Sunday, November 18, 2007

Osijek (Croatia) - Part 3



A short drive from Osijek is the town of Vukovar, which was pretty much destroyed in every way possible during the war – economically, culturally, infrastructurally. Its town centre was reduced to actual rubble. It’s limping its way back to normality, at least on the surface – a lot of the buildings are new, but for every two buildings that are new, there are the broken, bullet-riddled, shell-damaged remnants of older buildings that give a horrible insight into how awful the damage was to this town. The water tower has been left with all its battle scars intact as a reminder of the horrors of war. An impressive idea – except that I found little, sometimes cheerfully colourful, mini replicas of the damaged water tower being sold as tourist souvenirs in the shopping malls of Osijek. To my mind it took away from the gravitas of the whole tower-as-reminder plan. On the other hand, I suppose anything that makes money for Osijek and Vukovar (and other affected towns) should be seen as a plus… I don’t know.

There is a memorial to the war victims in Vukovar – a large white cross on the banks of the Danube. It was sobering to see people bring lighted candles in little bottles and wreaths of flowers to lay at the foot of the cross. Despite the bright sunny day, it didn’t feel cheerful… said mood not helped by seeing the shell and bullet damage to nearby buildings. I felt uncomfortable taking photos of it – it felt like an intrusion into the lives and memories of the people who had lost loved ones, and for whom the scars of the war were not of long ago, but of the very recent past. I thought it might be disrespectful for us as tourists to be clicking away merrily, so I didn’t even raise my camera. But Ozana asked us to stand with the cross in the background while she took a couple of photos of us, so I guess the discomfort was more in my mind than anywhere else.

Apparently the repair work and normality are not reflective of the relationship between the Serbs and Croats – I guess it’s about the same as the uneasy truce between Hindus and Muslims in the troubled parts of India, with the Serbs and the Croats living in hostile segregation, and their kids going to segregated schools. It’s a pity, but understandable… when you’ve lost family and friends, it can’t be easy to forgive and forget.

With Pete being such a big wino – er, wine connoisseur, I mean – a winery simply had to be on Zarko’s itinerary. And so it turned out. We went to a winery in a little town (village?) called Iloc, where there is also an 18th century palace (of sorts) – large, pink and pretty. Much damaged, again, but at least restoration works were going on. There are plenty of damaged buildings that either haven’t been repaired because of lack of funds, or will never be repaired because nobody knows who owns it and the original ownership documents have gone forever. I asked Ozana if somebody with money could offer to completely re-build any severely damaged building (especially if it’s situated in a place with great views), but she said that unless they could prove ownership by providing the original paperwork/documentation, nobody would be allowed to just appropriate anything. Not even the government itself could take over a derelict place that had once been privately owned. Since the former owners of many properties might well have been killed – or fled the country – along with all family, and with all provenance to the properties lost as well, chances are that the buildings will never be repaired or rebuilt. I don’t know whether that should be seen as a shame or as justice rendered to the former owners.

Anyway, back to Iloc, the pink palace and the winery. Near the damaged pink castle was an (ongoing) archaeological dig with the remains of a 15th century buliding visible. The views from the top of the bank by the dig were beautiful – the serene Danube, the trees just beginning to turn colour, the clear blue skies and sunshine made for perfect photographs. It was also quiet and peaceful, with no noise from traffic or anything but a few birds. And us. But we did shut up for a bit. Really.

The winery was only a small one open to the public, and again, there was no information for non-Croatian tourists. The nice lady at the office took us to the massive cellar and told us to go down and have a look at the even more massive wine barrels. The biggest barrels held about 15,000 litres of wine each, and if Pete could have taken it home somehow, he would have. (Even if it meant stealing.) I have no idea whether the barrels were made out in the open and then taken down to the cellar and filled (likely), or whether they were made in the cellar itself (not very likely). Either way it seems unimaginable to me that they could have been moved, they would have been SO heavy… (even given the evidence of rails with the help of which they would have been moved!) Still, since great big barrels don’t grow on trees or anywhere else in Nature, I guess they WERE made by human hands and they WERE transported by human methods, one way or the other!

After we’d had our fill of the somewhat dark and chilly cellar and admired all the cobwebby and dusty bottles of wine stored in the racks to age (and after we had dissuaded Pete from hiding a few bottles in his coat), we went up into the fresh air again and back into the office, where our friendly office manager/clerk lady had set out wine glasses for a tasting session. We had taster glasses of a few different kinds of wine, which were very nice. So nice and so heady that now I don’t know if the wines came free, or whether they’d had to bepaid for! I know I didn’t pay anybody anything, so it’s likely it was Zarko.

That evening we had dinner by the Danube, at a posh restaurant. We sat outside so as to see the river view. Scary – and incredible – to think that the buildings we could see on the opposite bank of the river were in another country – Serbia. No wonder the Serbs had found it so easy to attack Croatia!

One of the other towns we went (this time taking the kids as well, which was fun) to was Ðakovo, a peaceful place with nothing much going for it but a beautiful cathedral with two very tall belfries. (To take a proper photo of the cathedral’s entire height I would have had to lie down flat on my back – but I’m not that crazy or that enthusiastic a photographer. Besides, I prefer not to be pointed out by passers-by as a weirdo.)

Of course, if you were into horses, you would be greatly enthusiastic about the Lipizzaner training stables, which also we visited. Apparently these horses are the world’s most favourite riding horses. Well, who woulda thunk it? Not me. I don’t know one breed of horse from another (although I can tell a large horse from a small one) and I wouldn’t ride one if somebody paid me to do it. I thought I’d take a few photos of the horses in the stables, but it was too dark in there plus the horses wouldn’t stay still long enough for a photo. All I got was a series of horse-head shaped blurs. Not much good for sharing with friends and family but – thinking about it – I could probably hold an exhibition of modern impressionist equine photography. Any sponsors out there?

There’s also, according to various tourist brochures, an Embroidery Exhibition that is held in Ðakovo, but that takes place in early July. One of these years, as an amateur but fairly enthusiastic embroiderer, I’d like to visit the exhibition at the right time and see what marvellous creations are shown there. (I thought I’d mention it, that’s all).

Since Pete’s very interested in live music, we (Zarko, Pete and me) went back to the music festival on the last night to watch one of Croatia’s most successful pop-rock bands, Daleka Obala. The lead singer wasn’t much to look at – pot bellied, mid-40s or thereabouts, not exactly smartly dressed – but his voice was glorious. His looks and voice reminded me of Andrew Strong who played Deco Cuffe in the movie “The Commitments” (incidentally one of my favourites), and Pete and I both enjoyed the music very much, even though we didn’t understand a WORD of it.

Luckily music is one of those things that transcends language and culture – all you have to do to enjoy any music is to like it. And we did. Zarko of course was in his own world, transported back to his youth, bopping away happily to the music since he grew up listening to that band. Ozana unfortunately missed the concert because she had to relieve her lovely mother of baby-sitting duties – else she would have had as much fun as Zarko at the concert. The continuing popularity of the original band and this guy (I don’t know his name) was attested to by the enthusiastic response of the mostly teenage and early 20s crowd – they would have been very young at the time Daleka Obala was at its peak - LOVED his songs and sang along to every one. The singer was a true performer in that he vibed with his audience and got them to join in and take part – it was a wonderful experience!

