On the Road

"Not all who wander are lost" 

        J.R.R. Tolkien

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2008 

The Globe Theatre (May)

Belfast, Northern Ireland (May)

Budapest, Hungary  (May)

Madrid, Spain (April) 

Kentish Countryside (April) 

Vilnius, Lithuania (April)

Lisbon, Portugal (April) 

Brussels, Belgium (April) 

Stuttgart, Germany (March) 

Dallas ( March)

Borough Market, Time with Friends (Old and New), Amsterdam  (March) 

Florence and Pisa (March)

New Home in London (February)

Bristol (UK) (February

Copenhagen (February) 

Tallinn Estonia (February) 

Guildford and Alton (February) 

Arrival in the UK (February)

Vancouver/Whistler (January) 

 Las Vegas (January)

2007 

London (November) 

Weaver Creek Salmon Spawning (October) 

Bumbershoot (September) 

New York Half Marathon (August) 

Weddings (July)

Memorial Cup; Virgin Music Festival (May) 

Coachella Music and Arts Festival (April) 

Charleston SC (Feb.) 

Calgary (Feb.) 

Winterlude in Ottawa (Feb.)

Lake Tahoe - Spring Skiing

The Travel Insanity (Feb.)

2006 

Vancouver Stuff - Dec/Jan 

Kruger Park, South Africa (Nov.)

London (Nov.)

New York City Marathon (Nov.)

Los Angeles

Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and a Visit from Shawn

Tahsis (Aug.)

Ontario - Mackenzie Victoria 

Whistler Volleyball

Las Vegas

Memphis

Tourist in My Own Province 

Other Places  I've Been...

 

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Contact Info:

Warren Cartwright
116 North Block
5 Chicheley Street
London England
SE1 7PJ

Office: +44 1483 794010
Mobile: +44 7968 616815

warrencartwright@gmail.com

103-1550 Mariner's Walk
Vancouver BC V6J 4X9

Photographs

 This section contains some random, recent photographs.

 Tower Bridge, London. July 2008

Spanish fans celebrate their Euro 2008 victory in Picadilly Circus. June 2008

 Gargoyle on Nottingham Castle. June 2008

 Detail of a Bell, Leaning Tower of Pisa. February 2008.

 Door to ?, Bristol England. February 2007.

 Hippo, Krugar National Park South Africa. November 2006. 

Abandoned church, California. Hearst Castle in the background.  April 2007.

 Blue Heron, Charleston SC. February 2007 

Detail of iron gate, San Francisco. January 2007 

Mackenzie Victoria
July 19, 2006 

Tom in the bird bath July 2006 

 Estuary outside of Tahsis August 2006

Peregrine Falcon on Grouse July 2006. 

Grizzlies at play on Grouse. July 2006. 

 Bald eagles near Tofino, April 2006. Adult and juvenile.

Buschart Gardens, fish pond. April 2006.

Granville Island from the Granville Street bridge, April 2006.

African elephant in Krugar National Park, South Africa. November 2005.

 The New Web Site is Up!

First, the big news - the new web site is finally live! After way more headaches than it should have been, the web site is finally published. The sad news is that after almost two years, that will eventually be the end of this site. For now, all the historical stuff will remain here, but I do want to move it over eventually. The web site can be found here:

http://www.warrenc.ca

Have a look, and let me know what you think. Things are a bit crazy right now, but hopefully this means I will have some interesting posts to add to the site. I'm already two behind, so hopefully those will get up there once I have a chance to sort through some photographs.

 Glasgow, Scotland

2008-08-23

Saturday once again found me on a train heading north. As the summer (sadly) seems to be coming to an end, I thought I better get up to Scotland to see something of it, before the weather got too bad. I woke Saturday to an amazing day - sunny and clear - and of course I was going to spend much of it on a train. The train trip was almost identical to the trip I made last weekend to Sunderland - it followed the same route pretty much, then continued north into Scotland, heading to Glasgow via Edinburgh. While the rain ride was OK, it did make me appreciate the difference between first class and coach on the train. Thankfully my ticket for the return journey was for first class...

The train left Kings Cross station at 7:00 a.m., so it was an early start. I was a little early to the station, so I had a Harry Potter moment in the station. I wandered over towards platform 9, to try and see “Platform 9 3/4”. Seems that Harry Potter is enough of a phenomena that they’ve actually “built” Platform 9 3/4 into the wall - there’s a sign, and they’ve mounted a trolley half way into the wall. Pretty funny actually. I imagine they had so many people asking about it, they finally gave in and did this. I had  a bit of a chuckle then headed for my real train on platform 1. Not as much fun, but I was off to Glasgow. I got into Glasgow central close to 2:00 p.m., and the weekend began!
Sadly, the weather was not great - more clouds and grey skies. Not to be deterred, exploring was in order. In wandering around downtown, the first area that we came to was George Square. This seemed to be the central area of downtown, and was flanked on the east side of the square by the very impressive City Chambers. Having got a bearing, the plan was to head up towards Glasgow Cathedral, which in all the books was highlighted as being very impressive, and worth seeing. 

It was a fairly short walk up one of Glasgow’s many hills towards the area near the Cathedral. It took us through the University of Strathclyde, one of Glasgow’s main University’s. The Cathedral was very impressive - dating back to the 13th century, it’s been on that site for a long time. As it was pretty late in the day, the interior was not accessible, but we did get back to see that later.  Near the Cathedral is the Necropolis, a graveyard on the hill above the Cathedral, that houses all of Glasgow’s important families. It’s a very cool place, with old gravestones intermixed with fairly recent ones, and some of the most elaborate mausoleums I’ve seen. I would have preferred it be a bit more overgrown and wild; the city seems to be taking pretty good care of it. We spent a good hour or so walking around, before working our way back into the downtown area.

For dinner, we hopped in a taxi and headed up to the area near the University of Glasgow, which was pretty lively, and had a good selection of restaurants. We ended up finding a pretty cool little restaurant down a back alley, that put together a great meal. It was an excellent end to a good day. Bit of a long one, with the train ride and such, but well worth while, despite the less-than-perfect weather.

Sunday seemed a little more promising, as the skies were partly clear, and it seemed like it might stay nice. We started the day by taking a train out to Pollock Country Park, southwest of the city center. Our destination was In an art gallery, the Burrell Collection. Sir William Burrell and his wife had amassed an extensive art collection, which they donated to the City of Glasgow in the 1940s. Their catch, was that the city had to custom build a building for the collection, and it had to be in a park-like setting that met certain environmental conditions. Needless to say, it took a long time for the gallery to be built.

The Burrell Collection reminded me a lot of the gallery I went to in Lisbon in April. It’s a diverse collection - not huge, but covers a large range of art history, including painting, sculpture, tapestries, decorative art, pieces of buildings - you name it, it’s there! The really nice thing about this gallery is that having custom-built the building to host the collection, the presentation is amazing. While man galleries just try and put out as much stuff as possible, it’s obvious the Burrell Collection has thought through the placement of the pieces, and they are very often placed in displays that were designed to highlight the piece. That, and the excellent use of light and space in the design of the building make the experience a very enjoyable one. One of the most unique aspects of the collection was the “Hutton Rooms”, three rooms from the Burrell’s castle, that were recreated in the gallery as part of the bequeathment. While there were a lot of great pieces, a few of my favorites were the medieval arms and armor, the Impressionist collection (mostly the unique collection of pastel works from Degas, they were awesome), and the collection of tapestries. Finally, the special exhibition they were showing was amazing. It was an exploration of a specific type of embroidered wall hangings from Central Asia, known as suzanis. They came mainly from an area of modern day Uzbekistan, and the colors, patterns and overall beauty of the work was breath taking.

After spending most of the day strolling the galleries, we headed back into town on the train. From there we started wandering, with a general aim to head back towards the University of Glasgow. I really liked the area - lots of old town houses on quiet circles and old buildings. Plus the options for pubs and restaurants were quite good. Along the way, we passed the Glasgow School of Art, designed by one of Glasgow’s most famous architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I wasn’t a huge fan of the style, but I guess I can see the appeal.

The late afternoon was spent mostly wandering, but it was good. Sometime near 6:00 p.m., we hit up a pub in the area, an had a pretty typical (but tasty) dinner of pub grub and beer. The pub had an excellent selection of real ales, and there was some sampling, I’m not going to lie.  ;-) As the evening wore on, we headed back towards the hotel and called it a night.

Monday was a Bank Holiday in the UK, so this was a legitimate long weekend for me, and I was determined to enjoy all of it. Work is going to get crazy again very shortly, and so it was with some dismay that I woke up to hear the sound of rain against the windows. Sigh - more British “summer”. This meant more indoor activities for the last day. My train was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. (roughly), so there was the full day ahead. Despite the weather, we hopped on one of the “Hop On/Hop Off” bus tours of the city. Never a bad plan in a new city. The tour departed from George Square, and one of the first stops was the Cathedral. I had wanted to see the inside, and since it was raining, it seemed like a good time to do it. It turned out to be an excellent stop - the interior is far nicer and more interesting than the exterior.
The Cathedral is old, and was the only medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland to have survived the Reformation unscathed. Most were pulled apart - in whole or part. It’s an amazing, gothic building, with huge stained glass windows, and a high, arching ceiling. The part I like best was the “Lower Church”, a whole complex of smaller rooms below the main cathedral. The arches in this area were amazing, and gave it a very crypt-like feel. The tomb of St. Mungo, the Patron Saint of Glasgow is here as well. It all contributed to an amazing atmosphere.

On leaving the Cathedral, we entered a complete downpour, and had to wait a bit for the next bus. The tour continued through both now-familiar areas of the city, as well as completely new ones. The People’s Palace looked interesting, but not enough so to stop and get off in the rain. After touring back through the downtown core, the tour went out along the edge of the river, past the newer additions to the city - the “Armadillo” (a performance venue, that looks a bit like a scaled down version of the Sydney Opera House), The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour and some other attractions.

The tour continued up towards the familiar grounds of the Glasgow University. We circled through Kelvingrove Park, and then wove our way through the University itself, getting some excellent views of the amazing buildings. The tour looped around back out front of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. As it was still raining, and not quite lunch time, this seemed mike an excellent place to stop for a while.

As the name suggests, the Kelvingrove is part art gallery, part natural history museum.  And in fact, it did both parts pretty well. Spread over two floors of a building designed for an International Exhibition in the park in 1901, the collection includes the usual stuff animals, a small collection of dinosaurs, a nice Egyptian collection, and an interesting display on the wildlife of Scotland. There is also a pretty decent art collection. One of the pleasant surprises was the collection of the “Glasgow Boys”, a number of Impressionist-era painters from Glasgow and the surrounding area. I wasn’t expecting much, but they had some amazing pieces. Upstairs, they have a decent Renaissance collection that includes Botticelli’s Annunciation. They also have some nice pieces of arms and armor. Further along they have a decent Impressionist collection, Unfortunately, much of it was out on loan to a gallery in Edinburgh. And finally, their show piece, Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, a spectacular work from the surrealist. I have to say, the works from the Glasgow Boys was the single biggest (pleasant) surprise for me.

Touring the Kelvingrove actually took up most of the day (including a stop for lunch), and it was pushing 4:00 when we hopped back on the bus. The tour wrapped up back downtown, and our lat stop was a pub they mentioned on the tour. It was distinctive in that the bar was over 100 feet long. It was oval-shaped, and went around the whole bar - pretty cool really. A last drink, and I needed to get to the train station for my 5:50 train.

I’m not sure how to wrap up my thoughts on Glasgow. It’s an OK place - there’s enough to see/do for a long weekend, but I think I’d struggle for much beyond that. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and it would be a good base for exploring more of the northwest of Scotland (which I would love to do), but I don’t see myself going back any time soon.

England vs. the Czech Republic - Wembley Stadium

2008-08-20

Earlier this week I discovered that the England National team had a friendly against the Czech Republic Wednesday night. Seeing as how I had never been to an England game, this seemed like an ideal time to do it. I booked a ticket online, and waited for the game. Wednesday after work, I got on the Tube and headed to Wembley, in the northeast end of the city. 

Wembley is a very new stadium - opened last year after significant delays and issues. Let me tell you, it was worth the wait - what a spectacular facility! First off, it’s huge - the announced attendance at the game was just shy of 70,000 people, and the place looked about 3/4 full. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a stadium that big before.
The crowd was in pretty good spirits - I love what they do during the anthems - they give both ends colored cards that make up the England flag. That was pretty cool. Even though the stadium wasn’t full, the place was loud. Give the Czech fans credit. They were in the minority, but they made enough noise to get noticed. And frankly, they had more to cheer about during this game.

After a bit of early England pressure, the Czech’s scored first, on their first real chance of the game, due to some soft England defense. The boys managed to tie the game just before the half, on a well-executed set piece from Beckham.
Sadly, this was to be one of the few well-executed plays in the game for England. Frankly, they played horribly throughout the whole game. They look disorganized and really didn’t trouble the Czech side at all. And they got opened up on the counter-attack all the time. The Czech’s regained the lead almost immediately after the second half started, and it looked like the was no way England would equalize. It was a bit of  miracle that they managed to squeak out a soft goal at the end of the game, to steal an undeserved draw.

Still, for me it was a good evening. I got to see a game (I think I’ll do that again, maybe for one of the World Cup qualifiers if possible) and see Wembley Stadium.

 =========================

OK, so there's a bit of a problem. It seems that I have maxed out the capabilities of this little hosting service, and can't upload any more pictures. So I have a choice/decision to make. What this means is that I'll post the write-up rom my trip to South Africa, but I can't add any pictures. I'll figure it all out, and let you know where this goes from here. In the interim, I think I can give you lot's of reading material. This is a huge post - easily my longest since it has been a packed couple of weeks, in one of my favorite places in the world. Grab a beverage and a snack, and sit back and enjoy...

South Africa, July 24th - August 3rd 2008

I travel for work - a lot as you've seen. One of the benefits is being able to go some amazing places, and have a lot of "once in a lifetime" experiences. On this work trip I was able to add on a trip to Kruger for another safari, as well as an extended weekend to Cape Town. I have never been to Cape Town, and was dying to check it out as I had heard amazing things. This lengthy post covers the whole trip.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Thursday July 24th,
This work trip once again found me in one of my favourite places – South Africa. After a few tough days of meetings, I had arranged a trip back to Kruger for a few days in that amazing park. For whatever reason (political instability in Zimbabwe and Kenya maybe?), the lower part of the park that I know well was fully booked when I originally looked into the trip, so we were forced to get lodging in the northern part. I have never been that far north in the Park, and the downside was that it meant a much longer drive to get there on the first day. Fortuneately, as I continued to look at the accomodation web site, I was able to find us a cottage in the southern part of the Park for the last night. In hindsight, that ended up being a very good decision.

I ended up taking my boss, Simon, and Peter, our Director of Development with me, as neither of them had ever been to Kruger. While Simon is my boss, we’re also pretty good friends outside of work, and Peter is a good guy as well. Given that it was going to be a long drive, we left Centurion (a commuter town, about 30 minutes north of Johannesburg), at about 5:30 in the morning. As it turned out, we needed all that time. It seems my “navigators” left something to be desired – they managed to sleep most of the way, and when not sleeping were providing questionable input. You just can’t get good help these days…

The drive to the park is not really all that impressive – mostly lots of big highways, until you get fairly close. The last couple of hours were pretty amazing – there are some pretty serious hills (not quite mountains, as far as I am concerned) that we wove our way up and down. The views were spectacular, and as we got closer to the park, I found the terrain became more and more familiar. Just west of the Park there is some spectacular scenery, especially the area around God's WIndow and the town of Pilgrim's Rest. With a name like that, I'm sure you can imagine. I would have like to show that area to the guys, but we were pressed for time. So we by-passed it and took a more direct route.

It took us until about 12:30ish to arrive at Orpen Gate, which sits about half way up the length of the park. We could have driven on the main roads further north, but I wanted us to get into the park as soon as possible, while still being able to make it to our rest camp on time. You have to be in your camp by 5:30 pm, this time of year. As it was, we barely made it…

After registering at the main gates, we started our slow drive through the park. As neither Simon nor Peter had ever been there, I spent some (mostly futile)  time trying to set realistic expectations. Of course that was a blown to bits by seeing two separate instances of baboons, and some impala, before we even got into the park. Once in the park, things started slowly – the usual impala sightings, but not much else. As we cruised through the Park, things started to pick up and we saw quite a bit on that first day.

Early on, amidst the impala, we had an initial wildebeest sighting. It was pretty far away, but still was a quite good. The first day ended up being our best day for giraffe. We had a large number of giraffe encounters, including a couple of very close drive-bys that left Simon a bit speechless. Also quite early on, we encountered a medium-sized herd of buffalo – our first “Big 5” sighting. I kind of messed  up that one, as there were a bunch of cars further up the road that led me to believe there might be something more interesting ahead. There wasn’t anything really  –  the buffalo were probably more interesting (as Simon was quick to point out…). 

About an hour into the trip, and a little further along the road past the buffalo, we saw a bunch of cars all pulled off. It ended up being the first of many elephant encounters we would have. They were down below the road, walking through the reeds. One was a fairly young elephant – not a baby, but still not fully grown. We sat and watched them for a little bit, before moving on. As it turns out, elephants seem to be more numerous in the northern part of the Park. While Kruger, in general, has too many elephants, we saw way more in the north than ion the south.

A little while later, I had the opportunity to expose Simon and Peter to the wonder of bridges over large rivers. They are excellent, as the permanent water source draws lots of animals.  You’re up high so they don’t notice you, and you can get out of the car and wander around, which is great for taking pictures. This bridge ended up being pretty good – there was a huge buffalo sleeping on a small island in the river; there were a few hippos downstream; and we had crocodiles right under the bridge. We stayed there for a while, taking it all in.

One of the best sightings came a little while later, as we were driving. I noticed something sitting on a rock, right on the side of the road, but I wasn't sure if I was imagining things. I stopped, reversed the truck and sure enough, there was an African Wild Cat sitting on the rock. Think of a domestic house cat, but with slightly longer legs. They are incredibly hard to see – being generally nocturnal, and usually quite shy. This one wasn’t too fussed by us – he sat there for a while, and then took off into the bush.
By this point, we were a bit pressed for time. We had more elephants and giraffes on the road, and towards the end of the day we saw a pair of big hyenas. That all contributed to us almost not making the gate on time – I was driving way too fast for being in the park.

We got to the gate of Mopani Camp basically with no time to spare. Peter managed to get some sunset pictures that hopefully turned out really well. After getting gas and registering (which took forever!), we made our way to our guest cottage. The cottage space was great – big high ceilings, thatched roof and most importantly, a braai (BBQ) outside. 

We cooked a fantastic meal outside on the braai, and had an absolutely clear night. The night sky was amazing  – full of stars, a clear view of the Milky Way, and even a number of shooting stars. We went for a quick walk through the camp, and found a deck over the dam. It was pitch black, and you couldn’t see the water or anything that was going on, but there were lots of sounds. The most significant was hearing what sounded like a croc take an animal at the water’s edge – maybe a zebra  – and hearing the dying screams of the animal as it thrashed in the water. While you couldn’t see anything, it was something to hear – and made you pretty sure you’re not going anywhere near water!

Friday July 25th, 

The second day started early; we didn’t have far to go to get to Shimuwini Bush Camp where we were spending the next two nights, so the plan was to spend some time exploring the northern part of the park. 

Frankly, the northern part of the park was a bit of a disappointment for me. The game is definitely sparser; sightings were hard to come by. We did see a lot of elephants – but I think that’s true in the entire park now. We headed north from Mopani, towards Shingwedzi, though we never really went that far north. The driving was pretty typical; wandering down arbitrary routes that take you basically in the direction you want to go. As mentioned, the game viewing was not great. However, we did see a lot of different antelope species, many that I had not seen before. These included tsessebe, kudu, impala (obviously), wildebeest, nyala, common duiker, steenbok and waterbuck. I like seeing antelope, but as it was Simon and Peter's first time, I was hoping for something more spectacular. We had to wait, but it came.

Another thing that the northern part has been good for is birds. We saw tons of birds, and I got some great shots of birds to add to the collection. At lunch time, we stopped at a picnic site, and made some lunch. It was a beautiful site overlooking a river, perched up on the bank. I had a weird “The Birds” moment with a flock of glossy starlings that seemed to have me surrounded, but after a while they took off.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty uneventful. We did spend a good amount of time watching a small herd of bull elephants at a man-made watering hole. It was interesting watching them interact, and seeing them deal with the man-made facilities. They seemed to have figured out the steps to get access to the water in the tank. Pretty cool.

One of the interesting things about this part of the Park is that the Tropic of Capricorn runs through it, about 10 km north of the Camp. Of course we had to see that, so we drove north and found the marker. We had some fun straddling the Tropic of Capricorn – Simon had to ham it up a bit, and it gave us a chance to get out of the car and stretch and move around.

While the area wasn’t great for game, the scenery was spectacular. The location of our camp in many ways made up for the poor game spotting. We had an amazing guest cottage, perched up on the edge of a river. Great views over the river, and what turned out to be a very productive river bank on the other side. Over the course of the two evenings, we managed to see a leopard (stalking across the far bank), two big male kudu, crocodiles and numerous water birds. All from our patio and the excellent braai that had us cooking, eating and drinking well into the evening.

Saturday July 26th,

We were up and at it pretty early on Saturday, and were rewarded with some excellent sighting pretty much straight off. On the road out of the camp, we came across a number of huge baobab trees. In one of them, we witnessed a flock of ground hornbills emerging from a crack in the tree. Baobabs are hollow in the middle, and I guess this flock decided the tree would make a good home. Not long after that, at the intersection of the road to the camp and the main paved road, we came across a pair of young hyenas. The odd thing about this sighting was that one of them was lame – one of his front paws was deformed. We found out later that it was born that way – I was amazed it survived, until we found out that people had been feeding it. That also explained its actions later that day, when we returned home. The same two were there and one tried to jump up on the side of the truck. I got the window closed pretty quick, but I wonder how far it would have gone?

Our next stop was a hide on the edge of a swamp and/or lake. There was a big group of hippos, and elephant wandering the bank and tons of bird life. The hide was pretty busy, but we sat and watched for quite a while. The hippos were quite close, and you could really see them interacting.

After watching for a while we continued on our way. The half-way point on the trip was Letaba Camp. I wanted Simon and Peter to see the elephant display – all the tusks from the biggest elephants that have lived in the Park. It’s an impressive display, and gives you a sense of how big these things can get, and how small most of the ones we see are. We strolled around the camp a bit, and I managed to get lots of amazing bird pictures.

The drive back to the Camp was relatively uneventful – there were no spectacular sightings, but a fair bit of cool stuff nonetheless. Peter and I went on an evening drive that ran the gamut from amazing to dull. It started out really well, with the rangers taking into a “do not enter” area, but the river. I assumed that they were just taking us down to the river’s edge. Then things got really cool as they drove across the river and up the bank on the other side! There was a small herd of buffalo not far down the road, and we had a great view of an African Fish-Eagle with a catch, before we scared it off. After coming back across the river (just as cool the second time), we headed deeper into the bush for the night drive. The night drive was a disappointment. We never saw anything really; I’ve been on much better night drives. If we were to do it again, I would have done the night drive in the south part of the Park.

Sunday July 27th,

Wow. All I can do is shake my head at how amazing today was. You just don’t get better days than that in the park – even if it was a long day. As mentioned, my perception was that the south end of the park has better game viewing, so for the last night, I managed to get us booked into a camp at the far south eastern end of the Park. It took me three weeks of trying, as the reservation system was showing the whole south end of the Park as fully booked. I guess we caught a cancellation or something. What that meant was that we had to drive about two thirds the length of the Park – about 300 kilometres between 6:00 a.m. when the gates open, and 5:30 p.m. when the gates close (at that time of year). It was going to be tight, and not surprisingly there were some… interesting events… before the day was out. But more on that later.

The day started well, with an excellent elephant encounter while the light was still nice. We started working our way south along the main roads, towards Malelane, our final destination. We made a quick stop at Letaba, before heading back out on our way. As we made our way south, all of the “common” game became much more plentiful – the impalas, kudu, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest were common sightings. The scenery also became more spectacular, as our route followed the Oliphants River for a time, and we were presented with some amazing vistas that included lots of game on the river banks. It was spectacular.

After the excellent scenery, we had our second-best sighting of the day – lions! I was starting to feel pretty good about the Big Five – well four of the five anyway. It was an amazing sighting – a small family pride ran across the road, almost right in front of us. There were five females – three adults or sub adults and two cubs – one very small. It was probably from last year’s litter. The five of them crossed the road, and then promptly sat down under some tree on the other side. We had a pretty good view of them, but there were a lot of tree branches and such in the way, so the pictures weren’t very good. Still, it was amazing. We stayed for a while – lions actually get a little boring to watch during the day – like big house cats, they just sleep. And by this time there were way too many people gathered around.

Amazed, we continued on our way south. About five minutes after the lions, we hit a bridge. Bridges are always good, if there is water in the river. This time we were in luck. On the river banks under this bridge, we had hippos (out of the water), crocs, impala, baboons, turtles and some kudu. It was a great scene. We stayed there for a while, just taking it all in.

After those sightings, we really had to move. We cruised south, past Satara, checked out the southern-most Baobab tree, and then around 1:00, we stopped for lunch. It was pretty quick – some sandwiches and on our way. Not long after lunch we stopped at Skukuza, the administrative centre of the park. It was a gas/gift shop break, and then we were back on the road. 

As I had promised the guys, the game viewing continued to get better as we headed south. The herds of impala got quite big; there were zebra, buffalo, waterbuck and wildebeest everywhere; we saw ostrich and I saw more big male kudu on that part of the drive than I had seen in all my trips to the Park. We were stopping every five minutes it seemed! We even saw more hyenas, at one point on the road. It was a strange sighting for the middle of the day, but very cool. 

Then we had our best sighting of the day – a leopard, cruising through the brush on the side of the road. We had turned down towards Malelane, and saw a huge crush of cars on the road, not far up. Cruising up, we managed to find ourselves in a prime location to watch this amazing big cat take a look at the throngs of idiot people, then cruise off into the bush. I only got in two, very bad photographs, as it was on the wrong side of the car, and obscured by bushes. Someone needs to cut the damn things down… It wasn’t a long sighting, but we did get to see it quite well. Truly spectacular. 

That left me only rhinos to deliver the Big Five to Peter and Simon, and even that materialized within minutes. Still awed at actually seeing a leopard (a very rare sight), we were about ten minutes further down the road when I noticed a mother rhino and it’s young one, off to the right. Ten minutes after that, a whole herd of them turned up. The Big Five (plus a ton of other great sightinings) all in one day – amazing really. You just can’t ask for much more than that.

With all the amazing game viewing we had that day, it was no surprise that we were really pushing our limits in getting to camp before the gates were shut. This was made more difficult by the fact that the animals kept crawling out of the woodwork to present themselves to us – first there were rhinos, then elephants, then a huge herd of buffalo, right on the edge of the road. Malelane has both a Park Gate and a Camp – and of course we were almost at the Gate before we realized our mistake. So we headed back to the Camp (past the herd of buffalo and a family of elephants, including the first really small ones we’d seen), only to discover that there are no reception facilities at the Camp – they’re back at the Gate! Of course, it’s 5:30 by this point and we’re not supposed to be on the roads. We mad our way carefully back to the Gate, got registered and then made our way back to the Camp. By this time it’s almost 6:00, and they’ve locked the gate to the Camp. Fortunately they are more worried about animals than people, and we were able to open the gate and get through. It was a crazy end, to a wild, fantastic day.

Monday July 28th,

Sadly, as always, the last day in the Park is a short one. I had to get Peter and Simon to the airport by about 6:00, which means leaving the Park around lunch time. We did pretty well to get up and off, and we were out driving by 6:15. The day started a bit slowly – strangely, all of our mornings, which are supposed to be good viewing times, were light on good sightings. I’m not sure why. 

The day started off with some good bird photography, and some nice elephant and rhino sightings. The elephant was especially good, as she was down drinking in a river, in some reeds and was accompanied by a young calf. There was a herd of impalas not far off – all in all, it made a great scene. The day also provided some of the best wildebeest and zebra sightings. 

The road between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge (the Gate we planned to leave by) is supposed to offer the best viewing opportunities in the Park. So the plan was to make our way back north to Lower Sabie, then head back south and out of the Park. My other goal for visiting Lower Sabie (probably my favourite main Camp in the Park), was to spend some time by the lake, just outside the camp. I’ve had some amazing sightings there, and this trip proved to be no exception.

The lake has a good population of hippos, crocs and water birds, and all were on display, sadly on the far side of the lake. Still, with binoculars, we were able to see quite a bit. At one point, a young hippo decided to provoke a huge croc, sunning on the bank. This got him snapped at by the croc, but you could tell neither was too worried about it really. The other one, a little odder, was the impala that seemed to be a little too close to the crocs. I guess if the crocs are out of the water, the impala can get away. I don’t know, me, I’d be giving crocs that big a really wide berth. There were also saddle-billed storks and tons of grey herons around the lake. From the nesting activity, they must have been close to laying eggs. 

After spending some time at the lake, and after a short stop at the Camp, we headed south. We were getting close to the noon time limit, and had to hurry a little more than I would have liked. We didn’t have any great sightings along the way – some more elephants, and a huge herd of buffalo (on the far side of the river), but other than that it was pretty quiet. I imagine that had a lot to do with it being close to noon. Our last stop, before exiting the park, was at the Hippo Pool, which ended up being memorable.

The Hippo Pool is only a few kilometres from the Crocodile Bridge Gate, and most days they station a ranger at the site, who will walk people down to the edge of the river. As you would expect, there is a resident family of hippos in the river. As we pulled up, the ranger motioned for us to come up on the rock where he was sitting, and pointed out a pride of seven lions that was roaming the far bank of the river! It seems they had been there all day, and he was watching them hunt warthogs earlier in the morning. So we got another lion sighting, granted at a pretty significant distance. Still, it was very cool to see. Speaking of warthogs, there was one hanging out with the ranger – I guess he liked his chances with the people better than off on his own in the bush. He was a little skittish, but let you get pretty close. 

