Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ravenna & Venice

Barely having recovered from the exhausting journey back from NZ, I was off to Italy less than a week after getting home.  It was a little odd going back to work after NZ & having all sorts of people telling me I was going to visit one of our sister plants for a week to see how they operate their similar plant better.  It was a very productive, informative & interesting week spent with my boss & workmate as the Italian process engineers showed us around and gave us plenty of ideas to try out back at Hythe.  For the most part, the language difference wasn't a problem as most, except some operators, spoke reasonable English; Steve (my boss) knows quite a bit of Italian & Henry (workmate) knows a little - I of course only know the tiny amount I remember from previous Italian trips.

Ravenna is a very nice little city (~160000) & fortunately we were staying close to the centre - so it was very easy to walk around town on the warm evenings.  We didn't have a lot of time to see some of the renowned early-church mosaics (eight UNESCO World Heritage sights to be seen), but Henry & I managed to see a couple once Steve had gone back to England early.  Of course, being Italy, the food was fantastic & as the capital of Romagna region we were able to sample quite a bit of the local food & wine. 

The SBR (styrene-butadiene rubber) plant was on a huge industrial site, a similar size to the Port Kembla Steelworks - but with more space dedicated to plant, rather than stockpiles. There were an incredible number of bicycles and small Fiats all around to save much walking.  There was an appropriately sized canteen, where the lunches were bountiful & cheap.  Perhaps I ate too much pasta last week.

It wasn't too difficult to get my return flight pushed out by two days so that I could have a free day exploring somewhere else in Italy.  Conveniently, Venice is on my list and only a short, cheap train ride away from Ravenna.  I rolled in Friday evening & then had a twenty minute walk rolling my cases along a lot of cobbles and carrying them over many bridges.  The end of September is a good time to visit: it's warm, but not hot; the famous stink wasn't there; and the crowds are tolerable.

But what an absolute nuts city - built on (& sinking into) the water, it's just mad.  Being so flat, it's a very easy city to walk around & get to the main sights & even outlying neighbourhoods - pre-cached maps on one's phone really help in not getting lost in the labyrinth (the GPS signal was surprisingly strong in such skinny streets surrounded by tall stone buildings).  While I expected no cars, the lack of bikes took a little more to get used to - especially after the proliferation of bikes in Ravenna.

Grand Canal
Rialto Bridge
St Mark's Campanile

As usual, I walked an awful lot around the city popping in to a few of the famous buildings & museums - Scuola Grande di San Rocco (filled with huge Tintorettos - said to be his Sistine Chapel) was my favourite.  The Jewish Quarter was nice & quiet, but then so were a lot of the neighbourhoods away from the Grand Canal & associated crowds.

Somewhere along the way I stumbled across some sort of musical museum, so I took a peek and learnt all sorts about Vivaldi - I didn't know he was from Venice.  But that's not surprising as I am musically ignorant.  Which makes it even stranger that I somehow ended up at a concerto that night in a packed hall listening to (what seemed to me, at least) an incredible string recital.  It can't have been just me that thought so as the applause was prolonged - they came back three times just to bow and another two times for encores.  Most of the evening was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which as well as being brilliant kept on fooling me into thinking that another summer of NZ cricket was here - thanks National Bank.

So that two hours of the four violins, a viola, a cello (the cellist was particularly exuberant and highly entertaining), a double bass & a harpsichord turned out to be the highlight of Venice for me.  A great place to visit, but with so much stone, so many people, no grass & few trees I don't think it's a city I could spend much more than a few days at a time in.

Monday, September 24, 2012

NZ Visit - Southern Week

Continuing the multitude of too-brief visits, I said my goodbyes to Elizabeth & Cara at Wellington airport & flew south to Timaru where Dad & Adele were waiting for me.  With not having seen Dad in the three-plus years I've been away (two and a half years for Adele), it was great to see them again.  It's a relatively short drive down to Oamaru and amongst poring (& laughing) over family photo albums we headed out to the Brydone (was there another choice?) for a meal.

