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The Scotsman Trying to Get Home (so he says...)

The SAS on Park Lane.

sunny 17 °C

I was walking up Park Lane today, heading to get a Martini at the Grosvenor House Hotel, an attempt to try and shake off the emotion of Harrod's when the Scotsman stopped me.

Now, I should probably explain what the "emotion of Harrod's" is to you. Harrod's, in case you don't know, is one of the high end shopping department stores in London. So much so, that it has become a tourist attraction. Especially moreso since the owner's son, Dodi was killed in a car accident in Paris along with one Diana Spencer, oft known as the Princess of Wales, the first wife of Prince Charles, heir to the British and Commonwealth throne.

So you face in Harrod's a mix of the hoi polloi gawking at the Diana and Dodi memorial, food hall and outrageously priced merchandise, and the uber-rich trying to buy said merchandise. I, sadly, sat somewhere between the two - not rich enough to think that £156 was a decent price for a bottle opener, but also not there to gawk and instead to spend some money (I shall expand on that in a future entry).

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After all that, I needed a drink. Feeling a bit posh after laying down a few quid on Ray Ban sunglasses (a bit of a guilty pleasure of this otherwise Protestant tight-wad), I decided a nice Martini would hit the spot. As the Martini is an American invention (H. L. Mencken called the Martini "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet"), I decided to head to an American hotel and have my drink at the Redbar at the Grosvenor House Hotel by Marriott on Park Lane.

So I found myself walking up Park Lane - one of the poshest streets for tourists in London - with a Harrod's bag in my hand (containing my Ray Bans and a 2013 wall calendar (price £15)).

That's when the Scotsman approached me.

"Excuse me," he said. "What's the best way to Victoria?"

He didn't look a vagabond, cleanly shaven and carrying a small duffel bag, looking every part the out-of-town tourist you might expect in this area.

I looked over his shoulder, and watched a 73 bus pulling away from a bus stop just 40 feet up the street. Emblazoned on the front was the destination - Victoria.

I pointed over his shoulder. "Well, it's a long walk from here, but if you catch that bus it'll..." I offered, but he cut me off.

"Where you from, America?" He asked.

"No, Canadian," I replied. "So, you can catch that...". Again, before I could finish my sentence, he interrupted me.

"Canadian. Even better. Let me shake your hand." He said.

I shook his hand. He didn't let go for the next 4 minutes.

"Let me ask you a question," he said. "Do you know any Scotsmen? Do you trust Scotsmen?"

How is one supposed to answer that? In reality, with afterthought to compose any answer, my answer should have been, "I don't make judgements on how much to trust someone based on their nationality, but instead make my judgements based on their attitude and actions." However, easier said retroactively in a blog than at the time.

Instead, in the heat of the moment, I said, "Um, yeah. I know some Scots."

"So you trust Scotsmen then?" He pressed.

I shrugged. "Okay, sure."

He introduced himself. "Staff Sargent Harold Potter, first wizard corpse of the Queen's battalion," he said. Or something like that.

The Scotsman went on to explain he was SAS, having just arrived back at RAF Northolt this morning at 6 AM after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"I can't call any one to help me get home," he said. That comment went unexplained, but in my head I decided to believe it was because as a member of the SAS, your missions are so secret that even your friends and family can't be alerted to when you arrive back in the country.

After the story, he turned away. "This is so embarrassing," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

I knew where he was heading. I have been hit up by this before.

But Staff Sargent Potter's request was a surprise. "I need 87 quid to get the East Coast line back home."

Ummm.

"Sorry to hear that mate," I said. "I don't have 87 quid, but can help you out with something."

I dug into my pocket, looking to see what loose change I had. I pulled out 3 one-pound coins.

Stf-Sgt Potter shook his head. "No, please, don't insult me with change." he said, looking away.

"Okay," I said. "Sorry I couldn't help. Have a good day.". I tried to pull away, but he was still shaking my hand and pulled me back into his orbit.

"I can't take the change, but could you buy me the train ticket?" he asked.

"Umm, sorry, no." I replied.

