Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 was certainly different

For the first time in four years, I've managed to live in the same place all year and to be working for the same company at each end of those twelve months.  While this has given life a bit more stability this year, it hasn't been without plenty of variety.  The event that influenced half of the year was having surgery on my shoulder to stop it dislocating.  Six weeks in a sling and six months before being fit to mountain-bike again was quite the upheaval - but it was all worth it as my shoulder is much more stable & predictable now.

Not being able to ride my bike did have the advantage of forcing me to find other things to do with my time & money.  Consequently, it turned out to be a bit of a travel year with twelve significant trips:

First up was an excellent week of skiing in the Alps with good friends.
The day after the sling was banished, I finally crossed Rome off the top of my list - it had been there some time.
The Pantheon was the highlight for me, followed closely by climbing St Peter's Basilica.
A week in Turkey was mostly spent in Istanbul, where the architecture continually impressed.
Hot-air ballooning early morning in Cappadocia rates near the top of all I've done in the last three years away from NZ

Prague - with Te Puke school friend, Levi, a long way from Fairhaven Primary
The country was gripped by the Olympics late summer, great to be around for that.
I was lucky enough to take a last-minute spare ticket & made it along to watch some of the mountain-biking - quality athletes & a great course to be a spectator.
The highlight trip of the year was finally heading back to New Zealand for a whirlwind two weeks of thirtieth birthday parties (mine), a wedding (not mine), and tripping all around the country & spending time with dear family & friends (not mention meeting quite a few additions that have arrived in the intervening three years).  There was also the added bonus of the physio declaring my shoulder fit for gentle exercise - so I managed a bit of mountain-biking and a ski too.
Treble Cone, near Wanaka, is a spectacularly beautiful ski field it turns out.
These photos don't come around as often as they should - excellent to have all the family together.
Shortly after NZ, a work trip to Italy sprung out of nowhere - I managed to tack Venice on the end.
Gorgeous city for a day - but I found the lack of trees, grass and bikes a little disconcerting.
Pleased to finally make it back briefly to Edinburgh & even see the sun.
I'd waited a long time to see Sagrada Familia, after hearing Dad's stories - it didn't disappoint and was, in a word, incredible.
Watching football with eighty-odd thousand Spaniards at Camp Nou; Barcelona crossed off the top of the list.
Still managing to explore England a fair bit, mainly the south - Leeds Castle (in Kent) was one of the most enjoyable visits.
Fancy that, a summary of my year & no mountain-biking pictures, that should change next year - here's hoping.  In the last few months I have been riding a fair bit (even though my bike-commute is short, the miles add up), but it's pretty flat & wet (for now, or perhaps always) around here so the riding isn't too exciting.  Work will be changing a bit next year too; I managed to be a process engineer of sorts for a year but am now moving into a different role scheduling the site's production, amongst other things.

So that's about it for this year - thanks to all who had me to stay, travelled with me, helped while my shoulder was out of action or simply kept in touch.  I'll have to take this opportunity to wish all a merry Christmas and the best for the New Year, as I'll be incommunicado then - Egypt will be off the list by the end of next week.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Leeds Castle

Not having been to London for almost four months(!), it didn't take much motivation to make the trip up after work on Friday.  The factor in choosing that weekend was to see (childhood friend) Levi, who I haven't seen since Prague in August, before he goes back to New Zealand.  Contrary to what I thought, he is in fact coming back to Europe - so that's good news.  With the first spell of proper southern-England winter weather finally arriving, London was a little chilly but not unpleasant as we generally hung out around Hyde Park (the Christmas market was as packed as last time I visited three years ago), Oxford St, Marylebone and Kensington and caught up on all the recent news & future plans.

Fantastic to see Trish after a few months, I was well fed with some scrumptious meals, caught up on all the family news I've missed recently and was surprised to look out my window in the morning & see the back garden looking very different.  I was about to say Sunday dawned stunningly clear & bright, but then I remembered that I caught up on a fair bit of sleep after an exhausting week at work.  So, by the time I got up Sunday was still very frozen but wonderfully clear & bright.  That played right in to my plan of finally going to visit Leeds Castle - which, confusingly, is only thirty-odd minutes down the M20 in Kent and most definitely not in Leeds.

From the entry it's quite a walk up to the castle - which is all very nice when it's sunny & there are plenty of birds to see (especially the ice-skating & ice-breaking varieties), but I imagine is downright miserable if it's raining.  That must be what the fake-train is for.

Leeds Castle has been around in some shape or form since the early twelfth century, but most of what is there now is less than two-hundred years old.  Pleasingly, it's built on two islands (now joined by the castle) so it has a proper moat - which may not be so useful for defence if it was much colder, and the ice thicker.  The castle survived the Civil War well and a long connection with America developed as the owners were granted massive land rights in Virginia.  The last owner (for most of the twentieth century), an Anglo-American heiress (Standard Oil money if anyone cares) spent a lot of money on remodelling & upkeep.

All the Christmas decorations were up - this was probably the least impressive, but I didn't take any photos inside as there were massive Christmas trees everywhere (& I forgot to).

