Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27 Avebury and Ridgeway Walk

For my last big adventure in England I decided to do part of the Ridgeway Walk, which I read about a couple of years ago in the New York Times. A total of 85 miles, it stretches from just outside Avebury (which I intended to visit anyway) to the suburbs of London; the most interesting part is the westernmost part. The Ridgeway is an ancient highway, dating back to Neolithic times, which ran along the high ground to avoid the marshes and tangled forest lands in the lower ground. It passes a number of interesting archaeological sites, and affords breathtaking views of the English countryside.
I got up bright and early Thursday morning, and took a series of buses from Milton Keynes to Avebury (always an adventure in itself, since the on-line and printed schedules often have at best a suggestive relationship to what actually heppens) - Oxford, Swindon, Avebury. Turns out that Thursday is Market Day in Devizes, the other side of Avebury, and the bus from Swindon was packed with people going to pick up farm-fresh veggies and strawberries. I was tempted - but when the bus approached Avebury it became obvious that a full afternoon would be needed there.
Avebury is the site of a large neolithic monument - no-one is quite certain exactly what it was "for." (They may have had "conceptual art" back then, but probably not.) There are three nested circles of stones - huge stones, many of them twice the height of an adult - connected by two long avenues of stones to other sites. One of these other sites is a set of concentric mounds separated by ditches, probably a fortified village. The other is called the "sanctuary" - it was once a large structure, temple most likely, with both stone and wood pillars, but all that is left now is evidence of footings for the pillars, each marked by a concrete block. All there was to see was a couple of hippies meditating. The avenue of stone pillars, however, which still reaches halfway out (many of the stones have been lost, removed I would guess for use in more recent construction, and their position marked with concrete pylons). It is quite interesting to walk along.
A couple of miles from Avebury and a mile and a half from the sanctuary are two other interesting monuments. One is Avebury Hill, a nearly-perfect conic mound, the largest neolithic structure anywhere in Europe, that stands like a small volcanic peak in the middle of a broad valley. On a ridge beyond Avebury Hill is a long barrow, a burial mound that originally had three chambers; one of these is open for public inspection, and well worth the visit. I walked there from Avebury, past Avebury Hill, and found it a very pleasant walk, but those with autos can park about 1/4 mile from the barrow.
Back in Avebury. The town, much of which dates back several centuries, is located half within the circle of stones. The outer ring of pillars is itself surrounded by a deep ditch and high, steep-walled mound. My B&B (Manor Farm - I would recommend it) is in an old but undistinguished brick building, directly across from part of the inner circle of stones - the Red Lion Pub, where I had dinner, is across from another part. This was all very convenient; after walking around the entire circle, then walking out to visit the Long Barrow and the Sanctuary, I spent a while just sitting on the grass near some of the stones, and after dinner went back out again. The next morning, up at dawn as usual, I walked over and spent close to an hour walking around taking photos. The morning light was a bit harsh, but created nice effects with the dew on the grass and a light mist out toward the hills - and with absolutely no-one else up and about I didn't have to worry about finding the sight-line I wanted without someone's bright orange jacket in the background. I took nearly 100 pictures, figuring I could use the best and discard the rest, but when I looked at them found only a half dozen I could bear to delete. The stones are all interesting, and they are interesting in all kinds of light. It would be fabulous to come during a full moon later in the summer (with really good photo equipment). Even aside from the possibilities for interesting photos, it was lovely to wander around the stones in the morning, with song-birds everywhere.
The writeup of the Ridgeway led me to believe that it was 40 miles from Avebury to Wantage, with the hamlet of Ogburne St. George halfway between, but a closer examination of the map showed that the first leg of the journey was only about 10-12 miles, then Ogburne St. George to Wantage a bit over 20 for a total more like 32 or 33 miles. Since I had planned to leave early, that meant that if I didn't want to spend an entire day in a tiny English Hamlet I needed to dally around somewhere.
I set out, as planned, about 7:20, and walked east along a little country lane to pick up the Ridgeway about two miles along from the official starting point (which I had walked on Thursday afternoon, on the way back from the Sanctuary). It was a beautiful morning for walking, songbirds everywhere, an abundance of wildflowers, many of which I did not recognize. The Ridgeway is a "trail" for only a small portion of its length; most of it is more like a country lane, well-gravelled for the most part and in some places even paved. Parts are open to motor vehicles, most to horses and bicycles, but I encountered no motor vehicles, and maybe a total of two dozen bikes in two days' walking. It is easy walking, and broad enough that, unlike many of the trails in England I could have worn shorts, had I brought them along, without worry about nettles. I was glad to be wearing hiking boots mainly because I was hiking rather a long way, and there were a few stretches of trail still rutted from the spring rainy season, or with large stone cobbles, where I was glad to have them, but if you plan to do the trail in shorter stretches, in good weather, low-top walking shoes would be very adequate. The trail climbs some high ridges, but the grades are easy, few of them much steeper than 7-10%. It is obvious that parts can be muddy in the winter but in the summer it is fabulous walking; walking at a comfortable pace I probably averaged close to four miles per hour much of the way.
About halfway through the first day's hike, at nine in the morning I came to Banbury Castle, an Iron Age fortified hilltop, one of a string of forts along the ridge. Each one has a large are for settlement inside three rings of circular mounds / moats for defensive purposes; apparently the topmost mound also had a palisade of upright logs. This first one was probably the best maintained - they let sheep in during the spring when the grass and wildflowers (not to mention the ever-present nettles) are growing, so the grass has a new-mown look to it, and the nettles are completely under control. Not wanting to reach Ogburne St. George earlier than mid-afternoon, I settled down on a pretty patch of grass overlooking Oxfordshire to the north, took off boots and socks, had a granola bar, and enjoyed the view. After an hour or so I moved to another equally pretty little lawn looking southward across Wiltshire. In both locations I was treated to a variety of songbirds, and swarms of butterflies. Two varieties were larger, orange and black, but one I had not seen before was scarlet red when flying, but with black netting that seemed to cover its wings when it settled onto a dandelion or one of the other yellow flowers for nectar. With considerable difficulty (they don't sit still for long) I was able to get a couple of decent photos. There was also a small electric blue butterfly, but it was even more erratic in motion, and I couldn't capture a picture of it at all. I spent a total of nearly three rather sublime hours on that old fortified hill-top, then put on boots and pack and headed out toward the east.
My concern about arriving in Ogburne St. George too early proved well founded. The hamlet has nothing like a public park, not even a bench in sight. The pub / B&B where I stayed, The Inn with the Well, is a nice place and the proprietor and staff very friendly and helpful, but there wasn't a comfortable place to sit, shade or sun, anywhere. The room itself had two comfortable beds and a little dressing-table type chair, good to sit on while taking off boots but not good for much beyond that, certainly not a place to sit back and read a book. Inside the pub / dining area there are some reasonably comfortable tables and chairs, but it is rather dark and not a pleasant place to spend one of the first really nice summer days. Outside, there are several round picnic tables with hard backless benches - again, a good place to have lunch and a pint, but not comfortable beyond a half hour, an hour tops. I ended up stretching out on the bed for a while, then put my hiking boots back on and went out to explore the alternative ways to get back up onto the Ridgeway, taking a total of about a three mile circle hike, then came back, took a bath, had supper, rambled around town, sat on a hard bench outside the pub eavesdropping unwillingly on other people's conversations for a while, and went to bed early. The Inn with the Well (the name comes from a medieval - or maybe even earlier - well that is actually inside the Inn, with a glass floor over it and lighting so you can see down into it) is a comfortable enough place, a bit too close to the main motorway (right next to the main exit for Ogburne St. George), but there is another hotel a bit farther from the motorway, that actually has a half dozen comfortable sitting chairs on the patio, where I would stay if I were to come again. Even with more comfortable chairs to sit on, the hamlet is pretty to look at but a bit boring and I would plan the trip so as to arrive somewhat later in the afternoon, maybe 5 or even 6 p.m., just time to shower and clean up before dinner.
The proprietor willingly fixed a "room service" breakfast for me, and a lunch to take along. That was good; having gone to bed a bit early I also awoke early. I should mention the ubiquitous "duvet" - a comforter style thick blanket that doubles as a sheet, and allows for no layering - in the spring or summer you either have it on top of you, and swelter, or off of you, and freeze, or half on, in which case legs and feet are in a steam bath while torso and shoulders freeze - why people think they're so great is beyond me, but 3/4 of the B&Bs in England have them. The only time I have every appreciated one was in Nepal, above 10,000 feet where the temperature dropped to freezing at night and four inches of yak wool was very nice to have on top of me. Otherwise, give me the flexibility of a sheet and a couple of blankets any time, and forget about the "duvet," "comforter," or whatever you want to call it. End of rant.
It was a lovely morning for a walk, barely sunrise when I started out. The best route back up the ridge was along a narrow country highway with a 17% grade and two gentle curves, just enough to conceal walkers from on-coming cars. Even at 5:30 a.m. I knew there would be two or three, and I didn't like the odds. Fortunately, the previous afternoon I had noticed that it is possible to enter an open gate into a farmer's fallow field near the bottom of the hill, before the really dangerous part, and walk along a field road almost all the way to the top. I don't think it is actually a legal public access path, but my concern about half-groggy drivers going too fast for the road over-ruled my sense of the niceties. I was glad I did trespass - two cars and a delivery van passed along the roadway while I was climbing the hill, one going a reasonable speed but the other two going quite fast.
As on the first day, I made good time without actually hurrying; the lane is easy, enjoyable walking, the brisk morning air and a variety of songbirds all along the way were very invigorating. As nearly as I could estimate from the map it is about 21 miles from Ogburne St. George to Wantage, the last 2 1/2 miles along one of the dread highways. (English highways rarely have anything resembling a shoulder; tall grass and sometimes impenetrable hedges come right up to the pavement, rendering walking quite a hair-raising activity.) I walked about three hours before coming to a really nice place to stop, at Uffington Castle. After a 25 minute rest break (boots off, granola bar and banana) I walked down to where I could see some of the famous white horse, originally laid out by neolithic people, re-done in the 18th century and now maintained by the National Trust. Then I took off walking again, accompanied by birdsong all the way. Along this stretch I began to encounter the hordes of people I had expected on a fine summer Saturday - two groups of schoolchildren, several people with back-packs obviously doing part or all the Ridgeway, including a couple of quite large groups of adolescent girls and several smaller parties, and quite a few mountain bikers. For all that, I was still walking in solitude for over half the time even on this final leg of the walk. I reached the final "castle," on the hill above Wantage, about 11:30, 6 hours after leaving Ogburne St. George. This one is not as well maintained or accessed as the others, and is quite overgrown with thistles and nettles, so I had to search to find a patch of grass where I could sit, take off my boots, have lunch and relax a while before heading down to Wantage and back to M-K.
I had worried about walking along the motorway back to Wantage, but a paved country lane, not shown on my map, bordered the castle on the west and seemed to head down off the ridge. Reasoning that a paved lane must go somewhere (reasoning that has on a couple of occasions in England led me astray) I headed down it, and was pleased to find myself in the outskirts of a hamlet, which led me to a secondary road into Wantage. Better yet, about a quarter of a mile along the secondary road, just before it left the hamlet (and the sidewalk through the hamlet) I noticed a sign, "Walkway to Wantage." So my fears were for naught; I managed to get down off the Ridgeway and back into Wantage and the bus back to Oxford without walking even fifty yards along a busy highway. It was a very pleasant walk into Wantage, through some woods, along a field of almost-ripe barley, then along a boggy little area (fortunately the path was paved).
One last adventure with the British privatized transportation service, and with the apparent reticence of British officialdom. I made it to the bus station just as a bus pulled in with "Oxford" on the front. I asked the driver if he went to the Oxford bus station and he asked "which one" - which surprised me a bit, but I had noticed before the bizarre arrangement in Oxford - what I took to be the main bus station is 5 blocks from the train station (with no sign-posts), making it rather difficult to make connections to the smaller towns, so it didn't surprise me to learn that there were also multiple bus stations. I told him I wanted to catch the X-5 back to Milton-Keynes, and he said he didn't go there, but could drop me off nearby. So I paid the fare, got on the bus, and we started off. The bus began by going everywhere except Oxford - and I soon realized that it was a "local," and that there were other busses from Wantage that went much more directly to Oxford (and possibly some that went much closer to the main bus station). I have experienced this many times in England: If you ask an English person who is not in any sense a public official for directions, they often give very good directions. But ask any official, a bus driver, a person at the tourist information counter, train station ticket seller, anyone acting in an official capacity, and they will answer exactly the question you ask, not the question you would have asked had you known to ask it. I am sure, had I thought to ask the bus driver "is there another bus that will take me to the bus station?" or "Is there another bus that will go more directly to Oxford?" he would have given me exactly the information I needed.
At first I thought this was just bloody-mindedness. But on reflection, I think it may represent a kind of exaggerated reticence, a reluctance either to make assumptions about a client's actual intentions or to presume to inquire about the client's plans. In any event, I ended up having to walk five blocks through a narrow walled alley to the bus station and arrived just as the X-5 was leaving. I ended up waiting in the Oxford station for 45 minutes, but still got back to M-K in time to have a beer, take a bath, and get dinner more or less at my usual time.
It was a great little hike and a very nice way to close out my two months in England. Today (Sunday) is a day for doing laundry, packing, cleaning my room, and getting myself together; tomorrow first thing I go into London for a final day in London before heading to Amsterdam, then home.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 19 Polperro, on the Cornish coast