Already, there was too much about Potter's story that wasn't ringing true. He was trying to get an East Coast train to Scotland, but was heading to Victoria station (instead of King's Cross or Euston where trains to Scotland leave from). The whole, "I am SAS and thus can't call friends or family to help me," just seemed unbelievable. And the fact that the forces would just turn out someone on the street after landing less than 15 hours ago seemed unreasonably cruel, even for a Tory-led British government.

"Please, buy me the ticket to Scotland," Stf-Sgt Potter asked.

"No, sorry, I don't have that kind of money," I said. I started to walk away, finally pulling myself free from Stf-Sgt Potter's grip.

"Wait, wait..." He called after me. "Okay, I'll take the change."

I handed Stf-Sgt Potter the change. He took it without a thank you, and walked 10 feet down the street before he cornered someone else. I could hear the refrain "SAS just arrived at Northolt" as I walked up Park Lane.

I, Harrod's bag in hand, headed into the Redbar at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and paid £13 a Martini to drown away my troubles.

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"That is why I moan for Moab like a flute. I sound like a flute for the people of Kir Hareseth. The wealth they gained has disappeared." - Jeremiah 48:36

Posted by GregW 13:20 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged people tourist_sites Comments (0)

In Bloom

At the Chelsea Flower Show

26 °C

I've almost been in the UK for four years now. For the first couple of years, when we hit March, I would start to get itchy eyes and start sneezing. There would be a period of about 3 weeks where I would have a mild but annoying hay fever.

This spring, though, has been so miserably cold and wet, I didn't experience any symptoms through March or April. Most of the way through May, I was still symptom free.

Yesterday, on the 25th of May, I woke up and as soon as I left the house I could feel my eyes itching. Within 10 minutes, I felt the tickle in my nose telling me a sneeze was coming.

"Of all the days," I said to myself. I ran off to the local pharmacy to get some Claritin, because May 25th was a very bad day for me to start my annual suffering from hay fever. I was off to a place that would aggravate my symptoms.

I was off to the Chelsea Flower Show.

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The Chelsea Flower Show is an annual event held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The show, put on by the Royal Horticultural Society, is more than just a chance to see flowers and buy some seeds and trowels, though there is a lot of that.

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In addition, Gardeners from around the UK and the world come and set up show gardens, often with crazy themes.

Garden celebrating the Queen's 60th Jubilee

Garden celebrating the Queen's 60th Jubilee


Flowery Mini

Flowery Mini


Williams F1 Hedge.  Fitting after they just won the Spanish GP a few weekends ago.

Williams F1 Hedge. Fitting after they just won the Spanish GP a few weekends ago.

The wild garden was very popular this year. There were very few of the structured, sculptured gardens that you might think of when you think of gardening. Instead, there are a lot of wild and unstructured beds with a menagerie of plants.

Water Features were big this year

Water Features were big this year


The Traveller's Garden, with maps and explorer's gear

The Traveller's Garden, with maps and explorer's gear


Minotaur.  There were some crazy garden statues available to buy.

Minotaur. There were some crazy garden statues available to buy.


DMZ Garden.  Garden showing what might be growing in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, along with reminders of the on-going war between the two.

DMZ Garden. Garden showing what might be growing in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, along with reminders of the on-going war between the two.

Luckily the Claritin did its job, and my sneezing and itchy eyes were kept to a minimum. The sun was warm, but there was often a nice breeze to keep things cool. After wandering around for a few hours, we found a nice place to sit in the shade on the cool grass, and enjoyed a cider. Music wafted through the trees from the nearby stage, and we watched the wide swath of people walking by - young couples, hipster artists, Chelsea Pensioners, upper-middle class retirees, accents from around the world - French, American, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

The world loves a garden.

Posted by GregW 01:33 Archived in England Tagged landscapes events tourist_sites Comments (0)

Roll Up! Roll Up! The Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin

More of a curling octagon, really.

overcast 12 °C

Imagine, if you will, you are walking along and ahead of there is a rather unassuming foot bridge. You might see a boat coming along, and think to yourself, "there is no way that boat shall pass under that bridge." Then the bridge starts to curl up, like a potato bug, getting out of the way of the coming boat.

