Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kippers and colleges

There can be few more pleasant ways to spend a warm sunny autumn afternoon than sprawling back on rugs and cushions in a punt on the Cam - especially when someone else is wielding the pole and getting his trousers wet.

The girls sitting for hours either side of an empty coffee cup in the window of a cafe while they sketched Kings College Chapel opposite were enjoying themselves, too; and so were the tourists biking round the narrow streets between the colleges; and also the people drinking in The Eagle beneath a stained ceiling covered in the shaky signatures, written with cigarette lighters, of the young men of the RAF and USAF who were stationed near here during the war. The pilot of the Memphis Belle is amongst them - the first American plane to complete a 25-mission tour.

For us it's the last day of our tour, too. Just some bits and pieces in London and then we'll be away home.

We started the day with kippers and we'll end it with scampi in the pub. Brain food - what else would you eat in Cambridge?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bon appetit

Down in the lobby of the Tardis-like George Hotel in Stamford, a 900 year-old coaching inn, there is a portrait of a sweet-faced boy called Daniel Lambert who had the body of a blimp. He was born in Leicestershire in 1770 and died here in 1809, weighing 335kg, necessitating the removal of part of a wall to allow his body to be taken to be buried. Despite measuring, for example, a metre around the knee, he was charming and intelligent, and much missed by the ladies after his death.

I was put in mind of Daniel when the head waiter in the hotel's excellent restaurant, rolled back the lid of the giant silver trolley to reveal a rib of beef quite 60 centimetres long. It carved like a dream and melted in the mouth, and along with the succulent scallops and tempura-fried shaved courgettes, the prosciutto-wrapped beans, cheeses by named people and home-made chocolate truffles, it threatened to bring on a case of the Daniel Lamberts.

So much for my intentions of being prudent, just ordering the turbot. In the absence of turtle soup on the menu, I felt I had to go for this fish as just this afternoon, in the cavernous Elizabethan vault of the kitchen at Burghley House, I had admired the diamond-shaped copper turbot kettle on the long polished oak table (held together only by wooden dowels); although the dozen or so 300 year-old turtle skulls mounted on the chimney breast were a bit chilling.

The house is magnificent and well worth seeing, full of ornament and wow-factor decorations, but I enjoyed almost as much simply walking through the grounds, past herds of twitchy fallow deer and imperturbable sheep, to the town where the low sun brought out the full beauty of the creamy limestone and the rolling green hills set about by oak and ash.

It's another undiscovered gem, like Lincoln, but I'm going to shut up about it now in case you take it into your head to go there and, in finding it, change it. There's a law about that, you know. One day the details may even come back to me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't read this

Shhh. Don't tell anyone. Don't even read this, in case you're tempted to come to Lincoln: because Lincoln is a delight, a gem, a treasure; and it seems that hardly anyone knows about it.
Ok, it was Sunday afternoon when we got here, but I was assured that the streets in the old town, the Uphill, are always quiet, that even in summer there are no crowds, and that because this small city isn't on the way to anywhere else, the coaches don't come here.
That means these steep narrow streets, higgledy-piggledy brick, stone and timbered houses, and glorious Cathedral are an absolute joy to wander around and discover. Not that we had much time for that: one afternoon. It's a crime.
Still, thanks to Brian, who has a comprehensive knowledge of the place and its history, as well as a mischievous line in jokes, we had a crash course in St Hugh and his swan, the swineherd and his 16 silver pennies and the imp with the 20p spotlight. And that was just the cathedral - to find out about the creepy prison chapel, the gentleman executioner and Captain Birdseye vs the Roman arch, you'll just have to come and ask him yourself.
Or, rather, don't.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cheers!

Purely in the interests of research, we've visited a pub or two on our journey around these islands, and I have to say it's been a pleasure, whether jammed around a table of friends in The Glasshouse on the side of May Hill, eating Welsh lamb shanks in Y Brennan tucked beneath Harlech Castle, or sitting by an open peat fire in Sean's in Athlone, allegedly Ireland's oldest pub.

In Ireland live music was a constant: original guitar ballads, keyboard comic songs, traditional diddly-dee on fiddle and bodhrin, or unaccompanied singing. I was pleased not to leave Ireland without hearing Black Velvet Ribbon and Wild Rover played apparently without irony; but best of all, and hilariously unexpected, was one old man's alternative version of Flowers of the Forest. It was an absolute joy: Google it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Arthur's Day

1759 was when Arthur Guinness established his brewery, world famous in the world for the velvety stout; and 250 years later, on 24 September at 17:59, Guinness aficionados all joined together to raise a pint to Arthur.