But the clouds of cigarette smoke within that enclosed hall became too much for me after a while, so I had to go outside for the last half-hour and listen to the music from there. (Not that I had any trouble hearing it – you could have heard the speakers blasting out the sound from 10 blocks away… the sign of a really good concert, in Pete’s opinion).

Pete and I wanted to see the old town and the town centre itself in daylight, so we walked to the town centre from the hotel (and back) a few times – there isn’t a convenient taxi service in Osijek in the sense that there aren’t any to hail off the street. You have to call for one in advance – not particularly useful. Once we took a tram halfway – did I mention that there is a tram service in Osijek? It dates back to the late 1800s. It’s useful if you’re in or around the town centre, or if you want to get to the railway station, but not if you’re off the beaten track, as it were. There is a church in Tvrdja that once used to be a Turkish mosque - hence the onion towers. It was peaceful inside, but not especially remarkable.

Zarko, Pete, Borna and I also took time off to visit the remains of the Turkish fortress, as well as take a look around the museum which has a lot of relics from the Roman occupation, dating back to the 1AD or thereabouts. The nice thing was that the museum was relaxed and not anal about its exhibits - the sarcophagi, statues, busts and other marble remnants were right there in the open, with little labels to mark their age. You could touch them (but I didnt) or even sit on them (but I didnt) or for all I know carve your initials on them (but I didnt)... I guess the fact that nobody's damaged or defaced them says a lot about the civic mindedness of the locals. (Pete used one of the marble seats - it was only about 1500 years old, heyho - as a coat rack while he checked out the loo, but that's neither here nor there, is it?)

Outside the museum (where we took the opportunity to get a photo with Borna) there was some sort of cultural festivities going on, with a horse-drawn carriage ready to take tourists around, and brightly-costumed people singing
. Zarko said that they were representatives of minorities in Osijek and they were singing their folk songs. The music was simple but lovely... but then I'm a sucker for folk music from anywhere. There were lots of people in traditional costume - which meant plenty of bright, pretty embroidery. Yeah, I'm a sucker for embroidery and bright colours too.

Oh, and if ever you read anywhere that Hotel Silver is just a few minutes walk away from Osijek town centre, you have my permission to give a cynical laugh. It’s at least a 40-minute walk one way – admittedly not a bad walk, with all the greenery and parks and gorgeous shady trees and everything, but a few minutes??? HA! What they wont say to ignorant tourists just to make you choose their hotel…

All in all, the week in Osijek went by far too quickly, what with walks on the lovely promenade by River Drava, coffee/drinks at the riverside bars, icecream in the town centre, photos of the
pedestrian bridge by night (and day) - this cute little boy with his cute little pup deserved a photo! - and all the sight seeing trips. Pete said it was easy to make oneself understood even though we didn’t speak the local lingo. Yes, easy enough with such thoughtful hosts as Zarko and Ozana translating and otherwise smoothing our way in most places! Strangely enough, what little German I remembered came in fairly handy on the few occasions that we had to negotiate our way in the restaurants or cafes when our lovely hosts were busy with their work. They were such fun to be with, so kind and generous with their time despite their busy workdays, their kids so enthusiastic and loving, that Pete has been trying to invite himself over there for Christmas for another special trip and a second taste of Croatian hospitality. And truth to say, I’m not about to dissuade him!


Osijek (Croatia) - Part 2


The next day we were up more or less early and ready for our long sightseeing day. We walked down to Zarko and Ozana’s because it was so close to the hotel. It was fun to meet their two little sons, 7-year-old Borna and 6-year-old Carlo, and also Ozana’s lovely mother Margita. Communication with all of them was mostly through smiles and hand gestures, or more effectively with Zarko or Ozana translating back and forth – it was required if we actually wanted any information conveyed or understood! Margita spoke a little English and that combined with my very fractured German ensured that we managed to understand one another a little. Margita was there to look after the two little guys – and very kind of her it was too, to offer to babysit them while we went off gallivanting.

The first stop was a local “market” – a long line of little stalls selling fruit, sweets, cakes, savoury rolls, wines, jams, handicrafts and so on, all locally made and very likely hand-made in individual homes. I don’t think there was any “small industry” type produce there. The market is a new local tradition, so to speak – started with the intention of attracting potential tourists. Speaking as a tourist, I thought it was a good idea – we got to see local handmade things, and traditions have to start SOMEwhere after all!

Of course the first stall we stopped at had to be one selling home-made wines and liqueurs, juices and fruit compotes. Why “of course”? Because Pete the wine connoisseur was there. Catch him not sampling the goodies, especially as the samples were free. We bought a few bottles of blackberry wine, some plum liqueur (I think) and a bottle of blackberry juice as well. All from the first stall we stopped at - but how could we resist, especially when the vendor was so smiley and friendly and eager to describe the things she was selling?

While the guys went off to put the bottles in the car, Ozana and I wandered down past the stalls, admiring the beautiful embroidered doilies and table runners and table napkins. There were bottles of all shapes and sizes, some with very long thin necks, some painted with little scenes of Osijek, as souvenirs. Some of the long-necked bottles wore little straw hats with ribbons – those were very cute! I bought a couple of those - the bottles survived the flight, but the straw hats were crushed. (As was I, when I saw them.)

There were also large, life-size straw animals dotting the place – a giraffe, a horse, and so on. Very creatively done!

Anyway, there was a little open air restaurant sort of thing with long benches and tables where people were sat having beers and generally socialising. (Yes, beers at 10am – so what? It was Sunday!). So we sat there as well and ordered beers and soft drinks… and watched fish being cooked on open fires. Well not quite on. The fish were on impaled on sticks and stood around the fires… they were smoked and cooked from the heat, but not directly over the flame. They looked interesting and smelt pretty good too. But Zarko said we should save our appetite for a fancy meal later, plus we’d had breakfast at the hotel (the only morning that we bothered with it), so we left those fish alone. (
You can read about our culinary adventures and experiences here.)

After about an hour or so, Zarko looked somewhat pointedly at his watch, from which we inferred that we were meant to be elsewhere, and that quickly. The elsewhere turned out to be the famous marshlands called Kopački Rit Nature Park. (No credit to me that I hadn’t even heard of it.) It is one of the largest wetlands in Europe and is formed by the confluence of the River Danube and the River Drava. The fast-flowing Drava forces the Danube to back up and flood the flatlands, so that there is no saying what shape the flatlands will be from year to year (depends on the strength of the floods). We went on an hour’s boat trip and saw hundreds of cormorants on the tree-tops, which I think were gathering prior to the autumn migration – and just so there are no misunderstandings, it was the cormorants migrating, not the tree-tops.

I did spot a couple of other bird types – one of them herons – but my knowledge of birds is close to zero, so I’ve no idea what the others were. Someone with more knowledge of birds would have made better use of the binoculars which were thoughtfully provided on the boat – they were pretty effective in looking at tree-tops, believe me!

