Saturday, 30 June 2007

Whisky Tour Part 4.

Where was I?

Ah, yes, Ardanaiseig.


After a solid sleep, I ... well, actually, I sort of went back to sleep. Fisher, Arrow and Lu all partook of breakfast, but I chose to lie abed, snoozing and reading my way to wakefulness. We were leisurely in our leaving, knowing that yet more driving awaited. However, our first stop was relatively close, as we had the Oban distillery to visit.

I'm not a huge fan of Oban. At night, it's a proper harbour-town, complete with local Neds who drink too much and shout obscenities outside your window at 3 in the morning. It's also quite grotty in parts, and you only have to scratch below the pretty, touristy surface to see the Gateway to the Isles is juuuust a little bit skanky. However, Fisher pointed out that our view is also quite skewed by the assosciations we have with the place: namely arriving in the dark, just in time to witness the first drunken wave of Neds, staying in dodgy B&Bs or hotels (we never organise ourselves in time to book good ones) and then waking at some ungodly hour of the 'morning' to catch a depressing CalMac ferry to Coll. With all this in mind, it's easy to forget that despite its flaws, Oban is actually quite lovely for a flying visit. It certainly was that day, anyway.

In some manner of miracle, the sun had decided to come out, and nothing could be prettier than Oban harbour in the sunshine.

Oban Harbour
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We found the distillery with ease, but had around 40 minutes to kill before the tour kicked off again, so decided to get some coffee at the Italian bistro opposite Eeusk restaurant. We wandered over, and Arrow & Lu got a good look at the view and harbour. A tall ship called Tenacious was moored by the bistro. It specialises in holidays for people of all abilities - disabled and able bodied - so people can get an idea of crewing for a tall ship. It looked a lot of fun, although I did overhear one of the women telling a 'hilarious' story about how seasick everyone had been during wet weather - which rather dulled the romance.

After our coffee we headed back to the distillery and heard, yet again, how whisky is made. We refrained from joining in with the more well-worn facts (Guide: "To make whisky you need only three ingredients ..." Us: "Barley, yeast and water!") and I actually managed to listen all the way through the piping process and understand it! Marvellous! Although I think I've now forgotten it again. Hey ho.

It was another good, clear guide, delivered by a girl with obvious aspirations for the theatre, and when it came time for the tasting we were all eager. Unfortunately, I can't remember a bloody thing about it! I'm sure Arrow will add the facts in a comment, but I can't recall a blimmin thing! I have a hazy recollection that their standard malt was older than most, at 14 years, but I may have just made that up. Oban itself is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, so I may just be confused. I think Arrow commented on its saltiness in comparison to the others we'd tried, and I agreed that the old tongue shrivelled slightly. I also think I quite liked it. However, it can't have knocked my socks off if I have such diluted memories. Anyway, it was a good trip overall. The distillery itself has an interesting display relating its history, and it's all very professional and slick.

Back in the car we leaped, and had a decision to make. We could either head straight home, stopping off at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar for lunch and then visiting points of interest on the way back - or we could head south to Glengoyne distillery, which is just south of Stirling. There was much dithering, but it was Arrow's choice in the end, and I think the dread words 'points of interest' did it for him in the end.

Glengoyne distillery it was!

We drove down past Loch Awe and into the Lomond and Trossachs national park. We passed Loch Fyne, and I gave it a nostalgic mental wave, and then we were searching for the little village of Dumgoyne, near Killearn. And there was "the most beautiful distillery in Scotland."

Well, yeah ... it's pretty enough, but not as pretty as Edradour. But aaaanyway ...

The moment I stopped the car, Fisher was out like a lit firework, absolutely gagging for the loo. Lubentina went with her, while Arrow and I gave the dogs a brief walk. Then I crossed the road to the distillery, needing the loo as well, and encountered Lu coming back to find us, saying that Fisher had been in serious discomfort when she discovered the loos were all the way at the back of the distillery. She'd nearly peed her pants.

"Oh," I said, opening a nearby door. "So she didn't want to use these loos, then?"

At that moment, Fisher appeared around the corner - much relieved - saw me standing at a much closer loo door, and nearly peed her pants again.

Toilet humour aside, Arrow and I went to reception to find out whether there was a tasting option that didn't involve taking a tour. By this stage we were pretty sure than the minor differences the Glengoyne guides might throw up were far from worth paying for yet another tour. We asked a slightly disconcerting gentleman who insisted on looking over my right shoulder while he spoke to me, whether such a thing was possible. He gave a very convoluted answer, which seemed to imply that yes, there was an option but that you usually had to book in advance, but that he'd check. But he didn't check, he just hailed a passing manager-type and turfed the whole matter over to her.

The nub and gist (which I was only too glad to grasp by this point) was that, no, we couldn't have a tasting without a tour, but we could go down to the shop and the girls there would let us have a dram or two, and also tell us all we needed to know. So this is what we did.

Alas, once again, my memory fails me. There were 4 different drams, and I'm pretty sure the standard was a 10 year old. The other three may or may not have been a 15, a 17, and a 21. I do recall that Arrow and I were very pedestrian in our choice and went for the most commonly favoured one as one of two favourites. I think it was the 2nd youngest. We may, or may not, have also enjoyed the 21 year old. Oo ... actually, I vaguely recall being told that most people liked the 21 year old as well, and thinking "yeah, well, that's just because they think they're supposed to" in a very snobbish manner - so maybe I didn't like the 21 year old after all.

BOLLOCKS! Why is my memory so crap?

Yeah, yeah, I heard you. Too much whisky.

One thing I do remember, because it's very interesting, is that Glengoyne use no peat at all in their process. Unlike other distilleries who malt the barley using peat smoke in varying amounts, Glengoyne use only hot air - no peat at all. There's therefore no smokiness to it, and it's a very smooth, clean number. Good ... I think.

So that was that. The whisky tour was at an end, and all that remained was to hot foot it back to Fife, have some supper, and go our separate ways. We thought about going out for one final meal, but decided it would be easier just to grab some shopping at Tesco's and have a meal of bits 'n' bobs back at our place before the sad but inevitable parting. Not very glamorous, but there we have it. We aren't very glamorous, so it was quite fitting.

And thus comes the end of The Whisky Tour. A most enjoyable, refreshing and tasty way to spend a holiday.

Oh - and before I go to bed - I managed to gird my loins and go for a run today. Just 2 miles, but I did do it in 21 minutes, which is quite fast for me. 10.32 for the first mile and 10.33 for the second, which is nice and even - so that's good, too. Fisher actually ran with me, which helped keep my pace up. Of course, I then came home and discovered I was meant to run for 25 minutes, not 20, so that pissed me off - not inconsiderably.

And there I go again ...

Right. I am delighted I did 2 miles in just under 21 minutes. It was a good, even pace. That is all.


Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Training and Whisky Tour Part 3

I'm just back from a swim and run, followed by stuffing myself with a wrap from Cherries. One of these days I'll learn that doing exercise does not give me a cast iron excuse to eat my weight in deliciouness straight after. Still, I feel mildly pleased with myself, despite the fact I managed to lose count of my lengths again. However, I either did 30 or 28 lengths in 22 minutes and seven seconds. If it was 28 lengths, and we round it down to 22 minutes (fair enough as it took at least that long to stop, take my goggles off and look at my watch, that means 3 minutes 8 seconds per hundred metres. Which means I did 500 metres in 15 minutes and 40 seconds. Which, actually, is total bollocks - but not quite last on the Cheshire Sprint results! As for those layabouts in Hawaii - some of the women were younger than me and did it in the pathetic time of over 18 minutes! Of course, they may have actually been swimming in the sea ... but they probably didn't have to go round two small girls chatting up the life guard, either. So there. Anyway, I've decided that I need to knock a good 2 minutes off my time relatively soon. Then I can, apparantly, join the Australian Navy. Woo hoo. (At the moment I could join as a 45 year old man. Interesting.)

Then again, if I did 28 lengths in 20 minutes, then I did 500m in 14mins 20 seconds.

Which is better.

After my swim I went and did a 10 minute mile (I know, utter bollocks, but actually pretty fast for me) and was going to do some weights but decided against it. I did test my horizontal leg lift, to see how much I can lift in one rep and then work out how much I should be lifting for muscle build. Turns out I've been doing it pretty accurately. I can lift 130kg, so should be working out with around 80kg. That's presuming each individial weight is 10kg, but who the hell knows? Anyway, I started feeling a little lightheaded and decided I ought to go and get some food instead of working out even more. I have to say, I feel a million dollars! And it's been a bloody long time since I've felt this good, so I'm truly enjoying it while I can. Our whisky tour must have been just what I needed! I was so worried I'd suffer PT and spoil everything, but there wasn't a sniff of it!

Talking of the whisky tour ...

Day three dawned as grey and wet as the day before, much to my depression. A long drive was in store, and it being Sunday I'd completely failed to register that distilleries didn't open until 12 noon: a nod to our religion, which apparantly considers it a sin to be bladdered on a Sunday morning. You have to wait until the afternoon. We had to travel all the way to Oban, and now we had to kick about Strathspey until the afternoon. It was not an auspicious start. However, determined to remain in good cheer - in a sort of clenched-teeth sort of way that scared the living bejaysus out of Fisher - we had a look in Arrow's handy little whisky book, and chose Aberlour distillery to visit on our way west because it actually dared open at 11.30am! Gasp! May lightning bolts smite it to the very grrrrroooounnnd! I also made an executive decision to make my excuses to The Captain and not play in Monday night's tennis match. This meant we could do Oban's distillery on Monday, and simply arrive in time to enjoy our last hotel - which I'd been ludicrously extravagant in booking, and over which I was almost quivering with excitement!