The ranger took us down to the river’s edge, and the hippos were there. They were pretty quiet – not really all that active, but again, that was mostly due to it being the middle of the day. We also had a big male waterbuck hanging out in the reeds around the river, as well as a kudu skeleton (or what was left of it), that the ranger said was from a pride of lions, earlier that month. It ended up being a great stop, and a fitting end to our time in the park.

The drive back was long and uneventful, as you would hope. I got the guys to the airport on time; actually with time to spare. It was a great trip to the park. The nice thing about this trip was that after a couple of more days working in the office, I was off to Cape Town for a little more fun and vacation.

Cape Town

So I spent a couple of days in Centurion, at the office doing work and the like. While we were in the area, I had noticed an advert for an outdoor skating rink, open from June through the end of August. How cool is that? Sadly, when I checked it out, it turned out to be the world’s smallest ice rink – good for kids, but too small for adults. Too bad, that would have been cool.

Thursday, July 31st

I arrived in Cape Town to threatening, dark, overcast skies, blustery winds (bit of a rough landing), and, as I picked up my rental car, a deluge of rain. The downpour lasted a good 15-20 minutes, until I was well on my way towards downtown Cape Town. On the way, the skies lightened slightly, and I got a peek at Lion’s Head, the Table Mountains and the ocean. It wasn’t a great start, but the city looked like it would be pretty nice, if it cleared up.

I checked into my hotel – the Commodore, at the V&A Waterfront. Choosing that location ended up being a very good decision. It allowed me to walk to many of the local attractions, and provided a very central base of operations. The view from my top floor balcony was pretty good – I could see the ocean, off to Robben Island as well as the construction on the new football stadium for the 2010 World Cup (I just don't see them getting it done on time...). Despite the weather, I decided to head out – I’m not one for sitting around.

The weather was OK – it wasn’t raining, but it was windy and cold, so I figured indoor attractions were in order. I spent part of the afternoon wandering through the “craft markets”, which were pretty interesting. I didn’t buy anything, but did see some things of interest. After exhausting that, I wandered over to the Two Oceans Aquarium, which I had heard good things about.

What a great facility! It may be the nicest, small aquarium that I’ve been to. While not large, it makes up for it by doing the things it does very well. The habitats were well designed and provided very good descriptions of the contents of the habitats. They had two big displays – a kelp forest and the big shark tank. They have designed good seating areas, as well as lots of secondary viewing spots. And they had some great critters in the tanks – including the biggest stingrays, sand tigers and lobsters I’ve ever seen. It’s not a huge place, but it was a great way to spend a couple of hours. After the aquarium, I wandered around the Waterfront, checking out the local shops and attractions, also trying to scout out some place for dinner. That ended up working out really well…

Before heading out for dinner, I grabbed a drink at the lobby bar. The whole hotel is nautically-themed, but the bar really took it to a new level. Lots of pictures of ships; the beams in the ceiling decked out to look like the ribs of a ship; that sort of thing. I had a very nice glass of scotch, and then headed out to the Waterfront to track down dinner. I had decided I was going to splurge a bit on dinner, and chose a highly rated seafood place – the seafood in South Africa is amazing. I started with some wine as I looked over the menu, but I already knew what I wanted – lobster – specifically Mozambican deep-water lobster. These lobsters don’t have claws, but make up for it in mass. A little while later, they brought the beast to my table – 1.4 kg (and that was a small one…) – beautifully grilled and cut in half. It was spectacular, one of my best meals ever. I think I’ve been saying that a lot lately, haven’t I? I was exactly half way through the beast when the waiter came up to me.

“Everything OK?”
“I’m only half way though this monster!” I replied.
“You’ll be OK mate.” 

And with that he wandered off. And he was right – I was OK. Way more than OK.

There was this kid at the table next to me, having dinner with his parents and his parent’s friend. He was probably nine or ten or something. From my casual observations, he looked like a good kid. When the lobster got there, you should have seen the look in his eyes – they got bigger than him. As I struggled to finish the thing, we made eye contact a couple of times, and I must have made a face or something that got him giggling. At one point we traded a couple of words about the size of it. So I leaned towards him and said “the thing was too big; I could barely finish him!” He didn’t say much, so I continued. “The thing was as big as you are”, which resulted in him laughing out loud, to strange looks from his parents. Good kid.

It was a great meal, and a good end to the day. I had a drink at a local pub, then wandered back to the hotel and lounged around until I fell asleep. I had a big day planned.

Friday August 1st,

Friday was all about fulfilling yet another item on my life’s “To Do” list – cage diving with great white sharks! I love sharks, have had the opportunity to dive with them, and getting in the water with great whites was the ultimate extension of that process. To see these amazing creatures up close has always been a dream, and Friday I made it all come true. I had been looking forward to it since I had arranged the trip a month or so ago, and as we headed out on the bus, my excitement increased with the passing miles. 

The “dive” (I’ll explain that more later…) took place in “Shark Alley”, off the southern coast near a town called Gansbaai. Off shore are a couple of islands- Dyer Island and Geyser Island – that house significant fur seal populations, which draw the sharks. It was about a two and half hour drive from Cape Town, along the coast. It was a spectacular drive, but I was dying to get there! I just didn't care too much at that point about the scenery. The group of people was a real mix – age, sex, nationality – and there was a sense of anticipation, along with some nerves. I hit it off a bit with a Dutch woman names Suzanne, whom I ended up hanging out with most of the day. She was a lot of fun; we had a lot of similar interests, and were both really worked up over this dive.

Because the weather had been problematic the past couple of days, they had decided to start late – an 8:30 a.m. pickup instead of 5:30 a.m. That meant we weren’t really on the boat and out to sea until about 1:00 p.m. The ride out to the island was not that long – maybe half an hour – and there were a bunch of other boats out there already when we dropped anchor. Almost immediately, I looked over at another boat to see the big fin come up out of the water along side the boat, and then I saw my first live, real great white breach the surface of the water. It was too cool. While I wanted in the water right away, waiting ended up being the right decision.

Instead, I opted to be close to the end of the rotation – I also wanted some pictures from the boat. Here’s how it worked – there were 15 of us; 13 ended up in the water. The cage could hold 5 people, so we were rotating, with everyone getting about 45 minutes in the water (hopefully) with sharks. The cage was about 7 feet tall (give or take), made of steel. You wore a wet suit and a mask, and basically floated at the surface. When a shark was nearby, the handler would yell the direction the shark was coming from and to “go down”. You’d take a breath, go under the water, hold your breath, and watch as long as you could. It wasn’t great – I’d prefer to be on scuba, but it seems the bubbles scare the sharks away.

We got really lucky – almost immediately, I was looking down at the biggest fish I have ever seen. A four-meter long male showed up within 15 minutes of starting the chumming/baiting process. He was huge – absolutely massive, not just in length, but in girth as well. The “handler” got him right up to the boat, along side the cage. The people in the water must have had a great view! This big male stuck with us for a good hour and half, through a rotation of people in the cage. At one point he even chased off a smaller shark that had come to check out the action. 

Over the course of the day we had between 6 and 8 individual sharks, most in the 2-3 meter size – smaller than our original, but a little more aggressive/active, which made them more fun. I got in the water on the third cage rotation, and my god, what an experience. We had at least three unique sharks around. It may have been four. And we had two at one time for a while, circling the cage, checking everything out. It was awesome – the sharks got so close I could have reached out between the bars of the cage to touch them. Of course, I chose not to. But it was tempting. It’s impossible to describe the sensation of seeing this huge predator slowly appear out of the murky water, and have it swim straight at you. There's something primal about the response it elicits in you. Hopefully there will always be steel bards there… At the same time you get the feeling that there’s more to them than just attacking what ever is in the water. Most of the time the sharks didn’t even attack the bait in the water – I’d say 80% of the time they just swam by, even if it was thrown right in front of them. It was almost like they were more curious about what was going on than anything. It was an amazing experience, staring into their eyes as they passed.

As I mentioned, I made a good choice on the timing. After getting out of the cage at the end of my rotation, the last group got it. I noticed that the cage wasn’t full. So I “offered” to go back in. Suzanne did as well, so we both got two full rotations in the water. It was such a great experience, something I’ll never forget. 

The drive back was long and for the most part quiet as many people slept, and the rest of us contemplated the experience we had just had. It was something to remember for sure, and one I would repeat in a heartbeat. I wish I could have spent more time in the water.

Saturday August 2nd,

After the exhilaration of the shark dive, everything else was going to be a bit of a let down. I had decided that if the weather was good I was going to do the drive south from Cape Town, and tour the Cape Peninsula. I woke to a clear, sunny day, so I hopped in the rental car around 8:00 a.m. When I booked the car, I had this drive in mind, and knowing it was going to be a winding coastal route, I spent a little extra to get a nicer car. So me and my Mercedes-Benz hit the road, cruising along the beach. The plan was to stick to the western side of the Cape on the way down, then come back up the eastern side. Well, that was the plan anyway.

It started well; the road along the beaches in Cape Town proper is beautiful, with lots of stretches of beach along the way. Before heading out of Cape Town, I made a slight detour, and took the drive up to Signal Hill, which provided spectacular views of Lion’s Head and the Table Mountains, looming over Cape Town. As it was a clear day, the vistas were breathtaking. I would have loved to hike up Lion’s Head, but time was against me. I got back out on the road, continuing out the coast highway through the Cape Riviera, past the beach towns of Banty Bay, Clifton and Camps Bay. They’re really part of Cape Town, but have a real small beach town feel to them. I especially liked Camps Bay. After slowing to enjoy these small “towns”, the road started to climb up the mountains, before descending back down into the town of Hout Bay. And that’s where things went off the rails.

Just past Hout Bay is a view point called Chapman’s Peak that provides a view back over the area, and is the starting point of the southbound road through the mountains. Sadly, it was closed due to a rock slide, and I had to back-track all the way to Cape Town, and continue my journey down the eastern road. There’s the problem with having only one road into a place. But once again, this actually worked out in my favour.
After weaving my way back through Cape Town, the road again wove along the coast. The first town I came to was Muizenberg. Apparently a great swimming beach in the summer, it was pretty deserted in the winter. There were people around, but you could tell it was off season. As I worked my way through the town, the change in plan was rewarded with another first – whales! It was amazing; right there, not a few hundred yards off shore, a small pod of Southern Right whales. I saw several animals – the v-shaped blow, tail flukes, the works. All I did was pull over on the side of the road, and I was able to see them without binoculars. It was very cool, and made the change of route suddenly much, much better.