The view from Mum & Dad's place hasn't changed much
The fleeting visit to Oamaru over (it's never been home for me), we headed down to Dunedin to pick Mum from university (only eight months since I last saw Mum in London, but of course great to see her too).  It was an afternoon's worth of leisurely driving through Central Otago to get to Adele's place in Wanaka.
Adele gave me heaps for taking this photo through the windscreen, so I should share it
We stopped in St Bathan's for a quick look at the old mining town (bypassed by the highway, so it's pretty quiet) and a pint in the pub.

This passes for an old building in NZ, nice pub it was too.
We were about a day out with the timing for the skiing, missing the biggest dump (60 cm) of the season just.  Still there was plenty of spring snow to play in for Wednesday afternoon.  High winds dictated that we go to Treble Cone - alas only half of their chairs were running.  When I say half, I mean one - a little smaller than the skifields I'm used to over this side of the world.

Still, with the setting above the lake, the snow-capped mountains surrounding and the high country not covered in snow - Treble Cone is one of the more beautiful ski areas I've skied at.  As this was my first ski since the shoulder operation, I was keen to just test the shoulder out gently for the afternoon.  (Bizarrely, the guy that hired me the skis comes from the same village that I live in here in the UK.)  Being mid-week & partially closed, the ski area was pretty empty and Adele & I had a good time on & off piste and I was well pleased with my shoulder.

Wednesday was set aside for tiki-touring.  As we got close to Lake Hawea, we could see a big storm rolling in from the west across the mountains.  We quickly did an about turn and headed south for a very pleasant day exploring old Cromwell (the town was flooded when the Clyde dam was built) and old hydraulic mining sites around Bannockburn.  There was a good hour-long stroll around the old mine workings - the gold was in the sedimentary rock & extracted by what was basically washing the side of the hill away with deluges of water.  This involved rather ingenious & large systems for storing and then directing the water to where it was needed.  The landscape was strangely reminiscent of the badlands of both Alberta & South Dakota in some ways.
Part of the mining area - original height would have been slightly higher that that on the right of picture

One of the bigger reservoirs & not a very interesting photo
That storm really did roll in that night as we were going out for dinner & the rain was still pelting down early in the morning.  The time that I was awake that night was pretty much spent thinking that I wouldn't get to go for a mountain-bike ride with Adele (who thankfully has finally discovered while I've been away that MTBing is pretty cool) that morning before we headed back to Dunedin.  But peaking out the curtains at seven o'clock the sky was strangely clear.  I hustled off to rent a bike - I wanted a bog-standard hardtail but the shop was so disorganised that I ended up with a softtail 29er for the price of a hardtail, score.

Riding from home, we were quickly climbing up the Sticky Forest.  My leg work at the gym while shoulder was recovering seems to have paid off, the hills weren't much of a problem - although that may have been those big wheels turning.  The trails had drained pretty quickly & we stayed relatively mud-free. We skirted around the edge of the lake to Albert Town before crossing the Clutha River.

The object of the crossing the river was to get Deans Bank Track - a recent DOC project.
Wonderful get-up borrowed from Adele - my old Dobies shorts & a commuter jacket
A few switchbacks to get up on to the plateau before north-west
Pretty spectacular spring morning ride

It's a well thought out loop & I imagine a very fast loop if it's properly dry - we had a good time checking it out.  Once again I was pleased with how my shoulder stood up to its longest ride in a long time.

Heading back to Albert Town, you can just make out the new trail down there

So that was a great ride out, about four hours and interrupted only by Adele somehow managing to gouge her big chainring in to the top of her calf - still don't know how she was able to do that while riding uphill.  Back to Dunedin that afternoon, coincidentally good friends the Careys (where I had one of my 30th celebrations) were down visiting (youngest daughter) Fiona - so that was a good excuse to have another meal out, not too mention seeing James & Becca (I lay the blame of me moving to Canada for a year firmly at their feet - not that I'm complaining about that).