"Don't grab!" snapped the barmaid, struggling under the weight of a tray with 8 full - and free - glasses, as the time approached and some people were still empty-handed. One minute to six, a count-down and then, "To Arthur!" - across Dublin, Ireland and even the world. It was a stirring moment in the annals of mass advertising.

Arthur Guinness gave Dublin much more than a smooth pint of porter: on a long ramble around the streets today with Pat Liddy, the last in our series of knowledgeable enthusiasts, we saw many of the pies in which the Guinness family had a finger. We also ate one - with the stout in it, not any fingers - served by Jamie, from Christchurch.

And later that night I stood on the ferry, watching Ireland slip away into the dark as so many emigrants did 160 years ago, on the way to Liverpool and beyond.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Both sides now

In the 1870s the landed gentry at Strokestown Park had the leisure to worry about the handicap of left-handedness in their children and fitted the schoolroom with desks where the attached chair was offset so that it was only possible to write with the right.

Meanwhile, the tenant farmers on the estate had more basic worries: food, rent and Major Denis Mahon, the land agent, who advised his employer that the best solution to the problem of starving, poverty-stricken tenants was "mass emigration" as it was cheaper to send them to Canada than to the local workhouse.

At Swinford, Tom Hennigan's family was luckier: they managed to pay their rent and avoid eviction, and sitting in the small cottage today by the glowing peat fire, rain falling softly on the thatch and geese honking in the yard, he told us his stories. We'd seen the baskets before, the half-doors, the loft beds; but Tom was born in this bed, came home from school to eat potatoes baked on this hearth, sat in the firelight to hear these tales told over and over. Today he made it all real for us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A mighty craic - or several

What was best about today? It's hard to choose.

It could have been the eager young man at the Museum of Country Life explaining how yesterday's random walls were make-work shemes for men to earn their aid; or rationalising boys in skirts up to the age of 13. Or driving past great beetling bare hills with green fields at their feet and black peat bogs dug with deep channels. Or the passionate amateur archeologist describing how 15 people and 4 cattle fitted inside a stone cottage not much bigger than our bathroom, as clouds swirled over the mountain top behind him and waves broke high on the rocks beyond a pewter lake. Or listening to his stories about the people who fled this deserted village in the hope of a better life in foreign lands, leaving behind all that was familiar.

Or maybe cantering on a well-mannered grey mare through the shallows along a pebbled beach to a headland where a fierce current swirled through the narrow channel cutting it off from one of the 300 islands in the bay; and then turning to see St Patrick's church clear and tiny on the top of his mountain where pilgrims climb up barefoot one morning a year.

Or standing by the simple and powerful Famine Memorial, a ship with skeletons forming the rigging.

Or maybe in the yard bar of Matt Molloy's pub in Westport, where a man with a pony tail played his own comic songs and shared his excitement about flying to New York tomorrow to perform - another Irishman heading off across the Atlantic full of hope. Good luck to him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ireland rocks

Never normally one, as my younger daughter will attest, to indulge in cheap national stereotypes, nevertheless I have to say, where else other than Ireland would someone tell you "You need to go up two floors - you want the eighth and this is the fifth"?

The floor in question was The Source, though: the top level of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and the best place in the world to take a drink of the velvety brew (it doesn't travel) - so that may have something to do with the girl's innumeracy. But room 6524 being on the fifth floor of the hotel? Signs in the middle of nowhere saying 'Achtung! Drive on the left!'? Only in Ireland.

But also only Ireland: winners and losers walking back into town together after the final of the GAA Football, laughing and joking without a trace of animosity. The taxi driver assuring us that 'there's food and drink in an Irish coffee'. Little stone-walled paddocks and white-painted cottages dazzling in the sun against the emerald green grass. And the stones themselves in The Burren, a range of ancient terraced hills where the limestone has been exposed by glacial action and lies like silver icing over the slopes, cut here and there by random walls climbing straight up and over.

