Bonnie Scotland (Part 1)

I’ve recently returned from the first of two short holidays across the border planned for 2017. This first trip – on which I was joined by an 89-year old avowed lover of all things Scottish (my wonderful gran) and partner-in-crime lover of prosecco & cream buns (my equally wonderful mum) – started with a 12-hour road trip to Strathpeffer, way up in the Highlands. Strathpeffer is a small old spa town in the county of Ross, with a restored Victorian pavilion, post office, deli, craft shop..and little else. But it was a pleasant base for our stay, and close to two attractions: the Eagle Stone and Castle Leod.

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The former is a Pietish symbol stone dating from around the 7th century. According the local legend, a Brahan Seer prophesied that if the stone fell three times then the waters would dry up and ships would be grounded. It’s fallen twice, so the locals have taken the pragmatic move of securing it firmly to the ground with concrete. Take that, Nostradamus. Getting to the stone demanded some daring off-roading with my grandma’s wheelchair and a rather tiring uphill push. To those in a similar predicament, I would say give it a miss. Imagine a rock with the faintest outline of a bird, whilst you sit in the village tea room with a scone and cuppa. Castle Leod, with its long dirt and gravel driveway, was a similar ambitious outing, but certainly worth the visit. The small but perfectly-formed castle is the Seat of the Clan Mackenzie, and has been continually lived in by the Earl of Cromartie and his family for over 500 years. I was directed around by the current owner and particularly enjoyed looking through the family albums outside the dungeon!

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We hadn’t come to see Strathpeffer, though. The purpose of the trip was to take in some of the gorgeous highland scenery and visit some of the more well-known sights. A train ride from nearby Dingwall to the Kyle of Lochalash provided the opportunity to do just that. The journey takes you through glens, lochs and moorland, past the Torridon Peaks and Achnashellach Forest, providing opportunities to spot deer, birds of prey and views of Ben Wyvis. Unfortunately, the weather was not our friend and for the first hour the rain and high tree line dampened our enjoyment of the ride. When the sun came out around Loch Luichart, however, and in particular for the final stretch towards Lochalsh, the views were spectacular. Still, my recommendation would be to travel by car if you can – as we did on the return leg – since the road is set above the track and tree line, offering a much better vantage point.

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Having disembarked at the Kyle of Lochalsh, we treated ourselves to giant prawn and crab sandwiches from Buth Bheag seafood hut on the waterside, before nipping across the bridge to the Isle of Skye. Given our tight schedule, we only had time for a brief stop at Kyleakin, to take in the views of the lighthouse and Caisteal Maol; our main destination for the afternoon being Eilean Donan Castle, back on the mainland. I definitely want to return for a proper tour of Skye – it’s a stunning place, and we were lucky that the sun was out in full force by this point, shimmering off the water in the most bucolic way.

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I was, however, very glad to have the opportunity to visit Eilean Donan in Dornie. It is hands-down the most dramatic, beautiful castle I’ve every seen. (And I’ve seen my fair share of castles, let me tell you.) Humour me for a minute, whilst I digress into more Gaelic tradition…this one about how the island on which the castle sits got its name. The story goes that a colony of otters once lived in the area; the King of Otters – who was easily recognisable by his coat of pure silver – having chosen it as his residence. When he died, his glittering robe was buried beneath what became the foundations of the castle, and so it is from the Gaelic for otter (Cu-Donn) that the island takes its name. Neat, huh? Who needs Games of Thrones? Anyway, we spent a lovely couple of hours exploring the ruins and restored battlements, enjoying the views down Loch Duich, and chasing kilted men around (…for purposes only of the obligatory tourist photos, of course).

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Our final morning was spent in the Cairngorms National Park, and specifically on Cairn Gorm itself (Gaelic for ‘Blue Mountain’). As we boarded the funicular railway, we were reminded that for most of human history the idea of going up a mountain for fun would have been considered madness. Their hostile climate and remoteness made them dangerous places, to be feared and avoided. I certainly have a healthy respect for them…particularly since my friend’s partner did serious damage to himself falling down a crevasse on Blencathra. Even in the modern age, with all our fancy engineering and equipment, the mountains are not our friends. Anyway, I can’t pretend we were very intrepid on this occasion…forgoing crampons for the ease of the funicular. Once 1,097m up and exposed to the elements, though, one could pretend to have conquered the beast. The views of Loch Morlich and Aviemore – and across to Ben Nevis in the far, far distance – were impressive, and as a bonus we spotted a small herd of reindeer meandering through the heather half-way up the mountain.

