Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Art in Florence and autumn in Binning Wood

November 24, 2017

So on to Florence for culture and an exciting football match at Fiorentina‘s stadium, with the home team winning 3-0 against Torino, having survived a potentially calamitous first 20 minutes. When you say to people that you’ve been to Florence, their eyes light up and many tell you how often they’ve been. It’s a culture-stuffed city to visit, with numerous art galleries, museum and public sculptures. This was my second visit to Florence – previous visit here. I hadn’t been to Florence’s most famous art gallery, the Uffizi, so I booked tickets in advance (a wise move, given the queues even in late October) for my pal and me. The Uffizi gallery is, like the Prado in Madrid, huge and has multiple rooms – 101 shown on the floor plan, each with many stunning paintings. If you started at the beginning and worked your way through, it could take weeks. The gallery helpfully provides a free “highlights” brochure and we followed this. The Uffizi is, again like the Prado, heavy on religious paintings, many of them dark and fairly morbid, although the artwork is unquestionably superb. One of the key themes highlighted is how artists over the 14th to 18th centuries portrayed the Madonna and Child, with Giotto’s interpretation (see below) being one of the most famous. Giotto was praised for making the figures appear more human than had been seen in previous interpretations and this was seen as a new style in painting.

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Giotto’s Madonna and Child in the Uffizi Gallery (Click to enlarge all photos)

The gallery’s best known work of art perhaps is Botticelli‘s exquisite Birth of Venus (below) and it is a stunning work of art. There is myth and fantasy in this painting as Venus is shown being carried on a shell to an island. There is so much to see in the painting that you can stand for a long time, admiring the colours, the figures, the sea and the trees. Venus herself is portrayed as a beautiful young woman and Botticelli’s use of nudity was controversial at the time, as eroticism was not approved of in many artistic and political circles.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery

The 2nd major gallery we visited was the equally extensive Palacio Pitti which houses the massive collections of the Grand Dukes of Florence from the 15th to the 17th centuries. As well as the many works of art on display in the various museums, the Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated (check website) with ornate carpets, curtains, wall hangings and beautifully made furniture (good photos). Once again, religious paintings predominate, as was the main style of the times but there are also some eyebrow raising works, such as Marina by Salvator Rosa. The photo below does not do justice to the impact that this very large painting makes on the viewer. It is full of intriguing elements, from the light house on the right, to the ships in the middle, to the people at the bottom of the painting and the brilliant effect of the sun shining across the scene.

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Marina by Salvator Rosa

Back home and a walk through Binning Wood to delight in the autumn colours and experience the splendour of the leaves still on the trees, although they were falling as we  walked. If there was colour, contrast, light and shade in Florence’s museums, then there is an abundance in this East Lothian wood, which lies just over 6 miles (c11K) from Dunbar. I had cycled past the woods two days before and was determined to take my camera before this autumnal outpouring of colour, shape and texture would disappear as quickly as it appeared. We began our walk on the west side of the woods and walked through to a point where the paths diverge (photo below). In the winter, my pals and I cycle through here on our mountains bikes and would follow the path on the right of the picture. On our walk, my wife and I took the left path, which goes deeper in to the woods. This reminded me of Robert Frost’s great poem “The Road Not Taken” which begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth;”.

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The path divides in Bnning Wood

Frost’s “yellow wood” could be Binning Wood at this time of year, with trees still holding on to leaves of different shades of green and yellow, as in the photo below. The path at this point in the wood was covered with fallen leaves, providing a contrast in colours, with the fresh yellow leaves on the trees and the now orange/brown of the fallen leaves, as well as the various colours on the tree trunks.

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Trees and a leaf strewn path in Binning Wood

The wood continues across the road which leads to nearby Whitekirk (good photos) and I crossed to try and capture the thinner trees here and their shadows on the floor of the wood. The sun was still high enough to hit the smooth and elegant trunks of the trees and cast shadows, which appear to be fallen trees on the ground. Passing the same woods yesterday – 10 days after taking these photos – I could see more branches and much fewer leaves. Another 10 days and they’ll all be gone, so it’s good to be able to capture this fleeting burst of colour.

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Tall trees and shadows in Binning Wood

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Called for jury service and Piazza dei Miracoli

November 20, 2017

Note The previous post has been fixed, using Google Chrome, which I am maybe being forced to use for editing?