June 19 Polperro, on the Cornish coast
The visit to the Cornish coast involved a complex series of trains - express to Euston Station, walk a quarter mile to Euston Square underground station, underground to Paddington station, catch the southbound train there. It was jammed with people, mostly holiday-makers, including one guy in the seat next to me who tried to sleep the whole way and sprawled every which way. The train goes through some lovely rolling countryside, then along the coastline for a ways, with wind-carved red sandstone cliffs along the north side of the tracks. It passes through Plymouth, then stops at Liskeard, which is not actually on the coast. There I transferred to another train - just one long car, really. It is the oddest station I've ever seen - "Platform C" is at right angles to the other two platforms, and on the north side of the tracks (Polperro is to the south). Only a handful of others got on with me. The railcar headed off in the wrong direction for a mile or so, circled around under the main line, stopped while a switch was thrown, then went back south again, in effect a switchback that eventually carried it under the other track. It passed through a long, pretty canyon that reminded me of the pasturelands around Tillamook, stopped several times at little sidings, finally stopped at the end of the line, Looe, where I got off and started walking.
The coast trail goes for the first mile and a half through West Looe ("e" is silent - pronounce it like the Australian term for toilet) and along a drive next to the rocky beach before passing through a stile and heading gradually uphill through a pasture. Along the way I stopped at an ice cream stand and bought a black current ice cream cone - quite good. This section of coast really is quite spectacular; very like some sections of the Oregon coast except it is different rock, slate I think - tilted jagged-edged slabs making sharp angles against the horizon; none of the cliffs are very high but they are quite rugged, with pretty tide-pools at their feet and rolling pastureland above. The trail passes through the pastures and along the cliff edges; unfortunately it is often between six to ten foot hedges that totally block any possible view; but the rest of the time it affords quite lovely perspectives. Parts are dirt and might require hiking boots in winter, but I was glad I had just worn my lighter, more comfortable walking shoes. The steep parts all have either steps carved in the stone or made out of wood log segments with gravelled mud behind them - even the steep sections quite easy walking. I didn't really need my trekking poles, although they do make it somewhat easier on the really steep steps.
Polperro is a fairly old fishing village, with a still active fishing fleet but the fishermen's cottages are now very much outnumbered by tourist cottages and B&Bs. (Many "fishermen's cottages" are for seasonal rent; I wouldn't be surprised if many of the fishermen have moved into more modern houses up the hill.) The streets of the old town are extremely narrow and rather quaint; the whole is very picturesque. The tide range is quite wide - when I arrived all the boats that had not gone out were high and dry, on their sides on the mud bottom. After dinner I walked back down and they were all floating quite nicely in what looked like ten feet of water. My B&B is comfortable, but a full half mile up the road away from the harbor, which isn't very convenient. Not much view, but as I write this I am listening to some very pretty birdsong. Lots of seafood restaurants here - hard to choose. Last night I had a decent bouillabaise of local seafood; tempted by the local scallops but also considering the whole lobster for tonight. I'm not sure whether it is local or not - I think probably not. They had black current sorbet as well as some other good-sounding dishes but I wanted to taste the sorbet and I'm glad I did. Very intense flavor; it needed a scoop of vanilla ice cream to tame it I think. They served it with four or five raspberries and one sliced strawberries - the other berries were totally overwhelmed by the pungent black currents. I wish we could get them - I think LaJean could work out some very interesting things to do with them.
The waitresses told me about fireworks at "half ten" - Guy Fawkes' Day got rained out, and again on New Years', so they decided to use them to kick off their summer music festival. So I went back to the coast walk and climbed up to the cliff above the harbor - also above and across a spit of rock from the rocky promontory where they were to set them off. I misheard and thought the fireworks would start at ten, so I was quite early and, as the breeze sharpened, had to put up the hood on my windbreaker - but it was worth the wait.
When10:30 came a fishing boat entered the channel and hung there, right below the fireworks zone. The fireworks guys yelled at him and the spectators booed and finally after about 10 minutes he gave up and went back partway out to sea. Some of the fireworks were a bit ho-hum, but some was really pretty spectacular, especially going off right overhead. The most spectacular I think was not on purpose - a very big one, or maybe more than one, misfired and dropped in the water (right where that stupid boat skipper had wanted to be) and blew up under water. By being up on the cliff instead of down on the breakwater with most of the (smallish) crowd, I missed seeing the fireworks reflected in the water but got to see them erupting out of the water - a fair tradeoff. After a while the guy the festival had sent up to watch over the dozen or so of us on the cliff got nervous and shoed us back from the edge but it was still spectacular. Another neat effect - they had set up fireworks launch emplacements all over the broken craggy promontory, some behind the rocky peak so that when they went off it was like a volcano erupting. Way cool. A big difference from Portland - no amateur bottle rockets.
The trip started off with the oddest experience - I had ordered my ticket to London for next Monday and wanted to pick it up, since I will have a lot of luggage. There was a huge line at the ticket window and a much shorter one at the machine so I used the machine (which hasn't always worked with my chipless card). I stuck my card in the machine and, without asking for a ticket code, PIN, or anything, it read my card then spit out a ticket - a day return to London for that same day only, not the ticket I had ordered. The information guy swore I must have entered it wrong, and I did not have a printout of the confirmation e-mail, so I had to stand in the ticket window line after all (good thing I had allowed extra time for the walk to the train station). Sure enough, my confirmation code was indeed for June 28 and the many refunded the money from the one I didn't want. All I can think is that the previous customer must have begun the June 18 transaction but not completed it and not cleared it, so when I stuck the card in the machine completed his transaction. The web / ticket machine system is good when it works, but like all computerized systems maddening when it doesn't.

June 19.
Had a lovely day today. I had originally planned to take a vigorous walk, maybe 8 miles up the coast and back, but I decided to poke along instead, and just went maybe 4 miles and back, a total of maybe 8 miles, stopping at 3 or 4 places to sit on rocks or a grassy ledge and just listen to the ocean, the wind in the grass, seabirds, etc. Took quite a few pictures - very warm day, little wind, so there wasn't much surf but some of the views are quite spectacular anyway. After returning to the hotel for a bath I went back to the rocky promontory where they had fired off fireworks, clambered around on the rocks for a while, then found a couple of different pleasant places to sit, on the one side watching the extremely small waves, then over on the harbor side watching the other tourists - and on both sides listening to the gentle surf.
Went to a different restaurant, had scallops in butter and garlic. Good, but they put way too much butter in - the scallops were in over an inch of butter, floating on top of the scallop juice. The salad was as mediocre as most of the salads I've had in England, ditto the soft crusted, partly stale bread. For nearly 20 pounds I expected a bit better. After dinner I walked back over to the rocky promontory by the harbor mouth, but the wind had risen enough to make it too cool to sit there long so I returned to the hotel room, picking up a pint of local dark ale along the way.