That is what you will find at Paddington Basin, where Heatherwick Studio's have created the Rolling Bridge just outside the corporate headquarters of Marks and Spencer.

I previously worked in the area and had, in fact, crossed the bridge on multiple occasions without ever realizing there was anything special about it.

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Then a couple of man come out, blocking off the two entrances to the bridge, and slowly it starts to curl up. It rises like a straight lift bridge at first, but then the end starts pushing higher, and the bridge starts to warp into a curve.

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Eventually the bridge curls around onto itself, closing up into an octagon shape on one side, and freeing completely the channel it spans.

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After a few minutes, the bridge unfurls, eventually spanning the channel again.

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It becomes just a regular footbridge again.

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The footbridge can be found at Paddington Basin, just to the east of Paddington Train station. The bridge is opened every Friday at noon.

Posted by GregW 11:00 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The City is Eternal, but the Snow is Just Temporary

A cold and snowy visit to Rome.

snow 3 °C
View Roma for Superbowl 2012 on GregW's travel map.

Usually if a flight pulls away from a gate at anything other than the appointed time, its because you are running late. My flight down to Rome was one of those rare occasions where a plane pulled away early. The pilot and crew had gotten everyone on ahead of schedule so we could get away early. "Hopefully to miss the snow," explained the captain.

Snow? In Rome? That doesn't seem like travel as usual.

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It wasn't. In fact, the snow that fell on Rome was the first snow since 1986. The radio was telling folks to stay off the road, and I saw more than my fair share of cars rattling down the cobblestone streets of central Rome with chains on their tires. It was a unique way to see Rome for the first time.

The snow had finished falling by the time we landed, so the pilots rush to get us off the ground was for nought and the snow didn't impact the flight at all. We were 20 minutes early, though, which would give me an extra 20 minutes of site seeing in Rome. All I had to do was get into town. That's where the snow hit me.

I was already in a poor mood from the wait in line for customs (we arrived just after a couple jumbos from China and India) when I arrived at the train station. The train into central Rome was delayed by 30 minutes, and once it finally got going dropped us only halfway towards central Rome, at Roma Ostiense station instead of at Roma Termini. I had to transfer to the metro, and then try and drag my roller suitcase 20 minutes through the snow covered pavement and cobbled streets of Rome.

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Once settled into my hotel (right by the Trevi fountain), my mood improved. Despite the cold, snow and ice, the site seeing was good when bundled up against the cold. It did provide a few hitchs - for example, the Colosseum was closed due to the snow, there were a few streets shut down due to falling ice and I did slip on the ice, fall and jam my thumb. However, it did provide a unique view of many of the famous Roman sites I had seen many times in photos and on travel TV shows.

Snow in the Coliseum

Snow in the Coliseum


Columns at the Foro Di Caesar

Columns at the Foro Di Caesar


The Forum from Via dei Fori Imperiali

The Forum from Via dei Fori Imperiali


Columns at Largo di Torre Argentina in the snow

Columns at Largo di Torre Argentina in the snow


Largo di Torre Argentina in the snow

Largo di Torre Argentina in the snow


Lights along Via del Corso

Lights along Via del Corso


Spit it out!  Piazza Novona

Spit it out! Piazza Novona


Trident wielder, Fountains at Piazza Novona

Trident wielder, Fountains at Piazza Novona


Quirinale steps

Quirinale steps


Arch and fork in the road showing the snow in Rome

Arch and fork in the road showing the snow in Rome


Spanish Steps, icy and treacherous

Spanish Steps, icy and treacherous


Statues along Via Del Fori Imperiali

Statues along Via Del Fori Imperiali


Tiber River at Night

Tiber River at Night


Trevi Fountain at night

Trevi Fountain at night


Villa Medici, atop the Spanish Steps

Villa Medici, atop the Spanish Steps


Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano

Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano

Santa Francesca Romana o Santa Maria Nuova

Santa Francesca Romana o Santa Maria Nuova

By the end of my four days, much of the snow had melted, however the cold was still there. The snow and cold provided a unique view of Rome, but I would like to see it in a more traditional setting - perhaps with some sun and warmth next time. Definitely will want to come back.