I was recently called  for jury service at the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh and, although I was not actually selected to serve on the jury, it was a strange experience. Firstly, I arrived at the court to be sent to the Jury Room. Here sat about 50 people, all in a strange environment. Few people spoke to each other and most either checked their mobile phones, read books or stared into space. This was a formal setting, not a social one and it was clear that no-one had any idea how long we would be there, as little information was forthcoming. After an hour, a clerk appeared to tell us that there might be two trials on today and that she would be back in 10 minutes. Half an hour hour later, the clerk reappeared and took us through to court ten, shown here. After another 10 minutes, the phrase “Court rise” was heard and we all – the potential jurors, the court staff and lawyers present – stood up and sat down again. The judge/sheriff talked to one of the lawyers and we could just about her the lawyer say that the trial could not go ahead. The judge thanked us for our attendance and our patience and said that normally, lunch was 1-2pm but there was good news. We all looked up expectantly. The good news was that we could go for lunch early and come back at 2pm as there was definitely another trial to be heard and a jury was needed. This was beginning to appear like the crime novel I’d taken along – too much padding and too little action.

So we all returned at 2pm. Another clerk said that she would be back in 5 minutes to take us through to court 12 for a jury to be selected. One advance in the tale was that there was now only 15 jury members to be selected from the 50 of us and not 2 x 15. The chances of being selected was reduced by 50%. As no-one in the jury room knew how long a trial would last or when we could start making plans again for the next few days, I got the feeling that few people wanted to be selected. 25 minutes later, the clerk took us in to the court and the ballot began. As each name was called out, the picked juror went forward and a collective sigh could be heard amongst the rest of us. Eventually 15 were picked. People started looking at their watches, as in it’s 2.30pm so we’ll be released soon. Hopes were dashed when one juror recognised the accused and was excused. Another selection, another collective sigh. The judge ordered that the clerk read out the charges – sexual assault with details given – again. Then another juror said he could not hear the judge and this man was excused, to whispers amongst the still potential jurors that he might be trying it on. The final selection was made and final sigh of relief uttered, and the great unpicked left the court room and the court. What was interesting was that, by the time the ballot was taking place, I was ready to be picked, having earlier hoped that I could not be. So, an odd day spent in an environment where I had very little control over what I could do, apart from the lunch break.

Edinburgh Sherriff Court (Click on all photos to enlarge)

My pal Roger and I went on our annual trip to a European city to a) see the sights and b) go to a football (aka soccer) match. This year’s holiday started in Pisa, where we stayed 2 nights before going on to Florence to see the game (next blog post). While Pisa is best known for the leaning tower – La Torre Pendente – I think that the other buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli (includes video), the Square of Miracles in English, are more fascinating. There’s no doubting the uniqueness of the Tower but its attraction is mainly because of a mistake. It is, of course, worth seeing.

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La Torre Pendente, Pisa

Also within the Piazza, is the magnificent cathedral, seen below. It is famous for its marble exterior, Giovanni Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit (close up photos) and high, vaulted ceilings which are brilliantly decorated. Whether you have religious leanings or not, you cannot fail to appreciate the superb artwork and interior design on display.

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Pisa Cathedral

You can also visit the  hugely impressive Battistero (Baptistry), with its high dome and a balcony from which you can look down on the large baptismal font and exquisitely carved pulpit, photo below. The official website refers to the “women’s balcony”, so perhaps women were excluded from the ceremonies below?

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Pisa Battistero

My own favourite building in the Piazza was the Camposanto (good photos). This is the cemetery and inside there are many statues to famous university teachers and members of the powerful Medici family. The most fascinating part of this huge complex are the frescoes which line the walls, as in the photo below. Some of the frescoes are still quite fresh looking, even though they date from the 14th century. The frescoes are of course, mainly religious although there are some battle scenes. A common theme in the range of frescoes is the battle between going to heaven or hell, and you can see why 14th century people might be terrified by the depictions of hell, where the devil is seen as eating humans amid  a scene of torture. It was the violence in so many of the frescoes that intrigued me – designed to inspire but also to threaten. As works of art, these are impressive in their range of colour and detail and well worth a visit.

