Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The best laid plans of mice & men

Gee, things conspire against (or for) you occasionally! We had originally planned a day trip to the Isle of Islay. But with only one ferry crossing at the moment, reservations are not so easy and if we want to go over, it will require a longer visit. This means that we will have to stay two nights for a total of a two and a half day visit - bugger!

And I know just how hard this is going to be for Michael - for one of the main reasons for the visit is to visit the Whisky Distilleries - all 8 of them on an island known world wide for it's pure waters and smokey peats! But that is not all we have come to see - there is also a wealth of ancient monuments and natural beauty here, so you see all is not quite lost.

We leave Stonefield Castle Hotel in beautiful sunshine. The day is looming to be just perfect with hardly a breeze blowing and the waters calm. We stop in the seaside village of Tarbert to go to the bank and the supermarket where I find (other than the shampoo and conditioner I need) a couple of little trinkets to send to the-most-beautiful-child-in-the-world (aka our granddaughter Izabella Rose) so it then also necessitates a quick trip to the Post Office.

Then it is down to the ferry port at Kennacraig for a crossing to the Isle of Islay. Now for those who know me well, you will understand that excited as I am about the distilleries, I face this morning with some trepidation because of the boat trip. And for those who don't, well lets just say that the rolling of the seas usually coincides with the rolling of my stomach!

But I need not have worried. The sea truly was like a mill-pond with not a wave in sight, and a mere breeze just barely generated little caps atop the water dancing in the sunlight as we skimmed along like gliding on a mirror. Seagulls escorted us for almost the entire journey - perhaps waiting for some tasty morsel to be thrown to them by some dumb tourist. Sadly, I think they missed out. I am amazed to learn that the boat we are travelling on - the MV Hebrides carries some 98 cars. Today there are 3 semi trailers, 4 vans, a couple of 4WDs and about 15 cars and I was worried that they all would not fit! Still can't get over how calm the crossing was!

There are an eclectic mix of passengers - a couple of young boys seeing the world the hard way - on bikes with tents, a couple of businessmen (probably trading with the distilleries), various locals and the odd two or few of people like us. And then there are the birdwatchers / bushwalkers. Amongst this group are two older ladies that you would have expected to see with a crocheted rug over their knees sitting in a nursing home. All kitted out with mod cons such as binoculars around their necks, North Pole wet weather gear enveloping their petite frames and bulging backpacks hoisted on their shoulders! Good for you ladies!!

We sailed from Kennacraig through the Sound of Jura and then into Sound of Islay once we round the tip of the island of Jura which is the island between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Islay. And still I cant believe how calm it is! There is a much stronger current that runs against the trip up to the northern Port of Askaig and you can hear the boat engines working more heavily now. The channels are deep here and the boat effortlessly glides right up to a high jetty where we all drive off the ferry.

We have to travel across and halfway down the island to Bowmore where we have accommodation for the next two nights. But before we go and book into the accommodation, we decide to go further around to Port Ellen and the distilleries around there firstly to get the lay of the land but also to have a bit of a sqizz at some more of the island. The little towns are very similar to many of those that we saw yesterday on the islands just south of Oban and although the aspect is different, with many of the bays littered with large rocks or sometimes small islets jutting out of the water. Many of the brochures talk about the wildlife that you can see on Islay and even on the first day we strike it rich!

We are travelling on the roads that can best be described as little more than goat tracks whe we come over a hill to see another small bay in front of us with lots of rocks framing a natural harbour. And, there just lolling around on the rocks are a whole colony of seals - in the raw, in the wild. They couldn't give two hoots that we are there and don't even give a look when Michael gets out of the car to get a photo. They just arch their back to better display themselves or disdainly roll over away from us!