Sunday evening
The walk back along the coast was lovely - already warm at 9:00, sea almost like glass. What a day to be riding the train all day!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

June 15 Royal Opera, Covent Gardens

I have long wanted to see a live performance of an opera by a world-class company, and England's Royal Opera is one of the best, so I bought a ticket to their performance of Marriage of Figaro. I had meetings in the morning and afternoon at the university, so I walked straight over to the train station, and arrived in London about 4:30, too late to consider visiting a gallery first, since the opera starts at 7 and they advise patrons to arrive a half hour early. I walked around a bit, found a nice little French bistro for supper. The evening started out well - Confit de Canard, a duck leg in plum and brandy sauce with properly cooked green beans and a kind of potato casserole, topped by a "traditional French cherry tart," actually more like what I would think of as a cobbler, very very good.
Covent Gardens Opera House is of course quite sumptuous, overwhelming even. My ticket was quite expensive - over $300, not anything I would do regularly. You can get cheaper tickets - the opera house has four levels of balconies. But my eyes are getting weak in dim light, and I decided to go for the complete experience. Along the same lines, I also pre-ordered a glass of champagne for the intermission.
Overall the performance itself was excellent. I didn't recognize the names of any of the singers, but probably a true opera fan would. Erwin Schrott asFigaro and Mariusz Kwiecien as the Count were both superb - rich, full voices, very nice styling. I felt that Annette Dasch as Countess Almaviva was also excellent, but the opera buffs sitting next to me didn't like the quality of her voice. Unfortunately the female lead, Susanna was very poorly cast, Eri Nakamura, who "is participating in the Jette Parke Young Artists Programme." She unfortunately is not "ready for prime time." She has a very nice, sweet voice, and I thought quite good control, but it is very thin and easily overwhelmed. Her voice often got lost in the orchestral accompaniment, and almost always got lost in the trios and quartets that Mozart loves to use. Singing a solo, with only a harpsichord for accompaniment, she projected well and was enjoyable to hear, but much of the delight of the opera is in the playful, lively trios and the weakness of her voice turned them into duets, a tricycle with one wheel missing. That was the one disappointment of the evening. The orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis was outstanding.
As Lynne predicted, wandering around the 2nd story bar with a glass of champagne during intermission was quite nice, and it rounded out the experience quite well. - well worth the 12 pounds.
Audience response was mixed; about 1/3 very enthusiastic, 1/3 tepid (including the elderly couple next to me, who are subscribers and have very exacting standards). As we were leaving after the performance, the old gentleman asked if I had plans for after the performance, and I think that was the prelude to an invitation, but the train schedule for returning to MK is a harsh taskmaster - I missed the 10:57 so caught the 11:24. I think there are two trains later than that - it would have had to be a very quick drink or I would have been looking for a hotel room in London. Too bad, they were an interesting and very knowledgeable couple and it would have been fun.
It was a great evening, and left me with an appetite for more. I hope I'm in a large city some time when the opera is performing one of my Verdi favorites.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

June 13 Conwy and Conwy Castle, Wales

June 13 Conwy and Conwy Castle

The B&B where I am staying, Gwynfynn, is quite nice, and my room, the "Violet Room," would be very roomy except - perhaps consistent with the name - it is badly over-decorated, with decorations that eat available space to no good purpose (chintzy little unusable stools and tables, glass bead flower arrangements, etc.). The bathroom is roomy and comfortable, and the bed is good; altogether it is a nice place. Conwy is loaded with B&Bs, only a few of which can be found in guidebooks and on the web - my hunch is that the rest do just fine with repeat business and word of mouth. It is a lovely little town and I would recommend it highly as a place for 2 or 3 days in Wales - much nicer to my taste than Caernarfon, although that village would also do nicely.
I got up three hours before breakfast, as usual, so had a cup of coffee in my room then took a long walk around the town wall - about half of it is in good enough repair to walk on - then down to the waterfront and over the bridge. I got several good pictures of the castle from the bridge and across the water. I came back to a very nice breakfast, then walked over to the castle for a slow tour and about a hundred more pictures, half of them repetitive (re-taking when no-one was in the way or the light looked better). It is a very interesting castle; some of the inner walls are fallen in and the wood-beam roofs are of course long gone, but enough of the inner walls are still standing that you can get a very good idea of it. It is a long castle, slightly irregular in shape. The main residence curves slightly around the right side; there are foundations along the left side where stables and the like were located. The castle was built with several towers, and smaller towers standing up above the towers. You can still see the ledges where beams were emplaced to support the floors, both in the main hall and in the towers. The castle is built of relatively soft stone; the arrow slots haver holes where grills were fitted to impede attackers from widening the slots enough to squeeze through.
I spent nearly two hours in the castle, bought a few things in the souvenir stand, and by the time I had reached a little coffee shop to get a light lunch it was beginning to rain. I had hoped to get a nice walk in the mountainous national park nearby, but by the time I had finished lunch it was raining hard enough to convince me that wouldn't be a lot of fun - I'd rather sit in the room and work on the laptop while listening to the gulls squawking outside. It looks likely to rain on and off all afternoon, then probably clear up for most of the week - but who knows? British weather is even more unreliable than Oregon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

June 12 Caernafon Castle, Wales

June 12 Caernafon Castle, Wales

After completing the conquest of Wales, Edward I built a string of castles to solidify his hold on the place. Two of them, Caernafon and Conwy, are close enough to visit in one trip and still in fairly good shape (Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in Caernafon, although they held the ceremony in the large courtyard because they were concerned about the condition of the Queen's Tower). Today I took the train to Conwy, dropped my pack at a nice B&B near the train station, then took a bus over to Caernafon. The castle is very impressive - like Carlisle Castle, it stands at one end of a wall that encircled the entire town at the time, and includes inner fortifications within a very large enclosed courtyard. The walls are quite thick, and the towers have double walls with passages on every level and arrow / gun slots for shooting through. The castle was falling apart and partially dismantled when it was rescued and largely restored in the 19th Century, but you can see in some of the pictures where a whole part of one tower is missing.
Both Caernafon and Conwy castles stand next to a river estuary, and in each case it had been dredged out for navigation, so the castles could be resupplied by water. And in both cases, the effect of standing on the battlements looking out over the bay, or the farms, is greatly enhanced by the cries of sea birds.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June 8 Hadrian's Wall and Carlisle

Today dawned as rainy as I expected, so I waited around for an hour, working on yesterday's pictures and waiting to see if it would ease off. It did ease off to a slow steady drizzle, which it maintained all day - varied from barely enough to need my rain pants to slight enough that I could have done without them - but it never got so warm that they were uncomfortable, so I didn't bother changing back and forth.
I set out at a good clip, and made pretty good time. I stopped briefly at Birdoswald Fort, which wasn't open yet but isn't fenced, so I was able to look it over. It is not large, but I took a couple of pictures. Its primary interest is the evidence that it represents a late period when the Roman Empire was breaking up and the army was giving way to a warlord system.
The hike from there to Landercost Priory is through pretty farmland, but much of the view was obscured by rain and mist; most of the wall is gone, but there are occasional bits still visible, along with the foundations of some of the turrets. I took pictures of a couple of these mainly because they were among the last artifacts of the wall that I saw on the hike.
Landercost Priory is quite interesting for several reasons. The oldest parts date back to the 11th century. After maintenance stopped during the reign of Henry VIII, it started falling apart; only one part of it was maintained as a parish church. It is the first example I have seen where a currently active church is attached to a ruin. It also played an important role in English history - Edward I installed his court there for nearly a year, then visited again just before he died. The still active part has some very good stained glass windows among other attractions. The ruined part includes some really good examples of stonework, and a couple of very old tombs. I took a picture of two tombstones from Knights Templar; the images of swords are the exact size of their actual swords.
In Carlisle, I immediately found a tea shop for lunch, and had a quite good baked potto stuffed with corned beef and some other goodies. Then I crossed under the highway to visit Carlisle Castle, which also has a long and colorful history. It was built in the 11th century on the site of a much earlier fort; the location at one time had considerable military significance, the more so given its proximity to the Scotch border, and the fact that Scotland contested control of the region up until it was incorporated into the UK. Mary spent some time here as Queen Elizabeth's "guest" before Elizabeth realized she needed to move her troublesome half sister farther south. The castle was besieged, taken and retaken numerous times; it was clearly built primarily for defense, not for comfort.
Most of the city walls were destroyed during the 19th century; part of what is still visible was incorporated into the local government buildings, across from the rail station; I took a couple of pictures to upload.
I also visited Carlisle Cathedral which, I am told, is the 2nd smallest cathedral in England, but boasts some very nice architecture and some lovely windows, as well as an old and beautiful wood-carved panel behind the main altar.
It was a good trip all in all, not at all what I had planned but a lot of fun.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Romans in the mist

June 5 York & Newcastle
Lynne took me and several others to York for a conference on metaphors and story-telling - I think York because of the successful metaphor workshop we (many of the same people) had 4 years ago, and the MetNet group has had other successful workshops there earlier. It was nice being in York again, although I retraced only a little of the sight-seeing I did the first time.
I had been planning to walk part of the 84 mile long Hadrian's Wall trail for some time, but the weather forecast for my projected walk (Saturday through Tuesday) had been looking worse and worse as the time approached. Friday morning the forecast talked of 80% chance of rain (not showers) with Thunderstorms on Sunday - I began to think of either cancelling outright or changing the trip, and actually called to see if I could rent a car, to just drive out on Saturday and see the principle sights. But when I checked again on Friday afternoon (after wasting an hour and a half trying to work out alternative plans and discovering that the rental cars were all booked) I checked the forecast again. Now it was talking about 60% chance of showers Saturday and Monday, showers late Sunday afternoon. I decided, with my rain gear, I could live with that. So the trip was on again.
This morning, I caught a 7:35 train to Newcastle. It is inconvenient - the hotel does not serve breakfast before 7, and there are always 2 or 3 large tour groups there, with all the group members lined up for breakfast right at 7, so I made sure I was there about 6:45 to get in before the crowd arrived. It was a good thing, too - a line formed at the juice bar that reached over 25 people long; if I hadn't got in first I probably wouldn't have got any breakfast at all.
I reached Newcastle at 8:40 and ran full-tilt into the one thing that consistently frustrates me about England - signs and information. There is no tourist information office at the train station; I asked the travel information people and they directed me to the city center - I picked up a little Newcastle brochure that had a map of downtown, and it also showed it. So I set off in that direction, couldn't see it anywhere, reached a point that I knew was too far, walked back a ways, asked a shopkeeper, who directed me to the metro station underground. There I found a bus ticket office - they said the tourist information office was back toward the train station where I'd just come from. They also gave me a bus schedule and told me there were only two buses a day serving stops along the wall until you get well past Heddon (I wanted a schedule in case the weather turns really really vile.) I walked back toward the train station, ran into a young chap who asked what I was looking for, and showed me right to the information office - on a side street, with only a small sign on the street. They sold me a badle needed map (which is impossible to get anywhere else except by ordering it on the web - and the supplier accepts only checks drawn on English banks) directed me to the river and at least informed me that the walk runs along the river clear through Gateshead - and that there is a tourist information office on the river also, incidentally just a couple of blocks from the train station. One of the problems is that people who don't do vigorous walking have a hard time understanding what it is I'm asking, or that anyone might actually want to walk farther than a mile or so at a time. And the walk along the wall is less well known than I thought it would be.
Finally on my way. The walk along the Tyne is actually quite nice - they've spiffied it up for both pedestrians and bikes, and it's quite pretty. As I was promised, there were lots of signs, including signs at places where you don't need them, e.g. where the trail turns and there is no possible alternative way to go. Then, after an hour and a half of walking or so, the trail turned away from the river and ascended a hill, ran through a meadow - to a place where at least 4 trails headed off in different directions. There, where a sign really was needed, desperately needed, there was no sign. (I have encountered that phenomenon all over England.) I followed a bike trail sign, which turned out to be wrong and led me off in the wrong direction, as a result of which I ended up walking most of the last 5 miles to Heddon along the sides of streets. And - most disgusting of all - contrary to what the bus information people had told me, there were bus stops all over the place and I encountered a city bus every 15 or 20 minutes; at least 5 lines serve the area to about a mile short of Heddon, and at least 3 go through Heddon itself. Since the suburbs of Newcastle reach almost to Heddon, had I known that I would have taken a bus either clear to Heddon or to the town just short of Heddon, and walked all the way to Wall, cutting a day off the trip. A day spent walking through the suburbs of Newcastle would not be much of a loss. I do think had I stuck to the trail I would have been walking through more greenway and fewer subdivisions - but it would still be pretty pure suburbia.
The Hadrian's Wall web site, and the brochures about the walk, are quite misleading. They treat Newcastle like a point on the map, not a city of around a million population that reaches out 10-15 miles in every direction. They imply that you are walking alongside the wall the whole way - in truth, the first bit of the wall I saw was just outside Heddon, near the end of the first day's walk. Much of it is broken down, and the first 20 miles or so is buried under accumulations of soil - one sign, next to a flat pasture, describes a Roman fort that is totally buried under the pasture. The only reason to walk the section I walked today would be if you have a trophy collector's mentality and want to be able to brag about walking the entire distance. I don't care about that, and am deliberately omitting the first 4 miles and last 11 miles of the trail. Although it was a pleasant enough day, given that the forecast is for rain most of my trip I'd much rather have spent my one clear sunny day on a later stage of the hike, where there is more of what I came to see.
One I got out of the greater Newcastle area and up on the ridge above the river valley, the countryside is actually quite beautiful. My room, a converted attic in a farmhouse, has a lovely view out over the rolling hills, pastures, and rapeseed fields. The owner, a retired teacher / farmer, is rather eccentric but very nice.

