding on the church at the bottom left, while the sea at the bottom right is also turning pink. The sky changed as you watched it, as the light faded. What I like about this photo is that the clouds appear to be moving upwards – away from the town, as if they had been released into the sky from a canon.

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Autumnal sky above Dunbar

In this photo, you can see more of the reflection of the pinks clouds on the sea  and the dramatic swirl of the cloud above the town, which is tiny in comparison. I also like the variety of colours in the sky – the different blues, reds and pinks.

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

In the final photo of the sky only, the sky was darkening and there is quite a contrast between the left and right hand sides of the photo, as it was still quite light in the west but as your eyes went east over the sea, the light was in shorter supply, although this does not diminish the stunning patterns made by the clouds.

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar