Thursday, July 31, 2008

A great-great-great-great-great time in Campbeltown

The next two nights was to be the start of intermittent visiting of relatives - in this case quite distant. The drive down from Oban was punctuated by a short stop at a preserved Scottish village from a time when the land farmed was communal. A split second decision saw us turn off the A83 to Campbeltown (our destination that day) for the B842 down the east side of the peninsula - it was more of the typical single track roads that we were used to: sealed, tight, twisty, bordered by large stone walls & only room to pass at the occasional passing bay. A great look at the countryside and a view across the water, through the cloud to the Isle of Arran. Campbeltown, for some reason or another, was once the home of almost thirty distilleries in its heyday - now there are only two; this seemed quite odd as it was pretty isolated.

We were set to meet two brothers who I think were Dad's third cousins. Anyway, when we found their house, met them & managed to decipher about three-quarters of what they were saying (wonderfully thick Scottish accents punctuated with a lot of 'ayes') we found we shared a common great-great-great-great grandfather (I think - it got all very confusing with multiple family trees coming out & a lot of people helpfully having the same name). From what I remember, with a family of ten children there was not enough work on the family farm or employment close by to support them all. So some time in the 1800s five of the sons up & left to Australia & then pretty soon after to NZ. Of the five left in Scotland, the family name (Wallace) has only carried on down one line - this is obviously the line that we were meeting. I'm not sure how many related Wallaces are left in NZ (this is my paternal grandmother's side of the family), but there are some.

James & William had only just sold the family farm last year & retired as there was no one else in the family to take it over. But we still got the big tour around the farms (a change from Dad's tour of dairy farms around Oamaru & the district (spied some of Sir Paul McCartney's farms - we were very close to Mull of Kintyre); the land was a lot more fertile & developed in this part of the country than most we had already seen in Scotland. It was great to see the land that some of my ancestors left all those years ago & also my great-great-great-great-great grandfather's headstone. And the sun even came out briefly & every one was very excited & telling us what a nice day it was!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ode to a Passat

Well back home now after the nice thirty-odd hour trip from Sidcup to Pukekohe. Unfortunately, I had to return the trusty Passat to Hertz before I left. Considering I was expecting to pick up a Mondeo three weeks ago, it was pleasing to see the Passat sitting in the lot waiting for me (although my only other experience of one was my Uncle's '70s estate version that he had for years). For a 1.9L sedan I was somewhat astounded to see that the boot positively swallowed Mum & Dad's two large suitcases, my grab, backpack, Dad's wheeled cabin bag, a full-suspension mountain bike & all sorts of other bike paraphernalia. What's more, this was the Bluemotion edition - apparently VW's most eco-friendly & economical diesels. With a claimed combined consumption of 46 mpg (5.1 L / 100 km) it was always going to be easy on the fuel (my Galant runs at about 29 mpg & I think that is pretty good for an aging two litre sedan); but after more than 2000 miles of British motorways, congested cities, high mountain passes, skinny one way roads it came back with a staggering combined consumption of 57 mpg (4.1 L / 100 km)! Which was just as well as it cost about $200 to fill up. I sure will miss the cruise control - now to go outside & see if the trusty Galant will start after six weeks of sitting on the lawn & get itself to 300000 km.
(Back to work tonight, but should find some time somewhere to update last two weeks travels).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Iona, Staffa & puffins.

By now I was glad that amongst the suit, bike, summer clothes & bike clothes I had found some room for the trusty icebreakers - they were in full use now in the middle of the Scottish summer. Dad finally decided it was time to buy a jacket during our first afternoon in Oban - just as well there was a well stocked outdoor shop (these seem to pop up in the strangest little towns in Britain). Another cosy room in a pleasant guesthouse on the waterfront & it was up early for a day of ferries & bus rides. We were off to visit Iona & Staffa - as Mum & Dad had set this up I had little idea what was planned - but it was nice not to be driving for a change.

First it was a ferry ride over to Mull (an island off the west coast - not to be confused with Mull of Kintyre, as some have done), a forty minute bus ride to the south west corner of Mull & then we boarded a much smaller boat (saw some bottlenose dolphins jumping around the boat) to Staffa - an small uninhabited island north of Iona. We had an hour there to explore parts of the island. Much of it is basalt & the rocks near where we handed were huge basalt columns - some of which were so long, thin, regular in shape & close together they looked like giant pieces of hexagonal spaghetti that had been forced through one of those spaghetti makers (I'm reminded of the old Play-doh ad - "making spaghetti"). The other highlight of the island was seeing the crazy little puffins flying off from the cliffs to go fishing then returning to their nests - they are so small & quick.