June 6, Wall
Nice walk today, but all I saw of Hadrian's wall was a little bit at the very end (actually beyond Wall), Chester's Fort, 1.5 miles beyond Wall, and a long section of the ditch that supplemented and in some sections apparently replaced the wall (it appears the wall actually never did stretch all the way coast to coast). I decided to walk over and see Chester's fort before signing in to my hotel because rain was threatening, and I was planning to leave before the fort would open at 9 a.m. I was glad I did - the excavated portions are quite interesting, and I took several dozen photos, a few of which I will upload. As I was finishing up, a few sprinkles were hitting my face, so I shouldered my pack and headed back toward the hotel. The rain seemed to be holding off so I detoured into a pasture to see a bit of wall with the foundation of an old "turret" (tower); the two pictures aren't very spectacular but it was interesting to see. By the time I reached the hotel it was raining hard enough that, had it been much farther, I would have stopped to put on rain jacket and put the fly on my pack.
Things I wish I had known continue: There is another hotel over a mile farther down the trail and right on the trail, George Hotel, in Chollerford. I think it is a bit more expensive but would have been much more convenient. Had I had the detail map when I was planning all this I would have known. And there is at least one stop four miles this side of Gilsland, so a 20 mile stretch is not difficult to avoid if you can get the information to plan it.
By the time I had dinner (a very nice roast lamb with veggies and Yorkshire pudding) and taken a bath it was raining quite steadily. I started rethinking my plan for the next day - if the rain continues, 20 miles would not be a lot fun, and one of the sites I really want to see, Vindolanda, is a mile or more off the trail, which would add two miles. Also, I'm a bit tired of just hiking along the edge of the highway, and it appears that the first six miles out of Chollerford have that quality. So - I decided to demonstrate my flexibility and good sense and change plans. I knew I might want to do this, so fortunately picked up a bus schedule in Newcastle. It turns out there is a bus that stops at the castle (1.5 miles from my hotel - 1/3 mile from the George, but oh, well) at 9:13, and will take me directly to Vindolanda. I can either catch another bus back to Housesteads, the other major site, or walk the two miles. Then I can walk from there to Gilsland, a total of only 10 or 11 miles, bringing the day's total walking to maybe 13-15 miles, much more appealing if it keeps raining. Much more appealing anyway. If it's really ugly I can catch another bus from Housesteads. Thinking ahead, the bus also stops at a village four or five miles this side of Gilsley, so if weather is ugly or it is getting late on Tuesday I can bail out there.
Monday morning: looking at the map again I realized it is 22 miles from Wall to Gilsland plus .75 off the trail to the B&B - 23 miles in all, much more than I want to do in one day, and that includes leaving out Vindolanda. The change in plans is definitely a good idea. I am finding 14-17 mile days to be just fine, but I'm good and tired at the end of that, and adding another 1.5 to 2 hours of walking might turn it from fun into a chore.

June 7, Gilsland

Vindolanda and Housesteads are both quite interesting and I was glad I scheduled them in. Unfortunately, the bus schedule is such that I was only able to spend an hour at Vindolanda, and would have liked to have spent at least another half hour. (The bus was late so I actually could have spent more time). It started raining when I reached Housesteads, but I managed to get some good photos anyway. It rained on and off all the way to Gilsland; I managed to get my rain pants off for only about 25 minutes the entire afternoon. Most of the way is either along sections of half-ruined wall or along sections where the wall is partially visible below the turf; some spectacular sections lie along the edge of sheer limestone cliffs; unfortunately the mixture of rain and mist made it impossible to get adequate pictures of these sections.
It really is quite an experience to walk the defensive line of the Roman Empire, to see the engineering and craftsmanship, the town planning that went into constructing the forts.
By the time dinner was ready, it had started raining fairly hard. I do not think I will walk more than half the distance to Carlisle tomorrow; the host tells me that the first 6 miles, culminating in a Saxon era priory, are the most interesting, and there is a handy bus from there to Carlisle. That is probably what I will do.

Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31 - Chester

I had heard from several people (and read in a couple of guide books) that Chester, which is not too far from here, has the only complete town wall standing in England, and a lovely Norman Cathedral to boot, so I booked tickets for a day trip to Chester and hoped for minimal rain. It threatened rain when I got up, and actually sprinkled a bit on me as I walked to the train station, but it cleared later, then clouded, etc. all day long - quite a nice day, actually. Chester is a pretty town for certain, and the town wall is impressive - but it is "complete" only with a stretch of the imagination. Two sections were knocked down for the railroad, and bridges over the railroad rebuilt with stone railing from the old wall, and some of the wall is not much above street level - I don't think it's as impressive as York, but it is definitely interesting, and I enjoyed walking around it.
It was also interesting to tour the Church of St. John the Baptist, which housed the cathedral for several hundred years, and has some fascinating and very romantic ruins from the collapse of part of the old church in the late 19th century. The current Chester Cathedral, a fine example of Norman architecture, is also very interesting. Both churches have very high vaulted ceilings, massive pillars, and lovely stained glass windows, some quite modern. In the current cathedral, there are also a large number of carved wooden seats, and many of the regular pews also have wood carvings, quite nice wood carvings, but many of them seem (to my untrained eye) rather secular for carvings on a pew, but perhaps I am missing something. I took quite a few pictures of them, because they are so interesting. I also took a picture of an interesting modern sculpture in the rectory garden.
It was a great day and very relaxing. The old part of Chester is quite beautiful, and I enjoyed walking around the wall and just loafing around town for a while.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 28, Darwin's House and Covent Garden

Yesterday I had a very productive day; managed to finish the outline for a book proposal and get much of the first chapter done; this morning I finished the first chapter and sent the whole package to my editor to see if it is about what she had in mind. Then I headed for the train station - and immediately ran into a little hitch. The bike front tire, fixed just a week ago, is flat again. Fortunately Joy was heading out to the gymn so she gave me a lift to the station.

A second minor hitch: The bus company web page said there is a bus from Orpington to Down House (where Charles Darwin lived most of his life) every 20 minutes, but it was actually over an hour - who knows when the bus company last updated their web page. Once I got there, it was very nice. Not impressive in the way of the castles and monuments I have been visiting, but still nice to walk through the rooms where Darwin lived and did his work. I couldn't figure out if there was a no photos prohibition - there probably was since no-one else was snapping pictures, but I snapped a couple of the study where he wrote Origin of Species and several other books that would have made his reputation even without that book, and one of the billiards room, with the desk where he did much of his correspondence. They had very good displays, nothing new if you have recently read a good bio of Darwin, as I have, but clear and well presented. One thing I did find new and fascinating - they had put together a flip-card display showing the evolution of whales over the past 55 million years (based on fossile evidence). It was also enjoyable to walk on the "gravel walk," the long garden walk where he did much of his thinking. It would have been more enjoyable but there were faorly large crowds, which made it difficult to get into an appropriately reflective mood. Over lunch I met a charming English couple who live in Orpington and drivve out there just for lunch once a week; we had a great conversation and they kindly drove me back to the train station.

Their lift got me back into London quite a bit earlier than I really needed, so after I dropped by thed ticket office to pick up my ballet and opera tickets, I wandered around Covent Gardens a bit - it is interesting, although not a place I necessarily want to go often. There was a very indifferent street performer, a gymnast / juggler who managed to keep 6 balls in the air for about 45 seconds, and did ten pushups on his thumb. He promised for a finale to do a sideways flip over a chain held 5 feet above a 14 year old boy lying on the pavement, but his audience manner was so incredibly irritating that I left before he got around to it. To state the obvious, I have seen better!

With an hour to kill before my dinner reservation, I sat down at a sidewalk cafe on Wellington Street, one block away from Bow Street and the opera house, to have a cappuccino and begin writing this blog. I had decided a couple of weeks ago just to eat where I had dinner with Lynne before we saw Warhorse, partly because I knew how to get there and it's very close to the opera house (I didn't know that I wouldn't be rushed for time) and partly because I enjoyed the dinner I had there.

Dinner was quite good - baked halibut in a sauce, oven roast potatoes and asparagus. They had an interesting dessert, mango with raspberry ice cream, but the dinner filled me up too much so I reluctantly passed on it.

