Been away for a few days, but we are now back in Fort William. The six of us have completed the boat trip up and back down the Caledonian Canal. The Nielsens left us in Inverness and headed off to Ireland and the Watts are on their way back to Australia. The internet along the canal was not conducive to blogging so Allthego now has a few updates to complete and will try to get back to real time over the next few days. More on the canal experience in the next post.
We arrived in Fort William from Glasgow by train along what is known as the West Highland Line. This is a rather spectacular train journey through the Scottish landscape. Leaving Glasgow we travelled along beside the Clyde River, before rising into the Highlands. Up here we ran high above the shores of lochs far below, through what is almost rain forest. Past a nuclear submarine base and later the storage caves of their trident missiles. Later we crossed Ranoch Moor, in some places the train line runs on rails ‘floating’ on foundations made from wood and ash. It’s pretty damp and boggy on the moors! We go along at a fair pace and it is hard to capture images of the scenery through the windows and ‘Scottish mist’, code for rain and fog.
Along the way we all indulged in some light snacks and enjoyed impromptu entertainment. Tony Watt it transpires is somewhat skilled at splitting apples. But not ones that are a bit on the floury side. He needs crisp ones. Anyway he managed to lay a finger across an apple and then smash down with his other hand upon said finger. Made a bang! Instead of splitting in two the apple shattered. Homealone across the aisle took a sharp catch of a piece, a lady in a seat behind had a piece whistle past her and the rest just sought of flopped on the table. Fairly humorous at the time!
Eventually we arrived in Fort William. It was dry and we set off for our accommodation pushing and pulling our bags down the short stroll to Ashburn House, overlooking Loch Linnhe. It was a lengthy ‘short’ stroll and we eventually collapsed into the B & B. Great B & B with an excellent breakfast set up overlooking the Loch. We had a very comfortable three nights here. Bit wet and damp though which was disappointing. The previous summer in Scotland had been unusually dry and April this year had followed the same pattern. But May, well May seems to be doing the catching up.
We spent our first day in Fort William having a look around town, and then walking along the first stretch of the Caledonian Canal from the sea locks on Loch Linnhe up to Neptune’s Staircase. Rather cold, windy and damp at times. Enjoyed hot chocolates at the café beside the canal.
The highlight in Fort William was the 84 mile round trip steam train journey on The Jacobite to Mallaig and back. It was misty, wet and cold but the journey was memorable. Particularly, the crossing of the 1898 Glenfinnan viaduct. 21 Arches overlooking Loch Shiel and made ‘famous’ in the Harry Potter movies. After an early pub dinner in Mallaig, the train stops there for an hour and half before returning to Fort William, we arrived back at Ashburn House to prepare for our taxi ride the next day to Laggan and the start of the cruise on the Caledonian Canal.
“Doth wanda far upon the moor and findeth one’s self lost in the woods. Yea merrily one yet dances in the woods and refindth one’s self lost on the moor. How confusing one can be Homealone, aye Allthego a paradox it be.”
“Homealone” Act IV Sc 111.
Yes, we are off to Stratford for some Shakespeare, ‘Taming of the Shrew’. The twist on this interpretation of the play is that the gender roles are being reversed. The play traditionally has a male taming a female shrew, but this time it is the other way around. All the parts in the play are acted in reverse gender.
We trained it from London to Stratford, first on the tube to Marylbone Station and then a regional train to Stratford. A pleasant journey first through the outskirts of London and then the rolling countryside to Stratford. Took a bit over an hour. A short walk to our accommodation in the Mecure Shakespeare Hotel. Parts of this hotel date back to 1637, we seem to have one of these rooms! The floor slopes, nothing is particularly even, doorway a bit low, window and door frames a bit twisted etc. Great atmosphere though and everything works ok. The Watts similarly placed next door to us.