After the whales passed on, I continued on my journey. I stopped for lunch in Simon’s Town, the home of the South African Navy. I enjoyed lunch on a patio, before poking around at the tourist-trap trinkets. There was (not surprisingly) nothing of interest, so I moved on. Just south of Simon’s Town is another small National Park called Boulders, that is home to a large African Penguin colony. They’ve built a series of boardwalks that allow people to walk down near where the colony is, while staying up above them, so as not to bother the birds. It seems to work pretty well. There are supposed to be 3,000 penguins in this colony, but as it was the middle of the day, most were out fishing; only the immature juveniles were still on the beach. Still, there were a fair number of them, and it was fun to watch them for a little while.

Once I was done with the penguins, it was pushing 1:30 p.m., and I still hadn’t even gotten to my ultimate destination – the Cape of Good Hope National Park. The park is situated at the very tip of the peninsula, and covers some spectacular terrain. As you enter the park, you can tell that the area earns its reputation as the “Cape of Storms”, by the vegetation – all of it low, small bushes that can take a pounding from the storms. It’s a stark, yet beautiful landscape, again very different from any other part of South Africa I have seen. There are not a lot of animals in the park, but I was pretty fortunate. Almost immediately I ran into a pair of ostriches, and there were numerous baboon sightings – not all of them good. And I also saw a small herd of bontebok (another new species!), but only from a distance, with the binoculars.

I made my way south through the park, down to the very tip at Cape Point. Here, there’s a funicular that takes you up to the top of the hill, where a lighthouse has sat since the mid 1800s. I chose to walk up instead, and it provided with some amazing views over the surrounding cliffs and the ocean. After enjoying the views for a while, I made my way back down and drove out to the actual Cape of Good Hope. A bit of a rain storm blew in, providing an amazing full rainbow.

On the way back out I drove through a couple of different areas of the park, to take in the scenery. It’s a beautiful place. As I was sitting, looking over the ocean at one point, I saw what happens when people feed baboons, and they become unafraid of people. This family (mom, dad, young son or daughter) were making their way back to their car with a picnic basket. Pretty much out of nowhere, this big male baboon comes out from the scrub. The father had open the car, and was putting things away, but the mother and the daughter were not quite at the car yet. The baboon made a beeline for the family, and the mother picked up the kid and moved away from the car. The father tried to stay between the baboon and the family, so the baboon got right into the car, ripped some things apart, and made off with what looked like a loaf of bread, and a big drink box. It was a bit frightening – it was a big baboon, and it could have hurt someone. I couldn’t believe it just went right into the car, through the open front door.

As it was getting towards the end of the day, and the park was closing, I made my way back towards Cape Town and the hotel. After parking the car, I got cleaned up and headed out for dinner. As it was my last dinner, I decided on another seafood binge. The hotel recommended a place (that turned out to be excellent), and I ordered the seafood platter. It was a ton of seafood, but I was up to the task: rock lobster, 10 prawns, grilled calamari, deep fried calamari, a big piece of fish, mussels and rice. It was amazing, and a great end to my night.

Sunday August 3rd,

Sadly, Sunday I had to head home. My flight was at 7:00 p.m., so I had some time on Sunday to try and cram in some more sights. I decided to go out to Robben Island in the morning, to get the historical perspective. 

Robben Island was the on-again-off-again prison colony, made most famous for housing Nelson Mandela during the apartheid era. The tour involved a ferry from the mainland, then an excellent bus tour around the island, and finally a look at the prison including Mandela’s actual cell. The tour guides were the best part of the experience. We had two of them; both had active pasts with the struggle to end apartheid. Our first guide was involved with the PAC; our second guide was an actual political prisoner in the prison, for over five years. They were both quite good, bringing a very personal perspective to the events of the past. 

After getting back from Robben Island, I did a bit of last minute shopping, then headed out for one last drive around. As it turned out, I ended up back at the Cape Riviera, and Camps Bay. I had some lunch, then went for a walk on the beach. The water was nice – I would have gone for a swim, if I didn’t have to go get on a plane. Of course, Sunday was the most amazing day, weather-wise, of my whole stay in Cape Town. Twenty degrees, bright blue sky and not a cloud in sight. It was a perfect send-off for what was an amazing trip back to South Africa.

The Big Five, great white sharks, whales – I really couldn’t get much more into a single trip. Of course, I did not see nearly anything in Cape Town – barely scratched the surface there. But I’m finding that to be true of all the places I visit. I could spend a life time exploring each and every place I go to visit. I guess the trick is to make the most of the time you do have, and get in as much as you can. I think I did that, and have a bunch more amazing memories to look back on.

The O2 Wireless Festival

2008-07-04

There have been lots of updates on happenings around London this past week or so. Friday, I had tickets for the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park. It’s been a busy week or so for me and festivals/concerts (and with the Fratellis show this coming Thursday night it continues…), and Friday the weather continued to be fantastic.
I went to the show with my friend Mark, who I went to university with in Toronto. He’s been in London for a number of years now, and has been great since my arrival in showing me the ropes. As mentioned, the day was amazing – all blue skies with big, fluffy clouds, sunshine and enough of a breeze to keep it all at a good level. Unlike the Police show a few days earlier, this was more of a festival, with multiple stages playing a number of different bands. And unlike Sunday, there was more than one band that I wanted to see play.

We started with wandering the venue, but as it turned out we had showed up as a bunch of the stages were between sets. No problem, we sat ourselves down in front of the main stage and watched a couple of the bands. They weren’t all that great, but Lightspeed Champions did this pretty cool version of the theme music to Star Wars, which was entertaining. We moved briefly to the Sandisk Stage to watch The Rascals, who put on a pretty good set.

Most of the rest of the day (with short trips for food and beer) was spent camped out in front of the main stage. Around 6:00, the Wombats came on stage and put together a great set. They were one of the bands I had wanted to see, and they did not disappoint. I knew a couple of their songs (and think I may have even seen them at Coachella last year…), and will likely pick up their disc based on the very fun set they did. After the Wombats played, was the main act I had come to see – Beck. I’ve been a Beck fan since back in the day, and saw him last at Lollapalooza, at Molson Park in Barrie, just after university. It seems an eternity ago. Beck doesn’t do much in terms of engaging with the audience, but still put on a hell of a show. He pretty much just put his foot down and hammered through a whole lot of music – all the big hits as well as a lot of stuff off the new disc.

The headliner for the evening was Morrissey, and while I’ve never been a huge fan of either him or the Smiths (more a fan of the Smiths to be honest), he’s one of those iconic personalities that I felt I should see at least once in my life. As I said, I was never a huge fan of the Smiths back in the day, and didn’t follow the solo career of Morrissey at all. As much as I liked the Smiths music, I couldn’t get over Morrissey – he always came across as a hugely egotistical, arrogant, self-important jackass, and after seeing him live in person, I can safely say that the years have not mellowed him at all. Frankly, I can do without all the preaching from rock stars – I really don’t give a damn about their beliefs.

In all fairness, he put on a hell of a good show, when he shut the hell up and just sang. The band was very good, and it was a very tight, entertaining set. He waited to the end to pull out the big crowd-pleaser How Soon Is Now?, which got the crowd completely riled up and singing along. It was fun. 

All-in-all, it was another excellent day in a summer that is shaping up to be one of the best ever.

Canada Day 2008, Trafalgar Square

2008-07-01

Canada Day was an absolute riot this year! Actually, it ended up being a two-day party in central London that was a lot of fun. A month or two back I had noticed that the Canadian High Commission, which operates out of Canada House on the edge of Trafalgar Square was planning a Canada Day festival, with bands and the whole works for Trafalgar Square in downtown London. Seemed like a good idea, sop I signed up for the free tickets to the show, scheduled for June 30th in the evening. 

The stage set-up for Canada Day 2008, Trafalgar Square

I didn’t think much of it, until a few days ago. As it turns out, it ended up being a two-day event – the evening of the 30th was a concert, and then all day on the 1st was a series of events, followed by another concert in the evening. And of course the best part was that Canada was taking over Trafalgar Square! I ended up with two tickets for the concert on the first night (all the event on Canada Day itself were free), and invited KJ, a fellow Canadian and a friend of Karen’s that I had met a few months back. He’s a fun guy, and I knew we’d have a good time of it.

 The National Gallery, swamped by Canadians

The concert itself was OK – of the acts playing the only one I knew was the Trews; all the others were mostly unknown. All in all, the bands did a good job. The Trews were great, and Kathleen Edwards, a singer/songwriter type that closed the show was really good. I had shown up around 7:30, and the music went strong until about 10:30. It was a very fun evening, made better by the fact that it was going to continue the next day. KJ was planning on spending the whole day and invited me to hang out with him and his friends.

Sadly, I had another meeting in Solihull on Canada Day in the morning, so I didn’t get back to Trafalgar Square until about 5:30 in the afternoon. By that point I had missed the ball hockey tournament; how could it be Canada Day without hockey in some form? But I did manage to snag a Tim Horton’s donut, so that was good. While the crowds initially seemed smaller than the previous night, the line up for beer was way longer, and finally we gave up on the Moosehead and wandered off across the street to buy some from Tesco. Again, this whole attitude towards people having fun is so much better here – not only were we not forced to stick to some small beer garden; we were even able to just go buy our own. 

KJ and Joe - too cool; KJ and the girls (no idea who they are...); Joe, the flag and "Proud of Alberta Beef" guy

KJ’s friend Joe had shown up not long after I did – with this huge Canadian flag! It turned out to be the centre-point for a lot of antics throughout the evening. Joe had kept it under wraps for quite a while, but once it came out it drew tons of people our way. I also met two of Joe’s friends – Chris a fellow Canadian and Becs, from New Zealand. But we let her stay anyway.

Joe and Becs;  Joe, Chris and Becs; Becs anbd Chris

Sadly, the music on day two was really pretty bad – so for any non-Canadians in attendance, I apologize and would like to say that is not indicative of Canadian music! They could have down much better on that front. Around 10:30 (I think…), they rolled out the Canadian National Anthem, which was great – the sing-along was fun – and them they threw us all out of Trafalgar Square. 