Finally, a photo of me - thanks Trish.
 As well as the castle to look through we enjoyed a hearty lunch in the restaurant that looked like an old tithe-barn (or so I'm told), a small falconry display, got lost in a maze and wondered just how cold the people were in the WWI-era biplane that was buzzing overhead as the sun quickly sunk.

A pleasing & beautiful day out; trips to London never disappoint.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The drive to the airport was considerably shortened by choosing Southampton instead of Gatwick for a weekend away - however that was largely undone by an afternoon of fog cascading delays through the evening. Nevertheless, I made it into Dublin in good time to settle into my room & have a brief wander around Temple Bar & over and alongside the Liffey.  The slightly cooler air necessitated a winter coat & beanie/toque, but it was hardly uncomfortably cold.

My airbnb host had previously sent me a useful Google map with places to visit/eat/drink around the city.  Immediately catching my eye was small the eatery named Brendan's close by that apparently served the best full Irish breakfast in the city - for those working at the adjacent produce market.  It was a good meal to get me fuelled for a day wandering - & I got to meet a fellow Brendan.  It was a little strange being in Ireland for the first time & seeing my first name plastered in all sorts of places (it's an Irish name if you haven't joined those dots yet).  Along with the coffee shop, there was St Brendan's Hospital and then a minor character with the same name popped up in the book I was reading.

My first encounter with an Irish accent that completely bamboozled me was here.

I found Dublin a great city to wander around and get glimpses of a long and varied history.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of this was to do with rebellions and struggles.  I spent a good hour or so at the National Museum at Collin's Barracks where there was an intriguing exhibit detailing all the various places Irish have fought around the world.  It seemed to me that there were Irish fighting in most of the major conflicts around the world in the centuries before WWII, even when it seemingly had nothing to do with them.  Either they're always spoiling for a fight, they liked to fight oppressors or were just looking to be somewhere else.  I was puzzled that the republic refrained from sticking it to one of the biggest oppressors in WWII, but by then I suppose they had their independence & didn't fancy all the bombing.
Wishing I had a wider angle or could get a bit further from Collin's Barracks

The most interesting place I found to visit during my stay was Kilmainham Gaol a little west of the city centre.  Entry was by guided tour, but it was only six euros & it would have still been good value at twice the price.  The building itself wasn't particularly interesting, but the endless self-deprecating stories told of failed rebellion after failed rebellion were fascinating.  It was rather chilling, & not just from the mid-afternoon gloom & wind, standing in the windowless courtyard where the key figures from the 1916 Easter Rising were executed.  Obviously, that rebellion was also pretty rubbish & mass support for the independence movement only really got going after the harsh punishment handed out in that cheerless stone enclosure.
The Victorian addition to Kilmainham Gaol

General Post Office - one of the key buildings seized during the Easter Rising

It turns out that that famous stout does taste better in Dublin.  It may be accentuated by my only previous Guinnesses were consumed on the other side of the world, where all that shipping may have done something to it.  Still, it was good fun (somewhat surreal) sitting in a neighbourhood bar nursing a pint, reading Rebus and explaining the differences between Kindles & tablets to a guy setting up the karaoke whom I could hardly understand.  Dublin sure is not short of bars & pubs (I saw quite a few claiming to be the oldest around) - that is to be expected; but oddly, almost as plentiful as watering holes are convenience stores and, even more bizarrely, American diners.

Sunday was spent walking around a lot - two walking tours probably contributed to that.  The guides were excellent, with gentle ribbing of the hated English and yet more stories of disastrous attempts at overthrowing the rulers.  The intervening pub lunch was interesting - I quickly saw why a potato blight would lead to an awful famine.  I ordered Irish stew - the first guy behind the carvery put a healthy serving of mashed potato on my my plate & then covered it with stew.  The next guy then loaded more mash on & then thought I could do with four pieces of baked potato as well.  I don't think I've ever had so much potato in my life, & I didn't even finish it all. 

The oldest part of Dublin Castle - the tower at the back

The filled in bit where the black pool (the literal meaning of Dublin) used to be beside the castle. The River Poddle still runs underneath - what a great name.

The weird bit of Dublin Castle - it's only a castle, why not use vivid primary & secondary colours? Bare stone is so last century.

Of course, no visit to this city could be complete without visiting the Guinness factory.  Well, the Storehouse which is quite the behemoth of an old building surrounded by the still working factory.  With seven, or so, industrially-sized floors there's plenty of space for all the necessary visitor experience bits & bobs.  There were quite a few old industrial artefacts - even older than some of the stuff we've got at work, hard to believe as it is.  Getting to pour, & then hastily consume, my own perfect pint I then had to dash off to walk across town, get my bag & head to the airport.  No time for dinner that night, just as well all that spud meant I wasn't hungry or in need of a meal.

So a very good weekend in Dublin & I think I got a good overview of Irish history - I now look forward to visiting other counties, perhaps some of the southern ones.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


A pesky little cold turned up the night before I was due to fly to Barcelona, but a curtailed day at work enabled sufficient midday napping to make the drive to Gatwick and subsequent flight possible (the fantastic wild boar at Jamie's Italian at Gatwick deserves a mention - especially as I didn't have that much of an appetite [OK, that last part is hardly ever true of me]).