There was a guide on the boat who talked pretty much non-stop through the trip… but as she spoke exclusively in Croatian, it whooshed right over our heads. Zarko and Ozana were kind enough to translate the more interesting bits, though. The marshlands were very peaceful and quiet – and the scenery was quite different, with lots of rushes and grasslands and trees which I couldn’t name to save my life. We were too late in the season for the flowers (water lilies and such like), which was a shame.

The lakes are also full of various types of fish – not that we saw any. And fishing isn’t allowed any more.

At one end (northern end, I think) of Kopački Rit is a villa which was used by Marshal Tito as his hunting lodge. It’s in pretty poor shape now, but it must have been pretty impressive when it was being used. Apparently there are plans to make it a restaurant, but nothing’s come of those plans yet. The park in which the lodge is situated is utterly beautiful, full of trees and green expanses of grass. It was heavily mined during the war. Most of the mines have been cleared and there are walking paths, but apparently it’s still not a good idea to go wandering off on unmarked land. Just in case you get very very unlucky.

Zarko remarked that mines were still being unearthed on farming land – usually by the farmer while ploughing his land, and usually to fatal effect. Quite scary to think about it – that the effects of war last for years and years and one can never be quite safe enough. Then again, unexploded bombs and mines from the first World War still turn up now and again, more than half a century later… so I guess on that scale, 10-11 years isn’t much..

Anyway… on the way from the park, we saw some paragliding going on in a field. There were lots of cars parked there and we joined them to watch the fun. It did indeed look like great fun. Each participant was attached to an expert in some arcane way that I cant begin to explain – basically the expert was behind the participant and controlled the parachute. And when they rose in the air, they looked like they were seated. Apologies for the sketchy description. Anyway, the road was long and absolutely straight – it went on until it merged into the horizon. No kidding. Osijek is situated in a very flat area of Croatia!

There wasn’t much of a wind to get the paragliders off the ground, try as they would. So what they did was attach the two paragliders at a time to a rope which was on a winch in the back of a car. Then the car took off down the road like a bat out of hell, and after a few awkward running steps, the paragliders rose into the air. The car continued down the road, letting out more and more rope until the parachutes had reached the optimum height. They then unhooked themselves from the car and flew around for a few minutes – some of the parachutes corkscrewed in the air, which looked like great fun to me but which made Pete feel a bit ill just to think about (wimp!). I don’t know if the spinning was deliberate or just bad control, but since all the parachutes landed perfectly, I assume it wasn’t deliberate. Whatever, it looked really exciting and one of these days I’d like to try it. Probably in Osijek, though… it’s bound to be cheaper there than in the UK!

Probably what I enjoyed most about the day was the visit to a traditional Croatian house. We all got out of the car at what we thought was the show house and trooped into the front yard, me exclaiming at the lovely little garden and colourful flowers, the picturesque well, the pretty rooms and what not, taking photographs of everything that caught my eye. Then a couple of people appeared, looking a bit surprised. After a brief conversation with them, Zarko and Ozana came back quickly, informing us, as they ushered us out, that we had entered a private residence, not the one that was open to tourists.

Oops. No wonder the house owners had looked bemused!

Eventually we got to the right place and piled out again at the entrance to a long, single storey building. This time we were greeted by a gentleman (the owner of the house, but this time one officially there to show visitors around!) wearing traditional Croatian clothes, loose and embroidered, with a jaunty little hat. He greeted us with a cheery “Welcome, how are you”, but then having apparently exhausted his stock of the English language, he explained everything in Croatian, with Zarko and Ozana once again becoming our interpreters.

The traditional Croatian house is single storeyed and long, with multiple doorways from the outside into the various rooms. That’s because the entire family – like the Indian joint family – lived in the same house, but had different entrances for convenience. The length of the house denoted the wealth of the family. Most of the families lived self-sufficiently as a unit – each member had a job to do, and that way the family didn’t have to rely on an outsider to do anything – and more importantly, didn’t have to pay any outsider. Whether it was shoeing a horse or making sausages or weaving clothes or making wines, every home had someone in the family who could and did do the job. And every home had a blacksmith’s smithy, carpenter's tools, smoking room, granary, wood store and everything else required for total self-reliance.

Every Croatian house traditionally has a
basement. In fact, the basement was always the first thing to be constructed – or rather, dug out, because the clay from the hole that was dug to make the basement was used to make bricks to make the ceiling/roof for the basement itself. Then a shed was built over it. This room above the cellar housed the horse tack, saddles, bridles and what not, plus the various tools required for the various tasks around the farm and the house (saws, hammers, chisels, etc), the blacksmith’s bellows and work area, and so on. There was just LOADS of stuff there – even a sled, to get around in the winter. You wouldn’t have mistaken it for Santa’s sled, though. Not enough cheery red paintwork on it – in fact, there wasn’t any cheery red paintwork on it at all. It was just your basic sled.

Self-sufficiency being the lifestyle for a traditional Croatian family, they also grew their own grapes for wine, fruit and vegetables for the house, kept pigs, cows, hens and other poultry, horses (for getting around on, I suppose – and possibly for ploughing the fields) and of course dogs and cats. Rats were very likely not part of the plan but they were there too.

The cellar, this one 17 metres long, was mainly used for storing wine and it was always at an even 12°C, no matter what the weather outside. At the far end was a sectioned-off place which was only meant for family and which was used to bury a bottle of wine for every son born in the family. When the son reached 21 years of age, the bottle was dug out and opened in his honour. In this house
the bottles were out in the open for display
, but our cheerful guide said that usually they were buried in the ground.

After examining all that, we went into the house itself. I was surprised to see bunches of dried red chillies – oops, paprika, I mean – hanging up outside the house, above the veranda, along with bunches of dried garlic… rather like you would see in India, to ward off evil. There were no dried lemons though. One other thing I noticed about most buildings - whether it was a hotel or a private residence - was that they had various kinds of pumpkins, gourds or squashes, bunches of corn and/or bowls of walnuts in their shells left around as decoration. I assumed they were real ones, but as their shells are as hard as rock, there was no real way of saying if they were models or the real thing.

Our host explained that the first room in the house, the one which passers-by on the street could see into, belonged to the head of the family – and was for these reasons always richly decorated and beautifully kept so as to make the most favourable impression on everyone. Further rooms which led from it belonged to the sons or daughters, according to age, I guess. And as I mentioned earlier, each room had its own access door to the outside.

Most of the things in the house – the clothes on display, cupboards, beds, chairs, utensils for washing, cooking and eating, the weaving loom, etc – were all authentic, all having been used by the past occupants. They were all left in place, pretty much exactly as it would have been in times past, so we got a very good idea of how they would have led their lives.

There was a large bread oven inside the house - naturally the family made their own bread - above which was a wooden platform. Our guide said that in the winter, the children would sleep there to take advantage of the warmth from the oven. Nothing wasted there, not even surplus heat. And once the children were toasted crisp, they were stored as winter rations for the family. I'm JOKING!

After we had satisfied ourselves peering into the smoking room to look at the dried sausages hanging there, examining the large jars of pickled vegetables and paprika, exclaiming over the bottled jams and preserves, our host led us to the section where the animals were housed. There were a couple of rather large horses and a little pony. He invited us all to have a ride on the horses, but we politely declined. My refusal was made the more firm when I saw one of the horses aim a kick with its back legs at the other horse – and he actually wanted us to ride the bad-tempered one, although he tried to reassure us of its gentleness. Um… no thanks.