A little further on we come across a couple of deer just grazing in a paddock. They however are mush more alert and quiet jumpy. We better understand later when we see tours that can be booked to go - deer hunting! We are now travelling further up the eastern coast of the island to find the Kildalton High Cross that dates from about AD800. We find it easily as it is well signposted. It sits in the yard of a church ruin and is very impressive - especially when you think about it sitting there in the elements for the last 12oo years. And not only is there this famous cross here, there are also some very impressive old grave markers in the church and the yard and even an ancient stone stile built on both sides of the wall that contains these once hallowed grounds. Our history thirst quenched for the moment, and with the day almost done, we decided to drive over to Bowmore via Port Ellen.

We are staying right on the (working) harbour at Bowmore in one of the original buildings that now houses The Harbour Inn Hotel & Restaurant. It is almost 6 pm when we pull up outside, but now that daylight saving is here, it is still very light. The hotel is very nice and we have been lucky enough to get a two day deal. Our room is on the first floor and has a sideways view of the harbour. No sooner are we in the room when a window washer appears to freshen the windows - now, that is what you call service!

Dinner is served from 6 pm and we book in for dinner at 7:30. We start in the conservatory with a drink while we peruse the menu. Gin and lemon for me and a plain tonic water for Michael. The restaurant here is reknown and the menu looks very inviting. After about 15 minutes considering and weighing up the choices we settle on:
Seared breast of Wood Pigeon (on Stornoway Black Pudding with a warm rowanberry dressing) Michael
The Harbour Inn Seafood Chowder (topped with Garlic Croutons) Maria
Loin of Islay Lamb (on a minted pea puree and aubergine with port and redcurrant jus) Michael Pan seared Islay Scallops (with braised fennel, crisp pancetta and a marsala cream) Maria
Warm Crepes with a brandy and kumquat sauce finished with fresh cream - Michael
Trio of Desserts (mini selection of Rosewater and Honey Parfait, Dark Chocolate Mousse and our Orange & Grand Marnier Cheesecake) Maria

Well, it is hard to keep saying how good the food is. We know it is becoming repetitive - but, bite us - it really is that good. Michael moans as he eats the pigeon and the chowder is light but lively. The lamb is rare (read raw!) just as Michael enjoys it and I am not joking, the scallops with their roe on are as big as golf balls. They are just barely cooked and oh-so melt-in-your-mouth perfect. And the parfait is up their with the custard from Avingnon (see the 'Best of' blog list!)

So another day done, another meal over. Yes, sometimes it pays for the plans to go awry!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Oh, tho' I walk through the Valley of Ghosts

Many years ago my mother-in-law said to me that I needed to stop ending every sentence with “you know”. Well it seems that lately, all my sentences have been starting with “Oh, wow. Oh, wow!” Today was no different – and in fact I probably repeated this phrase ad nauseum.

We left the delightful Blair Villa after a quick chat with Alec and his partner and doubled back on ourselves to travel (via a different route) to the south. We were headed for the islands off the coast of Oban and initially were a little dubious as the morning was misty and from time to time, raining gently. But true to form, it was such that it did not really impede us and we were able to take in some magnificent scenery.

Then we drove from Oban over the Isle of Seil going from point to point (Easdale to Cuan) then over to Luing Island by car ferry where we went to Cullipool, down to Toberonochy and back to the ferry to Seil and then down to Balvicar. The scenery was ever changing. We watched the wind blowing in from the Atlantic play a losing battle of chase-away with the mist and storms rolling across the landscape from the east. It was wild, wet, windswept and wonderful! Every once in a while those winds won out for a short time and we caught glimpses of the most beautiful sunny views. It was amazing how going up one side of a hill it was blustery and damp and then over the peak there was sunshine and clear skies!

From the islands we drove to Kilninver and to Kilmartin where we stopped at the Museum to learn of the ancient history of this area that is full of cairns, henges, standing stones and cup and ring carvings that date back to about 4000 BC.

Prior to exploring the enigma, represented by 5000 years of human history, we commence with a light lunch at the museum's cafe. The cafe is a representation of its surrounds - rustic. Occupied within a reconstructed barn, the cafe boasts a menu of fine foods, beverages and its walls decorated by the efforts of local artists and artisans.