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Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

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In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Making soup and the Crystal Palace in Madrid

November 3, 2017

Back to normal after a very successful trip to Pisa and Florence, of which more later. There’s an old Scottish saying relating to being on holiday and returning to the usual routine – “It’s back tae auld claes and parritich” i.e. back to old clothes and porridge. It’s not cold enough yet for me to have porridge in the morning but a new pot of soup is welcome all the year round. Today, I was making courgette, and basil soup. It’s fairly straightforward with the following ingredients: 1 medium leek, 4 good sized courgettes, one large potato and dried basil. Now I know that a good many people who read this blog will call courgettes zucchinis. This source claims that there are differences between the two e.g. that courgettes are smaller than zucchinis, but I think that the only real difference is in where the terms are used – courgette in France, the UK and (so the website claims) South Africa and New Zealand; zucchini in Australia and North America. I’m not sure about New Zealand, so a comment on that would be good. To start, sweat your chopped leek in a little oil, to which you have already added the dried basil – amount according to taste. In your solid soup pan, it should look like this i.e. a thing of beauty that might be submitted for the Turner Prize as a work of contemporary art, signifying the integration of human thoughts and deeds across the newly green world. On the other hand, it’s still a thing of beauty but a photo of leeks.

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Leeks sweated in oil and basil. (Click to enlarge all photos)

I never use a processor to chop my vegetables. There is something calming about washing your leek, cutting it into 3 and then slicing it up, although this obviously has overtones of violence. Add the chopped courgette and, magically, you have another potential submission to the prize, representing …mmm you tell me. It now looks and smells very good.

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Chopped courgettes and leeks in basil and oil.

To this, you add the peeled and chopped potato and one litre of the stock of your choice – I used chicken stock cubes. Simmer for about 20 min and take off the heat. I then mashed it down with a potato masher and then liquidised it with my hand-held blender, one of the best kitchen implements in which I have ever invested.

Here is one serving of the soup, with the chopped end of a 70% wholemeal loaf from Dunbar Community Bakery.  This raises another philosophical issue – what do you call the last slice in a loaf of bread? My wife would say heel, while in my family when I was growing up, it was always called the outsider. A relative called it the Tommy – rhyming slang for Tommy Steele perhaps? What did your family call the last slice? Another Turner Prize entrant – the four islands in the speckled green sea: the post-nuclear world. Discuss.

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Courgette and basil soup with fresh bread croutons

For the final posting on Madrid, I swithered between the magnificence of Madrid’s cathedral – especially the internal colours – and the Crystal Palace in El Retiro Park, featured here recently . Having been out cycling this morning in the cool, fresh air and enjoying the autumnal spectacle of the countryside at the moment, I chose the latter. While walking through the large park, it’s easy to miss the sign to the Crystal Palace  or Palacio de Cristal, to give it its proper name. Once you see not only the palace itself but the setting, you cannot be unimpressed. The first photo shows what you see approaching the palace – a light filled building on 3 levels, with beautiful arches over the windows and ornate decoration around the bottom, a close-up of which is shown in the 2nd photo – here is a swan – like, mythical bird, with no feet and a tail of flowers.

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Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Decoration on tiles at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Once you pass the entrance to the palace, which has been closed for a long time for internal redecoration, you can walk around the large pond, with its fountain. You pass the tall, thick-trunked trees whose leaves differed in colour,  from light green to dark green to reddish-brown. You can then see across the pond to the palace. It’s a very peaceful place, made even more pleasant by the late September sunshine and 25 degrees. The final 2 photos show the palace from the side of the pond and from the opposite side of the pond to the palace. This is a slice of remote countryside which has been picked up and placed near the centre of one of Europe’s busiest cities. The Madrilenos are lucky to have it.

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The pond, the trees and the fountain at the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

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Looking across the pond to the Palacio de Cristal in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

More Sinead Morrisey poems and Madrid’s magnificent architecture

October 12, 2017

 I have just finished reading Sinead Morrisey’s remarkable book of poems entitled On Balance”. In a previous post, I focused on the first poem in the collection The Millihelen which has been widely praised. For the rest of the book, Morrissey maintains this high standard with telling insights and memorable phrases. In Nativity which is about parents watching children in such a play, has these lines:

“mums and dads on loan from their workaday offices;/ littler brothers and sisters crashed out in pushchairs/ and parked along the aisle like outsize baggage”

The imagery continues later in the poem “… we are left/ with a row of just-licked-by-a cow-looking boys/ in dressing gowns, Mary in a dress, Immanuel/ in his cradle, low-key and ineffable …”.