Oddly enough, Pete took him up on his offer despite being terribly allergic to horses (and cats, although nobody’s offered him their cat to ride on). He walked sedately once around the little compound with our host holding the reins, and then on his own, even cantering a little. I was quite impressed, because by god that horse looked about 10 feet tall when we were close to it. I liked the little pony though. It was small enough to walk right under the other horses with a couple of feet to spare overhead!

After that it was time for mein host to display his circus talents, Riding his horse lightly and effortlessly around, then standing up on its back while in motion and so on. When he leaped off it at the end, we gave him a good round of applause. He deserved it.

Then it was time for some eats. A bottle of plum brandy (sljivovitz) was brought out, along with little traditional beakers to drink it out of, and a bottle of some lovely home-made elderflower cordial. Also a very large platter of various dried meats and hams and cheeses, and home-made bread. All of it had been made right on that farm (and in that house) – apparently if you classify your property as a farm, even if it’s only for display to visitors, it HAS to be run as one. Which means our host had to cure the meats, make the cheese, wine, cordials, etc, all on the premises. Basically, it was a fully working farm. Cool.

Much later on, after returning Ozana home, we went for a walk around Osijek city centre. The buildings looked absolutely lovely in the soft yellow lighting, with the dancing fountain in the middle throwing up its jets of water. Although it was fairly late in the evening, there were loads of young people hanging around there – but not once did I feel uneasy or worried. I don’t know the crime rates in Osijek and whether they’ve gone up or down or whatever, but it felt like a safe place. (And if it isn’t, all I can say is that ignorance was certainly bliss!).


Osijek (Croatia) - Part 1

“So where are you going on holiday?” my boss asked when I applied for a week’s leave.

“Croatia”, I said.

He took a breath, probably to come up with something pat on the lines of “Oh yes, I’ve been there” but then it sunk in, and he just stared at me blankly for a couple of moments, clearly unable to think of anything encouraging to say.

“Well,” he ventured at last. “There’s a place I know nothing about." And couldnt imagine visiting, no doubt.

The visiting part of it was well within my imagination, but as for information about Croatia – well, I wasn’t going to tell him that I didn’t myself know very much about it either. Sure, I knew the basics – that it used to be part of Yugoslavia and that it had been at war with Serbia a few years ago. But other than that I was woefully ignorant of its history, culture – even its currency (which is the kuna, by the way).

But let me start this trip from the beginning… which is, as denizens of the Third World will know only too well, at the Visa and Consular Services section at the embassy of whichever country you’re trying to visit. And said denizens will also be completely familiar with the running-around-in-a-last-minute-panic - because no matter how much information you go armed with, the all-powerful little people behind the plastic partition will always want something you didn’t imagine you’d need for a visa application. For instance, despite having seen my Permanent Resident visa, my marriage certificate, salary slip and proof of funds, they actually wanted a letter from my employer as proof that I wasn’t playing hookey from work. *sigh*

We managed to convince the dear lady that we were happily married and that I wasn’t going to leave my husband (once we got to Croatia) and start a new exciting career there as an illegal alien. So, apart from that, and some running around to pay the visa fee at a particular bank’s particular branch in a particular format and getting back to the consulate with the proof of payment before they closed for the day (mighty narrow window of opportunity – 11am to 2pm Mon-Thurs only), it was all smooth (!) going. I wasn’t sure I’d get my passport back within 5 working days, given that there was a postal strike that week… but I was pleasantly surprised when it arrived in the next day’s post. I was quite happy not to have the nail-biting finish to my visa application (Check out this link) this time around.

We were flying with Croatian Airlines from Heathrow to Zagreb. I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the airline, thinking that it would be more or less a rattly bus with wings. I certainly didn’t expect the flight to be on schedule. But oh what a pleasant surprise – we boarded the aircraft exactly at the announced time. That we sat in the aircraft for half an hour thereafter was not the airline’s fault – it was the usual Heathrow delay.

The second pleasant surprise, when we boarded the aircraft and found our seats, was that the Airbus had leg room. Inches and inches of it! In fact, a full 8 inches between my knees and the back of the seat in front. (At 5’8”, it’s such a close fit for me that by the end of most flights, my knees take on the pattern of the upholstery.) Pete couldn’t believe the amount of legroom the aircraft had, not to mention the extra width of the seats. The service was excellent as well, even if the food that I got was inedible. (The latter bit applies to all airlines – and maybe it was my fault for specifying Asian Vegetarian.)

The flight to Zagreb was about an hour and a bit, or possibly two hours – I’m not sure, because I slept through most of it, waking only to try a few bites of my decidedly un-Asian but very vegetarian meal of half-cooked rice in a mystery dressing with soggy canned boiled beans and carrot accompanied by a dry roll, and four grapes (complete with crunchy seeds) for dessert. What can I say. Yum… not! But believe me when I say that I wouldn’t exchange a single grain of rice from that meal for anything better if it meant that I would be sitting in a less comfortable seat. I mean that. Not one single grain of that oddly flavourless rice.

The landing at Zagreb was possibly one of the smoothest I’ve experienced – no kangaroo hops, no G-force flattening you to your seat because of too-hard braking, nothing but a touchdown as gentle as a butterfly settling on a flower. Ok, that’s a little exaggeration but it was a smooth touchdown. Croatian Airlines most certainly gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from both me and Pete as a great little airline!

One step into the airport, one breath of the air inside the building, and I knew we as non-smokers were in a sad minority. Phew! You could almost cut the fag fug with a knife, so to speak.

At Passport Control, Pete’s passport got barely a glance (as usual), but the Croatian official gave me and my passport a thorough going-over, asking where I was from and where I lived and where I was going and why and how long I planned to stay and the names of my parents -

WTF? My parents’ names? There I was, 35-plus years old, a Permanent Resident of a First World country no less, much married and accompanied by my husband - and that official thug wanted to know my parents’ names to fill in a form? I couldn’t believe my ears, but he sat there, pen at the ready, waiting for the information. I must say I was never happier to announce “Mr Ramanathan Subramaniam and Mrs Kalpagam Ramanathan”, and watch his jaw drop slightly. And I smirked only a little bit as he officiously pushed across the official piece of paper and the official pen through the official gap for me to officially spell out the names.


Outside, Zarko was waiting to take us to Osijek, three hours drive (or roughly 150 miles) away. There wasn’t much to see in the dark, so again I slept most of the way to Osijek. The Hotel Silver had been informed in advance that we would arrive late, so we were checked in right away. Our room was on the third – and top – floor, in what Pete insisted on calling the penthouse suite. It was a pleasant room, all said and done, right under the eaves with the bed against one wall. Since the room was under the eaves, the ceiling sloped down to two sides. There was much meeting of heads with ceilings in the first couple of days – but as intelligent little lab rats, we soon learnt to stoop when we wanted to access the TV or our suitcases. (The third side was all glass windows from ceiling to floor, looking out onto the street.)

Zarko gave us just enough time to throw our suitcases into the room before he hustled us back out into the night. It was beer time, even though it was nearly midnight!