After we had tendered to our hunger pangs, we ventured into the drizzle toward the museum... and silence. The silence was was punctuated only by the sounds of dripping rain, as we viewed the Glebe Cairn at Kilmartin. A sight to behold, indeed, as we attempted to comprehend the age of this memorial to its ancient dead. The Kilmartin Glen is the basin for forensic archaeology and anthropology, in determining the life and demography of ancient Scots.

The Kilmartin House Museum is the caretaker of more than 350 monuments within the 3.7 km radius around Kilmartin village. The museum takes its visitors along a corridor of time, clearly showing the subsistence and ascent of its ancient inhabitants. There is a raised relief map of the the Kilmartin Basin, whereby the locations of monuments, carvings and cairns are indicated by pin lights when a specific button is depressed. The museum also presents an AV presentation showing its interpretation of these past cultures.

The drizzling rain is perstistant, and so are we. Our next stop is the Kilmartin Church, located next door to the museum. However, the church has an interesting graveyard containing examples of graveslabs (precursors of modern headstones). The stones have been located within a greenhouse structure for conservation purposes. Arranged chronologically, the age of these stones range from the 13th century AD through to the 18th century AD.
The rain is steadily increasing so we decide to move onwards in search of henges, megaliths and stone circles within the area. This area has been dubbed by archaeologists as The Valley of the Ghosts because not only of the wealth of early and pre-history here, but also because so little is known about why there is such a rich concentration in this valley.

Upon leaving Kilmartin, we venture upon an old cairn which appears to have been used as a burial site. The pile is not high, however, past excavations has exposed a ring of stones which may have been the result of a ritual? I must admit, the area had a significant eeriness to it - no, nothing manevolent; just odd. The result of an over imaginative mind... hmm, maybe?

The next landmark we visit is the Temple Wood standing stones, which are part of a lineal group of cromlechs and cairns. One can only look in awe at the alignment of these stones, as for the original purpose - astronomical, spiritual - the exact secrets have yet to be revealed.

Tonight we are staying at Stonefield Castle Hotel. Yep - in a real castle. Normal rack rate is from £140 and we got it for £50 - so we don't feel at all guilty! The actual building is amazing and our room has views of the Loch and out to sea (over a flat roof). When we arrive there is a blackout and with the candles lit everwhere it certainly added to the atmosphere! Young Colina at reception could not have been warmer nor more helpful, and the waitresses said they were happy to live off-resort because it meant that they still got the wow factor each day when they came to work - now, how special is that! The Castle is set in grounds that contain the UK's best examples of Rhododendrons and Azaleas - they are all in bloom and are just so beautiful. Eat your heart out Mum!

Dinner at the Castle is the title on the Menu page. How do you choose when there are so many scrumptious dishes?
Haggis parcels with Arran Mustard Mayonnaise (in a wonton wrapper!)
Rich Shellfish Chowder, Potato, Spring Onion & Tarragon Brandade, Saffron Mayonnaise, Sea Salt Crouton (Michael)
Twice Baked Mull Cheddar Cheese Souffle with Piccalilli (Maria)
The Best of Loch Fyne - a selection of hot and cold seafood served with hand cut chips (crab, scampi, oyster, mussels, baked salmon, scallops) Michael
Chicken & Tarragon Roulade, Forest Mushroom Risotto, dressed rocket and shaved Parmesan - Maria
Warm orange syrup sponge, orange sorbet and cardamom syrup - Michael
Classic Creme Brulee with home made shortbread - Maria
And the meal is certainly up there with the best of them. Then it was in to the bar for coffee and a dram of 12 year old Brucchladich whisky from the Isle of Islay. Aaah nectar of the gods!

And for those who describe the Melbourne weather as four seasons in one day (do I hear a song about to burst forth?), then the weather today could only be described as four seasons in an hour! What a great day!!!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Scotland the ?

Brave? Foolhardy? Wild? Cold? Visually stunning? Friendly? Try them all on for size.

Now, if I were to put the following together, where would I be?
Dali, Matisse, Titan, Bellini, Boticelli, Monet, Vuillard, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Coubert.