In Meteor shower, “..and the stars in behind/ shining steady as lighthouses/ and yes, not once but twice/ – there and then there -/ dust on fire at the edge/ of Earth’s flaying atmosphere,/ scoring its signature”. The word “flaying” makes these lines, suggesting chaos. There are a sequence of poems entitled “Whitelessness” which looks at how different scientists might view Greenland. The Geologist finds ” .. the ridges of human teeth:/some early Palaeolithic adolescent caught/ grinning at the moment of death/ in a stone photograph”. The Photographer observes: “The red earth holds up/ a rainbow in its outstretched hands”. As The Geographer studies the earth, “Ridiculously/ overdressed, two musk ox trundle past. / We must sound enormous – / …. but they blank us nevertheless”. These are just a few examples from the book, which rightly won The Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017. It also has a beautiful cover. Get a hold of it if you can, preferably by buying it from the Poetry Book Society.

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On Balance by Sinead Morrissey (Click to enlarge all photos)

Where to begin with Madrid’s magnificent architecture? I’m concentrating on the older buildings and monuments, but there’s an excellent slide show of modern architecture here (good photos). Our apartment, with its high ceilings and cornices, beautiful parquet flooring in different designs, had two large windows, each with a small balcony which looked across the to Palacio Cibeles. You can sit in the outside bar at the top of the building for 4 euro per person and we enjoyed a glass of wine there one evening, as well as the stunning views across the city, in the photos below. The first photo looks down on the Casa America (good photos) and on to one of the modern art deco influenced buildings behind.

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Looking across Madrid from the Palacio Cibeles

The 2nd photo looks down on the extensive army headquarters, known as the Buenavista Palace and we were unfortunate to miss the Changing of the Guard (good photos).

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Looking towards the Buenavista Palce and woods from the Palacio Cibeles

Not far from the Palacio Cibeles, you come across one of the many puerta or gates to the city of Madrid. The photos below show the Puerta de Alcala, a magnificent structure ordered to be built by Carlos III, King of Spain in 1778. Carlos was obviously not a man to do things by half and the puerta dominates this part of the city. On the right of the puerta is the Retiro Park, featured here last week.

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Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

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Top of the Puerta de Alcala, Madrid

Madrid city centre is teeming with stunning buildings, from the apartments on the Gran Via (good photos) – 2 photos below – to the umpteen churches and palaces – too many to mention here. The Gran Via is Madrid’s busiest street, best avoided at weekends.

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

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Apartments on the Gran Via, Madrid

The Plaza Major is often described as being at the heart of Madrid and it certainly is beautiful square, comparable in terms of the buildings/apartments, to St Mark’s Square in Venice. Again, if you go at weekends, you might never see the square properly, as there are so many tourists, but go midweek and you’ll be able to appreciate its grandeur to the full.

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Plaza Major, Madrid

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Plaza Major, Madrid

Keith Brockie exhibition and El Retiro Park in Madrid

October 6, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by the renowned Scottish wildlife artist Keith Brockie. I featured Keith’s work on the blog  two years ago, having visited his last exhibition. The new show of paintings is equally stunning and there is a superb display of artistry here, particularly in the detailed portrayal of lapwings and hares. Keith kindly sent me 2 samples from this exhibition. The first painting features a lapwing  which is also called a Peewit, due to its call which you can listen to here (scroll down to audio). The painting perfectly captures the lapwing’s delicate colours and instantly recognisable tuft on its head. There are many superb paintings of lapwings in the exhibition and I particularly liked the ones with the lapwing sitting on its nest. The portrait of the ram is equally eye-catching and you have to admire the sheer tenacity of the painter to capture the detail of the hairs on the sheep’s face and what look like carvings on its magnificent horns. When the rutting season comes, I’m sure that this individual would emerge victorious.