In Osijek a lot of restaurants stay open till very late (past 12am) and the nightclubs go on for longer still. We tried out the local Osjecki beer which to my palate tasted like any other beer – in a word, yuk – but which Pete loved. We didn’t have much time for more than a couple of beers as the restaurant was closing. But Zarko had other plans for us anyway. Since the night was still young, he drove us to Tvrdja (the old part of town with the remains of a fortress), where there was a concert going on as part of a music festival. I’m not entirely sure if it was part of the Independence Day (October 8) celebrations… but whatever the reason, I fully expected to hear Croatian music.

As we walked up to the huge marquee, the tune seemed strangely familiar to my ears although I couldn’t quite place it (dammit, it was 12.30am and I was sleepy!). Then, to my astonishment, I heard Pete humming along, and I couldn’t help but ask him how he knew the words to a Croatian song.

“It’s Irish music, an Irish drinking song,” he pointed out. “The Wild Rover.”

Of course!

That’s what it was. Not Croatian music, but Irish. And once I knew that, the lyrics which had seemed incomprehensible suddenly rearranged themselves in my brain as:
“And it's No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more”

It was an Irish band playing it, too. The authentic stuff. Just goes to show that if you hear something other than what you were expecting to hear at that time and in that place, your ears hallucinate. Mine do, anyway. Sometimes the logic switch just doesn’t allow itself to be turned on.

The band was great, the music familiar and well loved, the crowds of young Croats happily – and non-violently – drunk, with beer stalls and popcorn sellers and hot roasted chestnuts all doing roaring business at what I would have considered an unearthly hour of the morning, were I not on holiday. What was not to love?

Eventually we headed back to the hotel because, as Zarko said, we had a full day’s worth of touristy things to do the next day. And there in our hotel room, we discovered yet another wonderful surprise – a soft, comfortable, spacious bed and fluffy pillows that must have dropped straight from heaven. Not something you find in a 3-star hotel anywhere, and sometimes not even in a 5-star one! Those pillows stayed fluffy and wonderful through our entire stay at the hotel – a commendable achievement indeed because I’m the sort of sleeper who has to pummel and thump and squash my pillow to find the perfect texture and position before I can go to sleep. Those pillows were lovely and if there had been any way I could have stolen them without fear of discovery, I would have. There, I said it.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A bite of the Big Apple

Part of the Manhattan skyline seen from our cruise boat

Back from a hectic 9 days in New York and I still cant decide if I would love to live there or run screaming at the very thought. It's so crowded and most important of all, SO expensive! A tiny shoebox apartment rented by my cousin's husband in Manhattan cost something like $2000 a month! Perhaps it would be nicer to live outside the city – in Danbury, Connecticut, for instance, which is where my brother lives, and which is about an hour and a quarter’s driving time away from the big city’s bright lights. Again, though, Pete says he couldn’t live in Danbury as it is too unfocused, as in there’s no specific “town centre”, and he couldn’t live anywhere without that community “feel” to it. (Oh well, he’s a small town boy after all).

I liked Danbury, though. It has a wide-open aspect, a feeling of large, open, uncrowded space that appeals to me. And oh, the fall colours there were gorgeous. Everything is bigger in the US, more colourful, more emphasised, larger than life - as I might have observed before. This includes the trees, which soar to dizzying heights (and I haven’t even seen giant sequoias or other over-large specimens yet) and blaze with colours ranging from fluorescent yellow to blazing reds and every shade in between… Yeah, I could live in Danbury. Not that I’m going to get a chance to do so, not with Pete being so firmly averse to living in the States. Still, why let that stop me making decisions about imaginary lifestyle changes, right?

New York is an assault on the senses – all the senses. Especially sight. And sound. Very often smell too. Times Square is a perfect example of this – so many flashing lights from soooo many giant hoardings on even more giantly buildings. Here’s a fact I learnt recently – you can make more money renting the outside of buildings to advertisers than you can from having the building occupied. If you’re lucky enough and rich enough to own an entire building in Times Square, that is. I’m told – and I believe it – there’s a building which is entirely empty for that very reason. There are no occupants. No occupants = no insurance required. No insurance = very large amounts of money saved, and even larger sums of money earned from advertising. This can only happen in New York, I’m sure. Or at least only in America. And what’s more, the law is that all buildings in Times Square MUST be brightly lit up. So they are.

The crowds on Halloween night had to be experienced to be believed, but my sister assured me that it was nothing compared to the masses of people that heave their way into Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Apparently, the one time she and her friends did the New Year’s Eve thing, it was freezing or below and yet they kept coming across people who were clad very lightly. Since my sister and pals had layered themselves up into waddling spheres to combat the cold, they were sort of surprised. But when they got to Times Square, they realised why – the people there were so heavily packed together that it was enough to keep them warm. So warm, in fact, that quite soon they had to shed several layers or suffocate. Now there’s an experience I could do very well without, no matter how iconic an experience it might be to watch the ball drop in Times Square at midnight on Dec 31.

However, back to Halloween and the Parade. It was glorious! Everywhere we went, houses were decorated with pumpkins and lanterns and ghosts and ghouls and whatnot, and all along the way, on the train, on the streets, in pubs, shops, restaurants, you name it, people wore the oddest clothes. Some of them were in full costume with the appropriate make-up but plenty of others signified willing merely by donning a silly cap or hat while still wearing business suits. Strange sights indeed, but there were stranger sights still. It’s amazing just how seriously the Americans take Halloween – or rather, how enthusiastically they celebrate it. Here in the UK (I mean my locality in Shrewsbury) you only have the neighbourhood kids dressed half-heartedly in pathetic costumes, coming around just for the free sweets and chocolate. Sure, Halloween is an American import, but if you intend to celebrate it, it ought to be done with more style, rather than just adopt the greed part of it and leave the costumery and general fun and frolic well alone. That’s just my take on it, of course.

The Parade itself was fantastic. The weather was perfect for participants and observers, too – just cool enough. (We had PERFECT weather all week - no rain, just pleasant, cool, crisp, sunny autumn days.) I don’t know how long people had been waiting at the barriers by the side of the roads, but by the time we got anywhere there, they were standing, packed four deep. You had to be a Croatian (very tall, in other words) if you wanted to see more than the tops of waving flags and pennants! Still, with some determined but discreet wriggling, my mother, sister and brother eventually manoeuvred to a point from where they could see the parade. Pete had found a vantage point – a somewhat raised part of the kerb – so I joined him there and watched him video the best part of the parade. I didn’t have a camera and I wouldn’t have been able to take photos of the paraders anyway – sometimes even being 5’8” tall just isn’t enough!

If I’m able to be in NY next year at Halloween time, I intend to take part in the Parade too. It just seemed like such fun! You could see how much time and effort people had put into the sets and floats and costumes. There were company-sponsored floats which would obviously have had plenty of money spent on them and the people in them, but there were hundreds of others who were there just for the fun of it. Private paraders, as I think of them. My personal favourite – and believe me when I say it was difficult to choose – from the floats was a group of zombies who synchronised their moves to the music of “Thriller” – good fun to watch and a very, very slow way of getting from one place to another! My favourite private parader was a guy that we saw on the subway who was wearing a large ribbon-wrapped gift box – the gift tag on it said “From: God, To: Women”. He was reasonably cute too!