So off we pootled, to the sound of my iPod on shuffle (hopefully Arrow and Lu didn't find their ears bleeding, because I heard no objections). Everyone was quiet, but I hope it was a mellow silence rather than fury/grumpiness/the overwhelming desire to murder the driver for not paying fucking attention to the opening times of the distilleries. The rain grizzled, the miles rolled by - and it wasn't until noon that we found ourselves at the door to Aberlour distillery. And what did we discover? Why, only that the next tour wasn't until 2pm!


However, when the very lovely girl manning the shop till saw there were 4 of us looking for a tasting, she agreed to give us a sample of 4 of their 5 malts. This was much more generous than Herman Munster and his single nip, and Arrow and I beamed our gratification. Our beams only widened as we tasted some seriously good Scotch. There was a 10 year old, a twelve, a fifteen, and ABOOONAH!!! I thought this most amusing.

I was the only one.

Anyway, it's not Aboonah, it's A'bunadh, and I thought it terrific. But all in good time.

First came the 10 year old: a smooth, toffee-like drop of gold, matured in both bourbon and sherry casks and very much affected by them both. It went down with frightening ease, bless it's cotton socks.

Second was the 12 year old. Darker in colour to the 10, as you'd expect, this was also finished only in sherry casks and therefore had a much sweeter, fruitier flavour. To be honest, I can't remember whether I liked it more or less than the 10, but I have a faint recollection that it was Arrow's favourite.

Thirdly we supped on the 15 year old. This was matured in both bourbon and sherry casks, but then put in new oloroso sherry casks to finish. I have absolutely no recollection of this whisky at all. Dearie me. I must get Arrow to contribute his notes to this blog.

Last but not least, we were introduced (formally) to the A'bunadh.

What can I say? It's potent stuff! As it's cask strenght, it comes in at a fiery 59.6%. It's bottled in the old fashioned way - without modern filtering, or the addition of water. Therefore, the smell is quite astonishingly rich. It's finished only in the finest sherry casks, and is non chill-filtered - a modern process that keeps the whisky from going cloudy when water is added - and therefore retains all its richness of character.

I was much enamoured of the A'bunadh, but also slightly terrified by how utterly plastered I felt after a single dram! The trouble was, despite there being 4 of us, Fisher was driving and Lu doesn't drink so she had only the tiniest of tastes to see what we were talking about. Arrow and I therefore polished off 2 drams each. It doesn't sound much, but at 59.6% that A'bunadh certainly packed a punch.

Bidding a fond farewell to my new best mate, Till Girl, I weaved my way out to the car and tossed Fisher the keys. Arrow, whose head is considerably harder than mine, seemed unaffected. Shaaaame.

Off we went again, deciding we really had to get the journey underway. We thought we'd stop off at some interesting points on the way, but with one eye on the clock I was very conscious we had to get to our hotel in time to prepare for posh nosh and enjoy the surroundings. Alas, my slight anxiety over whether I'd completely buggered up the schedule coupled with 'coming down' from my whisky high put me in a full blown grump. I was convinced everyone was having a terrible time, that we were spending far too long in the car, that we'd never get to Oban in time, and that everything was going very, very wrong. When all the 'points of interest' on the map turned out to completely without either interest or point, as well as located in places Indiana Jones would struggle to find, it seemed all my worst fears would be realised.

Luckily, the further west we went, the more the weather improved (well - it stopped raining, anyway) and the black dog sidled reluctantly from my shoulder. As we began the very beautiful drive through the Ben Nevis range, down Loch Linnhe, skirting Glen Coe and on to Oban, I could almost hope the day wouldn't be a dead loss after all.

How right I was! Despite all the long hours of driving, especially the last 20 miles or so to the hotel, we were all thrilled with our final night. We were staying at the utterly ravishing Ardanaiseig Hotel, and the minute we rolled into the driveway I knew it would all be all right! It is soooo my kind of hotel! Not only is it isolated, silent and beautiful, but it takes dogs! Baffie and Bridie were ecstatic to be out of the car, and right after we'd dumped our bags in our lovely rooms we all took them for a walk around the grounds.

The first thing Bridie did was set the people watching her from the drawing room to roaring with laughter as she barked her head off at a bronze deer, challenging it bravely before dancing away in fear at its implacable lack of distress. We managed to distract her by leading her into the undergrowth, where we discovered a set of swings and a hammock chair which Fisher immediately decreed we had to have in our own garden. The chair, that is, not the swings - although I don't think she'd be averse!

Next stop was the edge of Loch Awe, where we all 'oohed' over the breathtaking view while Bridie and Baffie cooled themselves with a refreshing dip. Once we'd watched them swim after a couple of sticks, we took them round to the front and along the garden walk. A walled garden greeted us, and Lubentina happily pottered about looking at all the plants and ... er ... shit. I found a gate, went through, and discovered a very pretty pond and a pathway leading back to the hotel. Bridie also discovered the pond, but I put her swiftly on a lead as I didn't want her getting utterly skanky.

Alas, my carefulness was undermined by my levels of guilt at leaving them in the car all day. Once Fisher and the others joined me and we were walking away from the pond, I let Bridie off once more.

"Don't!" Fisher warned me. "She'll jump in the pond!"

"No she won't," I scoffed. "See, she's walking away from it!"

At that moment I noticed that the pond was only the first of many water features, and that several little square filth-pits masquerading as ponds lined the pathway.

"Bridie!" I howled, "Don' ..." at which there was an utterly predictable sploosh and Bridie vanished up to her neck in vileness.

Thus, instead of going straight back to the hotel and beginning luxurious luxuriating in preparation for supper, I took Bridie back to the loch for a cleansing swim. Then I went upstairs and luxuriously luxuriated.

Hmmmmmmm ....

Supper was delightful. There was a set, 5 course menu, and it was all splendid. Well ... if I'm being fair, I wasn't hugely keen on the artichoke veloute, which wasn't a veloute at all - it was soup. This was followed by sea bass with a fried potato skin (sigh), guinea fowl (sloo), and either a pudding of chocolate fondant (basically Nigella Lawson's molten chocolate baby cakes, which Fisher has perfected) or cheese board. Naturally, I had the cheese, and it was bloody, bloody good.

Come to think of it, that's only 4 courses. But there were a couple of amuse bouches as well, as well as coffee and petit fours - all of which had nuts in them, which was the only negative point of the evening. We did tell them Arrow is wildly allergic, but it seems that the moment you step out of the dining room they wash their hands of all responsibility.

After supper, I felt a great weariness overcoming me - but a quick walk in the fresh air with the dogs was enough to blow the cobwebs away and give me my second wind. Arrow and I ordered brandies while Fisher and (gasp) Lu both had ports, and we took them down to the games room to play some billiards.

Thus we embarked on the longest game of snooker ever recorded. The table was so huge and our talent so extraordinarily small it was a good 2 hours before the black was sunk and we retired to our rooms, declaring Arrow and Fisher worthy winners. I think I potted 3 balls all night! Aim is not one of my strong points. I am, in fact, aimless.

And with that, I retire. Our last day will have to wait until tomorrow to be related.

From the side ...
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View from the garden ...

Whisky Tour Part 2

On our second day, I slept late and forwent breakfast in order to better enjoy the lovely bed and read a couple more chapters of The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler. Brave Bird lent it to me, and I was finding it a captivating read up until this morning. It ends poorly, and takes a long time to do so. It's set in Berlin, from 1933 to the end of the war, and follows the story of a young Christian girl as she becomes involved with Jews struggling against the political changes, and fights to protect her 'distant' brother from the fate the handicapped suffered under Nazi law. It's also a love story, a mystery, and an attempt at shedding light on just how a society can become so twisted with so little resistance. Unfortunately I think it ends up being neither fish nor fowl. The mystery fails to grip, the love story fails to touch, and no new light is shed. Its highlights are definitely the relationship between Sophie and her probably autistic brother Hansi, and Zimler's easy writing style which is fully absorbing, even when there seems little justification for it to be so. I think it's his skill as a writer which has left me feeling so cheated at the end. He's managed to keep me hooked almost all the way through, and now I'm just left with a sense of frustration that my attention appears to have been captured without purpose. But perhaps I'm too harsh. I only finished it this morning, so I'll wait and see if time brings more meaning.

Aaaanyhoo - at the time it was a very pleasant way to ease into a new morning, despite the cheerless subject matter, and by the time we were all ready for the off I was feeling chipper as a chopped potato. Hm. That doesn't really work. 'Chippy' as a chopped potato, maybe, but I'd have to say 'chipper as a man chopping potatoes' to be proper accurate, like, and that's cumbersome. Not, however, as cumbersome as this post is rapidly becoming.


Our first stop was in Aberfeldy, where we discovered the tour to take about an hour and a half, which ruled it out of our schedule. However, when I fluttered my eyelashes at the young man behind the till (who had the most remarkably dark eyebrows I've ever seen, and put me in mind of Herman Munster), he offered to let us try their standard malt 'under the table' as it were.

Arrow and I were delighted to accept, and found the 12 year old (I think) to be a very pleasant nip indeed. It was fruity and full bodied, if I remember correctly, and responded well to a drop of water. However, I'll have to check with Arrow because my memory is shot to shite, and I may have just made that up. I do recall it was very honeyed in colour, and smelled great.

After that brief stop we were off to Speyside for our next distillery adventure, and in utterly vile weather we set off. Alas, the weather failed to improve throughout the day, and driving through such a grey landscape was a strain on the eyes. Even so, the scenery was striking as we headed deep into the eastern Highlands, and found our second distillery of the day.

I'd chosen it specifically because I thought Lubentina and Fisher might enjoy having a look at Balmoral while Arrow and I sampled Royal Lochnagar's offerings. Seeing as neither of them are whisky drinkers, I was trying to plan the route so there'd be options for their escape. However, because the drive took longer than expected (now to be referred to as DLTE), we didn't arrive until around 4 in the afternoon. We did stop for a surprisingly good lunch at a hotel we found off the road. Unfortunately I can't remember its name, but it was up a long, winding and car-bottom-crunching road, and had a very pretty golf course which the dogs were glad to despoil. (We did pick up after them, promise). It was a welcome break, but did delay our Speyside arrival.