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Lapwing and ram by Keith Brockie (Click to enlarge all photos)

The second painting is what I have entitled “Determined hare” as there is a steely look in the hare’s eyes. A close up of view of this and other hare portraits in the exhibition demonstrates Keith Brockie’s ability to capture the finest features of this beautiful animal. Look at the white whiskers, the oval nose and the small, puckered mouth and the brilliant contrast between the light and dark patches on the hare’s skin. The use of light and dark has challenged painters down the centuries and Keith Brockie makes superb use of this feature here. The exhibition is on until 15th November, so go and see it if you possibly can. We’ll be revisiting Waterston House before then.

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Determined hare by Keith Brockie

We recently spent a week in the Spanish capital Madrid (good photos) and what an impressive city it is. Madrid is a busy metropolis and the city centre is heavy with traffic for most of the day. However, just around the corner from the busy roundabout at the Palacio de Cibeles (video) is El Retiro Park (good photos), a vast green space which is easily accessible. The park has a 4k perimeter and is a favourite place for runners at all times of the day. It’s also a very peaceful place during the week when it is quieter. Most of the park consists of avenues of trees, bushes and hedges with walkways in between. Here we met a man playing a large harp.

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Harp player in El Retiro Park, Madrid

And we passed a puppet show where a group of children sat enthralled by the singing, storytelling and puppetry of a white haired, smiling puppet master.

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Puppet show in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Inside El Retiro Park are more formal gardens e.g. the Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez (good photos). I made a short video on my mobile phone which you can download here. This is a very relaxing area, with its neatly trimmed hedges, little fountains, covered walkways and beautiful flowers, as in the photo below, taken on a lovely sunny day in Madrid with the temperature at a very pleasant 26 degrees. The topiary in the gardens is very impressive, with avenues of neatly shaped columns.

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Inside Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

There are peacocks and peahens strolling around the gardens, ignoring the photographers and looking haughtily away from what I’m sure they regard as uncouth human onlookers. The peahen below is a good example. It could well have come straight out of a Keith Brockie exhibition, with its keen eye, exquisitely shaped feathers and a tuft that a lapwing would die for.

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Peahen in Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

 

Trip to Durham: the Cathedral and the Cellar Door restaurant.

September 30, 2017

I forgot to say at the end of the last post that we were off to Madrid for a week, so no more posts for a fortnight. At the beginning of September, we went to Durham for a couple of days. We had been before but only for the day. The cathedral city of Durham (good photos and short video) is in the north east of England, so for us it was only a 2 hr drive. We stayed in a hotel next to the River Wear, a short walk from the city centre. Durham has a famous castle, with a fascinating history but we did not have time to visit as we went to the coast as well. We did go to Durham Cathedral (good photos) and it certainly is an impressive sight, both from the exterior and interior. The first photo below shows part of the outside walls of the cathedral and there is a fascinating array of structures here – the round towers, arched windows and varied stonework. As I  have said here before, it must have been strange for the local inhabitants to see the construction of something so huge on their doorstep, as they worked in the fields. Also, the workmanship is astounding, given that the cathedral would have been build using, by modern standards, fairly basic tools. Imagine being a stonemason working at the top of one of the towers, standing on wooden scaffolding, with no thought given to health and safety.

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Part of the exterior from outside the cathedral (Click to enlarge all photos)

The interior of the cathedral has cloisters (good photos) and the next 2 photos show part of the cloisters and more of the cathedral’s exteriors. Cloisters were important to the monks who lived in the cathedral and as you walk along the cloisters, you can see how such an environment would provide a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.

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Looking up from the cloisters in Durham Cathedral

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Looking across the green from one part of the cloisters to another in Durham Cathedral

We visited the Open Treasures exhibition (good video) which provided a fascinating insight to the lives of the monks, as well as showing some intricately carved stonework from the cathedral and elsewhere, and examples of manuscripts and jewellery. You can’t take photos inside the exhibition or inside the cathedral but you can see some excellent photographs here.

As you leave and pass through the magnificent external doors of the cathedral, you can see the dramatic Sanctuary Knocker (photo below) which could be used in the past by those seeking protection in the cathedral from the law. It looks more frightening than welcoming and maybe it was meant to. My thoughts on seeing it were of masks worn by South American tribes or carvings on totem poles. Whether you are religious or humanist, the cathedral is an inspiring building and well worth a visit.

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The Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral.

One of the highlights of our visit was to the exquisite Cellar Door restaurant and it turned out to be a real treat. It is an exquisitely furnished dining room, as the photo below shows. The service was helpful, attentive and unfussy and customers were made very welcome.