Ireland rocks? You betcha.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Only connect

No-one can come to Anglesey and not learn the meaning of Araf: it's before every corner, at the brow of every hill, the entrance to every village and hamlet. It means 'slow', and it's what Anglesey is all about. Meandering around the lanes, finding an old-fashioned windmill here, a little fishing port there, we really didn't need this constant reminder written across the road. It would be madness to rush anywhere here: old men (perhaps the same old man) are blackberrying along the lanes, there are dazzlingly white fluffy sheep with long tails scattered over bright green fields, the rowan berries are bright in the hedgerows and there's new-made hay scenting the air.

It's a relief to slow down: we've been rushing a bit and seen possibly too many castles. Seven, maybe eight in four days: that's a lot of arrow loops and spiral stairs. But the connections have been satisfying: it's fun to join the dots. Harlech, Caernarfon, Beaumaris: Edward I built them and his son, Eddie II, was born at Caernarfon - but buried in Gloucester Cathedral, after being murdered (in the most painful and vicious manner possible - Google it, why don't you) at Berkeley Castle where my great aunt was a guide and my grandmother's family farmed. In the Welch Fusiliers museum in the castle is a reproduction of the tapestries and portrait we saw at Blenheim Palace, because they fought at the battles where the gorgeous John Churchill made his name ('that was a man' said someone of him, and it's hard to disagree). Everything we see is another piece in the puzzle: it's very satisfying.

And tomorrow we move on: another country, another history, another set of grievances against the English. I shall be wearing my New Zealand t-shirt.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mountain high

I could have posted a picture of myself standing on the top of Snowdon (1085m) this afternoon, grinning cheesily as if I had actually walked up there under my own steam, but I think this photo is much nicer. It's a ptarmigan. Or a partridge. Possibly a grouse.* Anyway, it was on the top too.

The steam I actually got to the summit under was courtesy of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, just one of a bunch of little railways to be found in Wales, this one purely a pleasure ride built in 1896 by the Victorians, who enjoyed an engineering challenge. "Ooh look," they said, "here's the highest peak in England and Wales: what shall we do with this feat of nature, raw and magnificent? Let's build a railway up it!"

It's a rack and pinion railway, the only one in Britain, and the only way to cope with the 1 in 5 gradient near the top. We had a perfect view of the track, and the insoucient sheep grazing on it until the guard set about them with whistle and hooter, as we were travelling in his compartment at the front of the carriage, thanks to VisitWales's letter of introduction.

The path to the top was often clearly visible from the train, and was busy with walkers enjoying what one young man described up at the cairn as 'a decent walk' - it certainly looked very civilised, wide and gravelled all the way. His phobic girlfriend was clinging to the cairn and carefully not noticing the spectacular views: it was a peculiar choice of activity for someone who doesn't like heights, I couldn't help thinking.

Even higher were a couple of jets screaming around the sky having fun in the name of training. Someone told me they were from the airfield in Anglesey. Wanting, in best reporter tradition, to get my facts right, I asked her what the planes were. "British," she said.

*Red-legged partridge. You really wanted to know that, I can tell, so I looked it up.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

War and peace

It must be the English in me that makes me enjoy so much stories that discredit the French.

The last invasion of Britain was in February 1797 when 1400 Frenchmen came storming ashore in Fishguard, having mistaken it for the Bristol Channel, and routed the locals. All was going swimmingly until they came across a hoard of Portuguese wine liberated by the Welsh from an earlier shipwreck, which they appropriated until roaring drunk. The locals were then able to turn the tables on the invaders. The heroine of the hour was Jemima Nicholas, a sturdy and determined woman who rounded up no fewer than 12 Frenchmen, with the help of her trusty pitchfork. The Frogs surrendered two days after arriving, signing a treaty in the pretty Royal Oak pub in the town centre; and nothing much has happened there since.

Things were pretty quiet at the top of Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth this afternoon, too, when we hummed up on the Clifftop Railway, an old electric cable car that in its day was standing-room only. Today we were the only passengers, able to hear the robin singing on the bridge over the line which was scattered with windfall apples.

At the top of the hill is the Camera Obscura, a quaint Victorian novelty that still has appeal: there's something fascinating about watching the waves breaking on the beach below, and people walking along the Promenade in real time, sort of through a glass darkly, with no sound: beats CCTV hands down, even if the controls are all mirror-image. I was the only person there, too, enjoying the splendid view on a warm and sunny afternoon; and the girl in the shop would clearly have welcomed some rampaging French sailors. When I left she was untangling a plastic Slinky from the display. I suspect she'd tangled it up herself, deliberately.