Not to worry. While Lu and Fisher turned up their noses at Balmoral, they were actually keen on coming to the distillery with us - so it was a merry band who bought tour tickets and set out to see what Lochnagar could offer.

It's a pretty enough wee place - yet another small producer at 400,000 litres a year - and sits beneath Lochnagar itself (which is a mountain, not a loch). Owner John Begg, in 1848, wrote to his new neighbours inviting them to come and have a look round the distillery. It was with some surprise that he then saw, not just the man of the house, but wife and children drawing up outside as well, all hoping to have a tour of the distillery. Seeing as these new neighbours were Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and various royal brats, John Begg gladly obliged. Because of this, he was given the right to call his place of work Royal Lochnagar, and so it remains.

The tour was very good - well explained (still got lost in the piping, though) and a little more colourful than Edradour's. Claire the guide encouraged us to taste two different types of malted barley - one from an Islay and one from Lochnagar - in order to see just how much of the taste is actually in the barley itself. Like Edradour, they use very, very little peat - only 2 parts per million, which equates only to the peat used to heat the barley during malting. Therefore, their barley tasted like rich tea biscuits, while the Islay tasted like rich tea dipped in Lapsang Souchong. It was also interesting to hear that they fermented the mash for either 4 or 5 days, I forget which - but a couple more than Edradour.

Once we'd seen round, the tasting was upon us - and what a disappointment! We all tried it, and we all found it far less impressive than either Edradour or Aberfeldy. Its grassy notes were thin on the tongue, and while Claire described it as 'clean', I'd say it was more 'medicinal.' Not good. However, the tour itself had been fun and all in all it was a success.

On we went to seek out the B&B I'd blindly booked. On trying to find a place to stay I discovered absolutely no room at the inns, and ended up taking a recommendation from a woman in a nearby hotel, who was blatantly chucking business the way of a newly set up neighbour. Still, beggars and choosers and all that, and I was just glad to get a roof over our heads.

It turned out very well indeed. Alison, the owner, was an elderly-ish, gravel voiced bon vivante who made us very welcome. The place was in a state of slight disarray owing to her doing up the third bedroom, but made no difference at all to our own rooms, which were light, airy and modern. Fisher was ecstatic, saying it was just the sort of B&B she'd always hoped for. No bric-a-brac, no crazy landladies who just don't really want people 'touching their stuff' (although Alison did have a touch of the crazies about her - in a good way), just comfortable beds and an overwhelming sense of cleanliness. Just up Fisher's street!

After dumping our bags, we decided we ought to get out in the fresh air. With the help of a tourist map, we saw a couple of places of interest - a circle of standing stones, a 'turf house', and a few other such things, which made us all eager to be out. Unfortunately, the weather was still absolutely filthy. The rain teemed down and the wind, though not strong, was extremely cold. Nevertheless, we made a good stab at playing tourists. The standing stones were picturesque, with the line of the altar-like stone echoing the ridge of hills behind, and while they were hardly Stonehenge they were at least recognisable as a place of neolithic significance rather than just a bunch of rocks. The view was pretty good, too, despite the low lying cloud, and I saw a church that might be worth a visit - so we all hopped back into the car and tried to find it.

No such luck. Instead we sought out the turf house, which we found on a tiny patch of grass beside a well-used road. At first we thought it was nothing more than a slight bump in the grass, but then we discovered it wasn't actually a house - it was a storage cellar. Lubentina, with a modern historian's mind, was entertained by the board which read:

"This turf house was not lived in, but was used only for storing food ... No evidence of storage has been found."

Her point, vociferously made, was that if no evidence exists, how can they make such determined claims? Perhaps it was used for something else entirely! To imprison Hobbits, for example. Fair point, I ceded, but there speaks a historian with reams and reams of sources and physical evidence at her fingertips. Medieval historians such as myself feel history is more an art than a science. We look at one musty old document with most of the words oblitterated and, with our great powers of deduction, determine the course of several hundred years of history. And by 'great powers of deduction' I basically mean 'make it up as we go along. In an educated sort of a way.' This is why modern history isn't really history at all. It's a science. Medieval history is an art!

And yes, I'm well aware that all that is bollocks.

So where was I? Oh yes, having my arse photographed by Arrow as I poked my head into the turf house. Nice.

Back in the car we climbed, wet and far from miserable, and decided it was time to seek out supper. This we did back in Aboyne, at a little place called The Boat Inn, which was exactly the sort of pub I was after! While there was no roaring fire before which to roast my cold toes, it was old and full of character, with a real ale on tap called Ossian, which I thought delicious. The kitchens were backed up so we were warned about a long wait, but we couldn't have cared less. We sat, drank, chatted, and enjoyed the warmth. When the food came it was very good. Fisher and Lu both had lasagne, which they rated highly, while I had a rabbit casserole. It was gamier than I expected, but excellent. I think Arrow had fish and chips, with which he was well pleased. I'd definitely go back there if we found ourselves in that neck of the woods again.

The second day was over, and instead of going straight to bed we managed to wind down with a game of cribbage in the B&B's lounge. Crazy Alison poked her head round to see if we were all right and commented that cribbage was 'the brainy stuff'. I suppose you could say that, if you have trouble counting up to 15, but I don't think - considering how swiftly she totted up the bill next morning - you could claim Ailson was mathematically deficient. Or shy with her prices, either. But while I begrudge her overcharging, I do think she has a pleasant B&B. The beds were comfy, I slept like a log, and her breakfast was efficient and tasty, without being heavily fried. So hurrah for Aboyne!

Thus ended the second day. As I lay in bed, listening to the dogged drizzle outside, I could only hope that the trip continued to be entertaining, and the bloody weather cleared up!

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Whisky Tour Part 1

For Arrow's 30th birthday, I promised him a jaunt around Scotland, visiting a selection of whisky distilleries in the company of Lubentina and Fisher. So it was that, on an extremely grey and dismal day, we set off for our first port of call in Fisher's newly cleaned car (thanks for helping with that, Chopper! A fun way to spend your morning, I'm sure.)

All the destinations were being kept secret, at Arrow's request, which made for some entertaining directions. EG:

"Are we turning ...?"
"Yes, but not until ... you know?"
"You know ... not 'til after the ... thing."
"That thing, or that other thing?"
Er ... that thing. I think." And so on.

Despite all this - and my decision to keep the destination as mysterious as possible by suddenly turning off the motorway at the last minute and forgetting there was actually other cars on the road who didn't take kindly to being cut up - we arrived at our first destination safe and sound, and with a few rays of sunshine struggling through.

Our first stop was Edradour, where I'd taken Heartlander and his mate, and this time we were able to take the tour and make the wise-cracking guide happy. It was excellent. The distillery is truly charming, with long, low, whitewashed buildings set beside a jaunty burn, and the tour was long enough to be interesting and not long enough to become tedious. What was interesting was that they gave us our tasting just after the introductory video, rather than at the end. What's even more interesting is that the tour and tasting are entirely free. Excellent!

The whisky was their 10 year old, standard single malt - and we all agreed that it was truly excellent. Edradour is one of the only independently owned distilleries in Scotland, as well as being the smallest. Only three men work it, with far more employed as tour guides, and only 12 casks are produced a week. They provide whisky to parliament, and it's the official whisky of Westminster - and I can definitely see why. I find it smooth, easy to drink, full of fruit and honey, and without any of the TCP I assosciate with many single malts. Delicious!

After out tasting we got to see round the distillery itself. We listened avidly to what would become a familiar speech about the making of whisky, saw all the relevant instruments of barley torture, and emerged back out in the open air much the wiser. (I got a bit lost 3/4s of the way through the making process, when they started explaining about the pipes 'n' all ... but I guessed I'd be quite familiar with it all by the of the trip, so didn't worry too much.)

Edradour Distillery
In order to experience Edradour more fully, we took a trip to the bar and sampled a couple of other malts, of which I have annoyingly forgotten the details. I think there was a 13 year old, which was supposed to be the best value and to taste like liquid Christmas cake. Both Arrow and I found it a little too overpowering, and actually preferred the 10 year old from all three drams. The last was a 21 year old Chateau d'Yquem, which was well balanced, fruity and delicious! I think I liked it more than Arrow, but in the end we were both of the opinion that, when push came to shove, there was no beating the 10 year old for pleasant sippin' whisky!

It was a good start. We bought a half bottle of the 10 year old in the shop, and then headed into Moulin village for some lunch and to find a geocache for Fisher and Lubentina, who claimed there was one in the churchyard. The dogs were keen for a bit of a walk, too, so after a bite in the Moulin Inn (voted Scottish pub of the year ... which was generous, though the food was pretty good and it's very characterful) we stepped into the kirkyard for a nosey. As I was perusing the gravestones I had a sudden creeping feeling that I had some relatives buried in this neck of the woods. I mean, I know there are Fergussons buried somewhere around Pitlochry, and I know my mother went to see some of their graves, but I couldn't remember exactly where and couldn't get hold of Ma to ask. However, Fisher agreed that the name Moulin sounded very familiar. And lo and behold, there were several graves with Fergussons in them. Of course, Fergusson isn't an unusual name ... although spelling it with 2 s's is more rare ... so it could all be a big coincidence. Anyway, I paid brief homage to Adam, Donald, several Elizabeths, John and Peter, and figured that if they weren't my Ma's lot then there was a good bet they were related in some way. And if they weren't related, then they were still Fergussons, and deserving of my respect!