Off to Iona in time for lunch, the Atlantic swell had increased somewhat to make a more interesting ride - at least all the French who got suitably soaked thought so (Dad & I managed to find the correct side of the deck, more by chance than anything & Mum retreated inside, where it was bumpier). Got a good look around the abbey at Iona - much more austere than any of the previous religious buildings I had seen in the preceding weeks. Back on more ferries & boats - where we promptly fell asleep - probably just preparing ourselves for the great dinner that night at some random restaurant that foiled us in our previous bid to eat there - being closed doesn't usually help matters.

A decent ride, finally.

Have finally found some decent internet time to update this not very exhaustive account. As it was nearly two weeks since the last happenings were posted I'll try my best to remember some of the many things we have been up to. Our full day in Edinburgh was much better weather wise & there was even some hope that we wouldn't get wet on our ride.

Dad & I started off our day (Mum was off doing family history stuff) walking up to the top of Calton Hill & checking out the view - could just make out the bridges over the Firth. Then a bit of an explore around New Town - found a very shut Oxford bar (Rebus ties), it was Sunday morning after all. After our walking tiki tour found us at the bottom of the castle (even if we were on the wrong side to enter), we figured there was just enough time to squeeze in a rush tour before lunch. I remember quite enjoying Edinburgh Castle for the view & some of the history (unfortunately after two weeks it's joined the historic-building-haze in my mind). Big rush back to the hostel to change for MTBing & meet Jamie (a uni friend).

Managed to meet up ok, but the first problem was the bike Jamie had borrowed off his wife, Rachel, had not met quick-release & neither of us had the cumbersome tools required to remove the wheels. Nevermind, eventually by turning the handlebars on the stem the trusty Passat saloon (which deserves a posting of its own) swallowed the bike whole & mine fitted on top it & the boot even closed. The drive south to Peebles was uneventful, except for my introduction to Tescos for a lunch on the run - actually, that doesn't really qualify as an event. By now the sun was even out & shining. (I should have savoured that moment for much longer.)

Arriving at Glentress, it was a record time for assembling my bike from its travel bag & we were off in to the forest. A better description would be off up in to the forest - as we pretty much rode up hill for an hour (I hadn't done any exercise of the sort since the first N-Duro in Rotorua some four weeks ago - at least it felt like it). It must be said that the climb was punctuated by a neat little downhill skills section where I perfected my backflip (have watched too much of the Collective's Seasons this week) and also a nice little bit of singletrack. Having made it to the top (Jamie having told me on the way up he used to race nationals) it was time to rip in to some strangely varied singletrack. The first big difference to my normal riding was due to the Scottish rainfall - all the tracks were hard packed gravel so that they are still rideable after big rain. This made for a lot more tyre noise than I was used to. There were some sweet berms & lots of decent sized rocks placed in nice places in the track to keep me on my toes. I was just glad that I didn't have the pogo-forks that Jamie had... A great ride, thanks to the guide.

Back in to the city to meet up with Rachel & Nicola (yet another uni mate over here working) for dinner. They had been up north half way to Aberdeen meeting Dan (you guessed it - uni) & got stuck half way back when the train developed some fault. Never mind, it was great to catch up eventually, get some tips for what to see & have a good meal - haggis wasn't even too bad.

The next morning before leaving, I dragged Mum & Dad up Arthur's Seat for the view (mind you, we could see most of the cloud from sea level) - well worth it. Then off to Oban for two nights; we managed to drive past T in the Park without too many traffic worries - although I was disappointed to learn I had missed R.E.M playing there during the weekend. Once over the Firth, the weather closed in nicely & we would get used to the sight of low cloud.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yorkshire Dales