It was to be a busy night as we were off to the play the night of our arrival. We had some good seats in the stalls not far back from the stage. It is what is called a thrust stage, it juts out into the audience who are seated around it and also in boxes set up into the walls. Just under a thousand in the theatre and no one is more than about 20 metres from the action. Very entertaining night, wonderful costumes. You could see all the facial interplays between the actors and also catch the impromptu lines. One of the actors tapped some piano keys and offered “Someone should compose that”; got a bit of a titter from the audience. Anyway, Allthego didn’t learn any new tricks on how to tame a shrew. He doesn’t need any tricks anyway because he doesn’t know any shrews! Can’t speak for Homealone!
Next day we had a wander around Stratford and enjoyed an English Sunday pub roast lunch at a local establishment, we had missed breakfast which was to be a help. Roast beef and pork with Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, peas etc. Big meal.
It was then back on the trains to Glasgow. This was a staging point for us before moving further north to Fort William and our boat trip on the Caledonian Canal. We would also meet up here with the Nielsens, increasing the travelling party to six. It took most of the day to reach Glasgow Central Railway Station. Just had to more or less walk to the end of the platform to get to our hotel. Great location! We had experienced some random seating issues on the train and had to swap seats a couple of times to accommodate people along the way who had reserved seats. Whilst we are reserved people we had unreserved seating, wont make that mistake again. Book well in advance! And there is never enough room on these trains for people from the colonies with a modest amount of luggage. But at the end of the day it was all ok and you just had to work around the issue.
The next morning was rather wet. Fortunately, as the day wore on the skies cleared somewhat and we got some blue sky and sun for our wander around the old city sights. Neat dinner that night at the Riverside Casino over looking the Clyde River.
It will now be off again in the morning on the train to Fort William, we have reserved seats. The train journey takes us along the iconic West Highland Railway through some scenic landscapes and along the shores of Loch Lomond. Still have not seen an Archie mug! Whilst on the boat the internet may be unreliable and your humble correspondent may well be off the air for a few days.
The Chelsea Flower Shower is an iconic London event. In planning the trip to London we had timed it so that we could include the show in our schedule. To ensure tickets they had been booked before last Christmas. The Watts had arrived from Australia as planned and we set off together for the great event, having moved lodgings to Belgravia Hotel a couple of kilometres away from Nell Gwynn House.
On the way we stopped for breakfast at Partridges, grocers to the Queen (she probably has a few grocers). It had also been decided to get some fresh bread, cheese and ham to take along for lunch. It was an impressive grocer, more like a big deli with plenty of fresh meats, cheeses, breads, biscuits etc. Various Royal souvenirs, BUT NO ARCHIE MUGS! Nice breakfast and location along the street that led to the show. Many of the shops decked out with floral exhibits in doorways and windows. One of the terrace houses along the way had a shark in its front ‘yard’. Thinking back this was probably a warning to passers-by of the ‘sharks’ at the flower show. Food and beverage prices were elevated to say the least, of which we had forewarning.
Despite opening the gates at 8am there were still streams of people queuing when we arrived around 10am, thinned out a little as we moved past the first displays. It is hard to describe the seemingly never ending and impressive mini gardens, flower arrangements and marketing stands of all the hangers on in the gardening industry. Dwarfs the annual Floriade in Canberra.
The only exhibit having a queue was that of Princess Catherine (Kate as she goes by), it was called ‘Back to Nature’. It was a 40 minute wait in the queue we were told. Too long. We went back a couple of hours later and it was longer. The installation had been well publicised in the papers and TV. Promoting kids getting back outside into the fields, tree houses etc. Prince Phillip wasn’t around but one could imagine him getting in the act, being ‘confused’ and making an aside or two about the name ‘Back to Nature”!
The Show is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. As I have since discovered it is not a ‘hospital’ in today’s sense of the word. Rather it is a retirement and nursing home for veterans of the British Army and is run as an independent charity. It was founded in 1682 and parts of the buildings date to 1609. Residents are called ‘pensioners’. 2019 is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy and on the day of our visit a special ceremony was held to mark the occasion and open a commemorative installation at the Show. There were a number of D-Day veterans on hand, well into their 90s and some quite fit and talkative about those days. It is planned to move the installation to the Normandy beaches in France later in the year.