The gentle green hills of South Wales have disappeared: now it's all muscly, looming highlands with rocky outcrops fringed with heather. Ahead we've already glimpsed the peaks of Snowdonia, and tomorrow we'll make our own assault on the highest peak in Britain. By train.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The end of the road

This evening I reached the end of the road - the A40, that is, that I thought ran from Marble Arch to Fishguard and found actually starts at St Paul's Cathedral and finishes with a titchy little roundabout at Goodwick where the wind was hurtling in from the sea and snatching at the paper wrappings of the fish suppers being consumed in cars parked along the front (if I had a pound for every package of fish and chips I've seen being eaten today, I could, well, have bought one of my own). Also, its narrowest point isn't at the Market Hall in Ross, either, before the one-way system diverted it - it's in front of The Bear at Crickhowell, where we watched an articulated lorry edging around the corner and near as dammit taking part of the pub with it to Lithuania or wherever it was headed.

The end of the journey was a bit of a whimper, to be honest - I felt it really should have involved more personal effort, like pedalling its length on a bike, or driving a horse and cart like the couple and dog I saw calling in at the Speech House in the Forest of Dean yesterday. Maybe a Vespa.

Anyway, the A40 goes through many lovely places, but its prettiest section has to be from Ross to the end: rolling hills, woods, rivers with stone bridges, and castles, lots of castles (beginning today with a bit of stalking at Bollitree which of course isn't a real castle at all, but the Hamster lives there and that's good enough for me). Also through rather too many attractive small towns that after sucking you in turn out to have such fiendish one-way systems combined with randomly closed roads that not only is the SatNav lady completely foxed, marriages that have lasted longer than a murder sentence are also threatened.

But Wales is looking very promising and tomorrow will no doubt reveal its full share of delights.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sharing is for the birds - not birders

Coming back tonight from another evening of cheerful chat with old friends, we were rather hoping for a glimpse of a fox or badger as we burrowed along the lanes, trees meeting overhead.

The headlights picked out many sets of skidmarks indicating moments of excitement for other drivers, but for us the trip was uneventful, and we met neither cars nor furry animals - though there were squirrels this afternoon.

It's been things with wings that have featured today. At Symond's Yat a craftsman was selling real estate for insects, as pictured above - a kind gesture, if a little eccentric (not enough rotten logs or trees with loose bark in the whole of the Forest of Dean? Really?)

And up at the lookout over the Wye's huge horseshoe bend we could see the bare patch of pink rocky cliff where the peregine falcons nest. We couldn't see the falcons - but there was a man with a telescope on a tripod who could.

Could I have a peep, please? I asked him politely. No, he said.

On reflection, what else could I expect from a man wearing camouflage plus-fours?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heart of England

The weather has been so beautiful since we arrived, warm and sunny every day, that the English countryside I love so much has been looking its absolute best. The grass is green, the trees still in full leaf but the hedgerows gleaming with sloes and blackberries; the hayfields are golden, scattered with bales still to be collected. The sheep are plump and white, the Hereford cattle look incongruously macho in this cushiest of counties, and donkeys doze in the sun. The villages are neat and the towns are liberally decorated with colourful hanging baskets. It's the best of times.

But glorious though the scenery truly is, the real heart of England is its people, and nowhere more so than in the country.

The friends in this photo may now have more grey hair than the badger I spotted by the side of the A40 (dead, alas) but their vigour and enjoyment of life would put to shame many a teenager.

Jean is 75 and about to take up skiing again; Philip was up at 4.30 this morning to go cub-hunting; John is spending his retirement building stone walls and making furniture; Christine's garden could feed the five thousand.

And they're part of a real community, a web of relationships and friendships where it seems there's hardly more than two degrees of separation between anybody.

All this, and beauty too. I think they have a lovely life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sic transit glorious munchies

This is Ross-on-Wye, the classic view, St Mary's drawing the eye up from the river and the meadows. I'm sitting in the churchyard now, perched on the Plague Cross (315 people buried together one dark night in 1637), using the happily-named free Ross-on-WiFi.

Everything is pretty, and pretty much the same: red stone market house untouched, row of little almshouses ditto, postcard view from The Prospect, same family-firm shops, same pubs... with a new one-way system to ease the horrendous bottle-neck in the market place, the narrowest part of the entire A40. It's all very pleasing.