We even remembered to have a family photo, I'm sure I'm not that much taller - must be the cowboy boots
Goodbyes were said Saturday morning (best I don't dwell on that too much) & I was back up to Auckland for a final pack, check progress of Andrew & Shelley's kitchen and then fly back to London via LA.  After years of people saying how much of a hassle security is at LAX when in transit, it turns out that is all false - we didn't even have to go through security again, unlike at Hong Kong.  Home Sunday, back to work the next day to find that I was being sent to Italy the following week for work.  That was a real shame.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NZ Visit - Northern Week

Ben & Gina's upcoming wedding finally provided me with the motivation to spend considerable money & annual leave to return home to New Zealand for a brief visit. I was a little concerned that a wedding at the end of winter would mean that I would have a rather cold & gloomy visit home.  I need not have worried, it was a generally stunning & warm fortnight - especially after all the prior rain I was told about.

I had planned for my inbound flight to arrive on my birthday - much better than the other option of missing one's thirtieth through time zone changes - & was very pleased that favourite sister, Adele, made it all the way up for the night's celebrations.  After picking up the rental car & navigating new roads, we made it to Mt Eden.  Andrew & Shelley's house (they have returned to NZ after many years in London - the latter few during which I spent a fair bit of time with them) was in a fair state of disarray as the kitchen area was gutted for next week's new kitchen.  It was a gorgeous & warm day to head up Mt Eden with a good old steak & mushroom pie to catch some views of Auckland.

We decided a local B&B was a much better option for sleep than a rather crowded lounge next to a (de)construction site - so after a jet-lag induced nap, it was time to wander up the road to Mt Eden Village & the bar where I'd organised a small gathering to see a lot of people at once.  I recommend having a birthday when visiting home - it's a good excuse to get everyone together.  A most enjoyable night catching up with many old friends - a little odd for me being the only one that knew everyone else & therefore having to actually mingle & talk to everyone, imagine that!  Was my usual slack self at taking pictures of people, but pretty pleased with this one.

Another clear morning was enough excuse to wander around Mission Bay with Adele in the sun, before having lunch with cousin David & dropping Adele at the airport.  Straight down to Waihi Beach & the farm, where strangely Rosemary & the children were missing (gone to Te Puke).  While Dave continued milking the cows, I had another big nap before a bit of a boys night eating well too much down in the village before returning to watch the All Blacks.

Sunday Brunch with catching up with Tori & Greg down at the Mount before strolling along Main Beach reminiscing (my first school is not too far away).

Up in to the hills behind Tauranga to check out Bruce & Sue's new property (they've recently moved from Pukekohe) before taking the back roads in to Te Puke for another gathering/birthday celebration. It seems plenty of kids have arrived since I left, there were almost as many children running around as there were adults (not running around) that evening.  Penny excelled in the cake department, yet again, & there was the general abundance of food that comes from a good Te Puke shared dinner.



I've just realised that the rest of the week continued in the same way - I drove a fair bit & saw scores of close friends & family.  I'm still tired from the return flights & going straight back to work, so it's to the highlights we go.

I was thrilled that my first bike ride post-shoulder operation was in the Redwoods & on my singlespeed that I haven't ridden for over three years (I brought it back with me, it's now assembled & awaiting Thursday's after work ride).  A relatively easy ride which the shoulder & legs handled admirably.

More Auckland outings with Shelley & Amelie in the sun, plenty of good food too.  By the end of the week, I'd seen that Auckland is actually quite a nice city - if you can get down to the water.
From Devonport
Auckland City from Devonport
Rangitoto Island from Devonport

Other good visits included a return to Ironmaking at NZ Steel; Pukekohe visits to my old flats; and a coal dinner.  The wedding was down south of Hamilton on a vineyard (who knew there were such things in the Waikato?) halfway through my visit.  It was just warm enough for the service to be outside (but that's easy to say when you wore a jacket & weren't one of the ones with bare shoulders). It was a super sweet service & most excellent to see two close friends clearly so happy; the food & cake wasn't bad either.

One last stop before the South Island was necessary in Wellington to see Elizabeth, Nigel & recent-addition Cara. I've not been more thrilled on hearing a friend was expecting a first child as I was when Elizabeth told me she was pregnant, so there was much delight in catching up with this expanding family. In what seems to be a common thread of these visits, the food was once again scrumptious.