Over our lunch of ham and cheese we enjoyed a glass of gin spritzer. We each had a different flavour; rhubarb, strawberry, elderberry and honey. Also met the owner who championed the merits of his gins over all others. His were made from real fruits and his own honey, not essences like the other competitors! And later in the day a refreshing glass of the Shows traditional Pimms and lemonade as we rested our feet before heading off back to the hotel.
An eye opening day to the world of flowers and design.
We now head to Stratford-Upon-Avon for some Shakespeare.
All Grand Tours need objectives, even if it is just to maintain the pace! Homealone has an objective. It is to obtain an Archie Mug to match the one she has commemorating the birth of Princess Charlotte.
So after scouring the souvenir shops along Portobello Rd and other locations nearby without luck we headed off to Windsor Castle to see if he is there visiting the great grandmother. Maybe we will find a mug there? It is not that we haven’t seen a mug with him on it. But it was very thick and the photo adorning it seemed to have been pinched off the internet and then mass produced on China china mugs. Not very satisfactory and certainly not a match for the authentic Charlotte Mug. We will keep looking.
On the way to the station we passed by the Oyster Bar where we had the not so great expensive fish n chips on our first night. The eatery is housed in the 1911 London headquarters of the Michelin Tyre Co. Ltd. It was restored to its former glory in 2011 for its centenary year. What a great old building. Stained glass windows of Bibendum, the Michelin Man, and ceramic wall tiles of early racing cars that were shod with Michelin tyres. We had the dinner in the former workshop bay at the front of the building.
It was clear and sunny at Windsor as we strolled around the Thames River bank and took a short cruise up the river and back. Lots of people around, particularly near the castle and the surrounding streets and cafes, tourist shops etc. The Queen wasn’t in so Archie probably wasn’t. No mugs either, we will keep looking. It was suggested by a shop keeper that we might be a wee bit early and there hadn’t yet been enough time for the production run to get going. Come back later.
The barman in the pub where we stopped for a refreshment didn’t know who Archie was. What hope do we have! Allthego took some inspiration here from a big photo of Winston Churchill and also pondered on some of his words of wisdom:
“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse pulling a sturdy wagon”.
Not much has changed in the years since.
After dinner, at ‘The Boatman’ beside the Thames as the sun went down, we headed back to London. The search for an Archie mug would continue in the morning.
Had a slow start to the next day and decided to do a short trip into the city to see St Pauls Cathedral and the Old Bailey Courthouses. Have missed these in the past. The 17.50 pounds each to get into the Cathedral was, we thought, a bit on the steep side. You could get in for free if you went to a service. Impressive building and a great view looking up from the river. Homealone couldn’t resist some liquorish assortments and chocolate coated raisins from Hardy’s old time lolly shop.
Still couldn’t locate an Archie mug. We will now wait a while before resuming the search. The Watts arrive from Australia tomorrow to join us for the next stage of the Grand Tour.
Off today to look around Nottinghill and the Portobello Rd markets. Allthego had stumbled over a self guided walk around Nottinghill on the internet and had mapped out the details. After a short tube ride we set off at a brisk pace down Portobello Rd on a partly sunny day. Now Nottinghill over the last twenty years or so has become trendy, like it was back in the mid late 1800s. In between it had become run down, it is no longer cheap and nasty.
Renovation work is ongoing, plenty of cranes and scaffolding around the streets with repairs and paint jobs on the terraces. Lots of young mums pushing prams around in between cups of tea and scones in the street cafes. It is fairly multicultural too, the market area abounds with all nationalities manning stalls along the road.