Well, I would be in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow of course! We had decided to go today because there is a Doctor Who Exhibition on. Sadly for us, when we get there we find that it is fully booked out for the weekend. Michael however placated himself with the Spitfire LA198 (Griffin powered Spitfire Mark 21 - Michael is so insistent that I get it right) that is hanging above the main foyer area (and later with the small but exquiste Ancient Egypt collection). And the art collection is just magnificent and so well laid out. Dali's Christ of St John on the Cross hangs at the end of an open corridor that is at least 100 yards long - and it dominates without overpowering this entire length. Absolutely stunning.

A quote on the wall in the French Art Gallery especially appealed:
"Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing" - Camille Pissaro. I thought it particularly pertinent in such a place full of beauty in the everyday.

There was a fascinating display of swords that combined the old in a new setting with steel styalised figures representing those who would have once used the sword in question - well done - it was a fresh take on an item not normally displayed with such vigour. We could have spent the whole day and then some in this place where there are very few items that bear the notice Please do not touch. There were fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, families with lots of little ones, and then there was us. Every room is a discovery wonder where you are encouraged to inspect closely (and sometimes even touch or hold) and in each gallery there were demonstrations pertinent to that collection as well as a free-to-use library and study centre. No wonder it is full and lively with such diverse groups of people.
But we are travelling to Oban, so depart the museum just after 2:00 pm to join a four mile crawl of traffic banked back as they do weekend resealing on the main motorway to the north! From Glasgow, we travel along the length of Loch Lomond, through the Trossach National Park and around the foothills of the Arrochar Alps then around the top of Loch Fyne to Inveraray before turning to the north again to get to Oban through Ardanaiseig and Loch Awe.

Sitting on a small island in the middle of Loch Awe is the ruin of the 14th century Kilchurn Castle - something you really don't expect to see when you round the corner. And I had better not ever hear Michael complain of my Alps photos again. Wherever there is a snow covered peak, he reaches for the camera! Says that it is different when you see them in person - but would he believe me before - no way. I know we keep saying the scenery is magnificent and it is. Every day we spend, every corner we turn brings a new vista to store in the camera of our memory banks. We strike rain as we get closer to Oban and our first view of the town is through a haze of watery mist hugging the shore of an almost perfect horseshoe bay.
Blair Villa where we are booked in to stay the night is a small B&B that is up a narrow steep road and set amidst other stone built victorian cottages. Alec makes us welcome and shows us to our room on the first floor that adjoins a beautiful sitting room complete with baby grand piano and the most amazing views across the bay from large picture windows.
On Alec's recommendation, we go down to the Waterfront Restaurant (as aptly named as situated). We were met at the door by the vivacious Joyce (who had just taken a mouthful of food!) From the minute we walked in, her main job for the night was to make us welcome and share a laugh or three. What an asset to the enterprise. And while we order and then eat, we watch the Mull Island Ferry being made fast - right outside the window where we sit.

And the food. Well - it was terribl-y good! Being on the coast we decided to go with the seafood - as you do!!
Seared local Scallops with Pancetta, white beans & roasted pepper dressing (Michael)
Isle of Skye classic and roast Smoked Salmon with chive cream cheese & granary toast (Maria)
Fish and Chips (Sole) with Homemade chips, tartar sauce & lemon (both)
Home made Vanilla Pannacotta with Raspberry Compote (shared)
Selection of Scottish Cheeses with Oatcakes (shared) - the blue cheese and the apple smoked Mull Island cheeses were especially noteworthy. Charlie, one of the chefs told us that we could not buy the cheese - it is a special order for them - bugger - would have gladly bought some to travel with.

Coffee was sublime. I of course had an Oban Malt Whisky coffee whilst Michael had to settle for a double espresso. And that coffee had followed a dram of Dalwhinnie Malt Whisky - soooo smooth and mellow. Yes, a grand night! Now, I am so full I hurt.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Where human ingenuity conquers nature

The Falkirk Wheel has held a fascination for me since the first I had heard about it - which was when the contract had been awarded for its construction. As we are in Glasgow, and Falkirk is a short 36 miles away we just had to visit it.