The Royal opera house is quite plush - seats more comfortable than anything in Portland, and they actually have room for my knees, plus vents under every seat so there is at least a bit of fresh air. The Royal Ballet performed three pieces, the first two to modern music and the third to a Bizet symphony. The dancers are of course superb. The first piece, Chroma, was set to music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III, choreographed by Wayne MacGregor (none of these names mean anything to me either.) I liked it by far best of the three. Costumes were minimalist, a soft fabric rather like short nightgowns that didn't get in the way of the movements or distract in anyway. Choreography was very lyrical, almost romantic, with lots of influence from modern dance; at times it was quite enchanting. The second piece, Tryst, was set to music by James MacMillan, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. This piece was more classical in tone, but still with a lot of modern dance influence. The choreography was highly stylized, almost machine-like at times. Although there were some very fluid, lyrical moments it generally seemed, compared to the first piece, almost soulless. I enjoyed it, but kept losing the thead - I don't think it lacked coherence so much as that it failed to maintain attention. The third piece, Symphony in C, was set to the piece by that name by Bizet, choreography by Balanchine. It was the most classical of the three, danced in tutus and en pointe, very lyrical and romantic. I liked it a lot, but the first piece was still the best of the lot for me. During the first intermission I asked the usher about the vents, and we struck up a conversation which we resumed at the second intermission. She was a nice, interesting person, aspiring actress, very enjoyable to talk with.

It was an altogether satisfying day, very relaxing, altogether successful. I feel quite rested up and ready to work through much of the rest of what promises to be a rainy weekend.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 23 last day in Slovenia

Because I had so much difficulty figuring out bus schedules I had given up the possibility of another trip to the mountains, but Metka sent me the time tables I needed, and I realized I could catch a 7 a.m. bus that would get me to Lake Bohinj, near Lake Bled, so I did that. When I got off the bus, a computer scientist (Vietnamese but currently teaching in Hungary, also in Ljubljana for academic purposes) also got off. Tuan said he was interested in the tram to the canyon rim, and I said I wanted to walk on up to see the famous waterfall; he gamely went along with me. He is a very nice person and interesting to talk with, so we had a pleasant walk, 5 km. to the Savica Waterfall. When we reached the parking lot and paid our admission there were two huge tour groups assembling, which always makes me a bit nervous. Tuan suggested I go on ahead, since he expected to stop quite often to mess around taking photographs, then we could meet back at the coffee shop (I wanted a snack of some sort), so I did - but in the event he reached the top only a few minutes after I did.
The waterfall really is spectacular; I have a couple of pictures on the photoblog. It emerges from behind a rocky promontory a little way up the base of a sheer cliff; unfortunately you cannot get to any location from which you can see the hole in the rock from which he water emerges, but what you can see is quite spectacular. Back at the coffee shop I discovered that they sell no pastries, which rather surprised me, so I had to settle for a granola bar with my coffee, and an ice cream bar to eat as we walked back along the road toward the tram. I also bought 1/3 kg of local cheese from a farmer who was setting up shop in the parking lot - it is swiss style, quite good.
We reached the tram just before it was about to leave, and after learning that the trail (road actually) back down is only 8 km (for a descent of over 1500 meters), decided to buy only a one way ticket and walk back down. The tram ride itself was quite spectacular as we rose up high enough to see the snow-covered peaks above the walls of the canyon. At the top we spent ten minutes or so taking in the view and taking pictures (some of them are on my photoblog). Then we bought beers and I bought a sandwich (I had forgotten the cheese in my backpack) and we settled down for lunch. By the time we had finished lunch, it was threatening rain, and we could see it raining way down the valley toward Bled, so Tuan wasn't sure he wanted to walk down. But after talking it over for a while we decided to go for it anyway.
The way down is a forest-service type road, very steep for about half the way, covered in gravel and rocks as large as soft-balls, that make for very tricky walking. I should mention Tuan was wearing street shoes, not at all optimal for that type of walking. It started raining, lightly, but enough that I put the rain fly on my day pack. We crossed several snow-fields, none deeper than a foot or so and pretty easy walking actually. The view was spectacular, lush green woods with occasional bits of the rock walls opposite showing through. The walking was extremely difficult for the most part but otherwise it was a very pleasant hike, and by the time we got down, Tuan and I were hitting it off quite well. We stopped at the tram station and bought a couple of beers, part of which we drank there on the patio, and part of which we carried down to the bus stop with us. It started raining again about the time we reached the bus stop shelter, but we only had to wait about 5 minutes. Within a half hour the rain had quite again and by the time we were halfway back to Ljubljana the skies were about half clear. It was a great day in the woods - and the lake really is quite lovely; one could enjoyable spend several days there I think.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

May 22 Side trip to Slovenia

Thanks to an invitation from Metka Kuhar, a colleague at the University of Ljubljana, I had a chance to take a side trip to another part of the world I had never visited. The lecture, on metaphor, of course, went well, and was a lot of fun. Having a very long lunch with some of Metkas colleagues was also quite interesting. After that one day of work, the rest of the weekend, Friday through Sunday, was open for some sight-seeing. Renting a car was not a very good option, since I had to be at the airport Monday morning before the rental agencies open, and the ones downtown are not open on Sunday. That left me to deal with train and bus information.
Metka proviided me with the URL for the bus company's on-line information service, along with a stack of brochures and printouts about interesting things to see and do in Slovenia. I began by leafing through the brochures and ruling out the things not served by public transportation, hikes above the spring snow line, and things far enough away that they would take more than a two or three hour bus or train ride to reach. Then I started looking up schedules and figuring out what I could reasonably hope to do. I immediately ran into one source of recurrent frustration: The university's quarters for visitors, part of graduate residence, has wireless set up in such a way that you need not only the key but also an account name and password, and if you haven't actually transmitted anything for about 5 minutes, it automatically logs you out so you have to log in again. While trying to figure out bus timetables, etc., it is easy to be apparently inactive for five minutes - especially Slovenian schedules, which are set up in such a way that you have to scroll through every town in the country for both your origin and your destination. So deciding on what to visit and working out when to leave to get there turned out to be quite frustrating and time-consuming. However, I finally decided on trips for Friday and Saturday - I decided I would have to work Sunday out after I got home on Friday or Saturday.
On Friday I got up early and walked to the bus station, about a 2 block walk. After an hour and a half ride, I reached the little village of Divaca, near Skocjan Cave. The information in the tourist information, both on-line and in the printed brochures, was confusing; it said that there was a 45 minute walk through the woods to the cave entrance, and in the spring tours are given at 10 and 1:30. Since the bus arrives at 9:30, there is an obvious problem. I and two others on the bus who were headed for the cave asked 2 or 3 people how to get there and they all said the shuttle-bus, which leaves at 10! None of them seemed to see why that was a problem. Turns out they wait the tour for the shuttle-bus, so the tour doesn't actually start at 10, it starts about 10:10.
I was disappointed - the rules include no photography inside the cave. Other members of the group ignored that inconvenient rule, and had I brought the camera that is better in low light I probably also would have. That was the only aspect of the visit that was at all disappointing. Skocjan Cave is incredible. The main attraction is reached via a series of chambers that would be quite spectacular in themselves, with stalactites and stalagmites but also many other interesting formations, including thin little calcium curtains and several flat, thin slabs of rock that were perched on other, sometimes smaller rocks. As water dripped on them, calcite built up into a mound, and stalactites had formed around the edges so that they looked like huge porcini mushrooms.
After walking through several of these chambers, we began to hear the roar of a river, the waterfall we had been promised, echoing through the passages. As we passed though yet another domed chamber (100 feet and more above our heads), the water grew louder and louder - but nothing prepared us for the actuality of the underground river. In addition to its huge domed chambers, the cave has a gorge running through the center, a split in the rock that is over 100 meters deep, and perhaps 15 or 20 meters wide, with absolutely vertical walls into which the park service has cut paths and stairs (in many cases they have instead built walkways projecting out over the chasm). The waterfall was visible as a silvery glow near one end of the chasm, which curves around so that it enters toward you and exits to your left. The deep narrow gorge complete with waterfall and rapids would be enough in themselves, but there is much more to this part of the cave. The cave periodically floods, and about once in 100 years it fills to the top with rushing, churning water. Where the water turns the sharp bend in the chasm, it forms vortexes around the stalactites and stalagmites, and the circular rush of water erodes them both into spirals and into other very unusual shapes.
The path crosses a bridge over the chasm, winds around the far side, and finally turns upward along a side passage toward the exit, which passes through a huge chamber that has been opened by a collapse to leave a doorway like the entry to some magnificent palace. Beyond the doorway is a huge sink-hole, the remains of a very large collapsed chamber that has several other chambers opening into it - later, on a hike around this sink hole I was able to see and photograph several of them. In the summer there is a great-looking path that leads off around and up the side of this sink-hole, but it is blocked off in winter and spring (probably for safety reasons. The path we took leads along the sheer side of the sink hole, across another opening into the cave, through which water (apparently the same stream) emerges, to a funicular that takes visitors to the top.
There is another, bigger but more touristy, cave nearby that I had thought to visit, but the bus I expected did not come and I ended up waiting an hour and a half for another bus, which I just took back into town. Even though all I did was visit the one cave and walk through the woods back to Divaca, it was a great day. I capped it off by going to a restaurant beside the river downtown and having pork tenderloins with morels.
This morning I got up early again, and took a bus to the lakeside town of Bled. All week the forecast has been saying the weekend would be sunny and mid 70s - but this morning it said chance of rain, and indeed as we neared Bled there was obvious heavy rain in the foothills above the town, and the streets were wet from recent rain. I began the day by setting out for Vintgar Gorge, 2.5 km away. In Bled, the signs were not very good and I had a hard time finding the way out of town, but as soon as you reach the outskirts, the signs are abundant and clear. It is a nice walk through suburbs and farmland, with views of the spectacular mountains and so-green forests and fields all around. Slovenia is entirely mountainous, only 10% is cultivated, and the rest is lush forest. It is quite lovely.
I reached the parking lot at the entrance to the National Park just behind a tour bus, so followed at least 30 people through the ticket booth and entry gate. I hurried to get past them and on down the trail beyond the sound of their gabbing, had to stop to put the rain fly on my day pack when the light drip turned to light rain, then began to simply enjoy the walk. The gorge is like many I've seen in the U.S., but extreme in its narrowness, steep walls, and general impassability. The Slovenia Park Service (or somebody) has dealt with the impassability by building a combination of board walks and cantilevered walkways the full length of the narrow part of the gorge, which affords the opportunity to experience the gorge (it could not possibly be done on foot otherwise - the water is too deep and swift even to think of wading. A really good whitewater kayaker could probably negotiate it, but my sense was that it is rather narrow in several passages for a raft. It would be an exciting ride.) When I reached the end, I turned around and walked back, much slower than I had walked down in the first place, soaking in the enchantment of the place. Fortunately pictures were allowed here and I have uploaded a sampling.
Back in Bled I stopped for lunch, then set out to walk the 7 km. trail around the lake. The lake is noted for several features, principally the castle atop a sheer-sided promontory near the center of town and a church built on a small island near the far end of the lake. I was able to get several really nice pictures of bot of these, and also, as the clouds finally began to lift, a few pictures of the mountains in the background. To get a sense of what Bled is like, think of McCall Idaho with the White Clouds in the background and a castle on the shore. It was a great outing and a really nice day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 15, Portchester Castle