We looked out for the bookshop made famous because of the Hugh Grant Julia Roberts movie ‘Nottinghill’. There is one in Portobello Rd that subtly promotes itself as the bookshop, but it isn’t, just an imposter selling cheap Chinese souvenirs and bric a brac. People stand around here taking selfies and posing for fellow travellers. The actual bookshop is further along off in a side street. Still a bookshop, but not just travel books! The shop façade and interiors are as per the movie and there is a plaque outside authenticating its place in history. Homealone couldn’t resist transacting and acquired a Peter Pan book. Allthego asked the shop attendant whether Hugh was in a cupboard or just out the back. She was non committal, but did smile. Earlier, Homealone had encountered Paddington Bear beside the road.
The streets are certainly colourful and the Mews are now smaller residences in behind the street fronts and larger terraces. One of these is claimed to be the most photographed mews because of its colourful and varied appearance. It was also in the movie, which also helps.
Some more meandering found us at the tube station, so we hopped on and soon found ourselves back at Nell Gwynns to enjoy a home cooked omelette for dinner.
“….when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford” Dr Samuel Johnson 1709-1784.
The next stage of the Grand Tour finds us in London, having left the Viking Star and flown from Athens to Heathrow. The whole process took us a day and we arrived at our lodgings in Chelsea at about 8pm. A bit tired, but we managed to charge across the road and pick up a few supplies from the local Sainsburys. We are staying at Nell Gwynn House for six nights ahead of the Chelsea Flower Show. It is an apartment type block with self catering facilities, so we are eating in for breaky and also some evening meals. It is not far from a tube station so it is easy to get around the city.
Nell Gwynn House is named after one of Charles II mistresses, it seems he had at least 5. An energetic fellow with some skills. Her biography indicates she was one of the first English comic actresses and also a prostitute, she died in 1687 at the age of 37. The building we are in was built in 1937 and has 437 flats. It is quite a pleasant place to stay. Above the portico entrance is a statue of Nell and it is the only statue of a royal mistress in London. Maybe there are some elsewhere!
Following a day of R & R and watching some of the Australian election outcome we headed out to Kew Botanical Gardens. We had decided that this time in London we were going to see some of the attractions and locations away from the city centre. It was an overcast day with some light drizzle from time to time, rather English. The Gardens had a special exhibition with the glass blown works of Chihuly, a Canadian, scattered around the landscape. We have seen this fellow’s work before in Seattle. It is pretty spectacular.
Being towards the end of spring, some of the flowering displays were a little past their best But the summer flowers were now appearing. It was all very green, with some great big old trees in a grassy park like layout over many acres. As well as the expansive 19th century glass houses with international and regional plant displays.
After leaving the Gardens we went on down to the Thames at Richmond, thwarted some what by the high tide and consequential flooding of the riverside streets. So instead we had a drink in the Fuller Smith precinct and watched some of a local cricket match on the medieval Richmond Green before heading back to Chelsea for dinner.
A feed of fish n chips at a local oyster bar, not the cheapest fish n chips and certainly not the best.
But, we were hungry and ready for rest!
Piraeus is the port that services Athens. It is a pretty big port, one of the largest in Europe and serves as a distribution point for inwards trade into central Europe. Because of this it has some strategic importance. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis a few years back the EU put the screws on Greece and made them sell a few things to raise some Euros. They didn’t sell Santorini or Mykonos, they sold 51% of the Port of Piraeus to Chinese interests. Us Aussies were a bit more subtle and only leased the Port of Darwin to the same chaps for 99 years. Enough of this though. The Viking Star is in Piraeus for an overnight port stop before we are to disembark the following day.
Many onboard are off into central Athens for tours around the main sites of the city. Some years ago we were in Athens for a few days and had seen the famous landmarks of the Parthenon, the museums etc and this time decided to head off to the south and the Pelopennese. This involves crossing the Corinth Canal and travelling down the eastern coastline. Olympia which we had visited a few days before is on then western side of this knob on the bottom of Greece.