The geocache proved to be a troublesome little thing. It wasn't in the kirkyard at all, but you did need to solve the clues found in the kirkyard in order to get the coordinates which would lead you to the right spot. In theory. Of course, when there's a whole bunch of hills kicking about it can be slightly tricky to get the GPS to work properly. I fear I'm not good with aimless wandering, and when aimless wandering turned into an impromptu walk up a very steep hill only to find a car park sitting at the top and a very pretty woodland walk which the dogs, whom we had returned to the car after their kirkyard wander, would have loved - I decided I'd had just about enough geocaching. I merrily stopped my climb, encouraging Fisher and Lubentina to continue without us - which they did. They promptly stopped about 20 paces from where Arrow and I stood waiting, and began scrabbling about in the undergrowth like large pink cocker spaniels. After a few false starts they were at last triumphant ... and found a very disappointing cache with nothing but plastic junk in it. Still, they signed the book and can now tick it off their list which, I think, is what really matters. But I'm no geocaching expert, and can't say I have a burning desire to join the ranks of those who refer to non-cachers as 'Muggles', set decoding exercises in graveyards, and lead you on impromptu walks up verticle climbs when you could have driven to within 5 yards of it and then had a lovely walk in the woods with dogs.

So there.

Once the geocache had been found we jumped into the car and decided it was about time to find our hotel for the night. I'd booked us into the Dunalastair Hotel in Kinloch Rannoch, which proved to be a longer drive than I'd anticipated (which ended up being something of a theme for this trip) and never having been to it before, I was anxious it would end up being a Trusthouse Forte Hell.

Luckily, it didn't. Although set right on the road and a corner, which led us to 'lose' it (we would have driven right past had Lu not had the presence of mind to actually look at the building we'd paused outside in our search for a signpost), it was a traditional, pretty aristocratic hunting lodge type thing. The rooms were comfortable, the meal good but nothing special, and the staff both friendly and helpful. And I will soon be starting my new job as a hotel reviewer for Bore Magazine ...

As Arrow would say: it was "all good." The evening was spent in relaxed ease. We were sold raffle tickets by a lad from Paisley, who said "I know, I'm the last person you'd want to trust ..." which I was not thinking at all. We enjoyed a wee nightcap, then retired to bed early, agreeing to meet for breakfast and be on our way by 11am.

The first day - or half day, as we didn't leave until noon - was over, and had gone swimmingly. At least, I had a great time! I can't recommend Edradour highly enough, both for its wisdom in not charging for the tour, and for its charm. I fell deeply asleep on a very comfortable bed, feeling most content.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Chopper's Up!

At last, after much fannying about, plan making and plan breaking, committing and flaking - we have Chopper to stay!

I awoke early, disturbed by a menacing nightmare where friends were not what they seemed, and lay still until my heart slowed its pounding to a steady beat. Eventually I dropped back into a restless sleep, never really shaking my sense of unease. At 8.30, Fisher rose to go and visit the foot specialist, but just as I was drifting back into sleep yet again, the telephone rang and 'Blair at the Quarry' informed me there would be blasting today. I blearily peered out of the window. It appeared as if a host of angels had raised their robes and were emptying their post-bender bladders all over the world. The sky was both iron grey and foggy, the wind blew, and it looked set to be miserably miserable all day. Fat chance they'll be blasting in this weather, I thought.

Chopper was due to arrive at around 11am, but in typically Chopperesque fashion found herself delayed. She had an interview that ran over, missed the 11.10 train and had to opt for one at noon. As Arrow would say - it was all good. Considering the filth pouring down from the sky she was hardly missing anything. Meanwhile, I mooched about the house feeling cold and slightly PTish, eventually distracting myself by curling up under a duvet and watching Elena Baltacha get humped by Vaidisova at Eastbourne.

On Fisher's return from St Andrews and the foot doctor, she informed me we'd be going nowhere in her car today, as all the roads were a-swim. Yet when it came time to pick Chops up from the station, the minute Fisher turned out of the drive in the Drover, the sun began struggling to break the cloud. Ten minutes later, the clouds dispersed and bright sunshine poured down on Fife!

Chopper is clearly some manner of weather god.

Feeling invigorated by the sudden warmth and vitimin D, the moment Chopper arrived I suggested we head out to St Andrews for lunch, a walk on the beach with the dogs, and then a swim for me and whatever Fisher and Chops wished to do while I completed my looooong overdue 700m. They declared that what they really wanted to do was go for a run.

They are crazy as loons.

Anyway, we rushed around getting ourselves ready - but as I started to put Baffie into the car I noticed she was seriously limping, whining and shaking. I sat her on my knee and checked her paw all over, then up her leg and into her armpit, but found no thorn or obvious cause of distress. It looked like it was her shoulder bothering her most, but I couldn't be entirely sure. Fisher phoned the vet, and we booked a post-lunch appointment for her. She's suffered with this leg before, so we weren't risking anything.

First stop was The Jigger Inn - part of The Old Course Hotel, and a pleasant sort of place for a quick(ish) bite, despite being ludicrously expensive and often smelling of disinfectant from the loos. It was fine, and company was good, so we departed content and took Baffs off to the vet, where she was poked, prodded, and determined to have a dodgy shoulder.

Yes. I could have told them that. In fact, I think I said "she has a dodgy shoulder" as we walked in. £35 later and we left, armed with some anti-inflammatories and a very relieved Baffie, who'd shaken and trembled all through the vet's administrations.

We went off to West Sands for a walk, where the wind was gusty and quite cold until, on the way back, the sun burst through once more and all was as glorious as West Sands can be. By this point, we'd all commented on the fact we were astonishingly knackered, and the temptation to cut our losses and go home was overwhelming. Luckily, we rallied enough to visit the North Point for some coffee and a smidge of carrot cake (only 2 slices between the 3 of us!), which was an excellet shot in the arm.

Newly resolved, we headed off to the East Sands Leisure Centre. I went and used the pool while Chops and Fisher set off on a brief jog. Fisher told me they would run up to the cathedral and back, but instead they followed the coastal path up to the caravan park and along. They did just under 3 miles in over 40 minutes, which, considering they are both much faster than me is a shockingly slow time! However, the path undulates wildly, as well as being treacherous underfoot and sometimes invisible - so on the whole they did pretty well not to die horribly. So, you know, fair play to them!

Meanwhile, I was braving the eye-stingingly minging water of the Leisure Centre pool (I really wish I hadn't read that official brochure of Spartan's regarding pool hygiene). It was fine, except that I lost count of my lengths. I think I did the requisite 28, and I think I did them in about 20 minutes. This puts me at the same swimming pace as the last 3 competitors in the Cheshire Sprint, which is fine with me considering how lax I've been, how new I am to swimming, and how alert and ready for more exercise I felt at the end of the swim. I have to concentrate on speed as well as distance! I'm far too lazy with my rhythm.

After the swim, I took Bridie out of the car, thinking to walk her on East Sands while I waited for Chopper and Fisher to return. However, as I wandered towards the strand I saw them running the last 100m from the caravan park to the car park. They looked tired, red-faced, but pleased with themselves. The sun shone joyfully, and I suggested we go down onto the beach to stretch out with a couple of sun salutations. These proved less than successful, as Fisher was too self-conscious, Chopper collapsed in wild laughter, Bridie attempted to jump on us all, and I was the only one to soldier on regardless - until the lure of the sea grew too great and I had to run into the waves for a proper paddle. Bridie swam around my ankles as I tried and failed dismally to keep my short trousers above my knees. It was fresh, but I managed to persuade both Chopper and Fisher that it wasn't really cold - so in they came as well.

We had a lovely time paddling like children, before deciding it was time to be heading home. The dogs needed to be fed, and Clova, our elderly guest dog (who would never have been up for all that exercise), needed some TLC. On the way, we discovered that Mellis was still open, so went in an bought some Gruyere for fondue, some wild boar salami, and a couple of other munching cheeses for supper.

The rest of the day passed extremely contentedly. We watched the interminable end of the England U21's European Championship hopes, which ended, naturally, on penalties. I think it finished something like 12-11 to Holland, but in my opinion it should never have got so far. England were leading 1-0 all the way, until surrendering the lead in the 90th minute because they completely failed to keep posession. Just as the senior team is wont to do, they simply hoofed the ball clear whenever it got near their penalty area, which allowed the Dutch to continue to build attack after attack. Why we never seem to be able to grasp the concept of retaining posession and building from the back, I have no idea. So we lost, and fair play to the Dutch for hanging in there.

After the footie, we ate our fondue and sundry cheeses with French bread, salami, ham and little sour gherkins. Delicious! We'd planned on treating ourselves to some chocolate and biscuits afterwards, but I was far too stuffed. Instead, we went through to the sitting room and vegged in front of Pan's Labarynth, which I thought excellent. Dark, tragic, and steeped in the painfully twisted - and all too recent - history of Spain. Goya's legacy can be seen in every frame of that film, and it tears at your heart.

So, to clear my mind before bed, I've come through and jotted down all our day's happenings. It's therapeutic, this blogging lark. But now I'm off to bed, and my fingers are firmly crossed for another day of sunshine.

In the immortal words of Julie Walters in Billy Elliot:

"Right, Mr Braithwait - The Sun'll Come Out Tomorrow." Aside. "Fat chance."

Friday, 15 June 2007

Dull day.

Well, that title is sure to entice readership!

Anyway, it's been dreich, drear and dour over East Fife today, so naturally Fisher wanted to go for her first outdoor run since crocking her foot. The dogs were ecstatic - I less so. I have to say, swimming really does take it out of me! Plus, my training schedule recommended a rest day, but I'm a bit out of synch with the week so I thought I'd do my 25 minute run today, then rest tomorrow.

We went to lovely Tentsmuir, and Bridie whined in anticipation from the bull's field onwards. Baffie just lay, serene as a sphinx, awaiting her due. All the way there I was thinking "I don't want to do this. I do not want to do this. I ache. I'm tired. It's cold. I hate running. I hate Fisher. In fact, I hate everything and everone. I want to go home and watch Queen's on telly." But then I got out of the car and everything changed! The wind blew icily up my spine, a few drops of rain fell - and I realised I didn't just not want to do it, I would actively pay someone a million pounds to do it for me.