Up early again on Wednesday for the drive up to Gainsborough to meet Mum & Dad staying at Mum's cousin's place.  Managed the 200-odd miles by nine o'clock & was pleasantly surprised to see Mum's elderly Uncle & Aunt had made the trip up to see up (I haven't seen them since I was four).  Great to catch up with every one & get out of the city.  After lunch it was off to York (270 doesn't sound far to drive when you are used to kilometres, but miles is a different story) for a look around the Jorvik Viking museum - it was under ground on the site where they had a big archaeological dig in the '80s & found all sorts of Viking artefacts from over 1200 years ago.  Quite interesting (Mum of course found it very interesting).  York was really nice - especially with its large pedestrian precinct & cobbled streets & lovely old buildings (I'm not quite over old buildings yet - which is just as well as we are in Edinburgh now). 
Driving north we found Thirsk (James Herriot country in North Yorkshire) & Mardeby Hall down a nice winding lane to Felixkirk (there are some great English place names).  We were staying with some farming contacts/investors of Dad's on their farm.  The farmhouse was probably young at 400 years old & had a heap of character & interesting curios - also so good NZ scenes on the wall thanks to their yearly trips to NZ. Best of all I could even understand the Yorkshire accents.  A tour around the (cropping) farm revealed all sorts wheat, potatoes, rapeseed & most disturbingly a lot of pheasants that had been released for the next hunting season.
By now weather was quite the contrast to Italy - close cloud if not raining & only in the mid teens; this made our time back in York a bit of a mad dash between the minster, the Castle Museum the very large National Railway Museum & the buses.  Dad even managed a round of golf (& didn't lose) before we had a dinner party back at the house - altogether a bit unusual for me, but very enjoyable & I was quite impressed when one of the couples turned up in a new soft-top Bentley Continental.  I managed a drive up through Suttonunderwhitestonecliff (apparently longest village name in England) to have a look at the moors - unfortunately ran out of time to get right out amongst them & the weather wasn't good enough to persuade me to put my bike together & check out some of the local MTB tracks (of which there appear to be plenty).
Have driven north to Edinburgh & after reading so many Rebus novels, I'm loving it - I can see why people would live here, except it's the middle of summer & I think there will be better weather at home when I get back to winter.  Should manage a ride tomorrow at a big MTB park a bit south of the city.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Out of Italy...

Train strike worked out ok & I made it back to Empoli. Up early for another train to Florence & to airport for flight to airport. Strangely a couple of flights were delayed due to bad weather in Florence - I couldn't work this out as the sun was shining (admittedly it was only low-twenties, but that is hardly bad weather) & no wind to speak of. Thankfully my flight was ok, but late leaving - giving me only a 25 minute transfer in Munich. Ze Germans managed to get me on the plane in time - unfortunately my bike got left behind. After a 2 hour wait at Heathrow for the next Munich flight with my bike on it, it was time battle rush hour traffic back to Andrew & Shelley's - great to be somewhere familiar after a couple of roundabout misadventures. At this point I had better mention (as possibly the only person to read this so far - Andrew - was not so pleased to not be mentioned in such an illustrious publication) the fantastic hospitality from the Patricks that I had for my week in London - great place to stay, very helpful travel & sightseeing advice & just great to stay with friends - even young Vittoria (6 or 7 months) didn't always cry in my presence (incidentally, the Italians seem to know of this charming youngun - her name is plastered all around the place). Considering it was 7 pm this time, I've saved the 4 hour drive north to meet Mum & Dad until tomorrow night.

From the Italy files - don't ever buy a Lancia, they have the consistently ugliest cars right across their range & if you want to present the weather on breakfast television, it seems you have to be a very high ranking air force general in full dress uniform. Friends dubbed in to Italian actually leaves Ross sounding a lot cooler than normal & Pheobe like a large Italian grandmother. Also, The Full Monty in Italian is still quite strange.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tuscan touring

Wednesday was much quieter with another big sleep in, followed by a short drive to markets at Certaldo. I finally found some jandals for a steal (€4) & my feet could breath again. For a change, we didn't get lost on the scenic route home. Dinner at the trattoria across the road & no great gelatos this day.

Thursday was a bit more adventurous - a drive out west to the Mediterranean & then south with the idea of getting a ferry to Elba (where Napoleon was exiled for a while before he returned for the so-called one hundred days). Unfortunately an unplanned detour, the ferry schedule & the hour long trip meant we flagged the idea of crossing to the island & just poked around various towns. Mum was pleased to find Etruscan ruins & artefacts - the little castle (compared to some - I still wouldn't have been able to conquer it with my Swiss Army card). Cocktail party back at the estate - this was to be the welcome party earlier in the week, but the wedding was then.