This engineering marvel has managed to accomplish the means to transport boats down 115 feet (35 m) from one water source (the Forth & Clyde Canal) with another (the Union Canal) in a matter of minutes.

In times passed, this took a journey of almost a full day and through a series of 11 locks. Today, boats sail into a basin within the wheel and once secure, it takes a mere 5 minutes to transfer them to the other canal. The wheel takes almost no power (8 electric jugs per half turn - one transfer) for up to 8 boats at a time and more importantly displaces no water from the system, doing away with the need for multiple holding ponds and pumping systems.

I could go on and on and on - but I know most people are not that interested! So, if you are, following the link above!

Following this visit we returned to the hotel in Glasgow. We have been moved into a suite as we had booked, only to find that it is as tired as everything else in the hotel. Still, it is cheap and being right on the bus route into the City, very convenient, so we are not complaining. I veg out almost finishing the book I am reading The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and Michael catches up on his emails and Fartbook!

I am too full after a huge cooked breakfast and a large hot chocolate at the Wheel to bother with eating dinner, although Michael takes a walk into Rutherglen over the hill before returning for Vegetable Broth and Cheese and Spinach lasagne downstairs. Soup was nice he says!

Daylight saving starts here tonight, so no matter what time we hit the sack, we will be deprived an hour, so goodnight all!

Cold and wet in Glasgow

Friday 27 March 2009
Seems that the computer clock and the real world are an hour out of synch. So if I don't get the blog saved before 11:00 pm here, then it is recorded as the following day - damn!

Today is windy and cold with intermittent rain. Despite the real working class nature of Glasgow city, there is quite a lot to see - albeit none of it as old as the things we have seen over the last couple of days. Catching the local No 20 bus from the suburb of Rutherglen where we are staying, we see some of the 'real' Glasgow that visitors would normally not see.

Everything has a tired feel - even the newer tenement housing blocks. There is an enormous amount of re-development going on and new road building. At times, it makes moving through the City and seeing things a little hard, but for us it is a minor inconvenience - can only imagine how frustrated the locals are.

All through our travels it has been amazing to see the amount of new building and re-building happening throughout Europe at the moment. But in Glasgow it is mind blowing. Whole suburbs are being torn down to be re-constructed and where once there was a flourishing heavy machining and fabrication industry there is now re-development to house growing financial and educational sectors. Glasgow has always been an important city in the development of the United Kingdom and for much of its past it held it's head high with ship and train building empires. In fact our tour guide tells us that in the 19th century there were 23,000 steam engines built here - I can't even picture that many engines!

We have taken the Red Bus tour of Glasgow. Just as well as the rain, although intermittent, is being pushed by a fierce wind and so at times comes in horizontally! These Red Bus (or open topped tours) are a great way to get the feel of a city with the support of local knowledge from the guides. Glasgow as a city does not have as long a history as some of the areas we have seen, and we are told that now has only half the population as it did at its peak when more than 100,000 people were employed by the shipyards. Nowadays, with three universities there are about that number of students.

Most of the historic buildings are still covered in a coat of soot - a legacy of those heavy engineering days. The guide tells us that where once Glasgow was coloured black and three shades of grey, but a cleaning program is discovering that it is really two coloured - honey and pink sandstone! And in those places where the cleaning has taken place I must say it is a much prettier area! The city proudly remembers just about anyone with any link with a statue - there are literally hundreds of them - industrialists, soldiers, politicans, poets, academics, inventors, oh, and the odd royalty!

There was (and I suspect still is) a very distinct line between the haves and have nots here. There are some areas we pass through near the River Clyde that demonstrate this - they are not so nice and the people in the streets are less well-dressed. There are a lot of young people that are grouped around corners and street seats - and they do not look like scholarly types - even the more bohemian sorts. And there are the kids with kids pushing newish prams while exchanging loud interjections with the mates and adversaries. Sad really.