Because last night we stayed at the Green Man in Fownhope, a Friday-night ritual pub, where the steak sandwich was legend, the cheese quiche a dream, and the chips the best in England. We thought about the Green Man chips often, mouths watering, how they made them from actual potatoes, and served them crisp and crunchy, but hot and floury inside.

The printed menu was the first warning, the sauce sachets on the table the second, and the absence of quiche the third. So it was no surprise that the chips were pale, flabby and clearly out of a freezer bag.

Good God, it's only been 15 years - is nothing sacred?!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wallowing

Huh, you're thinking. What a dull photo. Some trees, a bit of a chewed-up field, some distant houses and nothing by way of a focal point. Whatever is she doing, posting this?

What I'm doing is showing you my favourite bit of England. This nondescript patch of countryside is actually closer to my heart than anywhere else on the planet.

It's the midpoint of the daily walk I took for the eight years we lived in our little stone cottage: first with our dog, then with the cats too, then with the First Born, then with the Baby. It was quite a procession, by the end.

We would stop here for a rest and to allow the animals to sniff down the rabbit holes while we looked for blackberries. I spent a lot of time sitting here on the nibbled-short grass enjoying the view and engraving it on my memory.

Today was the first time I've ever sat here alone.

Yes, it was a melancholy moment - but then the cattle came and moved me on, and life continued.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Green, green grass of home

I have frequently berated my OH for shambling along wherever we go, his eyes fixed on the ground 90% of the time. I have mocked him with the title of the only travel memoir he would ever be able to write: "Pavements I have walked on".

But today my eyes were steadfastly downcast too, because we've begun our A40 pilgrimage and fetched up this afternoon at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock. There are riches here: 24ct gold on the ceiling mouldings; venerable tapestries depicting even more long-ago battles; fabulous portraits
of the Churchill family including John, the first Duke of Marlborough, who had movie-star good looks; beautiful porcelain, French furniture, painted ceilings, a solid silver table centerpiece that weighs almost as much as me and takes 6 hours to polish; and then, there's the grass.

Fine, fine lawn grass that's flawless, velvety green and perfectly striped, stretching away for acres, fringed by tall oak and beech trees. It's a triumph - and absolutely deserves anyone's full attention.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Deer old England

Today was mostly about catching up with family - but also reconnecting with England's pretty little towns, like charming Farnham, brick and flint and slate, narrow streets and golden weather vanes; Esher's leafy suburbs all tile and cedar shingles, corner pubs with quaint names and neat cul-de-sacs; and beautiful Richmond Park: acres of rolling, bracken-clad fields under clustered oak trees where herds of little spotted fallow deer sat in the long golden grass as joggers and cyclists sweated past, heads down.

And then a stroll along the Thames, a heron hunched on a moored barge, houseboats so laden with potted trees and flowers that you wonder how committed the owners are to shipboard life, more joggers and cyclists whisking past under the trees, soccer practice in FF and a man doing tai chi in slo-mo; and a half of scrumpy in the Cat's Back with an eclectic mix of portraits and knick-knacks under a truly authentic layer of dust.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jigsaw

Brilliant! Absolutely the best way to get your bearings/take a refresher course in London geography is to ride the Eye. 135 metres up, it all becomes clear: there's Nelson's Column, and there's Buck House, so that line of trees has to be The Mall; and, oh dear, yes, there's the embarrassingly hideous glass box that's NZ House. Oh look, there's a big round atrium in the middle of the Treasury; and County Hall's grand pillared curve is just a facade...and goodness me, what a lot of trees! This is an essential for every visitor, new and old.

But the job I'm so glad isn't mine? Darting inside each pod as it empties, to make a quick circuit with spray and cloth, wiping germs off the stainless steel handrail. I hope that poor girl at least treats herself to a change of direction now and then.

London's bridges

The Tate Modern art gallery is the best place for lunch in London: seven floors above the Thames, looking down on the Millenium Bridge that was destroyed so spectacularly in the latest Harry Potter movie, across the brown waters of the Thames to St Paul's, amazingly big, and the remarkably unlikely-looking Gherkin. It's a great setting to enjoy Cornish mackerel, Victoria plums and fizzy elderflower presse.

Along the river is the new Jubilee Bridge, the old Waterloo Bridge, and a wonderfully compact cluster of iconic sights that would be a cliche if they weren't actually the real thing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Finally!