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The Cellar Door, Durham dining room

The restaurant offers a varied and interesting menu. For starters, I had the “Courgette flower, yellison goat’s cheese, Yemeni wild flower honey and hazelnuts” and my wife had “Mushrooms on toast – cep parfait, shemeji, girolles, mushroom ketchup and sourdough”. Both looked and tasted exceptional and my wife’s comment was that this was the best mushroom starter that she’d ever had. The courgette flower was delicately cooked in a light batter, with the goat’s cheese inside. For main, I had “Sea trout, avocado, heritage tomato, crab and potato crisps” and this was a generous serving of fish, cooked to perfection, complimented nicely by the light crab meat. My wife had “Scottish halibut, beans, grapes, elderflower and verjus”, and again the fish was perfectly cooked with a crispy skin. I contacted the restaurant and they gave me permission to download the photos of the restaurant above, one of their desserts and the halibut. For dine dining of this quality, we both thought that the meal was excellent value and would recommend the restaurant to anyone visiting Durham.

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Mouth watering dessert from The Cellar Door, Durham

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Crispy halibut from the Cellar Door, Durham

Brodies Restaurant and Devil’s Porridge Museum

July 27, 2017

We stayed overnight in the border town of Moffat (good photos) after our visit to Dumfries (see below). It’s a very pleasant town with many tourists visiting, often on bus tours. There are good walks around Moffat and, as this guide shows, the walk can be easy or difficult, depending on your mood and/or fitness. We stayed at the excellent Hartfell Guest House  and this proved to be extremely good value for money. We had a large room with superb views, the staff were friendly and helpful and the breakfast offered a range of options in a lovely bay-windowed, high ceilinged room. There is a restaurant attached to the guest house – the Limetree – and this had been highly recommended to us. It was closed on the night we were there.

This turned out to be an opportunity to try another highly-rated restaurant in Moffat and we found that it deserves its reputation. Brodies Restaurant was a real treat and lived up to its award winning status. We booked for dinner. When you arrive in Brodies, you are shown into a large lounge bar – called the gin lounge, with comfortable armchairs. They have an impressive list of gins on offer. They have a menu from which there is plenty to choose and vegetarians are well catered for. We opted to share the “Smoked Mackerel – saffron parisienne potatoes, lemon sorrel, confit of lemon, horseradish shoots, crème fraiche”, which was light and very tasty. For the main course, my wife had “Medallions of Chicken – wild garlic & spinach mousse, wild garlic mushroom en croute, charred carrot”, which was elegantly presented and delicious. My choice was “Local Hill Bred Hogget – tasting plate of Annanwater hogget, wilted greens”. As the photo below, kindly sent to me by Russell from Brodies, the presentation was also impressive. “Hogget” was a new word to me, although I guessed that it was sheep related e.g. little hog? Hogget is a lamb that is more than one years old and according to this article, is very good for you. The helpful waiter told me that it was the tender neck of the hogget, plus a small hogget pie. It was certainly tender and the pie had a light pastry which was filled with meat. The accompanying gravy boat provided the perfect finishing touch to this superb dish.

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Hogget dish at Brodies of Moffat (Click to enlarge)

 

We also shared a pudding aka a dessert. From an intriguingly mouth-watering choice, we opted for “Rhubarb & Custard Tart – almond frangipane, crème fraiche”. It was not only good to look at – see photo below – but was a great combination of the above flavours, plus firm but very tasty strawberries on top. The service was attentive and unrushed and there was a good atmosphere in the restaurant i.e. you could tell that this was a roomful of people appreciating and enjoying high quality food. If you are ever in this part of the world, try this restaurant.

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Rhubarb and custard tart in Brodies of Moffat

Our visit to  Dumfries (good photos) to see my sister and brother in law was supposed to take us back to the bonnie town of Kirkcudbright (pr Kir – coo – brae) (good photos). We arrived in sunshine on the Friday but Saturday was dreich, so we were taken to see the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. This was a fascinating visit to a museum dedicated mainly to the massive factory – the buildings covered 9 miles from start to finish and had 125 miles of railway within the site. The factory was built during the First World War due to a shortage of munitions and employed 30,000 people, mainly women. Its function was to make cordite for bullets and shells. The finished cordite was sent to munitions factories in strands of various thicknesses. The name of the factory is attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle who, when visiting the factory, noted that the paste produced by combining gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine was “the devil’s porridge” as it was so potentially lethal.