Joe and the flag toga; Chris, Joe and Becs; Joe waving the flag during the anthem; Joe and "Flight of the Concords" guy

That was pretty odd. We milled around for a bit longer, and then headed home. It was a very fun night, and one of my more memorable Canada Days!

The Canada Day gang - plus a few hangers on...

A Mixed Bag in London

2008-06-29

Sunday was a fun day – spent the day at an outdoor music festival in Hyde Park, and saw the Police. It was a great day – sunny, warm with enough of a breeze to keep things nice. I showed up mid-afternoon, while the music was already started. Frankly, the rest of the bands playing didn’t hold much interest for me – I was there to see the Police. In their “last London show”, if that is to be believed.

I actually showed up near the end of the Bangles set – way too funny really. They closed out with a pretty cool mix of their hit Walk Like an Egyptian and Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. That was pretty cool. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging in the sun, drinking beer, and listening to OK music. The whole festival scene is so much more civilized here. No lines for drinks, as they don’t pen you up in some small area. 

Pics from the Police show in Hyde Park

The Police were great; they put on an awesome show. Sting was looking a bit old, sporting a scruffy (and very grey) beard. They played all the expected hits, and the crowd was very into it. The show wrapped up surprisingly early, but it was a good day.

2008-06-28

A Saturday at home – quite the novelty for me of late. So I made the most of it, and ended up having a varied, full day. I started off the morning by sleeping in late, which hasn’t happened in quite a while. It was very enjoyable. After that late start to the morning, I wandered over to Borough market and did some actual shopping – I now have food in the place for the first time in quite a while.

After coming back from the market, I was a little unsure of what to do. It was a beautiful, summer day – blue skies, a nice breeze, and bright sunshine. There was no way I was going to be cooped up inside. So I grabbed my box of walks, and picked one (sort of at random…), ending up with Stoke Newington.

Like many parts of London, Stoke Newington was a small village that got absorbed into the city. You see it a lot as you wander London – small, unique villages that are absorbed by the slow, inevitable creep outwards of London. I started off talking the Tube up to Finsbury Park tube station, and walking through Finsbury Park. That wasn’t part of the route, but it was such a nice day that it seemed like a good idea. It’s a nice park, pretty large with a boating pond and lots of open, green spaces – the footballers were taking full advantage.

The route took me through a not-so-great area of town, but eventually lead me through another one of London’s unexpected wild spaces. West Nature Reserve is a bit of green, wild space surrounding two reservoirs in this part of the city. Not large, but still quite nice to walk through, on the overgrown path. There were kids out on small boats on the reservoir, some kids fishing, and a few people out wandering like I was. I did get some pretty good pictures (I think) of some of the local bird population. 

Swan, on the resevoir at Stoke Newington

The path dumped me out at the foot of the “Castle”, a turreted, (yep, it looks like a castle) abandoned water-pumping station. The card called it “the turreted Victorian folly” – and it does seem a bit much for a pumping station. After the Castle, I wandered through some residential neighbourhoods, and into Clissold Park. Another very lovely city park, this one was cool in that it has an enclosed area with a small herd of deer. And a few goats, and a pen of rabbits. Slightly odd, but the kids all seemed to like it a lot. 

 The "Castle" - Victorian excess at its best...

After leaving the park, I ended up on the main street through Stoke Newington. It’s a nice little village-in-the-city, with lots of unique shops, none of the big “high street” stores, and a very small-town feel. While the main street was OK (I was not in a shopping mood, so I skipped the stores), the highlight of the trip was the last part, the walk through Abney Park Cemetery. This place is cool beyond words!

A Victorian cemetery (I saw grave stones from the mid 1700s all the way up to the 1980s), now “abandoned”, turned into a local nature reserve, maintain by volunteers. It’s amazing – left to go completely wild (less the bit of pruning here and there to maintain the paths), it’s become a magical place. Or at night, I would imagine it would make an ideal set for any horror movie. 

 The overgrown fantasy-land of Abney Park Cemetary; abandoned church in the middle

Narrow paths, overgrown with tree, vines and other plants; tombs and grave stones falling over; an abandoned church in the middle of the cemetery (it’s a big place); the atmosphere is just amazing! I must have spent hours wandering around, taking pictures and enjoying the peaceful tranquillity of the place. 

 Some of the amazing gravestones in Abney Park Cemetary

Sadly, I had to get back and return the car to the office - £24 a day for parking seemed a bit steep. After returning from Woking, it was about 9:30. The sun was starting to set, and the cloud patterns and colour in the sky looked good, so I went out to take some pictures. 

 Southwark Cathedral; St. Paul's and the Millenium Bridge

London cityscape, including St. Paul's

Two and a half hours later, I dragged myself back into my flat and called it a day. A very full, very fun day.

Nottingham and the Peaks District

2008-06-27

Friday morning I had a meeting with a customer, near Birmingham, a couple off hours north of London. As it was an early meeting, I could not get to the meeting on time taking the train, so I borrowed a car from work and drove up. After the meeting was over, I decided to spend the balance of the day touring the area.

I drove about an hour further north, to Nottingham – yes that Nottingham. The whole Robin Hood/Sherwood forest (there still is a Sherwood forest – I even drove through it…) thing. After parking the car I wandered up to Nottingham Castle, where they have taken the old castle (knocked down and rebuilt by numerous people since the infamous “Sherriff” was in attendance) and turned it into the local tourist attraction. Of that original fortress, part of the gatehouse from the 1250s still stands (although the moat was, sadly, filled in). The current structure was someone’s home until not too long ago (relatively speaking), and had been returned to the public in the early 1800s, as one of England’s first art galleries. The grounds have been beautifully worked, and they had a good display that showed where the original fortifications and abbey once stood. And of course, there were lots of statues and information about Robin Hood.

 Robin Hood statue outside Nottingham Castle; Nottingham Castle and its gardens

After wandering the castle for a little while, I had lunch at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn, billed as the oldest pub in England. They dated it in the literature to 1189, and the name references the Crusades. Who knows how much is true, but it’s a very cool pub, regardless. It’s built in to the cliff face beneath Nottingham Castle, right into the sandstone. The front room where I had lunch (while it was nice out, the atmosphere in the place made it worthwhile to sit inside) had a roof made from the sandstone above, making it kind of cave-like. The Olde Trip ale was good, and the food was pretty good as well.

Sandstone underneath Nottingham Castle; Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem Inn

It seems that the area around Nottingham is all sandstone, which is particularly sensitive to erosive forces. As a result, the entire city has an extensive cave structures under it. I read something that said there are almost 500 caves identified under the city. There was a “Nottingham Caves” attraction that I thought might be cool. Sadly, I found it – in the basement of a mall and it looked too lame, so I passed and headed out to do a bit of a drive.

Heading north from Nottingham, I chose to go to the Peaks District, a very beautiful area that was designated as Britain’s first National Park in 1951. One of my guide books has a tour through the area detailed, so I thought I would try it out. Let me tell you, one afternoon was not nearly enough! While only 60 km in length, I could easily have spent a full weekend doing that drive. Of course, the weather went to hell, which meant fewer photos, but it was still an amazing drive.

The drive was the best part of the day – I forget some times how great it is to just get out and go for a drive. The roads, once off the highway were classic English country roads – narrow, winding tracks, through the country-side. One minute, wide open fields surround you; then you’re penned in by hedgerows, so tight that the branches are brushing by the outside of the car; next there are stone walls right up to the edge of the road. And of course everyone is driving way too fast – but that’s part of the fun.

The area itself is quite beautiful. As you drive through the area it changes quite dramatically. There were areas of forest, surprisingly some very hilly, rocky areas, ,and of course the ever-present emerald patchwork of the English farms, spread across the countryside in a patch-work-quilt pattern, criss-crossed with low stone walls, the fields patterned with the white dots of sheep.

My first stop of interest was Arbor Low, the “Stonehenge of the North”. Of course, nothing is like Stonehenge, but this was still pretty cool. The site is almost as old as Stonehenge, and comprises of a fairly large earthen ditch (the “henge”), with 46 large (4-5 feet long) laid out in a circle. They figure they were standing stones at one time. Interestingly, this was the first site protected by Queen Victoria under the English Heritage program. One of the interesting things about the site is that it’s literally in the middle of a farmer’s field – there were sheep grazing amongst the stones. You walk through this guy’s farmyard to get to the site, and drop a pound in a tin box to help compensate him. I guess it works.

Arbor Low

At about this time it started to rain pretty heavily. My route lead me further north, and into the town of Buxton. Buxton must have had some prominence in the past, as it was way nicer than you would have expected, for a small town in the middle of a park. Due to the rain, I didn’t have a chance to explore or take any pictures, but the town’s bath (a spa, developed in the 18th century) and Opera House (Victorian) would be worth coming back to see. I had to do a conference call at this point, so I sat in the car, in the rain for about an hour. 

The rain was still falling, so I gave up on Buxton and continued on my way. At the “top” of the planned route were some spectacular views, but given the rain I figured I’d pass and start the drive back. I took a bit of a longer route, heading slightly south through the park. One of the stops along the way was the small town of Eyam, perched on a hill, just off the main road. The guide book recommended the church graveyard, for a spectacular 8th century Saxon cross. It was pretty amazing, and as the rain had mostly stopped, I was able to take a few pictures. 

 Saxon cross in the graveyeard at Eyam

The rest of the day was spent wandering back towards London. For the first part of the return journey, I continued to wind my way thought some very beautiful countryside. The road took me past Chatsworth House, “one of Britain’s most impressive stately homes” (I was too late to stop), built from 1687-1707. One of the more unusual sites was not too much further down the road. I had been driving for 15 or 20 minutes, seeing only sheep, when all of a sudden, just slightly down this side road off the main road, I see a carnival. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a small carnival, with a couple of rides, those silly game booths and a popcorn machine or two. It was slightly surreal – I’m assuming there was some small town hiding around a bend in the road or something.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, as I stuck mostly to the main motorways.

 A Long Weekend of Theatre – London and Stratford-Upon-Avon

2008-06-23

After a few months of very heavy travel, it looks like I’m actually at home for a couple of weeks – at least until my trip to Toronto in July. I don’t mind being at home at the moment – it has been a lot of travel – and I decided to make the most of it by doing some local sigh seeing.