So on my last night, walked around the corner from my hotel to the Trevi fountain. I took off my gloves, shivered a touch from the cold air on my skin, and then dug into my pocket. I pulled out a Euro coin, turned my back to the fountain, and tossed it over my shoulder.

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Rome, I'll be back.

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Posted by GregW 12:58 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The Land of Goat's Milk and Honey

Malta

sunny 18 °C
View Malta December 2011 on GregW's travel map.

As November came to an end, I looked at my remaining vacation balanced and realized that I had almost as many vacation days left for 2011 as there were working days left. Booking off the time between Christmas and New Years and with carrying forward a week of holidays, I still needed to take a full week off sometime in December. So I booked a week and undertook the last minute planning of the unprepared.

After searching the internet for cheap flights and cheaper hotels, I wound up with a week to spend in Malta.

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The Republic of Malta is a country that are a series of islands in the Mediterranean, 80 km south of Sicily and 284 km east of Tunisia. Situated rather strategically in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has throughout history been ruled and conquered by a number of people including the Romans, Arabs, Knights of St John, French and the British before gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. Malta joined the EU in 2004 and in 2008 become part of the Eurozone (Not the greatest timing on that).

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I was staying in St. George's Bay, part of a continuous urban area that runs along the east coast of the main island that also includes Valletta, the main city and capitol. The whole area seems to be in a state of flux - half new and half old, half under construction and half being torn or falling down. Along the seafront there are numerous new hotels and luxury flats, with fancy restaurants. There is a lot of construction under way, especially as it was the low season when I was there and the construction industry was taking advantage to build. At the same time, though, between the new buildings and construction sites were older buildings - some faithfully maintained, while others looks right ready to fall over.

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I got myself a decent deal on the Corinthia Hotel, a five start that was going cheap because of the low number of travellers during early December. The hotel included a number of restaurants and bars, including Henry J Bean's American Bar, which offered two-for-one drinks during happy hour from 18:00 - 19:30 each night, and had a decent chicken wing appetiser.

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One evening I was there enjoying my two-for-one pints of Cisk beer and watching the biathlon on Eurosport on the big screen. Biathlon is a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting. A woman, who was ordering at the bar, saw me watching and asked me in a Manchester accent what I was watching. I explained it was biathlon.

"I've never heard of it," she said.

"There aren't many great British bi-athletes," I said. "It is more popular in the Nordic countries and Russia." Just as I said that, the announcer indicated that the French team was leading the race. "...and other countries," I said.

"Who are you cheering for?" she asked.

"Canada, where I am from," I said.

"How are they doing," she asked.

"Not bad, for Canada, they are eighth. That's good for us. I don't know why Canada doesn't do better at biathlon. We have lots of snow, plus there are wolves and polar bears and such that a rifle is good to protect against. There is so much wide flat space covered with snow that Canadians have to cross. You would think we would be good at skiing long distances punctuated with the occasional need to stop and shoot something."

= = =

The Maltese honey bee, Apis mellifera ruttneri, is a sub-species of the Western honey bee, and is native to Malta. The origin of the term Malta is uncertain. One of the most common etymology is that the word Malta derives from the Greek word meli, meaning "honey".

= = =

I was mostly in Malta to relax, but did get in some site seeing. It is a place with a long history, and to get a feel for it decided to do one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tours that take you round to various sites.

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We breezed through Valletta (which I would go and see the next day), and spent my time in San Anton Gardens, Mdina and Rabat.

San Anton Gardens is home to the Presidential Palace, as well as a large and diverse garden.

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Mdina is the old capital of Malta, a medieval walled town situated on a hill in the centre of the island with views off to the Mediterranean. The oldest building in Mdina is Palazzo Santa Sofia, of which the ground floor dates back to the 1200s.

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The rest of the city is thin streets, and stone buildings. The island of Malta is very rocky, made of limestone, and many of the buildings - whether old or new - are made of the same limestone.

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Outside of Mdina is Rabat (the Arabic word for suburb), which contains St. Paul's Catacombs. The catacombs were used for burials of all manners of faith and people from the 4th century to the 9th century. Some of the catacombs are open to the public, and you can see where numerous burials had taken place.