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In the afternoon, after a short lunch stop in Inverness, we boarded the Jacobite Rebel for a boat trip on Loch Ness. Boarding at Dochgarroch Lock, we sailed up the Caledonian canal and into the loch itself. Nestled in the Great Glen, Loch Ness stretches for almost 22.6 miles and is the largest lake by volume in the UK, containing more than 1.6 trillion gallons of fresh water. That’s more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined! We passed Bona Lighthouse, Aldourie Castle, and the eerily atmospheric Urquhart Castle, but failed to spot Nessie…my grandma’s excited yelp turning out to be merely a exuberant seagull. 🙂

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Part II of my Scottish adventures to follow shortly…

 

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Sculpture II

Wandering through the temporary Frieze Sculpture exhibition in Regent’s Park today inspired me to create another blog post dedicated to my (second) favourite art form. So here’s a few pictures from today and other recent outings…

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Henry Moore: Large Reclining Figure (1984)

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Bruce Nauman: Violence, Violence, Silence (1981-2)

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Ugo Rondinone: Summer Moon (2011)

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Bernar Venet: 17 Acute Unequal Angles (2016)

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Reza Aramesh: Metamorphosis – a study in liberation (2017)

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Igor Mitoraj: Monumental head (2002)

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Otobong Nkanga: In Wetin You Go Do? (2015)

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KAWS: Final Days (2013)

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Rebecca Horn: In the Triangle (1973-4)

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Jaume Plensa: Tribute to dom Thierry Ruinart (2016)

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Miquel Barcelo: Gran Elefandret (2008)

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Urs Fischer: Invisible Mother (2015)

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Eduardo Paolozzi: Vulcan (1999)

Doorways of tomorrow

We all stand at the threshold 
to the doorway of tomorrow;
On the other side
awaits a wondrous ride;
where dreams are sure to follow…

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Jaipur (2014)

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Lewes (2017)

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Barcelona (2010)

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Alberobello (2014)

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New York (2013)

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Bourgogne (2010)

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New Orleans (2016)

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Delhi (2014)

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Glasgow (2012)

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Bari (2014)

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Paraty, Rio de Janeiro (2017) (Credit: Laura Burgin)

Italia Quattro: Lombardy

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Having previously posted a blog in 2013 about our trip to Switzerland (Cœur des Alpes), it was remiss of me not to complete the story. Since – following our time in the Alps – we had continued into northern Italy for a few days in the Italian Lakes. I am righting that wrong now. It helps that I have plenty of time on my hands, stuck as I am nursing a painfully-situated (ahem) hematoma. The result of a tumble down our stairs. Given it doesn’t seem to be subsiding, I’ve succumbed to a couple of duvet days. Writing this felt marginally more productive than continuing to binge-watch Riverdale.

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So… After a last breakfast on our glorious hotel terrace in Zermatt, we got the train back to Täsch, retrieved our hire car and drove through the stunning mountain and valley scenery to Stresa, a small town on the shore of Maggiore. La Palma, a grande dame of a hotel, is situated right across the road from the main promenade, and we spent our first afternoon getting our bearings, strolling in the sunshine, and lunching in the main square: Piazza Cadorna. As the sun set, a refreshing swim, followed by a stint in the rooftop jacuzzi and a poolside cocktail was a fantastic prelude to a delicious meal in town at Lo Stornello and a drink (or three) at what was to become our favourite wine bar, Al Buscion. I distinctly remember thinking, as I walked home hand-in-hand with Paul along the shore, listening to the lapping water and swaying slightly from the bottiglia di vino rosso, that I am incredibly lucky indeed. I don’t ever want to be complacent or think otherwise.