However, in the southern suburb of Rutherglen where we are staying, there is the beautiful Kings Park across the road and surrounding it a residential suburb that shows the signs that people enjoy the area - it is well cared for with nice yards and many people walking dogs etc in the park that displays NO grafitti. And within the inner city area there are palatial mansions and rows of georgian terraces built for the wealthy, then converted to office spaces and now being rediscovered as desirable living spaces.

Admist the grey, Glasgow is a green city - quite literally with hundreds of parks. But with weather like what we are experiencing today ("this is Glasgow" one of the morning waiters at the hotel tells us!), we won't be seeing too many of them close up. And so we continue to dodge the building sites, taking detours around the roadworks as we are shown the best of Glasgow old and new. Along with a rapidly growing financial sector comes the need for meeting areas and so part of the new Glasgow is an increasing building of convention and meeting spaces. In fact, one of their new building nicknamed The Armadillo bears more than a passing resemblence to that thing of beauty called the Sydney Opera House!! Glasgow in a couple of words? Buses, more buses, statues, more statues, cool bars.

As the day continues wet and wild and with not too many options with some buildings not open, we opt to get off at the last stop on re-joining the tour after we visit the Cathedral to go to the Cineplex and see a movie. We had missed Gran Torino , directed, produced and starring one of our favourite stars Clint Eastwood and so were thrilled that it was still playing here. And we are not disappointed. If you haven't seen it and have the chance, it is well worth watching. A comment on changing society and how people can make a difference - but gritty, well played and not at all a drag. At the theatre we meet an English couple who start chatting to us and who tell us about their trips through the WWI war sites in France - including giving us the name of a B&B near Ypres. So, more to investigate. One thing that travelling is showing us is how willing people are to share their experiences.

It is 7:30 pm when we emerge and we are now starving! We might have a cooked breakfast - but when that is at 8:30 am, 7:30 pm is a long way off. Glasgow is jumping and many of the restaurants are full and do not have space for the casual diner without a reservation. We find a little Thai restaurant that can feed us and boy are we in luck!!

The Thai Lemongrass is one of those places that exudes a confidence in their establishment as soon as you open the door. We are greeted by Doreen and shown to their only available table - just inside the door. We are handed menus and asked if we would like a drink while we select our meals. This is balanced by the ample supply of spicy prawn chips on the table. The menu is extensive and you would have to have the most difficult of palates if you couldn't find something to tempt you in it. But not too diverse or big - just the perfect selection. And while we could have had a banquet, it seemed a little on the unadventurous side. So we embarked on a process of drooling and negotiation with each other so that we could try some different dishes. We ended up with the following ...
We share a Thai Sampler plate consisting of Chicken Satay, Fish Cakes, Grilled Pork Neck, Spring Rolls and Prawn Cakes in Seaweed Wrapper. All came with their own sauce on a beautifully decorated plate of carved vegetables.
Pla Ka Pong Mung Ma Nao (Steamed whole Sea Bass with fresh ginger, lemongrass and lime juice)
Nema 'sirloin' Yang Nam Jim Jaew (Grilled Sirloin Steak with kaffir lime, shallot and tamarind juice)
Kaoshan (Fragrant Rice)
Phad Rak Ruam - Mitr(Stir fried mixed vegetables in Oyster Sauce)
We had not realised just how much we are missing food that is subtley spiced and that has a 'fresh' taste. Both the mains were magnificent individually and complemented each other better than we could have planned - but the Bass was voted the best - just. The rice, delicious on its own, allowed both to be enjoyed down to the last bit of sauce being soaked and the vegetables were fresh, crisp and oh so nice.

Didn't feel like ruining the most sublime meal with what sounded like quite ordinary desserts - I suspect that 'dessert' as we know it is not eaten much in Thailand.

Doreen and her co-workers had been as solicitious as anyone could want them to be, without being intrusive. It appeared that all the wait staff were trusted to greet and seat customers - which was nice. It meant that no-one waited for more than a moment or two when entering. And all the wait staff waited on all the diners allowing customers to be moved through more quickly and new diners to be seated. It was obvious that they were not all related, but they all worked together as if a big happy family.