I had about an hour that Friday night after finding my airbnb accommodation to have a quick look around the local neighbourhood and grab a quick bite before crashing for the night.  The highlight of that was seeing a mob of Halloween costumed inline skaters - completely bizarre.

Saturday is mostly a bit of a cold-fighting induced daze as I walked around the central area, the harbourside, Las Ramblas and sat in the sun watching Catalonian life go by.

Christopher Columbus set off from this city for the Far East

Cold kicked & just leaving me an irritating cough for the rest of the week ("Would you call that moss green or forest green?"), I was well enough to wrap up too much for a mild evening at Camp Nou.  The home of FC Barcelona, it is the biggest stadium in Europe nudging one-hundred thousand capacity.  It's not exactly new & I was up in the rafters (well I would have been if the section I sat in was roofed).  I was surprised at how good the view was from the top - it was easy to see the skill of the Barca passing as they relentlessly attacked the Celta Vigo goal in front of me during the first half. 

While it was only a La Liga game (the Spanish football league), the stadium filled up to 83000 and it was excellent to get along to one of the great sport venues in the world and soak up the atmosphere - even if I didn't understand much of what was being said; at least football is pretty easy to understand.

I must have been feeling better by then as over the dinner menu, convinced I wanted some lovely chanterelles I thought it would be a good time to try lamb brains for the first time.  Strangely, the brains were the highlight - not that the mushrooms were bad.  One just had to get past the whole zombie eating brains & texture thing.  The pitcher of sangria may have helped a little.

Not quite early & out on the metro early enough to avoid the regular large queue at Sagrada Familia, I climbed from the metro tunnel, turned around and was suddenly struck by a sight I'd waited twenty-odd years to see.  Of all Dad's travel stories from when he was tripping around Europe in his late twenties, the story of Antoni Gaudi who started a huge church in Barcelona and was killed by a tram before it was close to completion & how it was now standing unfinished always did the most to capture my imagination.  I always knew I'd see it one day & I finally did; I was not disappointed - it's a staggering project that is still some years off completion.

Nativity Facade
The intricately decorated Nativity Facade forms the largest & most spectacular part of what Gaudi managed to complete in his lifetime (it also forms part of the World Heritage Site, along with his crypt).  All through it are various parts of the nativity story along with an awful lot of nature - plants & animals abound.

Passion Facade
The more recently completed Passion Facade on the opposite side of the basilica is not just geometrically opposite - there is a lot of bare stone & it's austere & somewhat chilling in its simplicity.

Only very recently has the church part of the complex been enclosed and I'm not sure what is the most impressive thing inside.  For me, it was probably the huge pillars of varying heights and width.  The pillars get more sides the further up you go, so they almost end up being completely round as they branch like trees near the roof.

I paid my extra three euros for the elevator up, walk across and down the towers of the Nativity Facade - well worth it to get a much closer look of the stonework.  The audioguide, for the record, is also worthy of the extra euros.  I'm not sure I'll ever see anything quite like Sagrada Familia - & am already looking forward to seeing it after it's completed (there is a huge tower still to go on top).
Spiral staircases abound - this one in the Nativity Facade
Back to the Nativity Facade
The towers on the Passion Facade
I had been told that Park Guell was also a Barca sight not to be missed.  Post lunch I strolled in that direction - it turned out to be quite a walk up a long hill that gradually increased in steepness.  But it was worth it to see more Gaudi work - the gingerbread-esque houses were quite something.  The park was very popular despite the hill and there were plenty of entertaining musicians around.  It was a little cloudy by then, but the views over the city were still good.

So that was Barcelona, a little less than I perhaps would normally do on a weekend break - but I saw all that I wanted to & loved it.  I hope it's not twenty years again before I fulfil my desire to visit the city.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Scotland for a night

Trials of our SBR (synthetic rubber) through our sister plant's granulator at Grangemouth necessitated an overnight visit to Scotland earlier this week.  The trials went well, the half a tonne of rubber we previously sent up was annihilated by the rotating knives ("Did you say knives?", "Rotating knives - yes.").  That left enough time to see around the rest of the plant, quite a different process to ours - solvent rather than emulsion based polymerisation.

Shaun & I popped in to Edinburgh that night, it wasn't far & I was disgusted that Shaun hadn't been before.  The grey day had given way to a very misty night with a light rain falling.  After a great dinner (mmm, haggis) catching up with family-friend Thomas, whom I stayed with on my last visit three years ago, we went up & found the castle entrance looming out of the mist.

After more time discussing granulators, balers & general Finishing Plant issues the following day it was time to head off to the airport.  Misjudging the time it would take, we were well early & popped down to the Forth to check out the bridges.  We managed to get closest to the rail bridge (on land anyway), & it is by far the more photogenic - thankfully the weather was much better on Wednesday.

An all-too-brief return to Scotland, I must get up there again soon - it's beautiful & I'd forgotten how much I missed the accent.  Black pudding isn't too bad either.