Yay! Here at last! Long journey, immeasurably eased by Cathay Pacific's business class, the nifty lie-flat herringbone arrangement of seats and the soothing Zen effect of the individual pods.

And here we are in London, nearly an hour early at 5.30am and the temperature a relatively balmy 14 degrees.

Now we just have the M4 into the city to tackle.

Atishoo, atishoo

It's 30 degrees in Hong Kong at 9 o'clock - 9pm, that is. The harbour was big and smooth as we came in, thickly sprinkled with ships and the water gleaming under the full moon, in which the Man is once more the right way up.

There are masked people everywhere and roving staff with Health Check armbands and thermometers looking sharply at anyone who's sniffing. It's not the place to have a sudden sneezing fit, but I got away with it. This time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Away again!

It's when a balloon animal explodes with a loud pop at the airport, and no-one throws themselves to the floor, that you appreciate what a safe place New Zealand is.

However, I'm swapping a perfect spring day for the unknown vagaries of an English autumn - off to London, old friends, old haunts and all the beauty, history and riches of England, Wales and Ireland. Plus Blackthorn cider.

Can't wait!

Friday, September 4, 2009

When worlds collide...

As if it's not enough that my poor jetlagged brain continues to have trouble distinguishing between night and day, it's still Easter at the supermarket and Christmas already in the department store.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Zzzzzzz

Yes, I would nod off too, if I had to sit all day on the footpath waiting for someone to come along and buy my bananas.

I always marvel at the long, thin days so many people have to work just to scrape a living: sitting hour after hour on the hard ground, or behind a kiosk breathing in the traffic fumes, or stuck in a little cave of a shop or stall surrounded by piled-high goods exactly the same as those that everyone else in the street or market is trying to sell. Or inside a no doubt stuffy and smelly Barney costume, hoping to attract children to buy a balloon. Or on a street corner chained to a couple of mobile phones, hawking calls for a few cents each.

It's pretty rough, the way the cookie crumbles for so many people, and I do my best to remember that when the umpteenth street vendor tries to attract my attention. And I'm constantly impressed by the good humour and patience that so many of them show. It's humbling.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Twice blessed

Meet Yolanda. She's six years old and she lives on the outside slopes of Quilatoa, a volcano south of Quito with a large, emerald-coloured crater lake. The altitude here is 3,800 metres, which is our excuse for the exaggerated puffing and panting that went on as we walked part of the way around the rim.

That was where we met Yolanda and her older brother and sister, given the school holiday job of shepherding the family sheep as they grazed; but also seizing the chance to do a bit of whiny begging (the brother was worst) as tourists passed them on the narrow track. Mama was due back from the market at Zumbahua, where we'd just come from - big, busy, colourful and totally fascinating. Red bananas, loaf sugar, alpaca wool, fedora hats, hot fried cheese empanadas, men hunched over whirring Singer sewing machines doing repairs for people, pigs, sheep and chickens being sold... and all the people in traditional local dress. It was terrific.

Yolanda came back with us to the village, and I burrowed into my suitcase for the Labrador puppy stuffed toy that the Guide Dogs for the Blind people sent us months ago, since when it had sat on the kitchen bench, ignored. I knew I would find someone to love it in Ecuador, and I'm sure that person is Yolanda, even if she was too bewildered even to say Gracias, and ran off to her mother the instant this photo was taken.

I'm also sure that the toy's not that colour any more.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fire and water

Fifty kilometres away from Quito is the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which is built on the site of an Inca palace. It has walls in the classic Inca style: big blocks of stone so skilfully carved and fitted together that although there is no mortar, it's impossible to fit even a knife blade between the stones.

Archeological discoveries are still being made there (some by the dog) but the main feature of the hacienda is not even its prettiness, with balconies, fountains, potted geraniums and pantiles, but the warmth of the welcome. Minon Plaza is a vivacious and generous hostess, with an interesting past that includes bullfighters, who happily shared her recipes for locro soup and aji, Ecuador's signature - and ubiquitous - hot chilli sauce.

There's physical warmth at San Agustin too: all the rooms have not only big open fires in the bedroom, but also in the bathroom. What more relaxing way to finish a day of travel, volcanoes, llamas, cowboys, Pan flutes, armadillo-shell guitars and a passionfruit meringue tart made with the tenderest of pastry, than to sink into a claw-footed bath just a metre from a log fire, and gaze dreamily up at a frieze of naked cherubs painted on the wall?

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