Alas, the granny wandering about with a scraggy terrier made no offers to take my place, so I clipped Baffie onto her lead and off we went.

I don't know whether it was a strange desire to really make myself as miserable as possible or whether I decided 'in for a penny, in for a pound', but I decided to run through the thick trees where the track undulates wildly, to make biking a little more interesting. This lasted about 3 minutes ... then I decided that running along the flat was what God intended for me.

It was pretty terrible. It was 8 days since my last run up Quarry Road, but I really wouldn't have thought a week's gap would slow me down as much as it did! At the end I was so depressed I almost cried.

Ok, not really (I'm not that sad), but doing 5k in 40 minutes is as bad as I've ever been. The frustrating thing is that, this time, it wasn't my lungs that gave up on me but my legs. I swear, it's always one or the other! Why can't I have a run where both lungs and legs work prefectly? Grrrrrrrrr. My achilles's really gave me gyp.

So - first thing on my To Do list is a new pair of trainers. They're well overdue, and I'm sure it'll help with muscle and joint pain. The second thing is to actually pay attention to the rest days on my schedule. I'm hoping that the swim yesterday has left me more tired than I originally thought, and that had I gone for a run tomorrow it wouldn't have been so bad. I'm also secretly hoping that a) the hills and b) Baffie stopping for a crap and me screwing up my watch in trying to pause it has put an unfair total on the time. Alas, this is but wishful thinking, and I can't keep making excuses for myself. I'll just have to suck up the fact I did a 40 minute 5k and do better next time.

My schedule says I'm supposed to do a steady 700m swim (28 lengths) tomorrow, but I really think I should rest. I'm bone tired right now, so a day off is probably sensible.

On the plus side - no PT today! And none after supper yesterday, either. We'll see if going out for supper tomorrow night at Brave Bird & Minstrel's brings it on.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Back in the snorkel again ...

Ok, that's pathetic, but I couldn't think of anything swimming related that sounded like 'saddle'.

My intermediate schedule suggested I did 4 x 100m 'fast' with 60 second rest stops in between - which is what I attempted to do. However, my pace left very little to be desired. 'Fast' is an overstatement so ludicrously vast it beggars belief. However, I did it, and from the way my body is now reacting I'm going to believe it was a good work-out.

Before the swim I had an osteopath (for 'osteo' read 'psycho') appointment for my dodgy sacroilliac joint. It's been 6 months since my last visit, but so swiftly and nostalgically did I remember the excrutiating pain, it seemed like only yesterday. There was a rather entertaining moment when he began cracking my spine by leaning across me with his elbow in my shoulder.

"Do tell me if my bony elbow causes you any pain," he said blithely, and then proceeded to jump up and down on my spine. It cracked loudly in several places, at which I croaked:

"Yeeaaahhh ... it's your elbow that's the problem ..."

How he laughed! How my foot twitched from wanting to kick him in the soprano factory!

Still, I can't fault him. When I first went to him I had a niggling pain in my lower back. He got his hands on me and it went from niggling pain to - well - excruciating agony preventing me from bending. I couldn't even tie my own shoe laces. But as I continued to be poked, manipulated, cracked and creaked, everything slowly got better. Now I only notice it every once in a while. It doesn't hurt when I play tennis or anything. I need to go surfing, as that's the acid test, but I really don't think it'll be a problem.

Anyway, I'm pleased I went swimming as I really didn't feel like it after the osteo. Being rocked back and forth for several minutes at a time does nothing for PT - which is still lurking irritatingly. Bah. I'm going to start a food diary and see if it turns anything up. I'll start tonight. We're off out to a new deli-restaurant at Pitscottie with Arrow and Fonda, so I'll see if I suffer any ill effects.

Tomorrow I'm supposed to go for a steady, 25 minute run. Fisher will no doubt be keen, as she's been told by her specialist woman that she can run as long as it doesn't hurt. (She's also been told she has freaky feet, tiny toes, and a stride that emulates falling bits of masonry. I must think of something sympathetic to say. Like "ha haaaaaaa ha ha ha etc!")

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Back in the Saddle Again ...

Oh yes, indeedy. Now that we're back in grey, cold, rainy Scotland, having missed the only day of good weather in months by being in grey and rainy Madrid, it's back to triathlon training for me. I managed 45 minutes on the gym bike today, set on cross country. I then did arm weights for a while before calling it a day.

I have to say, the only thing that's hard about the gym bike is just how uncomfortable it is on the nethers. It really, really chafes - much more so than an outdoor bike.

That aside, I was a little concerned with how little effort it was to do the 45 minute programme. Actually, it was a 30 minute programme followed by another 15 minutes, as the stupid machine won't do more than 30 minutes at a time. I wonder why. Perhaps normal people die trying to do more than 30 minutes and it is as I've always suspected. I am a superhero. Or perhaps the bike machines are cheap and crap. Hmm. Tough call.

Anyway, I have a feeling I wasn't working out nearly hard enough. The toughest it got was about 4 minutes on level 17, and while I wouldn't exactly say it was easy, it certainly fell well within my comfort zone. Dang it. I'm really going to have to start biking outside more - and it's sooooo cooooold.

After the gym, Fisher and I were starving so we went to a new deli in Pitscottie called Harvey McGuires. They'd stopped serving food in the café, but were still making filled rolls - so we grabbed a couple. That was, ostensibly, all we were there to do, but the sight of all the deli goodies proved our downfall, and a swift £20 exchanged hands before we departed. £20!! That's as much as we spend on a week's shop in Tesco!

In la la land, where the pigs are blue and I have a waist the size of Helena thingmebob the model.

Other than that, all I've done today is receive an invitation from Brave Bird to have dinner at their house on Saturday night, organise Arrow's Whisky Tour for the weekend after, and play rather a lot of Timesplitter 2. I defeated Atom Smasher at last!! God, I hated that level. But now Fisher wants me to play the new Tomb Raider, and I have to put up with her sighs every time Lara does a handstand. It started to piss me off so I threw her off a cliff.

Lara, not Fisher.

Bridie is also being very annoying at the moment. I think she's too hot. Every time she comes inside she starts panting and asking for 'out' again. Then, when she's out, she remember the weather is horrid and begs for 'in'. It's driving me mad. Also driving me mad is Baffie. We bought them both rawhide chews as treats, and Bridie chowed down on hers at once. Baffie, on the other hand, dropped hers and just sat staring at Bridie, whining. Only when I took Bridie's away and gave it to Baffie in exchange for her own, untouched chew, did Baffie shut up and start munching. Bridie couldn't have cared less which one she had. She knows she'll end up with both, buried somewhere disgusting, in the end. Come Christmastime she'll remember where she left them and bring them in, all slimy and maggot-ridden, to deposit at my feet with Yule-tide generosity.

Why do we buy them those things again?

So, this has been a bit of a pointless exercise - but I couldn't just write "biked in the gym for 45 minutes."

Well, I could have done, but it wouldn't have been nearly as wildly entertaining as all this guff. Now if you'll excuuuuse me, I have to go and eat a baked potato and mini pizza.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

¡Hala Madrid! Part Three

On Sunday the sun almost shone, and we began with a late morning coffee in the Plaza Oriente, opposite the Palacio Real. The Palacio is quite striking, and while I think it's a little bit smaller than Buckingham Palace it's certainly more attractive. I've always thought Buckingham Palace looked like a rather unsightly stone box plonked in the middle of London, while the Palacio Real does at least have lots of pretty lumps and bumps (Fisher tells me they are decorative vases disguising the slope of the roof) on top. I bought a string of postcards from a street vendor, which I then had to rip apart leaving the edges very torn, and dashed off a couple. (Naturally, I failed completely to post either of them, but will send them from the local post office anyway so the thought counts).

We then went for a walk through the streets of Old Madrid, past the palacio with its view through the gates over the Campo del Moro. I was astonished to see this massive swathe of countryside right in the middle of the city, where folk go to ride horses, hike, walk dogs and generally enjoy the great outdoors. It was named the Field of the Moor because a Moorish army camped there in the 12th century, and was then used as the famous hunting grounds for the nobility which ultimately led to Madrid becoming Spain's arbitrary capital. My old A Level pal, Charles I (V), the Holy Roman Emperor, was a keen huntsman and therefore favoured Madrid above all other cities. However, it was his son, Philip II who eventually moved the court to Madrid and thereby all but named it his capital. Madrid grew rapidly after that, but it still seems to nurse a slight air of surprise that it ever came to such prominence - at least in the old town. The buildings, while attractive, lack the true opulence of a major capital, and a general attitude of lethargy seems to prevail. People wander, traffic is pushed away from places of architectural beauty, and the wide open spaces suggest a rural sleepiness that belies its status as the third largest city in the EU. Of course, Fisher and I only saw it at the weekend, so perhaps it's very different during the bustle of a working week.

We walked through narrow streets, once again reminiscent of Malta, and booked ourselves into a restaurant for lunch at 2. We then went and found ourselves a table at another café in order to read the Sunday papers in leisurely fashion, have a few drinks and chat.

Lunch was very Spanish, but actually pretty good! My baby lamb chops were surprisingly lacking in grease, and we managed to order ourselves some asparagus and satisfy a craving for vegetation. We then pondered what to do with the rest of the day. I mentioned that the French Open final was on TV, thinking I might find a café in which to watch it while others explored the city. I wasn't particularly keen on the idea of going back to the flat and playing yet more cards as I watched the game, and was surprised when Fisher made no alternative suggestions. Still, she is a Hearts fiend, and it was her holiday so that's what we did.

By the time the final was into its 4th set, and Hearts had been played out, Fisher was obviously bored and irritated. She declared she was going for a walk, but would be back within the hour. I contemplated going with her, but she didn't ask so I figured she was wanting some time to explore on her own. However, when she left, Nadal broke Federer's serve and I realised the game was pretty much over. I tried to text her, but she didn't reply. I tried to call her, but with the same result. Annoyed that she wouldn't have her phone somewhere she could actually hear it, I left the flat telling Brother that, if she came back, to let Fisher know I'd gone to find her and would meet her in the Hotel.