Thursday, I had booked myself a ticket to see George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, at the Old Vic Theatre. The Old Vic is a London theatre icon – there’s been a theatre there since the early 1800’s, and some of the most famous actors in the history of theatre have been members of the theatre. Think Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Judi Dench, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins. Kevin Spacey is the current Artistic Director. For the Canadian connection, “Honest” Ed Mirvish bought the theatre in the early 80s and did the restoration to its current form. 

The theatre itself is a beautiful, classic theatre, with three levels of seating and excellent acoustics. I was third row center, and felt like you were on the stage. For those unfamiliar, , with three levels of seating and excellent acoustics. I was third row center, and felt like you were on the stage. For those unfamiliar, Pygmalion is the base for the musical My Fair Lady – minus the happy ending. I think tits the better version, and Shaw was apparently horrified at the changes made to the ending for My Fair Lady.
The production was outstanding – the actors were absolutely amazing and just carried and engaged the audience through the whole production. The beauty of Shaw is in the brilliance of his writing, the use of language, and this play is a stunning example of it. Mostly a comedy, it has its dark moments, and, as mentioned, it ends on a bit of a down note. All around, it was an amazing evening. 

Given that the theatre is about six blocks from my house, it certainly took me long enough to get in to see a play. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in my life, but what I’ve consistently discovered in my time in the UK is that they just know how to do a better job of it here. I’ve seen some great performances in Toronto, or in Stratford (Ontario) or at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but theatre in the UK always seems to take it to another level. 

On Saturday, I went up to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the weekend, again with the primary reason to see a play. This was my second trip to Stratford, having been the in 2001 on my first trip to the UK. On that trip, I saw Twelfth Night, and was awed by the performance, the theatre and the whole experience. This time ended up a bit different.
We took the train from central London to Stratford – an easy 2-hour trip, which deposits you right at the outskirts of town, but still easy walking distance. After dropping bags off at the B&B, we spent the early afternoon wandering around the town center. The town itself really hadn’t changed since I was there last time, but did I ever get a shock when we went to the theatre to pick up the tickets! More on that later.

 Old pub on the Stratford-Upon-Avon high street.

The first stop was to wander over to Holy Trinity Church, and see Shakespeare’s grave. For whatever reason, the last time I was here I did not see either his grave or the Birthplace. I’m not sure why, and it is very odd to me. Holy Trinity is beautiful – huge stained glass windows showing various Bible stories, intricate wood and stone carvings throughout, and the most amazing organ I have ever seen. It is beautifully carved, with the carvings and the organ pipes all intermixed together. The grave site itself – with its curse engraved on the stones – is pretty cool. The graveyard around the church is filled with ancient tombstones – many of them worn smooth, and gave me lots of ideas for pictures, assuming Sunday had better weather.

 Holy Trinity Church - "Shakespeare's Church"

After the church we went to pick up our tickets, and I came to understand why I had such a hard time ordering them in the first place. It seems that the main theatres are being rebuilt, and they are doing performances out of a temporary theatre until 2010. So instead of two theatres, there’s only the one. So there are lots of people wanting tickets, but only half the space. It explained a lot actually. 

After picking up the tickets, we wandered around town a little more. Stopped in at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and did the tour of the exhibit and the actual house. Interestingly enough, it has been a “tourist attraction” since the 1800s. I missed it last time I was here, so it was worth seeing. The exhibit was good; lots of facts I already new, but well presented. The house was interesting to see, and seemed to be authentically restored (like I’d know any different…).

 Shakespeare's Birthplace

After that we headed back to the B&B and changed for the play. The Courtyard Theatre is a temporary structure while the main theatres are being renovated. While a temporary structure, it’s still a pretty good venue. They’ve built it as a “thrust: stage, meaning that part of the stage extends out into the audience. It’s a bit different, and they used it well to get some audience engagement in the play – a couple of people found themselves part of the play. It was fun. 

The performance itself was just average really. I have never seen Merchant of Venice, but most people know the story. The cast was OK – nothing wrong, but no one really blew me away. The actor that played Shylock was probably the only exceptional cast member. It was a good performance, and I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.

Sunday, the weather was a bit better. While the rain from Saturday had gone away, and the sun had come out, it was ridiculously windy. Still, it was better than rain. We spent the morning wandering around the village, and I had a chance to take some pictures. We wandered up the river for a while, and also spent an hour or so in the Butterfly Farm. Yes, it’s pretty much what you’re thinking – a tropical greenhouse where they raise butterflies. They also had some small habitats with scorpions, spiders and insects. It was pretty cool.

Gravestones in the churchyard; The River Avon and Holy Trinity

Too soon, early afternoon (and our 2:00 train) came around. We had lunch in a very cool pub on the High Street, in one of the original half timber buildings on the main street. Great atmosphere, the beer was excellent and the food was good as well. All around, it was an excellent weekend!

Home to Vancouver; A London Update

Oh, and I added a few more pictures to the Paris posting.

Last week I was back in Vancouver for work, but it was great also to have a chance to catch up with some good friends, and be "home" for a bit. I got a lot of questions about which I like better - London or Vancouver - which I think is unfair at this point. I really haven't been in London very long at this stage. What I can say is that they are very different cities, and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to pick.

There's not a lot to say about the trip really - it went very fast, and work was busy. I was able to catch up with a lot of people. Almost everyone I wanted to see, with one or two notable exceptions. The weather did not behave at all - it was rainy and cold almost the whole weekend. I did get out to play some beach volleyball on the second Saturday. I have been craving beach in London, where there are really no options for it. And I got to eat a lot of sushi.  :-)

In a follow up to an earlier post, I finally got back to have a look at the "graffiti art" in the tunnel near my house. Much to my surprise, it seems to be an evolving exhibition, as some of the pieces had been changed. Thankfully, most of the good ones were still there, and I was able to get a couple of pictures.

Graffiti art under Waterloo Station

Paris, France

2008-06-01

Ah Paris... Where to start? Probably the best place to start is with the fact that it became clear to me within the first half day in the city, that I could be here for a lifetime, and probably only begin to scratch the surface on what this amazing city has to offer. Of course, this makes trying to cram a weekend in even more daunting. Back in 2001, on my very first trip to Europe, I made a conscious decision to avoid Paris on my free weekend. I went to Amsterdam instead, and have never regretted that decision. Now that I'm living in London, I think I'll have to tackle Paris in weekend-sized adventures.
Ever since I got to London, I've been trying to get to Paris to see my niece, Alex. Sadly, its taken until now for our schedules to align. So I was fortunate enough to have a tour guide for my first weekend in Paris. 

About as iconic as they come; the Effiel Tower

My trip started on Friday with another trip on the Eurostar - I'm not convinced that the train is cheaper, but overall the experience is better, and it is very convenient. I was in Paris by 2:00, and checked into my hotel, and off to meet Alex by 3:00. The hotel was pretty good - fairly central location, and cheap enough. The room was small, as expected, but clean and well looked after. I had to wrestle my bags up the narrow, spiral staircase to the second floor, but once in everything was good.  

After settling in, I hoped back on the Metro, and headed out to Versailles to meet up with Alex. Alex lives and goes to school in Versailles, so this was a pretty good opportunity to see the Palace. We spent a couple of hours wandering through the Sun King's extravagance - the place is bloody huge, and I don't even know where to begin to describe it. 

 Chateau de Versailles

We did the standard walk through the Palace - all the various bedrooms, the main halls, and some of the more impressive elements like the Hall of Mirrors. The extravagance of the place is mind-blowing - it’s not surprising that he almost bankrupt the country (how much money do you have to spend on your home to bankrupt a country!). The level of detail spent on the frescos covering the ceilings of every room is amazing; the sheer amount of gold leaf used in the place is staggering. As much as I'd like to try and describe it, words fall short. 

Interior of the Chateau de Versailles, including the Hall of Mirrors

After doing the tour of the Palace we moved outside to wander the gardens. The gardens are equally amazing - perfectly manicured, laid out in exquisite detail, with lakes, mazes and "outdoor sitting rooms" all designed to amazing detail. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we spent a good amount of time enjoying it.  

The Gardens

After wandering the gardens, I was starving and we grabbed something to eat in a cafe near the train station. Alex got a kick out of the size of the "Grande" beer I ordered, and the meal was pretty good. Alex left me, not long after. I wandered around Versailles a bit longer, checking things out. The cathedral was pretty nice, and I spent a bit of time there taking some pictures. 

It was pushing into the evening - and a very beautiful one at that - by the time I got back to the hotel. I had a shower, and then headed back out for a bit of a stroll. I headed on the Metro, up to the Champs-Elysees. Rather than going directly there, I got off at the far end, and walked the full length. The Champs-Elysees itself is very impressive - a huge, grand boulevard, encompassed in park at one end, and opening onto the shopping insanity that is the main part of the street. And of course, at the "end", the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Triomphe looked amazing at night, illuminated. Part of my goal for the weekend had been to get some good night shorts of Paris. Sadly that didn't work out as it got very misty on Friday night, and it rained on me Saturday. Ah well, next time. It ended up being a pretty late night by the time I got to bed. 

Saturday morning was a pretty early start, as I was to meet Alex at 9:00. We started our day with a trip to the Eiffel Tower. I had pretty much decided early on that this trip was going to be "touristy", and the things Alex had picked for the day were perfect. Even though we got to the Eiffel Tower early, the line was huge! We chose to climb the stairs to the 2nd level, rather than brave the even bigger lines for the lifts. The walk up wasn't bad actually, and while the crowds were substantial, they were tolerable. The views from the 1st and 2nd levels were pretty amazing; but I didn't make it to the top this trip. The line there was huge and chaotic, and my lack of desire to deal with them made that something to do next time. 

 Eiffel Tower from a number of different views

Next stop was a trip down-river to Notre-Dame. While there was no Hunchback, that was pretty much the only way that the cathedral disappointed. What an amazing structure. The crowds were a bit much, as expected, but given the sheer size of it, a pretty minor issue. We did a circumnavigation of the building, allowing me to check out all the different angles and take some pictures. It’s spectacular, no matter what angle you look at it from. I especially liked the huge (flying?) buttresses, and of course, the gargoyles. From the ground, they’re pretty hard to appreciate properly, and this trip I did not climb the stairs to the top (next time). 