Siena was the plan for Friday - lunching with my Uncle & Aunty. I must have eaten some thing not too agreeable the night before as stomach cramps lessened my enjoyment of the day all round. Still, Siena was beautiful & the cathedral quite spectacular. Spent quite a while trying to find where we were to meet for lunch (this seems to be a common theme) & eventually settled on the edge of the Piazza del Campo. We were glad to have missed the crowds of people two days previous - it was one of the twice-annual runnings of Il Palio. Il Palio is a centuries old horse race around the piazza (square) between representatives of the different neighbourhoods & it is very popular. Considering it was well over 30 °C much of the week & the crowd of 50,000+ is locked in the middle of the piazza for the four hours before the race - I didn't really miss the three lap, one minute race.

Farewells for all over Friday night & Saturday morning. We drove north about half an hour to Empoli - a much less touristy town that is on the railway route between Pisa & Florence. After we eventually found the hotel, it was off in to Florence to have a look around. After the previous weeks in the heart of Tuscany, I wasn't particularly impressed by Florence (Philistines - I know) & its crowds of people & lots of artwork (although I did keep saying ''stat you bro?'' every so often). Our general apathy for Florence & Mum's tiredness led to a day off around Empoli on Sunday - Dad & I did manage to venture to Vinci (not to difficult to guess who the most famous son of the town is - there were an awful lot of models of various mechanical devices).

Today en route to dropping Mum & Dad at Pisa airport & dropping the rental off, we made a rather circuitous route to seeing the tower - which is a rather remarkable stuff up. People/tourist watching there was quite fun - I think I have more photos of people standing waving their arms around in the air for others' cameras than I do of the tower. The excitement (although I quickly grew bored of it) of today is trying to get back to Empoli tonight - for some unexplained reason, all the workers on the regional trains & buses have been on strike since last night & that is due to finish at 2100 tonight - it could be a late trip back. Tomorrow (regional transport dependent) I'm back to Heathrow to pick up another rental & then drive north to meet Mum & Dad again for our tour of bits of Britain visiting various friends & family.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tuscan sun...

I arrived in Florence a week ago to a somewhat sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (a slight change from London) - to find that Mum & Dad were not there to meet me. The highlight of the transfer at Frankfurt was the long bus ride from the terminal to our plane - beside a taxiing A340, which we almost stacked in to which the bus driver somehow didn't quite see (!) when it turned right in front of us. My baggage receipt performance improved to being the first bag out on the carousel (that's two seconds & a first from my last three flights). Eventually they turned up & we much more successfully navigated our way to Il Castagno (not that I had anything to do with that). My cousin (who I have not seen in over ten years) came out to meet us & we ensconced ourselves in our apartment (Il Forno - named after the rather large clay oven in the corner of the apartment). After sorting ourselves out (Mum & Dad had come from an equally hot Beijing) it was off to catch up with Dad's brother & his family and meet the fifty odd wedding party & guests that had come from all over the world for the week of sun, celebrations, sightseeing, eating & drinking. The views from the estate were quite what I expected of Tuscany (hills, olives, grapevines, big old houses), except there was a lot of forest/bush & a strange haze off in the distance that we never really identified.Monday dawned another scorching day & we had plenty of time to sleep in, learn to drive on the right, drive in to Montignoso, find supplies before siesta time & have a nice relaxed lunch before the wedding. Mercifully the weather cooled enough for the 5 pm service that a suit was bearable (just). The service on the lawn next to the main house was very nice indeed & the nine course meal stretched well in to the night - but of course not as far as the celebrations (being the party animal that I am, I was tucked up by the relatively modest hour of 2 am - although tucked up is a pretty poor description given the heat).

After a big sleep in (although not compared to some), it was off to explore San Gimignano & some of its towers. Parking outside the ancient walls gave ample opportunity for exploring the tight, narrow & steep streets as we meandered our way towards the centre of town. The seventeen or so remaining towers from centuries ago provide much of the tourist attraction to the town - the view from the tallest one showed much more of the countryside & an interesting take on the narrow streets. After wandering round some more it was time for our first Italian gelato. These were from what has been judged the world's best gelateria for most of the last ten years & they were divine - I managed to stuff up ordering three seperate gelatos so mine came out with three different flavours; the only problem with such gelatos first up, was that ever since then each gelato has been somewhat disappointing.For dinner that night, we managed to escape the trattoria across the rode from the estate & hightailed it (a rather enthusiatic embellishment of my at-this-stage-tentative driving on the narrow, winding & steep Tuscan roads) to Volterra. In the calm & coolness of the early evening, it was great to wander the much less crowded (than San Gimignano) & have a very relaxed meal on the edge of the main Piazza & check out the castle & watch people go by. Also caught a look at a ruined Roman ampitheatre before the drive home.