I stood outside and tried to think where she'd go if she wanted to explore. As we'd already wandered down the uninspiring Calle de Arenal without being impressed, I instead turned to the right. Finding absolutely nothing of interest in that direction, I then guessed that she'd probably retrace the steps we'd taken earlier, as passing the Palacio Real and the Campo de Moro had been by far the most attractive walk of the trip.

I passed a café showing the final, and was tempted to go inside and finish watching it over a cup of coffee and a slice of something horribly sweet, but resisted. Instead, I started to enjoy my wander. I returned to have a look at the Campo, thinking she may have tried to find her way into it - but on the way I turned onto the Calle Mayor where I encountered a very interesing sight. Little groups of women and young girls were laying flowers in elaborate patterns in the street. I think they were part of schools, as one of them was signed Colegio de somethingorother. I had no idea what the flowers were for - whether there was a competition, or a festa, or some sort of religious ceremony - but they were very lovely, and being laid with swift skill. It was only girls and women taking part in the flower laying, but I still don't know whether that's because it was a 'women only' type thing, or whether Spanish machismo keeps boys from touching girlie girlie flowers.

I watched them for a while, then turned back down towards the palacio, where I discovered some sort of procession taking place. It looked like the tail end, or perhaps it wasn't really a procession and more just a bunch of different clubs, churches, or organisations all heading to one place. As I stood there, wondering over a cluster of smartly suited men carrying ornate flags on silver-topped poles, I suddenly turned to be confronted by a gaggle of middle aged women in black dresses and fabulous black mantillas bearing down on me. It was quite an intimidating sight! I scuttled hurriedly out of the way, but they barely noticed me.

What the bloody hell is going on? I thought. I couldn't exactly ask anyone, as their answers would leave me none the wiser, and anyway, I haven't even learned enough Spanish to frame that simple question. Instead, I decided to head on back to the hotel and see if Fisher had turned up.

Back I went, trudging slowly back along the Calle Mayor for another look at the flowers - which were continuing to be laid by these very determined groups of girls and women - and then back to Plaza Isabel II. At the hotel, I was pleased to be told Fisher had already picked up the key. I was less pleased to see an obviously upset Fisher who, it turns out, had not been pleased to spend the afternoon inside on a beautiful day in a foreign city. She'd also been frustrated at not finding me, and had looked forward to exploring together. After a brief exchange of words, we decided all was not lost and set off out to do just that. Fisher said she wanted to try and go to one of the parks, but when I offered to show her the flowers I'd just seen she was very pleased to have a destination in mind.

I led her back to the Calle Mayor and she was thrilled with what we saw. Since my last look, the flowers had been all but completed. Each school had its own rectangle of around 4 x 20 feet, and they were filled with swirls, patterns, shapes, and sometimes writing. More than once there were declarations of love, or red hearts picked out in rose petals, and I began to think this was some sort of Spanish Valentine's Day. The artists used petals, stems and even the heads of flowers to decorate their allotted space. And the scent was wonderful! We wandered along, breathing deep and pointing at anything that caught our eye. Fisher was quickly enchanted, and I, too, felt that this was exactly the sort of thing we'd come to Madrid for! We had no idea what we were looking at, but it was very definitely something we'd never seen before - and that's always what you hope for in visiting a different country.

At the end of the Calle Mayor, we decided to try and enter the Campo Moro, seeking to find a way beyond the palacio. Unfortunately, we chose to turn right rather than left - and soon discovered what the procession I'd seen earlier had become. A large square in front of the palacio was cordoned off and filled to bursting with people. A crowd had gathered around this square, with people climbing on the stone pedestals in order to see over the heads of those in front. We managed to catch a glimpse of what was going on, and that combined with the few words we understood coming over the tannoy, deduced that a public church service was in full swing. Over a small stage there hung a banner which read something like: "Eucaristía ... Sacrameto del amor" and I hooked onto the idea that it was a special service of love, which local schools honoured by decorating the streets with flowers. (Actually, according to a website called, it was a 'solemn Mass for the occasion of the Corpus Christi' - the festival of the Body and Blood of Christ.)

With that small mystery, if not solved then at least leant a plausible explanation, Fisher and I went in search of the entrance to the Campo de Moro. From the map it looked like you could access it through the smaller Jardines Sabatini (not named in honour of Gabriella Sabatini the Wimbledon finallist, as I'd secretly hoped, but after the Italian architect and advisor to King Carlos III - booooo), so we went down a flight of stone steps into a small oasis beneath the palacio. Little paths led beneath tree groves, which would have provided welcome shade from the heat of the sun had the sun been particularly hot, but as it was evening and the day hadn't been too searing anyway, it was simply deliciously warm, and the ground prettily dappled. There were several people with dogs, and we were impressed by how healthy the pooches appeared. They were all skinny and well muscled, without the depressing waddle you see on so many overfed British dogs. As we sat beneath the branches of one impressive tree, a small poodle pranced up, eyes fixed on the frisky pigeons in the branches above. It barked, jumped, and turned to its owner with a look on its face as if to say: do you SEE them? They're just SITTING there! Help me get them and we'll put them in a pie! His owner gave him a sage nod, and the poodle turned back to the birds, head cocked on one side as he tried to figure out just how to extract said pigeons from said tree. Unperturbed, the pigeons continued to focus on their own little battle of sexual wills.

After exploring the Jardines Sabatini and discovering there was really no way to get to the Campo from there, we decided the only thing to do was go and find ourselves an ice cream in a little street café from which to watch the Madrileñas go by. This we did, calling Brother to ask if they wanted to join us. They did not, as he was in the throes of homework, but we arranged to meet at the flat at 9, then go out for tapas at 10. This left Fisher and me to enjoy our ice creams and marvel at how loud and obnoxious the American children were as they ran between the tables, shrieked and chased each other, while their parents ignored them.

It took so long to get our bill we were almost late for our rendezvous at the flat, but as we reached the Calle Mayor for a last look at the flowers, we discovered something that absolutely made us late.

The street was lined on both sides with people, and down the middle, walking over the strewn flowers and rushes of lavender, was a long line of nuns from various different orders and, on the other side, women in ordinary clothes. This was all very well, and the scent of crushed lavender and the solemnity of the march might have been enough to catch our interest - but what was truly moving was that they were all singing as they walked.

It was a low, peaceful sound. There was no warbling soprano leading the choir, only a gentle lilt of voices, sometimes blending in harmony. It was obvious they were singing well known hymns, because often the crowd joined in and swelled the sound. When one hymn ended, a random voice would begin another and the song would start up again. Sometimes they didn't know all the words and would be led by a few who did, or even by the crowd, but they never fell silent save for a few seconds between each hymn. As Fisher and I walked alongside them, I couldn't help but feel truly moved by the simplicity of their worship, and the respect - almost reverential - of the crowd with whom they sang. As many men as women watched them pass, and I couldn't help but think how rare it is in this world that men afford women that sort of public respect. In the UK, how often would men line the streets to honour a group of women? Is there not always an underlying sense of 'PC', or some agenda, or even a patronising attitude of 'support' accompanying such things? Worse, there's often a slight smirk, or a roll of the eyes, that goes with any female undertaking. Of course, a lot of the time women only gather when there is an agenda to be fought for, and it's often a matter of political correctness. Sadly, when that's not the case and it's something like the WI, other women are the first to twist their lips in scorn. All female gatherings are mostly something to be railed against by women, who are too terrified of appearing to be (spit spit) feminists - who everyone knows are just man-haters and should shut up and let us all get on with it.

Is there any group of women in the UK who could walk down a street and be seriously, reverentially applauded by a mixed crowd, who honoured them for the choices they've made and the lives they've lived? I can't think of one - and that depresses the pants off me. When did women lose so much respect?

Anyway, after watching this procession of dignified, purposeful women, I felt both soothed and uplifted. In that mood, we hurried to Brother's flat and spent the hour before tapas playing yet more Hearts and chatting.

Brother and Gaura took us along the Calle de Arenal to a new area, which was much more touristy. Two Scots walked past us, drunk and bellowing expletives with every second word, which gave me absolutely no pang for home and reminded me how unthreatening Madrid is in comparison to British cities. (Yes, even Edinburgh.) I'm sure the surface is beguiling, and underneath beats a heart as corrupt and criminal as any other city in the world, but at least it had the decency to hide it when I was around.

The first tapas bar we went into was a Spanish equivalent of formica tables and Tennents on tap. The tapas was ok, although we never received two of the dishes we ordered, and the service was rubbish. I have to say, one of the reasons to go abroad is to remind yourself that your own country is neither the best nor the worst in the world. For example, while I bemoaned the fact the people of Britain can be uncouth and obscene, I also took pleasure in knowing that our service culture actually isn't nearly as bad as we think it is. Travel can be just as much about reminding yourself of your own culture as appreciating a new one.

Still hungry, we moved on to a second tapas place - after a couple of false starts, owing to the fact it was nearly midnight and several places had stopped serving. This was much better - a long, thin restaurant with tables that gave the impression of being in booths because of little cornices on either side - and we were able to grab a few extra dishes and another, much nicer, beer.

Back at the hotel, we said goodbye to Brother - who had classes all the next morning so wouldn't be there to see us off - and collapsed into bed, looking forward to our last morning in Madrid.

Alas, my old troubles returned on our final morning, and with such vengeance I had to send Fisher off with Gaura to the Reine Sofia museum and Guernica while I lay and read, trying to take my mind off my troubles. When they came back at noon, I was a little better but certainly not up to getting coffee or food. We had to check out of the hotel though, so I sent them off again while I waited for them in the flat.