Like on the road to Olympia we passed by acres and acres of olive trees and grapes. Our objective was the ruins of Mycenae. Now this place has a special role in the legends (or are they true, embellished facts perhaps) of Greece. It is the home town of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae when the Trojan wars were thought to have occurred in the late 12th century BC or thereabouts. If you would like a retelling of this Homer tale from the Iliad the best place to go is to that movie from a few years back with Brad Pitt as Achilles, Peter O’Toole as Priam and Eric Bana as Hector. The book is a bit hard going! It was an interesting place, not a lot remains of the old city but there are certainly some great views from its walls over the surrounding landscape. The arch above the Lion Gate into the palace is adorned with a relief of two lions. It is thought to be the oldest monumental relief in Europe dating back to around 1240 BC. The ramp behind the gate is the actual surface from around the same time period. Walking on stones that have been there for 3500 years!
After some time in the ruins and also at the nearby beehive shaped Tomb of Agamemnon we headed back to the ship and our final night aboard.
As with all Allthego’s blogs we are a few days behind the live action. We are now in London and have been holed up in our self catering accommodation at Nell Gwynn House in Chelsea. Modest comfortable digs but the circuit breaker trips if the toaster and kettle are on at the same time. A bit of care is required dear readers!
Now in London and having finished the first leg of the Grand Tour, Allthego is reminded of the words of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth who said some time in the late 1800s; “The destinations are only desirable because of the journey between them….”.
A bit of culture to conclude with!
Our journey on the Viking Star is drawing to a close. The last stop before Athens and docking in Piraeus is the island of Santorini, It is a member of the Cyclades group of islands, in the southern Aegean Sea roughly midway between Greece and Turkey. The Crete and the Mediterranean Sea lie to the south.
Santorini is famous for its white buildings, and blue domed churches and streetscapes. All the postcards have that great shot of the buildings perched on the cliff lines with a vibrant blue sky. Today though it was to be a vibrant grey skyline! With just the odd patch of blue. In some ways though the grey gives a different perspective to the scene. The light is not as harsh and the scenes are more subdued, other colours are seen amongst the white and blue.
Our guide tells there is to be 4 ships in port today, something of the order of 10,000 people as one of them is a big Norwegian Cruise Line ship that has around 3500 passengers aboard. The Viking star has 930. At the height of the season there can be up to 8 ships in port. 18,000 people live on the island and there are many other tourists that come by means other than cruise liners. So there are a few people wandering around the narrow streets.
Our ship anchors out in the bay which is actually the inundated caldera of the ancient volcano that exploded around 1500 BC. It is considered that the eruption is possibly the largest eruption in recorded history and a resultant gigantic tsunami destroyed the Minoan civilisation on Crete. The eruption may also have been the source of the legend of Atlantis, or so the historian on board considered. We go ashore in a tender boat and bus it 1000ft or so feet up the cliff line to the top. You can also catch a cable car, walk it or ride a donkey. The donkeys go the same way as the walk so it can get a bit sticky underfoot along the way. The guide also tells us that if you ride the donkey you will end up smelling like a donkey.
It is the sort of place that would be nice to have 3 or 4 days on so that you could get around and see all the sights, not just having a quick Greek lunch and battling the other tourists for a photo or two of the buildings clinging to the edge. After lunch one of the boats left and there was a noticeable thinning of the masses. Notwithstanding the shortness of our stay it was a great stop and a place we have been privileged to experience, including the cable car ride back down to the port.
It is now off overnight to Piraeus, Athens’ port, for our final day of the cruise.
The reason for stopping at Katakolon is really only to make the trip to Olympia, the birth place of the modern day Olympic Games. We are in the area known as the Peloponnese, the knob at the bottom of Greece. It is separated from the rest of Greece by the late 19th century man made Corinth Canal. The region is heavily focussed on agriculture. There are just acres and acres of olive groves, vineyards and orchards, mostly oranges and apricots. Also watermelons and strawberries on the ground. It is a very pretty drive to Olympia.
The first ‘games’ began in 776 BC, although it seems there were more simpler versions occurring here going back to the 1100s BC. The games were essentially a religious event, competing to please the gods in the first instance. There was only a winner no seconds or thirds. Various running events, spear and discus throwing, wrestling and related sorts of pastimes took place. Horse and chariot races took place in the Hippodrome. Women did not participate and competitors were naked. Winners made sacrifices to the gods, there are enormous temples to Zeus and his wife Hera. Much of the building activity took place around the mid 400s BC. It is outside the entrance to Hera’s temple that the altar is located where the torch is lit at the start of the torch relay for the modern Olympics.