IMG_4327The next day, we jumped on a boat to the Borromean Islands in the middle of the lake. Isola Bella, our first stop, is home to an imposing palazzo, majestic gardens and a cute fishing village. And, more importantly, the most beautiful white peacocks you’ve ever seen (check out some photos in my ‘Cocks & ‘Hens post). We spent hours exploring the tiered Italianate gardens, stalking the birds and enjoying views across the lake, stopping to find shade whenever possible. There were also plenty of water lilies to divert my attention…as I realised when I edited my photos back in England! The second island – Isola Madre – is bigger but much quieter and, in my view, less impressive. After a speedier look around Palazzo Borromeo and the pretty Giardini Botanici, we boarded the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, our final stop. “Fishermen’s Island” is the only one of the three still inhabited and has a gentle yet bustling vibe. We ate a very late seafood lunch on the shoreside terrace of the family-run Trattoria Imbarcadero and visited the church of San Vittore, before returning to our hotel for a well-earned siesta by the rooftop bar. Paul discovered the joys of floating his glass of beer in the pool, whilst I read under the canopy of lemon trees and admired the sun setting over the islands we’d spent the day exploring.

Lake Orta was our destination the following day, the route ably navigated by Paul, a comfortable continental driver by this point in the trip. We’d read about Orta in a magazine article that had promised a “hidden gem”, a pleasing counterpoint to Maggiore. And we weren’t disappointed. IMG_0807The Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they consider it the secretly superior sibling to the larger neighbouring lakes. It gets far fewer visitors and the main town – Orta San Giulio – is a gentle, authentically homely place. The lake has always been popular with writers – in the 19th century, Nietzsche, Byron, Samuel Butler, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all spent time there, and poets still visit from around the globe for inspiration. It’s steep, elegant streets invite exploration, and the 21 chapels of St Francis are certainly worth the short pilgrimage. Of course, you must also cross to St Julian’s Island. We ate lunch at the island’s only restaurant, Ristorante San Giulio, a somewhat disappointing meal but worth it to admire the ceiling frescoes and to sit on the vine-covered lakeside terrace. Captive audience. A single path leads you round the circumference of the island, skirting the vast Benedictine monastery, a journey you are encouraged to take in silence. Meditative signs line the route, beseeching quiet reflection. It is a wonderfully peaceful experience. By the time we left, the golden hour light casting enchanting shadows on the villas that line the shore, I sighed happily as we sailed back to the town. Another trip to Al Buscion and a far tastier meal of chargrilled squid followed by ravioli swimming in sage butter rounded off a pretty perfect day.

IMG_2466The final couple of days of our trip were spent in the brasher, but still attractive, Como. We stayed in the Air BnB apartment of artist Walter Riva, a warren of rooms filled with ethnographic objet and photographs hung from string criss-crossing the walls (long before it became fashionable). A great little place, which I’d highly recommend – if he’s still letting the space. The little alleys were, however, stifling in the summer heat, and after a brief walk and too much wine at the delightful Osteria del Gallo I became dehydrated and had to rest back at the flat. Recuperated, we then managed to enjoy the old town properly and visit the impressive Duomo. Como is larger and more cosmopolitan that the other towns we’d stayed in, and I personally found it less seductive as a result. My impression probably not helped, admittedly, by the abrupt change in weather at the end of our stay. Grey clouds rolled in and our boat trip on the lake was marred by drizzle. Still, my mood was lifted by an amazing evening meal (isn’t it always?) at Ristorante Cibooooh on Via Adamo del Pero. Octopus with purple potato and pickled fennel, followed by perch risotto. Yum, yum, yum. Will just have to return one day to give Como a second chance!

“Sii semplice, sii te stesso”

Orta

The Magic City

Uh, uh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, uh
Miami, uh, uh
South Beach, bringin the heat, uh
Haha, can y’all feel that
Can y’all feel that
Jig it out, uh

Here I am in the place where I come let go
Miami the bass and the sunset low
Everyday like a mardi gras, everybody party all day
No work all play, okay
So we sip a little something, lay to rest the spill
Me an Charlie at the bar runnin’ up a high bill
Nothin’ less than ill, when we dress to kill
Every time the ladies pass, they be like “hi Will”
Can y’all feel me, all ages and races
Real sweet faces
Every different nation, Spanish, Hatian, Indian, Jamaican
Black, White, Cuban, and Asian
I only came for two days of playing
But every time I come I always wind up stayin’
This the type of town I could spend a few days in
Miami the city that keeps the roof blazin’

Party in the city where the heat is on
All night, on the beach till the break of dawn
“Welcome to Miami”
“Bienvenidos a Miami”
Bouncin’ in the club where the heat is on
All night, on the beach till the break of dawn
I’m goin to Miami
“Welcome to Miami”

Will Smith, 1998

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