But the cutest, most adorable participants were of course the babies and young children – at various points I saw the world’s littlest policeman (complete with belt and the various fixings that cops in that part of the world wear), a baby elephant, a baby teddy bear, a bunny, Batman (or is that Batbaby?), the sweetest little Devil all in red, with a trident and horns, no less… I could go on. The teddy bear baby was actually so small in its mother’s arms (plus she was holding it in a rather casual manner!) that at first I thought it was a stuffed toy… but the baby bear was just asleep and quite human. Which was amazing enough in all that noise (the sleeping part, not the human part). The only drawback to watching the Parade were our wickedly aching feet at the end of the day, for there was literally no space to sit down anywhere along the route. Oh the crowds!

The last time I was in New York, we didn’t get to see Grand Central Station. But this time we went there quite a few times (mostly to take the train back to Danbury) and each time it was a breathtaking experience. Built on the noble, massive lines of a cathedral, the main concourse is fantastic, with a huge, very high domed ceiling and attractive soft lighting. You almost wanted to speak in whispers, rather like you would do if you were in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Or St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The entrances to the various platforms had beautiful doorways, looking like they belonged in a palace. So when you stepped through them, out into the stuffy, smelly and unlovely platform to get the train, it was a solid reality check... from the almost sublime to the definitely banal. The food hall in the station's basement has a name as grand as the station itself – it’s the Dining Concourse, no less.

You do get a huge variety of food stalls and there’s a reasonable amount even for vegetarians. I don’t know what misfiring neuron in my brain urged me to ask for a pretzel – I’ve had them before and they’re ok, but not madly fascinating. And then, to compound that order, I foolishly nodded when the stall guy asked me a question, even though I hadnt quite understood him. Very dumb thing to do, because my pretzel arrived absolutely smothered on one side with large salt crystals (THAT was what he’d asked) which I then had to brush off before every bite of the pretzel... which was pretty much tasteless... because I’d brushed off the salt...

Heartburn and blood pressure must be rife among the New Yorkers if plain salted-encrusted pretzels are a favourite! In hindsight, I should have had the jalapeno pretzel. Or not had a pretzel at all, come to think of it...

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is closed on Mondays. We found that out only after Kumar, who had painstakingly driven us all the way into the City and deposited us outside the museum, had driven off to look for a parking spot for the car. Did we have a phone between us that actually worked? Nope. We had to mooch around outside on the steps, waiting for him to come back, before we could give him the good news. So rather than get the car back out and do the whole depositing-parking-waiting thing again, we took two taxis to the Museum of Natural History which, luckily, was open. Why two taxis? Because we were five, and the normal taxis only take four passengers. You do get the larger kind of taxis which can take 5 people, but those are few and far between.

The Natural History museum was pretty cool, but the Metropolitan was what I'd got on my list as a "must-see". We did get to it later in the week, and it was worth the wait. We had an hour's guided overview tour of the museum, which was informative, and after that we were let loose to wander around by ourselves. I liked the Egyptian section and the South and South-East Asian sections, but the African one didnt quite grab my interest. (Perhaps it was just a case of information overload.) The exhibits all had little informative cards, but it was a lot better with the audio set and headphones. You had to rent an audio kit, and if you came across anything that excited you, you keyed in the number of the display and listened to the soothingly male voiceover your headphones, giving you more details about the item. Pretty cool.

My favourite section of MoMA was the medieval paintings - which turned out to be also the preferred destination of about half the geriatric population of the USA. That meant having to delicately elbow your way through the throng, earning yourself a few rheumy but nevertheless fierce glares. That, or you had to resign yourself to moving at the rate of 2 inches per 10 minutes from painting to painting. Luckily there werent too many that I wanted to admire in close-up (and by "too many" I'm thinking of the Vatican Museum, where there are SO many gorgeous paintings that it made me dizzy and despondent at the same time - so many things to look at, so little time!), so I could pick and choose my battles with the elderly enthusiasts. It was fairly tame on the whole, although one of the dear ladies came close to skewering my foot to the floor with her cane. (I managed to side-step it.)

Another trip that I crossed off my list was the Circle Line Sightseeing Tour - we took the 3-hour trip, since the day was so sunny and clear and bright. It was also windy, as attested by my hair seen below.

Slightly windblown me, with that attractive
dragged-through-a-thorny-bush-backwards chic

We saw the Statue of Liberty fairly close up (personally I thought she looked a bit grumpy, but I could have been mistaken) and went all the way around Manhattan Island.

More Manhattan skyline

That full round-trip was especially nice because we'd been warned beforehand that if the currents were strong, the boat might not go all the way around. I'm glad it did, because we got to see the back of Manhattan (I mean the northernmost part) which is a wonderfully thick forest. Nobody lives there, nobody's built anything there and nobody will. It's an indication of how the island would have looked 300-400 years ago, and it's going to be preserved that way. Actually the amount of greenery in the middle of New York is amazing... and heartening.

I would have gone for The Beast speedboat ride, but I found out about it too late. Besides, nobody wanted to accompany me - or, rather more importantly, nobody would agree to wait for me while I checked it out. That's one for the next trip, methinks.

Our guide on the tour was a lovely old gentleman called Jim. He had a gentle sense of humour and was very pleasant and patient - two attributes that do not describe most New Yorkers... and sure enough, he's actually a Texan. You dont get to hear Please or Thank You anywhere much from anybody in NY, and smiles are at a premium as well. It certainly makes you appreciate the courtesy with which you're treated most everywhere in the UK.

One of the nuggets of information imparted by Jim is that there are over 80,000 restaurants or eateries in New York. And over 125 different kinds of cuisine. We sampled Vietnamese cuisine in Danbury - BIG mistake. Perhaps it was just that restaurant, but I'm in no hurry to give the cuisine another go. We tried the Dragon, a Szechwan Hunan restaurant, which was fantastic. Penang, a Malaysian restaurant, which was pretty darn good. (Pete sweated bullets but loved the dishes all the same.) Don Pedro, a Cuban-Caribbean fusion restaurant, another HUGE hit with Pete. It was a bit short on vegetarian dishes, but between our helpful Mexican waiter and a friendly chef, we got by with salads, beans and rice. Watan, the best eatery in my opinion (I'm biased towards Indian food, so sue me), a pure-veg Gujarati place... you got an unlimited thali for $25 a head, and the sort of food that made you wish you had three or four stomachs to fill. The last restaurant we visited was a Mexican grill (I cant remember its name), but I really dont know how authentic it was - the food was ok but not noteworthy. And not particularly Mexican. I mean, a Mexican restaurant that cant do simple nachos with cheese...??!!

Reserved for the next trip is a visit to Dawat, Madhur Jaffrey's restaurant.

If you're in New York, you gotta see a show in Broadway. So we did, a treat from my brother on my sister's birthday. We got to watch "Wicked", a brilliant musical that is an "alternative prequel" to The Wizard of Oz. It's about Elphiba, the wicked green witch of the west who really wasnt wicked, and Glinda, the Good Witch, who's very blonde and wasnt quite good but wasnt quite wicked either. The girl who played Elphiba had the most glorious, clear, soaring voice that sent shivers down my spine - I wish I could remember her name. The show was a bit slow in the first half, but the second half was brilliant. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, all the better for having excellent and very expensive seats. All thanks to my generous little brother.