As I expected, by Friday evening I was beginning to feel a bit too workaholic; fortunately I had already booked train tickets to Portchester, where Portchester Castle is located, right on the edge of the estuary of one of England's most important harbors, long the hub of Britain's naval power. The original walls were built by the Romans, on the site of even older fortifications, and most of the original Roman wall still stands. The castle was added to and expanded several times, beginning in the 11th century and ending with major renovations in the 15th century; not long after, the castle became militarily superfluous because of changes in ship design, armaments, and naval warfare. Henry II and Richard II both undertook major renovations and spent substantial time here; the last major military use of the castle was for staging Henry V's successful foray into France. Lots of history in this place.
Subsequent to its military obsolescence the castle was used as a prison for a while, then fell into disrepair until its most recent owners recognized its historical importance and began the process of restoration and preservation before ultimately turning it over to the British government.
The train trip there involved changing to the underground at Euston Station then back to a regular train at Waterloo Station; it was a comfortable ride through rolling green countryside with lot of small wooded areas here and there. I spent over two hours wandering the grounds, climbing the keep, taking pictures of the romantic ruins, and generally having a very nice day of it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

May 10 side trip to Chipping Norton

I spent most of a pretty cool and rainy weekend working on a couple pieces of the empathy project; with a forecast of better weather for today I set out early on a bus for Chipping Norton, in the Cotswolds between Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. It remains quite cool - there was heavy frost on the grass near the canal this morning - but it really was a nice day.
Chipping Norton is a pretty little town to stroll through and the Cotswolds, a country of rolling hills and broad vistas, are quite beautiful, although not in a way that photographs very well. The path I followed went throug several lush fields, along a narrow paved road, and along some gravel roads. There were a few other people out walking the same path but we were so widely separated that they did not interfere at all with the solitude. I chose this walk because it has an interesting destination, a set of 4500 year old stones moved into a circle, a single standing stone, and one remaining burial chamber, fallen in. The legends surrounding these stones are on placards I photographed and uploaded onto the photo blog - they're mostly fanciful nonsense so I won't repeat them here. Near the stones is a 500 year old church made of Cotswold stone, which I photographed and uploaded.
I arrived at the stone circle just behind a 40ish woman, who proceeded to walk in a circle just inside the stones twice, hardly looking at the stones as she did. There is a path worn so apparently that is the thing to do, although two seems an odd number - seven, twelve, or one hundred are more common. People go kind of nuts over the druid related stuff - none of the hotels near Stonehenge will rent rooms at all during the three days surrounding the summer solstice.
I walked back through more fields, got into town pretty hungry so stopped in at an old hotel pub to get lunch. I had one of their specials, liver and onions in a sauce that looked like it might have been made with a little porter, very good. Then I had a rhubarb dessert - rhubarb ginger pie. It was more like a cobbler, with a bread-like crust on top, shortbread I guess. It was delicious with the thin slices of fresh ginger in it - I would never have thought of that but it worked! They suggested custard (runny, in England) on top of it; I'm glad I didn't have it, because the rhubarb was more delicately flavored than you might expect, and custard might have overwhelmed it.

It was a very pleasant outing, and left me nicely tired.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May 2 London

May 1, London

It turns out there are trains every half hour between MK and London; I could have saved money by commuting to see the plays and visit some museums. The Jenkins Hotel where I'm staying isn't much for 95 pounds - $150; bed is okay, bathroom makes a phonebooth look roomy. If I come back into London I'll buy a day trip, $20 and it includes unlimited use of the underground. I ended up spending twice what I should have for the train trip - the pane of glass at the ticket window interferes with communication and I ended up with a day return - changed it to a weekend return in London, but didn't realize until the transaction was complete that it would have been cheaper just to buy a one-way back on Sunday. I have encounted some very helpful people in England, also some very unhelpful, and the two ticket agents were decidedly unhelpful.

After I checked in I walked to the Museum of Natural History - turns out, over 4 miles, a full hour walk. Fun but I wouldn't do it again. The museum was free admission; huge crowds, but they didn't interfere much. I only looked at 3 exhibits, beginning with the dinosaurs. They have scads of skeletons, which is interesting; they have also arranged displays, some of which (an animated Ty Rex straight from Jurassic Park) are for the kiddies. Others, like the computer simulations that show how they work out how the big beasts must have walked, got up, sat down, etc. are really great. I recommend it.

I next went to the Earth exhibit, which begins with an escalator that enters the center of the earth. It's one of the few pictures I took (for the most part, you can find better pictures than I would take in any encyclopedia, or all over on the web.) Great multi-media display about volcanos, glaciers, underwater volcanos, erosion, etc. Also an excellent exhibit. I was getting tired so stopped for tea and a chocolate muffin, then went on to the Darwin exhibit; focused on insects. Also very educational, not quite as exciting to me as the dinosaur exhibit, but well considered. I caught a bus about 2/3 of the way back to my hotel, lay down for a nap, then showered and changed for dinner and the play.

It is not much over a mile to Drury Lane and Covent Gardens, so I decided to walk again. Not a good decision; no sooner was I committed to walking than it started sprinkling. Gradually the sprinkle turned to a downpour - at least I had a portable umbrella, but my pant legs and shoes were soaked. Then I reached Covent Gardens, where I was supposed to meet Lynne for dinner, at PJ's Bistro. There are three Covent Gardens - metro stop, opera house, covered market. No-one had any idea where PJ's bistro is; several thought I was looking for "Pizza." I got at least three very confident but totally wrong sets of directions, walked around in driving rain for over a half hour, finally stumbled onto the place, where Lynne was waiting, also drenched. The bistro is good; I had a very nice grilled chicken breast with potatoes and pea pods, cooked perfectly.

The play, Warhorse, was spectacularly good. It is a simple story about a boy and his horse, except the horse gets requisitioned for the army at the beginning of WWII, the boy joins up later to try to find and save his horse, lots of trials, injuries, etc... It is told with a combination of top-notch acting, very imaginative full-size puppets, and folk music (solo and choral). The horse puppets were so well done that it frequently seemed the three people operating them were struggling to restrain the horse, rather than animating it. (It has as happy an ending as possible under the circumstances, by the way.) I was riveted throughout - so much so that I'm tempted to come back and see it again before I leave. I hope a version of it is put on in Portland.

One final adventure - still raining fairly hard when I got out - London has the same scarcity of street signs as the rest of England - hard time figuring out the way back to my hotel so ended up taking a cab. 8.8 pounds, about $13, to go a bit over a mile. London is an expensive place indeed.

May 2

It was still raining when I got up this morning, so I gave up the idea of a morning visit to the Tower of London, instead spent an hour uploading pictures of castles, had a leisurely breakfast, and walked to the British Museum, where the plan was to meet Eric and Sam, his partner. I had decided after talking with Lynne last night to see the exhibit of Renaissance drawings, but I nearly passed it up because the other exhibits were so wonderful. While waiting for Eric and Sam I started with an exhibit of artifacts from various traditional societies, including some excellent Eskimo artifacts and one small Easter Island statue. I ordinarily don't take many pictures in museums, because usually much better pictures are readily available, but there were several I couldn't resist, and I also decided I wanted to provide a sense of the neat things they are doing.

I moved throgh the North America and Central America exhibits, then went down stairs to a very large Africa exhibit. This included a large exhibit of masks and costumes for ceremonial use, which proved serendipitous, because it provided me an interesting background for the Lion King. I took a couple pictures of the most interesting ones, then entered the contemporary Africa area, which was even more intriguing. I was especially fascinated by several sculptures that were made from weapons turned in during a pacification campaign - I will upload a few of the photos I took of this exhibit. Every one of these sculptures was simply stunning.

I finally made text messaging contact with Eric and learned that their train line is being repaired so they would be delayed, and we decided just to meet at the theater. That turned into an adventure in its own right, and I finally ended up leaving his ticket at the ticket sales "Will Call" window - he made it to his seat with at least 2 minutes to spare.

Before leaving the museum, I paid the 12 pound fee for the drawings exhibit - I enjoyed it, but it was quite crowded, and it was difficult to really appreciate it. I would have enoyed it more if I had gone as soon as I arrived at the museum, before the crowds built up. Still, many of the drawings were very interesting, and they more or less took me back to the days when I was studying drawing.

The Lion King: It was really good, really polished, really opulent. Brilliant costumes, life-size puppets, masks, shadow puppets, kites, African music and dance, more modern music pieces heavily influenced by R&B, modern dance, ballet, aerial dance - all with great pace and timing, simply brilliant, a 2.5 hour riot of sensory experience. Every bit as good as Warhorse, although in a very different way - Disney-slick, very polished. My first reaction, halfway through the first act, included "heartless," but by the end of the first act I reversed that decision; it did not lack heart; it just had the edges softened, the shadows reduced, the light spots enhanced. I do think I'm glad I had not seen the movie - I cannot imagine a movie engaging the imagination enough to achieve the sense of magic delight that the play achieved. So much genius - the costume design, puppets, choreography, everything. It was a wonderful experience.

I think I will try to get into London for a couple more theater or dance experiences while I'm here - but I will do it by day trip from now on. Less expensive by far, and my room in MK is a lot more comfy than any hotel room I can afford.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Settling in England

April 30 - First week in England.

My flight from Turkey was uneventful; both Heathrow and the freeway to Milton-Keynes were uncrowded and stress-free. I was also treated to three days of beautiful sunny weather before more typical April weather set in on Thursday. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Milton-Keynes getting settled in the room I am renting from Joy, learning my way around M-K, and meeting with Lynne about the project (it will be another adventure in itself, as we work to connect our similar-yet-different approaches to metaphors and stories). Joy's house is quite nice, with a lovely back yard that includes a glassed-in sun porch overlooking a large koi pond (but alas, no place to set up a BBQ or eat a meal during nice weather. As the weather turns summery I will miss our wonderful patio in Portland more and more.)