I was very disappointed not to see Guernica, but Fisher wasn't exactly brim full of excitement over it. After she and Gaura came back from their snack and we'd bid a fond farewell, we caught a taxi at the rank in the Plaza and she told me all about her morning. She actually had very little to say about Guernica. Instead, what truly seemed to catch her eye was the sight of a gaggle of 4 year old school children who were being urged by their teacher to study Guernica and tell her all the things they saw and - most impressively - what they thought each thing represented.

Do we do such things in the UK? If not, why the Hell not? According to Fisher, the kids were far more enthusiastic than the lachrymose, sullen pack of teenagers on much the same field trip.

The taxi ride was far less daunting than the one that had taken us into the city, and we were soon enmeshed in the puzzle that is Madrid airport. Our tickets had a bold 'A' stamped on them, which we naturally thought was the gate. It turned out to be the part of the airport our gate would be in, when we actually learned which one we'd been allocated. In that area, the gates were also allocated letters - but it took us several long walks to discover we weren't leaving from gate A ...

Oh, bollocks to it. This blog is quite long enough without bemoaning the rubbish set-up of Madrid airport. Suffice it to say, once we'd found our gate and boarded, all went smoothly. We took off on time, landed early, and were home to happy, well-walked pooches by 7pm! Fonda left us a note to say Baffie and Bridie had been angelic, save for Bridie taking a swim in the pond, traipsing scum all through the house and needing a bath. I went into my usual home-coming ritual of checking the post (2 exciting packages for me - Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and a new book from Amazon), my emails, and the phone messages. I then sat in front of my computer for a while, checked the news, the sport, and revelled in being back. A few messages from pals put me in a good mood, looking forward to seeing them again to break bread, drink wine, and exchange news.

I'd hate to be someone without ties to a place. Being a gypsy is all very romantic, but travelling is lonely when there's no-one to tell of your adventures. I think coming home with new stories is one of the best feelings in the world.

Of course, now I've put them all in a blog, I might as well not bother.


¡Hala Madrid! Part Two

After the Prado, the sky had clouded over and threatened rain. We headed to a nearby restaurant for an amiable lunch to talk over all we'd seen and make further plans. I'm not going to tell you what I had. No, I'm not. This blog is almost entirely food obsessed, and I'm putting a stop to it now! Except to say that Spanish food really is incredibly oily, and how they manage to live beyond 25 without any vegetables at all is a complete mystery.

With lunch over, we decided to have a lazy afternoon playing cards at the flat. I'd promised Fisher this was to be her holiday, and that we would do as she wished, so when she enthused at the idea of playing Euchre back at the flat, adding that going to see a second museum would be a bit of sensory overload, our afternoon was decided. After all, we were there to see Brother and Gaura as much as we were there to visit Madrid.

It wasn't until evening that we ventured out again, in search of a bar showing the Real Madrid v Real Zaragoza match. There were only 2 things for which I'd expressed a true desire, one of which was watching this game surrounded by Madridistas. I wanted to know how the passion compared to English fans - and also, while the EPL had been wrapped up by Man U a while before the season's end, la liga is still up for grabs. Real and Barça are on equal points, with only head-to-heads dictating Real are in the lead. Therefore, if Real lost and Barça won, Real would lose the lead. And if Real drew while Barça won, they'd also go into the final game second rather than first. It was incredibly tense.

We chose a place called The Beer Station, which specialises in foreign beers and had a separate room in which to watch the game from long wooden benches. The first thing I noticed was that, while the pub was full, most people were in the bar. The football room was all but empty when we arrived, and when the game kicked off it was far from full. I suppose you could have called it 'well attended' - but In England, such a place and such a game would have seen the benches overflowing, the walls lined and the floor packed with nail-biting, pint guzzling, obscenity throwing fans.

However, once the game got into its flow, what was lacked in numbers was certainly made up for in passion. The front bench was taken up with four girls and one bloke. One of the girls was listening on her radio to the other games being played simultaneously, and when Espanyol scored against Barca she leapt to her feet and shrieked. The score was also displayed in the top right hand corner of the Real game, but it took a while for the information to be relayed to the TV so she learned about it a good 30 seconds before everyone else. When the TV score clicked round, the room erupted. Espanyol are mid-table, and nobody really thought Barca would have much trouble with them - but there they were, one goal ahead thanks to a penalty.

Unfortunately, after some pressing play from both sides in the opening 20 minutes, Real went behind to a good goal from a Diego Milito free kick, who capitalised on Helguerra's clumsy handling of the ball. Then came more bad news - the little toad of a cheat that is Lionel Messi had equalised at the Nou Camp by scoring with his left hand. He really is following in Maradona's flawed footsteps.

After half time, Real had it all to do. Capello recognised they were making very few chances in a packed midfield, and changed Guti for Raúl and Higuaín for Emerson. But the news went from bad to worse as Messi scored again at the Nou Camp, putting Barça 2-1 ahead. Thankfully, hope came in the form of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who scored immediately after Barça's second, from a terrific, Beckham-esque pass from Sergio Ramos.

Typically, no sooner had Real finished celebrating their equaliser (which still put them into second place) but Milito notched up his second of the night after Aimar's fantastic run into the Madrid danger area. 1-2, and 25 minutes to play. Madrid had to score twice to retain the top of the table. There was no way Espanyol were going to get another goal past Barça with so much at stake.

Time ticked on, with Real battering Zaragoza to no avail. A Van Nistelrooy header went tamely into the 'keeper's hands ("¡Cabron!" was the shout behind me), and there were a couple of infuriating shots wide ("¡Joder!" and "¡Hijo de puta!" - this time from the man in front). Roberto Carlos and David Beckham were missing the mark with their free kicks, and the penetration needed to really threaten César's excellent 'keeping just wasn't there. Real were going to blow it, almost at the death. Barça were going into the last game on top of the table, only needing a draw to retain the title.

Then, in the last minute, Roberto Carlos managed to put in his first decent cross of the night, Ruud Van N latched onto it - and it was 2-2! The crowd in the bar went utterly wild, despite the fact a draw would only narrow the gap between them and Barça. But wait! Twenty seconds later ... and at the Nou Camp, Raúl Tamudo equalised for Espanyol!

Unbelievable! The pub rocked with bellows and screams as, for the second week in the row, Roberto Carlos dragged Real Madrid out of the fire. The man in front leapt ten feet in the air before embracing his girlfriend to the point of preventing her from actually breathing. I'd definitely say that, while there may not be as many ardent football fans as in the UK, those who follow their team do so with equal passion.

So, at the end of all that, Real Madrid are still on top, with Barça on exactly the same number of points but behind on head-to-heads. Any slip on the final game of the season, and it's goodnight whoever.

And let's not forget Sevilla, who sit only two points behind Real and Barca. Should both Real and Barca lose and Sevilla win, it'll be the southern team who take the title! I'll definitely be glued to the set this weekend!

Post game, we went to the restaurant Brother and Gaura had tried to take us to on the first night - a Mexican very close to the flat. It was, by far, the nicest food I've had in Spain ... but once again I'll refrain from going into boring detail. I'll just end this post by saying it was a very pleasant day, with a mixture of sightseeing, relaxation and evening entertainment that had something to please everyone. At least - that's what I think. Fisher has her own blog (a closely guarded secret) which may tell a very different story. Who knows?

Monday, 11 June 2007

¡Hala Madrid! Part One.

On Friday, Fisher and I set off to Edinburgh to catch a Sleazy-Jet flight to the noble city that is Madrid. Brother and his wife, Gaura, have been there for 2 months, learning Spanish so they can hablar like los naturals, and we decided it would be foolhardy indeed not to take advantage. Armed with warnings about the horribleness of the food and the extreme heat, we packed our bags, arranged dog-sitters, and set off like the intrepid explorers we absolutely are not.

Sleazy were excellent, and Fisher vowed her intention to only fly from Ediburgh ever again. In fact, according to her we are not allowed to visit countries that don't have direct flights from the Scottish capital. This means we are doomed to holiday in Wick for the rest of our born days.

On the other hand, as far as I'm concerned we're not allowed to go anywhere you can't go to by boat. I really, truly hate flying. I don't get air sick, I'm not particularly frightened, but I simply loathe everything about airports, aeroplanes and the people who travel on them. I was forced to listen to my iPod at ear-splitting volume for the whole journey because the guy across the aisle from me had a permanent sniff. And I don't mean he'd sniff, wait 60 seconds, then sniff again - I mean it was constant. One after the other. If I'd had tissues I would have offered him one in a very pointed manner, but I didn't, so Fisher was saved the embarrassment of me acting, once again, like someone's mother. Also of me ramming the tissues up his nose after he inevitably declined my generous and subtle offer.

We landed at about 9.30pm, and after failing to find the metro station decided to take a cab instead. Baaaaad move. All my fears of plummetting 30,000 feet to my death were banished by the very real probability of hurtling into the back of another car at 110kph, as our driver ripped through the streets like Lewis Hamilton on some kind of hallucinogenic. I'm a terrible passenger at the best of times, but my infuriation with the awfulness of our taxi driver was only compounded by the fact I couldn't remember (or pehaps never knew) the Spanish for "SLOW THE F**K DOWN, YOU MANIAC!" or, indeed: "HAVE YOU NEVER HEARD OF STOPPING DISTANCES, YOU MANIAC??!!"

On the plus side, we made it into Old Madrid by 10. I think the cab ride took about 5 seconds - but I did have to go straight to the hotel and change my underpants.

Being a city based on the idea of siesta, the whole place was just gearing itself up for supper. We texted Brother to let him know we would see them at their flat - a mere 2 doors down from our hotel - and found our way from where the taxi dropped us to Calle Campomanes, which is a narrow little street just off Plaza Isabel II and right next to the Teatro Real. The main street leading to the Plaza is the Calle del Arenal, which is strewn with tacky souvenir shops but very little traffic, as around the Plaza is heavily pedestrianized. It had been very hot that day, which gave the night that thickness I so assosciate with Malta, being young, watching the fireworks on festa nights and fighting to stay awake. In fact, even in the darkness, Madrid felt immediately familiar to me - but I was too distracted with finding the hotel and Brother's flat to really take much in.