The trip back home was uneventful until we reached the English coastline. I had a window seat and a beautiful view of everything below as it was a crystal clear night with not a hint of cloud. It was absolutely amazing to see the lights of cities and towns... they looked like delicately filigreed gold ornaments scattered over with beads, flung carelessly on a velvet background. And then as the aircraft came closer, I could see lots of flashing, winking, colourful lights popping off all over the place - almost like the camera flashes you see at a concert. They were puzzling for a few moments, until Pete suddenly realised that it was Guy Fawkes Night - and the pretty popping lights were fireworks going off. They were fantastic to look at as we dropped towards the runway, and I have to say that the fireworks seen from above were SPECTACULAR!

And after all that, although I'm glad to be home, I still cant help wondering what it would be like to be a New Yorker - the jury's still out on that. I guess I'll need a few more bites of the Big Apple to make up my mind!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Aug 24-27 2007 - Four days in the Scottish Highlands

And not a photograph to show for it. All entirely my fault for forgetting, at the last minute, to take the camera. In my defence, though, it got left behind only because I had (thoughtfully) remembered to put the battery to charge. Look at it this way - had I forgotten to charge the battery, I would most likely have packed the camera in the morning. But then I would have been unable to take photos anyway as the battery would have run out of juice. Two scenarios, same result. I regret the result even more as, this time, Sudha came with us to the Highlands and it would have been nice for both of us to have some photos to share with friends and family. Especially as it took a lot of guilt-tripping, pleading and threatening to get her to agree to come with us in the first place.

It was all quite last-minute (more defence for forgetting to take the camera) - I got back from work around 5.20pm on Thursday, and did some last-minute washing-up while waiting for Sudha's phone call announcing her arrival in Shrewsbury. (Yes, I admit I could have remembered the camera at this time - but I didnt because I was doing my last-minute packing as well.) When she finally called, I zoomed off to the railway station to pick her up - only to find that she was nowhere in the vicinity. One frantic phone call to her later, I realised she was waiting at the bus station. Duh! She'd travelled by bus - something that should not have surprised me, knowing Sudha.

Anyway, by the time we negotiated the rush hour traffic (made worse by road works) and got home, Pete was home and ready to leave. Very soon thereafter, we were off on the 7-hour drive to Glentruim in the Highlands. The drive was pretty much without incident and we reached Glentruim at 1am. Our friend Ian, despite the fact that he had had a very busy day with another equally packed day to follow, had stayed up to welcome us. We got an even more lavish welcome from his two dogs, Poppy (a 2 year old retriever) and Dylan (a 14-year-old border collie).

The next day, the first thing on our agenda was a visit to the distillery at
Dalwhinnie, which is famous for its single malt whisky. We were too late for the noon tour and too early for the next one, so after buying tickets, Pete took us for a drive up to the mountains, right to the point where vehicles are not encouraged to go any further because of the terrain, the flora/fauna and the vagaries of the weather at high altitudes. Only the completely foolhardy would proceed beyond that point in an unsuitable vehicle - plus, we had a whisky tour booked!

The Dalwhinnie distillery is a fairly small one (or so it seemed to me) and the tour short but informative. We also saw peat for the first time - dried out completely, and looking like large balls of cowdung. (Wonder what peat looks like when it is freshly dug out from the ground.) And one of these days I'd like to see a proper Irish peat bog!

Anyway... the distillery is the highest in Scotland. It has only 6 or 7 employees, (much reduced from the years gone by) but from what I gathered, they're the fourth generation of workers at the distillery. It is also a meteorological station, with data recorded daily by the manager, no matter what the weather. And not the least, Dalwhinnie (pronounced "Dullweeny", by the way - heheh, that's a phonetic spelling!) means "meeting place". There are some photos of the distillery
here. Photography isnt allowed within the distillery in any case.

We had a "free" taster of the single malt whisky at the end of the tour. Pete hates whisky, so I had his as well - even though I dont like whisky really. Free or not, why waste it, right?

After the distillery tour, the next stop was the little village shop in Laggan (pronounced "Laagun") to pick up supplies for the night's dinner, which Sudha and I were cooking as a gesture of thanks to Jo and Ian, saving them the trouble of catering for us after a long, busy day at the shop. It looked like being an interesting time, as the kitchen had only a
2-oven Aga range cooker, not a gas-hob. Aficionados of Aga range cookers will probably gasp in horror that I mentioned "only" and "2-oven Aga range cooker" in the same breath. But since Sudha and I were not used to such luxuries as an Aga, we were slightly doubtful about cooking on it. It's basically two large hot plates - one for high heat, the other for simmering - and two ovens, for quick cooking and for slow-cooking (or warming). The advantage is that the Aga is always on, the disadvantage is that you cant turn down the heat instantly like with a gas-hob.

Our menu was going to be
onion bhajis as a starter, with lemon rice, alu-chole, phulkas and marinated pan-fried salmon (Sudha's solo input, as I've never cooked fish) for the main. Basically we were left to it, as Pete was in the shop upgrading their software and Ian and Jo were away doing other things. As it turned out, we did a pretty decent job considering that we had never used an Aga before. We did start quite early for fear of being caught short - or duffing up and then not having enough time to rectify any disasters! It didnt matter that we finished cooking well before dinner time, as the Aga could keep food warm indefinitely without drying it out too much. Jo and Ian were very pleased not to have to do the cooking, and we were pleased that we didnt embarrass ourselves with a culinary disaster!

Saturday's outing was to Aviemore, the ski resort in the Cairngorms. Obviously there wasnt any snow there, but the
Cairngorm Mountain Railway funicular was still taking people to the top. It was a beautiful day for it, sunny and clear. No matter how good the weather is down below, though, there's no saying what it will be like at the top. When we got there, the clouds had descended and there was nothing to be seen of the view. Plus, it was extremely windy and very cold. However, by the time we had a hot chocolate at the Ptarmigan Restaurant, the clouds had disappeared and the glorious view of the mountain tops and the valley below was all ours to marvel at.

Marvelling turned out to be a very cold affair after a while, making our exposed ears ache and noses run, so we went back inside to look at the exhibition of local flora and fauna, and from there into the shop. Oddly, there were beaded purses and bags as well as leather craftwork on sale, made by artisans in Kolkata, India... at wildly inflated prices, but of course. As if that wasnt strange enough, Sudha actually met two of her professors from Oxford in the shop - talk about serendipity. On that day, at that time, in a little shop on top of one of the tallest mountains in Scotland! What are the odds? (Actually, on reflection, pretty good!)