Milton-Keynes is an odd town, a New Jersey style "New Town" built around several centuries-old villages, in a way that the existing villages are incorporated into the fabric of the town - yet the city center is itself a huge covered shopping mall. There is a network of bicycle, horse, and pedestrian paths that in principle provides a way to get anywhere in the city with very little interaction with automobiles. My first two forays were frustrating - the paths wind around in a way that is hard to follow, and the signs are often unhelpful - for example, when the path crosses a named surface street they don't tell you the name of the street, and the signs often point toward a location that is meaningful only if you know the city well (and is either not shown on the map or difficult to find). On each of my first three exploratory trips, one on foot, the other two on a bicycle Joy is providing for me, I ended up going at least half again the actual distance because of detours and double-backs. The fourth trip, walking to the train station for the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, was more successful, since I finally realized that navigation is by village names, and a sign informs you each time you cross into a new village. The villages are roughly square, about 1 km to the side, separated by arterials that run more or less straight, from northwest to southeast ("verticals") and southwest to northeast (horizontals). Once I figured this out, I realized I need to write down, not a sequence of street names, but rather a sequence of neighborhood names to guide me on my trips. So the walk to the train station went smoothly and took a bit under an hour. Three or more trips around town and I will probably get it figured out.

I also realized that lacking a map of England (we have one that LaJean was supposed to bring, and I haven't found a bookstore yet from which I can buy one) cost me some money on my trip to Stratford. The train I took passes through Coventry to Birmingham, where I changed to a milk train back to Stratford. I did not realize how close Stratford is to Coventry. Since I want to visit Kenilworth Castle on the way back, and it is between Stratford and Coventry, I will take a bus to Kenilworth, park my luggage in the castle's cloak room (I hope they have one!) then take another bus on to Coventry, thus writing off the first leg of my return ticket.

The first couple of days in Stratford have been very interesting. I am staying in a very comfortable, although smallish, room in the Penryn House B&B, close to a mile walk from the center of town. Again because they don't bother putting signs on the main streets, getting to the B&B required a combination of guesswork, hope, and a bit of doubling back. The landlady compensated by providing me tea and some very nice cakes when I checked in. After checking in I toured Anne Hathaway's Cottage, then walked back into town and toured a couple of other houses associated with Shakespeare, including the house where he was born. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs inside, although they don't put up many signs about it and I did take one before a guard told me not to take any more. They also do not provide any really good photos of the interiors that you can buy - or I would have bought some. All of the houses are interesting - dark wood, and constant reminders of how much shorter people were in those days. I enjoyed all of them. I also enjoyed, yesterday and today, stopping in at a couple of 400 year old pubs - the Windmill, licensed in 1600, is the oldest in Stratford that has been in continuous operation. I do have a picture of its interior, and a picture of me in another pub, in an even older building.

On Wednesday night I saw a superb performance of King Lear. The actor who played Lear was spell-binding. Regan and Goneril were also very well-done; both came across with exactly the right sort of oily seductiveness. The performance got a warm but not enthusiastic ovation, but in Portland it would have earned a standing ovation. Different standards of comparison. I was less than enthusiastic about the staging - more of the time-shifting, with most (but not all) the costumes World War I vintage, and the backdrop based on a run-down factory or metal shop, with a bank of broken windows in the background, steel girders, and industrial-grade florescent lights. I hope that fad runs its course and they get back to staging Shakespeare in the eras in which the action supposedly happens. Although it wasn't as distracting as some I've seen recently, like one we saw in Ashland a couple of years ago, where the "Duke this" and "King" and other royalty titles, and the threats of execution, positively jarred with the 1920s jazz era setting.

Today I toured Warwick Castle. It was fun, but a bit much - they have converted it into a theme park, with costumed actors everywhere, and multi-media presentations. The cost of admission reflected that - ordinarily 19 pounds, 13 for me with a senior discount, plus 8 more for the dungeon. Sort of a continual Renaissance Faire. I most enjoyed the unconstrained, unguided, and mostly actor free tour of the family quarters and ceremonial halls. One actor, in the ceremonial hall, I did enjoy chatting with; he said he was one of the descendants of the family. A 1920s "weekend party" setup was kind of fun. (Complete with some dummies in period dress and some live actors playing people who might have been invited to a weekend party in the 1920s.) The castle was actually the family home until the 1970s when it was sold, probably because it was getting far too expensive to keep up. They did allow pictures here - the fellow I talked with in the ceremonial hall said they had put coatings on everything to protect them from light and flashbulbs. But the dungeon tour, which cost me an extra 8 pounds, was just a gussied-up Halloween "house of horrors" show, with a Black Plague room, a torture room, a court room, and an execution chamber. I think it might have been fun but they crammed 20 of us into one tour, so unless you were standing in front you couldn't see or experience much. I considered it mostly a waste of $12 and 40 minutes of my time. I really prefer seeing these places at my own pace, guided by my own imagination. It was no surprise when I later learned that the castle is operated by a commercial entertainment company - it _is_ a theme park.
It started raining about the time I finished the tour - fortunately I came equipped with my portable umbrella. It was too late to visit Kenilworth, so I decided to head back to Stratford. In the town square was a cart selling curry - they were out of rice so gave me curried chicken on a baked potato, something I'd never heard of before. It was quite good, more like a slightly curry flavored chicken stew than anything, but warming in the drizzle.
Eric Jensen came to meet me for dinner and the first 2/3 of Romeo and Juliet, before he left to catch a series of trains back home. We enjoyed a nice visit; he and his partner Sam will meet me in London on Sunday. He was in the vicinity to interview for a job in Sociology at U. of Warwick, apparently UK's 2nd ranked Sociology dept. - he later told me he got the job, which is no surprise. He is doing extremely well.
I was not as impressed by Romeo and Juliet as I was by Lear - none of the actors seemed as dynamic, or as convincing; the two dukes seemed almost stiff. The nurse, played by an African-Brit with creole mannerisms, was great, and Mercutio (Romeo's friend who gets stabbed by Juliet's cousin Tybalt in a rather unsportsmanlike and opportunistic way) was great. Otherwise, many of the actors seemed to be just reading their lines, except for Romeo, who over-acted. The director put most of the cast in period costume, but had Romeo and Juliet in modern casual dress and the Capulets in black leather with high-tech switchblades like the heavies in a modern fantasy-punk movie. That was a jarring note: Tybalt came across as a treacherous, villainous bully, a person Juliet would not likely have loved enough to be emotionally torn by his death, and the feud seemed more like "victims vs. oppressors" than the more morally equal balance that, in my view, is necessary for the play to work. The director also used bursts of fire, to symbolize passion I suppose, but that also gave it rather too much of a flavor of cheap hollywood special effects, and actually distracted from the passion the language and the acting is supposed to project - perhaps that is part of the reason that the portrayals of both Romeo and Juliet seemed at once overdone and strangely tepid to me. Having Romeo wheel around stage on a modern bicycle was, really, a bit much. I enjoyed the evening but I have seen many versions of the play that seemed more convincing. In sum, King Lear was one of the best versions I've seen, but Romeo and Juliet was mediocre. They bused in a ton of high school students to see Romeo and Juliet, though, so it got a much more enthusiastic response than Lear got the night before.

April 30

Today I pulled my stuff together and took a bus to Kenilworth - taking my time, since I had been told by many people that there isn't much there; a judgment that turned out to be quite erroneous - I spent about 2.5 hours there and could happily have spent 4. Even in the town itself people seemed quite lukewarm toward the castle - and on one of the few occasions in my experience, I got very poor help from a librarian (the library doubles as tourist information center), who told me rather vaguely to just follow the road around, leaving out the crucial detail of taking a right turn a few hundred yards down the hill. I ended up in an obvious residential area, accosted a woman delivering pamphlets, who had to think for a minute and consult her own map, doubled back, found the turn I had missed, with no "Castle Road" sign. I found the sign another hundred yards beyond the intersection, in the middle of a long block. Grump! The British are really challenged about road signs.

Once I finally reached the castle, I was immediately impressed. The castle walls are mostly gone, with just a few badly ruined stretches and the lower half of the entry towers. The stables are intact, and now house a tea shop and exhibition hall with a really good display on the history of the castle. The central hall, used until recently as a residence, is still intact, and has had exhibits of how it looked when Elizabeth I visited. The original castle is in ruins - very picturesque ruins, where I spent the greater part of an hour taking photos and understanding why Sir Walter Scott was impressed enough to write a novel about it. (Got to re-read that book!) To me, the way it was romanticized in literature adds greatly to the interest and value in visiting the place. Not long after I arrived it started the same sporadic drip that it did yesterday afternoon, although not until near the end of the visit did it rain enough to justify putting up my umbrella. The clouds actually helped evoke the historical mood of the place. It dates back to the 11th century, has figured centrally in much of English history since. It underwent two long sieges, each time yielding only after the point of near starvation had been reached; figured in the romance between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth, was finally captured, used for a while, then rendered militarily useless by Cromwell's forces. There were only a few other visitors, so it was easy to let my own imagination run. I am familiar with most of the history, but it would be fun to reread it and visit the place again.

It is interesting and a bit dismaying that so many people told me there isn't much there. If I had only one day to spend in the area, knowing what I know now, I would definitely spend it at Kenilworth rather than Warwick, Kenilworth where there is only a couple of tents to interfere with your own free imagination. I guess on the other hand if I were touring England with a couple of restive pre-teens with little knowledge of or interest in history, I might opt for the vastly more "entertaining" theme park to get them out of my hair for a day or so.

I have been ruminating since before I left Turkey about history, in the light of the various historical places I have visited. In Asia, especially Nepal and India, the history I saw has very little to do with me or my culture - only the peripheral relationship from the introduction of watered-down Buddhism and Hinduism during the last half of the last century. It was interesting but did not really speak to my own life or culture. In England, every time I have visited I have felt the history strongly as _my_ history, history that contributed to what my culture is and who I am. In Turkey it was an interesting in-between. Most of the events, including the battlefields and castles, are part of the Story of the West, dating from well before the Greeks and extending through to the eventual conquest of Byzantium by the Ottoman Empire. But the story is told from the Ottoman perspective: Battles I grew up learning as tragic defeats are perceived as glorious victories. Even the historic Christian churches, some dating to only a century or two after Christ, were converted to Mosques. It is vaguely disorienting - in a positive way. I felt my perspective repeatedly, continuously, wrenched. That also happened to a lesser extent in other Asian countries, but the Hindu and Animist cultures, in particular, are so very different, so very alien that it did not have the kind of personal immediacy it had in the Greek / Roman / Byzantine / Ottoman empire, with its final layering of (still not fully realized) secularism cultivated by Ataturk (whose image is still everywhere in Istanbul). Don't get me wrong - I am no fan of the crusaders, and consider most of the crusades as little removed from genocide and pillage. But I still think of the fall of Constantinople as a tragic ending, and it is very enlightening to spend 3 weeks visiting historical sites in a country with a shared history but radically different perspective - the victory of Islam as a glorious beginning. (And indeed, considering what Muslim scholars and mathematicians accomplished while Europeans were struggling vainly to hold on to some shadow of the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, it _was_ a beginning of a glorious age.) It has actually contributed to greater appreciation of England with our shared history.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 25, Turkey - the extra week.