The incredible Notre-Dame cathedral

Normally, I don’t bother with the inside of the churches, and given then lineup to try and squeeze into Notre-Dame, Alex and I took a pass again. As it turned out, I found myself drawn back to it a few times over the course of the weekend. Later that evening, as I was looking for someplace to have diner, I wandered by again. There was in essence no line, so I took advantage to go in. It was well worth it, even for someone as uninspired by the whole religious process as I am. The first thing I noticed were the acoustics – it just reverberated, with the smallest sounds from the front carrying, and echoing in the arched ceilings. It was absolutely awesome, and could just imagine how it must have inspired/intimidated the masses hundreds of years ago when first built. The interior is a marvel, and incredibly beautiful. The stained glass is wonderful, and all along the sides are alcoves (each with a different purpose I’m assuming) that are filled with various artifacts, paintings and stained glass. A lot of it was roped off, but I could imagine how spectacular it must be in the full light of day, with sunlight streaming in through those windows. 

I don’t think we spent that much time around Notre-Dame at that time. Enough to get a good look at it, but not too much. Next Alex took me for a bit of a walk through the Latin Quarter. At this point we needed some lunch. For lunch we found this nice little brasserie on a small side street, where I ordered chicken and got a hamburger. At least the burger was good.

Our wanderings through the streets of the Latin Quarter eventually lead us back to a Metro stop where we again hopped on a train, but this time headed uptown. We started the afternoon with a trip to the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. Again, the weather wasn’t really behaving itself – it was a bit hazy and overcast, but we decided it was worth a trip up anyway. The Arc de Triomphe is surrounded by a huge traffic circle – a busy one at that – and necessitates a tunnel to get people over to it. It’s kind of cool actually – you pop up right under it almost. 

 Arc de Triomphe; La Marseillaise; Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The structure itself it unreal – the detail that’s gone into the façade is incredible. This is especially true of the four amazing sculptures that adorn it. I think everyone is familiar with La Marseillaise, which must be one of the most recognizable images anywhere. While the Arc de Triomphe was built as a monument to Napoleon’s victories, the addition of the pieces that speak to those that died in service in the Great Wars, gives a feeling of reverence about it. This is especially true of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is an especially moving part of the monument.

We spent a little while taking it in, and then got into the queue for the hike up the stairs. Again this trip, I did a lot of walking, and climbed a lot of stairs! These were very narrow and spiral up to the top of the monument. There is a cool little exhibit on the building of the monument, on the floor just before the observation level. It was well worth a short stop to take in before heading up to the top. Despite the weather, the views were amazing, with a 360 degree view over the city. There’s a great view back to the Eiffel Tower, as well as you could see Sacre-Coeur off in the distance. I really liked the view down the Champs-Elysees. 

It was mid afternoon at this point, and we had time to try and fit in one last visit on the agenda. I knew it wasn’t going to be enough time (and it wasn’t even close), but I thought a couple of hours in the Musee d’Orsay would be perfect. This particular gallery has been almost as high on my list of places to visit as the Louvre, due to my love for Impressionist art. It has one of the most impressive collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art anywhere in the world. Added to its amazing setting in a renovated train station, it was a must-see for me this trip. And man, did it live up to my expectations – even exceeded them I think, which is rare. There were way more people than I like, but what a collection. I forced Alex to endure a bit of an art history lesson as we wandered the gallery – I hope I didn’t bore her too much… It was truly a highlight of the trip for me. I think the gallery space itself was something I was not expecting – it’s phenomenal. They did such an amazing job creating a light, airy space to display some of the greatest works of art ever. The main hall, which is primarily sculpture, provides such a great space to wander and take in the sculptures from Rodin and his contemporaries. Amazing…

Far too soon, they threw us out of the gallery. Alex and I wandered a bit down the path along the Seine, but all too soon she abandoned me. Just kidding – she was an excellent host and tour guide, and it was great to finally get to see her in Paris. Hopefully there will be many more trips and I can see her there again in the near future. After going our separate ways, I headed back to the hotel and had a shower (OK, I’ll ‘fess up – and a nap…). At this point, the previously mentioned light rain rolled in, screwing up my plans for the evening. While it wasn’t enough to stop me going out, it was enough that I couldn’t take picture for fear of getting my camera wet. Instead, I wandered around Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter for a little while, before settling on a restaurant for dinner. I ended up at a Moroccan restaurant, and had an excellent meal, that lasted late enough for me to call it a night. I had plans for a fairly early start Sunday morning.

My Sunday morning was reserved for the Musee du Louvre – how could I come to Paris, and not go to the Louvre? The short answer is there’s no way I could! I know how bad the lines are supposed to be, so my plan was to get there before it opened, at least get to the front part of the line, and hopefully stay ahead of the crowds a bit. Ah, the best laid plans…

Actually, it worked for the most part. It was complicated by the fact that the first Sunday of the month, entrance to the gallery is free. I got to one of the entrances (the one by the upside-down pyramid no less…) about 8:30. I was probably 100 people into the line up at that point, so my timing was good. By 9:00, you couldn’t see the end of the line – it was unreal. Promptly at 9:00, the doors opened and we all flooded in. I was a bit confused by the no ticket required thing, but I sorted through that and headed in. While I knew that the Louvre is the largest art museum in the world, it still doesn’t really prepare you for what that actually means. The scale of the place is enormous; I thought the Met in New York was huge, but the Louvre easily out-scales it. The plan was to try and stay ahead of the crowds and see the Mona Lisa before things got out of hand. And that worked, for the most part. There were still too many people there, but I was able to get to the front of the barrier and have a good look. It really is an incredible piece, even from far away. Between the barrier, the tinted glass (which they need – you wouldn’t believe all the idiots taking pictures with flash – come on, show some respect…) and the distance, I’ve had better “views” of it in art class, but it never top seeing the real deal. I didn’t stay long, and there were other pieces I wanted to see more – like da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which may be my favorite Renaissance piece – which people were just streaming by, without even noticing. That’s part of the problem with the place – there’s just so much there, unless you have an educated eye, you don’t even know what you’re walking past. There were so many times that I’d catch something out of the corner of my eye, and walk back across the hall, and had just missed something major. 

 The Louvre

I spent about 3 hours in total – and barely saw anything. I hit a lot of the major pieces I wanted to see the Venus de Milo, The Oath of the Horatii (David worked on such an incredible scale – his paintings are just huge…), The Raft of the Medusa, The Battle of San Romano (I have now see all three parts of this epic masterpiece, having visited the Uffizi and the National Gallery), and a whole slew of others from Raphael, Botticelli and the like. I also had a chance to see some of the sculpture galleries, and some of the very cool Egyptian (The Great Sphinx), Islamic (excellent mosaics) and Roman art. Actually, one of the coolest non-art things was the display of the original foundations of the first building that was the beginning of the Louvre – the original fortifications built in the 11th or 12th centuries. The discovered an excavated it in the 1980s, and have turned it into a very compelling display in the basement of one of the wings.

Even so, in my three hours I barely scratched the surface, and missed so much – none of the Flemish art, Turner, El Greco – all of the decorative arts and tapestries. I could easily spend days and days wandering the galleries. Not to mention the rooms themselves. As the Louvre started life as a royal palace, the scale and artistry in the decorations of the rooms is stunning. My neck was getting sore from looking at the ceilings, doorways and other decorations. It is truly a unique and spectacular place. I will go back.

Before leaving, I wandered back to where the Mona Lisa is, just to see how insane the crowds had become. My initial plan had been a good one, as you couldn’t get near the thing.

It was getting close to noon, and sadly I had to head back to my hotel and check out. I exited through the amazing glass pyramid that sits in the courtyard amongst the main buildings – it really was a visionary idea to add it to the museum – stopping to take some pictures. To get back to the Metro, I wandered through the stunning Jardin des Tuileries, which of course lead to more pictures and me almost being late for check-out.

After taking care of that bit of business, I had a few hours to kill in the afternoon. I headed out to do a walk through the Catacombs, which ended up being the coolest thing I did the whole trip! It seems that a lot of the suburbs of Paris were good for rock – granite, limestone and the like for building, and they did a lot of mining to remove the rock that went into building the city. Fair enough. It also left a lot of tunnels (which I am sure were also useful for other things like the Metro, but that’s just speculation on my part…). These particular tunnels got turned into a mass grave when they needed to move a number of cemeteries between the 1780s and the 1840s. 

One of the preliminary tunnels; Entrance to the tombs; One of the amazing sculptures created by the miners.

At some point, somebody thought that arranging the bones in next, orderly patterns was a good idea, and Paris’ most disturbing and interesting tourist attraction was formed. There are over six million people in these amazing tunnels, along with some very cool inscriptions. It’s a very interesting place, and thankfully most people seem to have been very respectful of the dead. I do feel bad for the people that work there, sitting in the dark surrounded by bones and skulls all day, making sure people behave themselves. That can’t lead to good sleep at night…

 Details on some of the bones.

After that experience, I ended up in a nice little neighborhood where I wandered for a bit, and had a drink on a terrace, and watched Paris go by. As I perused my guide book, I noted a flower market near Notre-Dame that had an interesting descriptor – “bird market on Sunday”. That I had to check out, and sure enough, there was a whole street lined with little shops, all selling birds and bird paraphernalia. There were some beautiful, exotic birds I had never seen before, along with people selling small mammals. There were two beautiful ferrets that would have come home with me if I was a little more stable, and the funniest thing was the cage of chipmunks being sold as pets! 

My afternoon ended a couple of hours later, after wandering around Notre-Dame again, then I did a short walking tour through the Latin Quarter that my guide book suggested (which was quite good). 

Additional views of Notre-Dame

I hopped back on the Metro, back to the train station, then home. It was a fantastic weekend, it was really great to see Alex again. And I have come to the obvious conclusion that I need to go back to Paris for a much longer visit, to do it justice.

Les Invalides - Napoleon's Tomb

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I was surfing the 'Net the other day, and ran across some material on Douglas Admas - one of my favorite authors. For any of you that haven't read The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (and shame on you if you haven't), it may be the single funniest book ever written. Anyway, I've picked a couple of quotes from it, and added them below.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful [the Babel fish] could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."
"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (book one of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series), p. 50

In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move. Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much... the wheel, New York, wars, and so on, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.

- Douglas Adams

And my all-time favorite: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

"After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say "I want to see the manager.""

- William S Burroughs