From Aviemore, we went off towards Inverness. Dozens of bikers had congregated there for the "Thunder in the Glens" event. Huge, gleaming Harley Davidsons and Yamahas and other bikes roared past us time after time - they were impressive, allright. So were the bikers themselves. I cant help thinking that if you want to be a biker, you've to be BIG and balding, and if you can manage scary looking, that's a bonus. And we're talking about the women bikers here. (Only kidding! Heh)

Pete needed to buy a component for his computer, so the next stop was a shopping centre. Sudha and I wandered around Borders while we waited for him, me all the while resisting the temptation to max out my credit card on all sorts of yummy-sounding books. I have to say I resisted successfully, but Pete bought a computer book of some sort! And because there was a Starbucks in Borders, of course he had to stop for his favourite mocha frappuccino with hazelnut syrup. (I had a somewhat mouth-puckering peach-pomegranate slushie, if anybody wants to know. Sudha didnt have anything.)

Then, although it was getting towards 6pm, Pete drove up to Loch Ness. We didnt go the whole way around the lake (it's 22 miles long) as we were running out of time and had to get back to Glentruim. I'd warned Sudha right at the start of the trip of the dire consequences of cribbing about her thesis - basically, that I would throw her to Nessie - so she was probably on her best behaviour. I'm happy to say that at no time was there an opportunity to carry out my threat. Glad tidings all round!

The reason we had to get back to Glentruim was that we were meant to be going out for dinner. Unfortunately, we had neglected to book ahead and all the restaurants/pubs for miles around were jam-packed - something we discovered only at 9pm, when most restaurants and pubs stop taking food orders in any case. In the end, Jo cooked us a wonderful dinner with what seemed like the least effort (on my part, anyway - Sudha is always ready with a helping hand and lived up to her reputation!).

Sunday we went to a pretty little village - or town? - called
Grantown on Spey as Ian had informed us that the Highland Games were taking place there. We got to Grantown at 1 pm - perfect timing as the pipe band was just about to make its way to Heathfield Park where the games were being held. We simply followed the band there. I just love the bagpipes - some people dont like the sound, likening it to squealing cats... but I think they sound fantastic, especially in a band with the drums and other instruments providing the background.

The atmosphere at the park was that of a fairground - and indeed there were the ubiquitous fairground rides and games with the usual garishly coloured and scantily clad women painted on the sides. I've always wondered whom they were meant to attract - men, to go on the rides? Really? Do orange faces and green hair really do it for them? I dont see women - even those "that way" inclined - being attracted to these pathetic and sometimes scary paintings!

In any case, we ignored the rides (I've been on similar ones before, anyway) in favour of gawking at the people around us. Most of the men wore kilts. There's something really impressive about large Scottish men clad formally in kilts - any predisposition towards giggling at "men in skirts" is neatly cut off at the pass. They look fierce and really impressive. (Yes, that was worth repeating.)

We mainly watched the shot-putters - you had to give it to them, they were mostly men of the extra-large economy-size variety. You simply didnt want to laugh at them because one thump from their extra-large economy-sized fist could sink you knee-deep into the ground! One of them, a good-looking red-haired giant (whose name, I found out eventually, was Bruce Robb), 6'5" tall if he was an inch, was just majestic. Despite his size, he was strangely graceful as he "twirled" with the shotput held just by his ear, before letting it fly. And BOY, did it fly! He was easily the best shotputter in the bunch, his throws being feet ahead of his closest rival.

The Highland Games were not of the local variety. The world record holder for the hammer throw (cant remember his name because I never knew it in the first place!) was in the competition - and true to his reputation, he was by far the best. Mr Robb, surprisingly, was not as good at the hammer throw as he was with the shotput. Not that it stopped me watching him... the man was poetry in motion. AND wearing a red kilt. Sudha and I both agreed that the Games would have been made far more interesting had the men stayed true to tradition and not worn anything beneath their kilts! (They mostly wore baggy shorts - bah.)

When I could drag myself away from the shotputters, the other event which drew my attention was the Highland dancing. It was quite strange to my eyes - graceful and yet sort of awkward at the same time. The kilts the dancers wore were lovely, as were the dancers themselves. Of course, since I know nothing of the background or history of these dances, or what they represent, the dances seemed almost monotonous after a bit because the steps didnt seem to vary all that much. But I suppose Bharatanatyam would be as strange to Scottish eyes, unless the moves/intentions are explained...

What we really wanted to see was the caber tossing, but it was not scheduled till late in the evening, and we couldnt spare that much time as we had a meal booked at a restaurant in Newtonmore (yes, we learned from the previous day's mistake and reserved our places!). Plus, it was getting really cold with the nippy north wind - summer, huh! - and we werent warmly enough clad. Comfort beats curiosity any day. So we went home and from there to dinner.

Newsflash: Sudha tried haggis. And liked it! Unless you know beforehand what a
haggis is, and how it is cooked, I guess it's not a problem. It's also not a problem if you're a fairly adventurous omnivore, which Sudha is. I had the vegetarian version of it, and that was pretty good. Lentils, barley, oatmeal and spices. Kind of like a chewy upma, to put it in Indian terms. It was served with a mountain of mashed-potato-and-turnip (tatties and neeps, as they're known in Scotland). Yum.

While on the topic of haggis, I'm also disappointed not have seen the "haggis hurling" at the games. The haggis seems to be a versatile thing - you can eat it, hunt it, play with it, grow it... the possibilities are endless, apparently! I found it really cute that a lot of restaurants advertise their haggis as "homegrown" or "home reared" - as if it's a living thing... just tickles me funny bone for some reason!

Early Monday morning Pete went off to the shop because he had to tinker with his software. That left me and Sudha free to do as we liked. There are some lovely woods behind Jo and Ian's house, leading down to the river. Ian was kind enough to take us for a walk down to the river, along with the dogs. Poppy was especially thrilled with this trip because there's nothing she loves better than leaping into the river to retrieve a stick. The downside to that was that she insisted on shaking off the excess water from her fur while standing lovingly close to you. Luckily Ian bore the brunt of this ersatz shower - just as well, because the water was c-c-cold!

Later he drove Sudha and me to a little village called Kingussie (pronounced "kinyoussie". Well, kin you? *heehee*) where there was a small exhibition of paintings, sculpture, embroidery, weaving and photographs, all done by a local lady (now no more, I suspect, although I'm not sure). Some of her work was remarkable, although both Sudha and I were uncharitable enough to think that she could have done a lot more and a lot better - considering the number of art courses she had done in her lifetime!

Or maybe it's just sour grapes on my part and a balanced evaluation on Sudha's. :)

We left the Highlands at about 2pm, which put paid to my plan of spending a few hours in Edinburgh on the way back. The drive back home wasnt without incident. As Pete pulled into a service station to get a coffee, we heard a loud bang from the back. It was a burst tyre. We couldnt find anything sharp enough and heavy enough that could have made a Range Rover tyre go pop... so perhaps it was a spontaneous affair. Or maybe we just missed whatever it was. Just as well that we were on the slip road off the motorway when it happened, rather than on the motorway itself.

We stood around while Pete changed the tyre - it's massively heavy and Sudha and I together could barely move it. It seemed best to observe as we certainly couldnt help Pete. The changing of the tyre delayed us by an hour or thereabouts and we were soon back on the road. I took over driving for a short while, to let Pete relax a little. I'm not sure how much he relaxed with me driving on the motorway, but all hail to him for not flinching at any time! Despite everything we were back in Shrewsbury by 10.30pm, finally ending the last bank holiday long weekend for 2007!

And this - finally - is the end of the last bank holiday weekend travelogue too.