It took me much of the day Sunday to get over the shock of having our plans for Ireland so radically revised - at least three hours of that was spent canceling reservations for cars, rooms, and the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead; the rest I spent finishing up organizing and uploading pictures, and then finishing a book about political talk that proved quite interesting. It was actually a pretty nice day but I didn't feel like going out.

Monday was a promising day and I knew I needed to get out of the apartment, so I took a ferry to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, off the Asian coast of Istanbul. They allow no motorized vehicles other than emergency vehicles, so it is a walker's dream. The ferry ride was nice, and might have been quite scenic, except for the dense mist, not quite fog, that kept the visibility down to a couple of miles and prevented the day from quite realizing its potential.

There is a smallish mostly tourist-oriented town, lots of cafes and doo-dad shops. I had lunch in one of these - ordered mussels and a mixed salad. The salad was excellent; the mussels consisted of 12 big globs of batter, arranged 3 each on 4 kabob spits and deep-fried; upon close investigation each held a mussel about the size of a navy bean. I asked for the bill and the waiter brought a huge mug of beer - I didn't think that a good way to start a vigorous hike so insisted on the bill.

The island has a large hill with two peaks separated by a ridge. I walked up the highest one first; there is a restaurant and viewing area on top - again, its potential was restricted by the continuing mists. Other than that it was quite a pleasant day for a walk - cool enough that walking vigorously up a steep hill did not overheat me, but warm enough to sit at the top for a while, eat my cimit, and gaze at what view there was. Then I walked back down, crossed the saddle, and took a fork in the road that led me around the crown of the other hilltop. My original plan was to stay until 5, but I realized I was going to be back in town well in time for the 3:00 ferry, and I didn't have much inclination to spend two hours messing around tourist shops, so I decided on the ferry. I had a good vigorous walk, almost two full hours, and it was altogether a pleasant day, that did much to restore my mood and help me regain equilibrium.

During the walk I decided I had gone overboard in cancelling reservations, so when I got back I e-mailed the places in Stratford and London to reinstate the reservations as singles. I will probably schedule a visit to Wales for later, maybe in late May.

Monday it was raining when I got up, but I had already decided to spend the day revising an article I submitted to Metaphor and Symbol back in January. The rain stopped well before noon so I went out to get some stuff from the supermarket - I hoped to get some coffee from Starbucks' (the coffee packages in the market are labeled only in Turkish so it is impossible to know what I'm getting). Unfortunately, Starbuck's carries only whole bean, and (language barrier again) I didn't know how to ask if they could grind it. I may end up just buying a small packet of the ground coffee; at least I can use it to keep the too-finely ground coffee I brought with me from clogging my portable gold filter. (I am really tired of powdered coffee.)

April 23

Yesterday and today were both beautiful days. Yesterday I took a long walk back to the castle and took a couple more pictures, then circled back to the apartment by a more direct route. It was probably a total of about 12 miles but it felt really good to get out and do some vigorous walking, and I felt I had a much better feeling about Istanbul. In the evening I went to a restaurant I had noticed on the street on the way home, and had a wonderful salad and the best meat kabobs I have had since I've been in Turkey. Done medium (still very juicy) and perfectly seasoned. I think I will go back to the same place tonight.

This morning I had breakfast and headed out, back to the Topkapi Palace area to take some more photos of the Blue Mosque, ideally with less street furniture clutter. Unfortunately I didn't get off quite as early as I'd hoped and didn't reach the area until about 8:30, so the tourist busses (and tourists) were already out in force. Still, I was able to get a few uncluttered photos, although some still suffer badly from parallax. After that I toured the famous Byzantine era Basilica Cistern, which I had bypassed the first time. I was glad I did - it is a big underground cavern, with rows of supporting columns, including two standing on heads of Medusa; they had installed small lamps at the bottom of each and the effect is quite spectacular. I had resisted it, and once I was inside, I wanted to resist the colored lights at the bottom of each column and the soft electronic music in the background, but it actually all worked very well. I was lucky I think to be there before any of the big tours arrived - there weren't over a dozen other people down there when I was, no chattering or any of that stuff that comes with big groups (and, alas, often with tour guides who feel they are being paid to talk whether there is anything worth saying or not.) I will upload a few of the pictures, along with a picture of some of the carp that inhabit the cistern.

I also toured the Hippodrome, most of which is pretty well gone, but there remain three obilisks. While I was sitting near the Egyptian obilisk contemplating it, about the 15th guide-book peddler came and stood exactly in my way to try to sell me one. I finally snapped, and told him curtly "I'm just trying to sit here and look at the obilisk. Please leave me alone." He asked where I was from in a surly tone, and I told him, and he moved on. I think that is what I find most annoying about the peddlers, touts, hustlers etc. - it seems like if you want to just stroll or sit and chill out and soak in the atmosphere of a place they just won't let you alone.

I also went to another mosque, Rustem Pasa, that is famous for its tiles, and they are indeed quite nice - I will upload a picture or two. It was extremely difficult to find - the guidebook identifies the street it's on, doesn't mention that the street changes names partway, and doesn't give a scale on the map, so it is hard to know if you've gone too far. I finally did find it, and enjoyed it once I did. Finally I gave in and went to tour Dolmahce Palace, since the guide-books praise it so highly. My initial decision to pass it by was correct. As I expected, it is mostly just a long series of rooms filled with over-the-top expensive furnishings, huge Baccarat crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, etc - how the obscenely rich and powerful live. Many of the rooms are impressively huge - several of them would hold our house, yard, and garage with room to spare. They are probably best compared to a basketball arena. The one thing I really wanted to see, the Crystal Pavilion, was closed, I think for cleaning. It cost 15 Lira for a 45 minute tour, which I felt was a huge waste of money as well as time. I think anyone interested in antiques would find it quite interesting.

Tomorrow I'm going to see if I can find my way to Yedicule Hisari, the Fortress of the Seven Towers, near the southern end of the old city wall.

April 24.

Today was a really nice day - I wore my pullover for about 20 minutes then carried it tied around my waist the rest of the day. Yedicule turned out to be quite easy to reach - a bus from Taksim took me there in about a half hour, so I was there before 9:00. They let me in a bit early, and I had the luxury of being the only one there for nearly an hour, when a half dozen others showed up. The light was quite good for photography and I took far too many to upload. The fortress began with a triumphal arch built in the 4th Century by Theodosius I; Theodosius II built the city wall, and worked the arch into the wall, added for towers, and built the original fort. Mehmet the Conqueror added three more towers. The fortress was used for defense, then as a treasure house, finally as a prison. It stands quite near the very end of the city wall; I took some pictures of the last half mile or so of wall and the towers that anchor the wall beside the Sea of Marmara, and also some pictures of the wall stretching out toward the north, over 6 km to the Golden Horn.

My guidebook said you could walk the wall, and one of the other sights I wished to visit, Chora Church (Kariye Muzesi), is very near the wall about 3 miles distant, so I decided to give it a try. After about a half mile I discovered that walking on the wall was not workable - not only is the path rough and broken, but there are abrupt terminations, sometimes in places where the government has constructed similes of the old wall. Fortunately for my planned walk, there is a wide, well paved walking path outside the wall, that as far as I can tell goes nearly the whole way. When I figured I had gone about 2.5 miles I saw a huge mosque or church about a half mile ahead of me, on the inside of the wall, so I headed for it. Unfortunately, the direct path led through a huge construction zone that is completely fenced in, so I had to double back nearly a half mile, cross back to the outside of the wall, and continue. I ran into a Turkish college student who wanted to practice his English; he walked with me back to the gate under the wall, then onward to about the area of the mosque, talking. He left me there, but I quickly realized that was not the right place. It took me nearly 30 minutes longer to find the church, but finally, using the Turkish name, I found a fruit seller willing not merely to sell me a banana but also able to show me the way.

The church was built in the 11th century; the decorations were added in the 14th century, funded by Theodore Metachites, a high ranking official of the empire; one of the mosaics shows him offering the church to Christ. Many of the mosaics are partially destroyed, but what remains is very beautiful. I was lucky to be able to dodge the 3 or 4 large tour groups that came through while I was there and spend some time contemplating and photographing the mosaics. Flash is of course not allowed, so some of my pictures did not come out well, but I will upload a sample of the ones that did. If one really wanted to spend some time contemplating the mosaics, it would be advisable to arrive at 9 sharp, when the museum opens; it is enough out of the way that the big groups probably don't show up until close to ten.

I had spent all the time I wanted in the church, and it wasn't even two, so I decided to make my way back to the old city area and visit the one additional place I had missed before that I wanted to see, the mosaic tile or palace floor museum. This museum, which actually runs under the street of an ancient shopping arcade, displays tile mosaics dating from as early as the era of the Emperor Constantine, who founded Constantinople and built the first palace on this site; it was expaned and added to over the century, and the floors were covered with beautiful mosaics. I took several pictures and will upload some of the best.

Finished with touring, I bought some roasted chestnuts and sat on the grass in the hippodrome area, watching the tourists and watching and listening to a marching band of some sort that came through the area. Eventually I got on the tram and headed back toward home, stopping along the way to get a haircut (that came with a very nice head, neck, and shoulder massage, all for 20 TL, about $13.) He even trimmed hairs from my ears and nose - something I've never experienced at a barber before! I went back to what has become my favorite Turkish restaurant; this time I ordered chicken wings. They were excellent; the guy who knows some English and usually helps me order was not there though, so I ended up with a tomato and cucumber salad rather than the mixed salad I've had before - still very good. The bill this time was 13.5 lira, about $9. It is interesting that the meal I enjoyed least was the most expensive by a large margin.

Sunday I am spending mostly resting and packing for the flight to London. I started booking train reservations in England but discovered two things: You save a lot by booking ahead; the farther ahead the more you save, and there is a senior discount card worth savings of about 1/3, but it is available to international travelers only in person. So I booked trains to and from Stratford upon Avon but will wait to book tickets into London and back until I can get the discount card on Monday. It is a relaxing day, a chance to upload my final photos from Turkey and maybe get a few hours writing done.

This unplanned extra week in Istanbul was a bit stressful at first, just because of the change in plans, but it turned out to be quite pleasant. I had some rest days, got some work done, and saw some historic sites I would have missed otherwise. I enjoyed my three weeks in Turkey, much more because of Aybuke's generous hospitality. It would be pleasant to return later in the spring and spend more time in rural areas to the south and east.