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After wandering around, while waiting for the next tour bus, I grabbed a drink called a Kinnie. According to their website, "Kinnie was originally developed by Simonds Farsons Cisk in Malta in 1952, as an alternative to the innumerable colas that had proliferated in Europe since the Second World War. Kinnie is a unique tasting, alcohol-free, natural, refreshing beverage. Its golden amber colour, and the fact that it is made from bitter oranges and a variety of aromatic herbs, lend this beverage a bitter taste which is an excellent thirst quencher. "

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It tastes something like a orange-flavoured ginger beer. It wasn't an immediate hit for my taste buds, but I could see it becoming a taste I could acquire.

= = =

The next day I went to Valletta, the capital of Malta. It is high on a hill on the water, and has massive walls. The city was founded by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the knights which ruled the island from the 1500s through the 1700s. The Knights of Malta, as their were known, defended the island in 1565 against the Ottoman empire.

Immediately after the end of the Siege of Malta in 1565, the Order decided to found a new city on the Xiberras peninsula to fortify the Order's position in Malta. The city is named after the Grandmaster of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Valette, who founded the city by placing the foundation stone on 28 March 1566.

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The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 occurred when the Ottoman's tried to capture the island. The Ottoman Empire wanted to take the island to give them a strategic advantage for control of the Mediterranean over the Christian nations. Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the vast Ottoman empire, sent 200 ships with 40,000 fighting men and another 9,000 cavalry. On the Knights side were the 600 knights, plus a few thousand mercenaries and a few thousand Maltese irregulars – in all between 6,000 and 9,000 men.

Despite the differences in numbers, the Knights were able to hold the island thanks to its rocky, hard to take shoreline as well as the toll which sailing from Turkey took on the Ottoman soldiers through disease. After three months, what was left of the invading Ottoman force gave up and returned home.

A third of the defenders died, and up to 30,000 of the Ottoman's might have died, though numbers are disputed. In central Valletta, there is a monument to the defenders of Malta.

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The second great siege of Malta occurred in the early 1940s, as the Axis forces of Germany and Italy attempted to gain control of Malta, which was being used by the Allies as an air and naval base. The attacks included a blitz by the German air force. 6728 tons of bombs to fell on Malta in April of 1942, 36 times the amount to fall on Coventry. In March and April 1942 more bombs were dropped on Malta than fell on London during the entire Blitz. Malta's people and her defenders were awarded the George Cross by King George VI for their bravery during the air raids "To bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War Two."

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December 13th, when I was in Valletta, was Saint Lucia day, and in honour there were marching bands heading through the streets of Valletta.

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The city was done up in its Christmas' finery, as well.

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Round the corner from the busy Republic Avenue and St. George's Square was The Pub. The Pub is a small little watering hole, a cozy place filled with lots of British Naval memorabilia. It is also the place where Oliver Reed, while in Malta filming Gladiator, died after a bout of drinking. On the night he died, Reed had supposedly drunk eight pints of lager, 12 double rums and half a bottle of the Famous Grouse, and beaten a few young sailors in arm-wrestling contests. The pub is now also partially a shrine to Reed.

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I had a pint in The Pub, just getting in at 5:25 PM for last orders. Apparently it often closes early.

= = =

Next to Valletta is Floriana. In Floriana There is a church there dedicated to Saint Publius.

Publius was the Roman governor of Malta. After Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on Malta, he met Publius, and after healing his feather, converted Publius to Christianity.

Acts 28:7-9
In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed.

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Publius went on to become the Bishop of Malta, and Malta became one of the first officially Christian countries in the world. Catholicism was written into the 1974 constitution as the island's official religion.

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As an island, the cuisine of Malta has a number of seafood options. In addition, rabbit features on the menu.

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There is a Maltese cheese, as well. The Maltese goat breed, as the name suggests, originates from the island of Malta. It produces a large quantity of milk: from 500 to 600 kg of milk for 270–300 days, from which the Maltese goat cheese is made.

A name derived from Honey and goat's milk aplenty? Malta, the land of goat's milk and honey.

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Posted by GregW 05:47 Archived in Malta Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

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