The hotel was easy enough to locate, since Fisher found Calle Campomanes so easily and its length - or lack of it - meant everything was pretty simple to find. We'd read some horror reviews online for the Gran Duque Hotel, and Brother's text giving me the name and adding "which is a serious misnomer, lemme tell ya" hardly filled us with anticipation - but we were in for a very pleasant surprise! For the bargain price of €55 per night, we were furnished with a sizeable double room, with an excellent bed, en suite shower, plenty of storage space and a telly. For a moment I was extremely concerned because the air conditioning wouldn't work - but once the man at reception showed us the controller we were supposed to take with us (it was optional) I relaxed. All was looking most, most rosy!

We went out straight away and walked the 10 steps to Brother's door. He came down to meet us, and we all went up to their top floor flat to bid merry greeting to Gaura. The flat was lovely - open plan, sizeable, and with a sweet little terrace balcony on which to drink café con leche and greet the morning, or bask in the afternoon sun. We have one at home outside our bedroom. When I bought the house, I had fond notions of doing similar things. A single Scottish summer soon shat upon that particular dream.

After admiring the flat, we were taken out to enjoy our first meal in Madrid.

The first place we went to was fully booked, so we wandered happily through the cooling streets to a fancy-pants looking place down a little side road and near a theatre. I wasn't very hungry after all the travelling, and was struggling against the usual ailments, so had only a simple main course of hake - which was far from interesting, as well as being undercooked. A couple of beers went down very easily, though, and while service took an extreeeeemely long time, they had at least warned us there was a problem in the kitchen. We were all very chilled, and the time passed most pleasantly.

After supper, Fisher and I were ready to return to the hotel and hit the hay. We were aware that the weather forecast wasn't looking favourable in any way, but as neither of us are sun-bunnies, it didn't bother us in the slightest. Reports of thunder storms did rather amuse us, in a dry way, because the night before we left we were wakeful witnesses to one of the loudest and most persistent storms we've ever experienced! It seemed to go on all night, circling omimously round the house, but actually only lasted between about 2 and 6 am - which was quite long enough! It was Baffie's turn to be on the bed, and unfortunately she was terrified out of her wits! I think we might have slept through it eventually had she not decided every rumble was a cue for her to trample over my head and attempt to crawl under the duvet in a bid to escape the angry gods above. At 5.30 she became so upset I thought she might actually void her terror all over the carpet. (I mistyped 'crapet' then, which seems a suitable malapropism.) She was wandering with that fast trot dogs get when they're about to lay one on the ground, and turning worrying cicles - so I had to get up and let her out. Naturally, the last thing she actually wanted to do was go outside in the torrential rain, so back upstairs I went and we tried to ignore her desperate attempts to dig herself a hole in the floor in which to hide. Poor Baffie.

Bridie, of course, was curled up in malevolent bliss in her crate. Her only contribution was to add her own thunderings when Baffie strayed too close to her crate.

It took a long time before we fell asleep again - so our journey did not get off to a good start - especially as Fisher discovered, to her utter despair, that the lightning had fried her computer. Mine was absolutely fine which, considering I don't have a surge protection thingy and she does, didn't exactly improve her mood. All her work is on her computer - all her client lists, her designs, her emails and her website - so she was extremely upset. All I could do was promise to do all the leg work for her when we got back - take it in to Edinburgh to Apple Core (who, for reasons known only to their snooty, self-satisfied and superior selves, do not take incoming calls from individuals), or to a private computer nerd who deals in Macs, or wherever she deemed fit, and get it fixed while she got on with work. Calmed slightly (or at least willing to put her troubles to one side) we nevertheless felt our holiday was off to a very poor beginning. Couple that with a long journey and it was no wonder we were ready to hit the hay straight after supper

Our second day in Madrid dawned fair and bright, putting our fears of foul weather to rest. We had a late morning, and wandered out into the sunshine to meet Brother and Gaura for breakfast and coffee at a little café on the other side of the square. They took their time in coming down, which gave us a chance to wander up and down the streets leading off the square. We weren't impressed with the shops, but in the light of day the sense of familiarity increased. I found myself likening Madrid so strongly with Malta that I felt completely unthreatened and utterly at home. It was a constant surprise to hear people conversing in Spanish, rather than Maltese or English. I also very quickly realised that the Spanish they speak in Madrid is mildly different to the Spanish Blarney is (supposed to be) teaching me. Nobody says 'shi' instead of 'si', they say 'mwee bien' rather than 'moy bien', 'grasias' rather than 'grathias', and I never once, the whole time we were there, heard the expression 'que te folle un pez.'

Ah well.

After our brief scout around, we had coffee with Brother and Gaura before setting off for the Prado. Fisher was terribly excited at the prospect of all Madrid's art, and I, too, was very eager to see Goya's works. He's one of the only artists I actually know something about, having once, when I was very young, seen a film about him - and since then always looked out for his pieces, while picking up details about his life that would have passed me by had it been about any other artist. Brother acted as guide, which was extremely useful. He'd done a tour with his class, which took in all the most important pieces (or at least, all the most famous pieces and therefore the ones we wanted to see!) and cut a swathe through all the oceans of other works. Had Fisher and I been on our own I'm sure we would have spent far too long finding our way, getting distracted by various other rooms, and wouldn't have had the opportunity to get straight to the point, as it were.

After our tennis match on Monday, Happy had told me she was 'blown away' by Las Meniñas when she saw it. I was therefore expecting to have quite an emotional reaction to it - but that simply didn't happen. Yes, it's huge. Yes, it's very interesting in its composition, and yes I very much enjoyed hearing about it and examining it in some detail. However, I really didn't feel it the way I did Goya's Black Paintings. Now they truly did catch at my soul. This one, of Saturn devouring one of his children - is particularly chilling:
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Here's another, called The Pilgrimage of San Isidro:

These so-called 'Black Paintings' were painted directly onto the walls of his country house, which he bought in late life after spending his early and middle years at the court of Charles III and Charles IV. In a life which included severe illness, possibly mental but certainly physical, depraved bloodshed in the French Revolution, and long-term observations of court machinations, including the ignorance of the upper classes for the lives of the rural peasanty, I hardly find his Black Paintings a suprise. Take a look at this painting and compare it to the one above:
This is called Picnic at the Edge of the Manzanares River, and was done by Goya as a big, bold, brightly coloured design for a tapestry. In the picture above, the colours are very muted but either the photograph is poor or the painting has since been cleaned, because the one hanging in the Prado is full of primary colours. It's almost like an illustration for a children's book. It's a county idyll, with the classic ideal of merry peasant folk laughing and eating on a lazy sunny day. Either this was a young man's ignorant romance and Goya had yet to experience the hardships of life, or Goya was commissioned against his will into painting such tripe, but somewhere along the way he obviously snapped! When you look on the Black Paintings you get a gut-wrenching insight into a mind disturbed - and whether through illness or the bare reality of a vicious world really doesn't matter. What matters is the truth Goya tells in his later paintings. Just as Stanislavski would do in the theatre, so Goya does in art: strips away the posturing and posing and holds up a mirror to the world. His darkness is distressing to look upon, but, to me, is far more compelling than Velazquez, despite the respect I have for his work.

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This is Las Meninas - or at least, some of it. Blogspot doesn't give me enough room to show the whole thing, so the right hand side is lopped off. It's a vast and extremely striking painting, but not one I would have spent much time contemplating had Brother and Gaura not been on hand to explain a little. For a start - what is the true subject of this picture? It's hardly a typical portrait, after all. The Princess is surrounded by her servants rather than standing alone, or accompanied by family members. The servants are as important to the painting as the Princess herself - as is the painter himself. Velazquez has included himself in the portrait, portraying himself a good ten years younger than he actually was at the time and adopting a raffish pose. Extreme vanity! The red cross on his doublet is a sign of a royal award (Gaura didn't know which one) which he'd not yet actually been awarded. Legend has it that the king, an avid fan of art, painted the cross on himself, but this was pooh-poohed by Gaura as nonsense. I don't know. I don't think it's implausible that a king would be educated enough in the art of oil painting to place a simple red cross on a man's doublet.

Most interesting of all, however, is the mirror on the back wall. To any viewer of this painting, it's immediately obvious that the focus is not on the princess at all. The artist isn't painting her. He's looking out at something else - and so are several of the other subjects, including the princess, with a sidelong glance as if she's only just noticed someone walking into the room. Then we see the mirror, reflecting two people: the king and queen. Have they just walked into the room, thereby surprising the gathering? Or is Velazquez painting them? Are they the real subjects of his interest - and therefore who has captured the image we see? I like to think that Velazquez, rather than simply exercising pure vanity, is encouraging us to be the artists, to be the observers and to record what we see with memory as our canvas.

Those are just a few thoughts on Goya and Velazquez. There is one more painting that I really have to mention, though, and that's Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delight. For

I could have stood before it for a full afternoon. It is truly, ubelievably, awe-inspiring. For a start it's much bigger than I thought. Secondly, I couldn't believe it was painted in the 1500s. It seems so modern to me - like a Dali. It's eerie, almost hypnotic in its power. I'm determined to go back there one day and simply stand in front of it until I'm satisfied I've seen it. I'm sure it would take me hours.

Left Wing: The Earthly Paradise

Central Panel: Garden of Earthly Delights (Ecclesia's Paradise):

Right Wing: Hell

Bosch certainly has a very dark view of the progression of the world, beginning with the creation of the world, following through to Adam & Eve and ending with the bitter torments of an afterlife that holds no hint of salvation.

He's also, quite clearly, eaten a very dodgy mushroom.

I think that's enough for one blog. I'll write about the rest of the trip tomorrow, when my eyes aren't scratchy with sleep. Hey ho. It's nice to be home and sleeping in my own bed, with my own pooches!