The story becomes more remarkable when you see the photos of the women working in the factory and the almost complete absence of health and safety. The photo below shows the women mixing the gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine by hand. There are no masks or protective clothing here, so it was very dangerous work. The museum tends to underplay this aspect of the story, concentrating on the heroic war work done by the women, who were employed in the absence of men, most of whom had been called up.

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Women workers at the Devil’s Porridge factory in WW1

In the next photo, there is some protection for the young woman but, considering that she was working with nitro-glycerine, there is not much. While the guide at the museum told us that the women could make much money from working with these chemicals, as higher wages came with higher risks, there did not seem to be any indication of the long term implications for the women’s health. This aspect is covered more realistically in an excellent article by Bob Holman.

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Young woman working in cordite factory in WW1

The story of the factory also alluded to the nationalisation of the pubs in the area and as far as Carlisle, due to the employment (and drinking habits) of 10,000 men from Ireland who built the factory complex in a remarkably short time. The 2 townships of Gretna ( a separate town from Gretna Green, famous as a marriage centre) and Eastriggs were built to house some of the workers, and some of the original buildings are still visible today. This is a little known museum but well worth a visit.

Aberdeen trip and James Sheard’s Blackthorn

June 29, 2017

We went  to Aberdeen recently to see our nephew before his graduation from Aberdeen University. We stayed at the excellent Chesters Hotel where we had a superb (but pricey) meal in the evening at their 1X restaurant. My starter was ravioli of crab and scallop, with celeriac puree, shellfish bisque and langoustine beignet. It was the beignet that I didn’t know about but it turned out to be a small prawn done in a very light batter. It was very well presented – alas no photo – with both the ravioli and the bisque being light and tasty. It looked like the one pictured here. Earlier in the day, we went to the extensive Hazlehead Park and were particularly impressed firstly with the range of rhododendrons on show.  There were several different colours with a pink one shown below. My new mobile phone has a better camera than my last one, which came to a watery end when I was out cycling and got soaked. The phone was uncovered and basically drowned. The man at the phone repair shop took one look at it and told me to buy a new one. Although the camera is better, it is not good at close-up shots but not bad from a short distance as the photos below will show. As you guessed, it’s not an expensive phone.

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Rhododendrons in Hazlehead Park (Click to enlarge)

We then went into the huge rose garden and although not many of the roses were in bloom, there were some stunning examples, such as these shown below. There is a lack of clarity here (mobile phone) but the colours and the delicate folds of the rose are remarkable.

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Hazlehead Park rose

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Hazlehead Park rose

In the first section of the rose garden, there is a large memorial to those who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha Disaster in the North Sea in 1988. The memorial lists those who died and the sculpture shows three oil rig workers. The figures look as if they may be calling for help and many visitors may recall the horror of the photos of the oil rig on fire. The contrast with the beauty and calm of the rose garden and the disaster is  poignant.

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Piper Alpha Disaster memorial in Hazlehead Park

James Sheard’s collection The Abandoned Settlements is a Poetry Book Society Choice and therefore highly rated. I thought that the early poems, which harked back to different places and different people were very well constructed and poignant. The title poem ends “For love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists” and this turns out to be the theme of the book, a series of reflections and memories of love and lovers, of beginnings and endings. I enjoyed November which begins “Let me tell you how, in this long dark/ I list the ways in which the leaf of you/ furled and unfurled around me”.  However, as the book progressed, I as the reader could only take so many doleful reflections on love gone bad, no matter how elegant the poems were and how well constructed they were. Others obviously disagree and he has been widely praised. One poem that I did connect with and which was to me the most lyrical poem in the book is entitled Blackthorn: “For two weeks I drove/ through tunnels/ of March blackthorn/ … and liquid growing white/ then full then falling/ in the wind rising/ each overnight and becoming bridal/ blizzarding across/ the quiet early morning/ whipped up by my wheels …”. Last year in this blog, I mistakenly identified blackthorn as hawthorn, with these photos below. You can see the link with “becoming bridal”.

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Blackthorn near Stenton village

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Close up of blackthorn blossom