The Games were stopped by the Christian Roman emperors at the end of the 4th century AD, and Olympia ceased functioning as a pagan religious sanctuary. The area today is really a mix of ruins, with some restorations to highlight the great scale of the place. Olympia was devastated by earthquakes around 520 AD which together with the effects of continual river flooding buried and swept away sections of the monuments and artifacts.
Sporadically through the 1800s the site was explored by French and German archaeologists, with most work happening between 1875 and WW11. What we found fascinating was the great detail that is known about the site. Where the buildings are located. Their intricate design, contents and purpose. The source of all this is the ancient written historical Greek records of the times.
We arrived in Corfu to a cloudy day with a few flashes of sunshine, but an ever present threat of rain a little later in the day.
The day before we were in Kotor, the port for the small country of Montenegro. It only has 600,000 people in a very mountainous landscape. Kotor is at the end of a flooded old river valley nestled at the bottom of some precipitous mountains and surrounded by an old city wall. The wall is partly in ruin, particularly the sections that run high up along the ridge lines behind the town. There is a steady stream of people walking along the functional sections. We didn’t have the time in port to do the walls here. Instead, we were in a bus going up to the top of the highest peak overlooking the town. An amazing journey up a narrow road with numerous hair pin bends, in many places virtually one way. In one section oncoming cars had to back up so that we could pass. Homealone enjoyed the experience immensely! Great views looking down to the ship below, almost antlike. Near the top we stopped for a mid morning snack. We are beginning to easily pick what these snacks are going to be ….. prosciutto, sheep/goats cheese and bread washed down with local wine. We were not disappointed.
The other highlight here was visiting the royal palace of King Nikola 1. He was Montenegro’s one and only King and lost the crown after WW1, when Montenegro was absorbed into Serbia. He was fairly astute and succeeded in marrying off a number of his 9 or so daughters (he had 3 sons as well) to various sons of European royalty. The most important being the last king of Italy. The rather modest looking palace was full of Nikola memorabilia, family portraits, uniforms, guns and swords. There was a painting of him in almost every room, the guide said this was to indicate who was the boss.
We descended back to Kotor by a different route in time for a short walk around the old town before having to board the Viking Star for the cruise back down the fiord like channel to the open sea and then onwards to Corfu. Corfu is a Greek island lying at the ‘cross roads’ between the Adriatic sea to the north and the Ionian sea to the south. Kotor was our last stop along the Adriatic coastline.
Corfu has a very colourful background and was and still is for that matter a bit of a hot spot for the well to do from Europe. The Romans were here, the Venetians came and went, Ottomans, Napoleon and then the British before the Greeks ‘reclaimed’ the place. Prince Phillip was born here in the 1920s. We had a pleasant wander around the Old Town with a stop off to have tea, coffee and some very moist and nutty baklava at a local café. Corfu though is looking a little tired, lots of ‘tourist’ shops flogging masses of ‘local produce and artifacts’, as well as cafes and fast food windows with arrays of Greek pastries to munch on.
The Greeks call Corfu ‘Kerkyra’. But, it has a very English tradition. It is the only place in Greece were cricket is played. As one of a our fellow travellers said “Ah, that shows they are civilised”! The one and only field lies in the parkland between the Old Town and the waterfront. The pitch is concrete with a rather well worn mat surface. At either end are fearful torn patches on a good length! The outfield needs some serious attention. Nevertheless, an annual tournament takes place, with international players including Australians taking part.
We headed back to the ship for a rather late lunch as some scattered showers hit town. After lunch there was a performance for us by some local Greek folk dancers. They put on a good show, particularly the ‘guitarist’. He really gave the strings a work out. Before dinner there was a ‘chocolate night’. A vast array of nibbles are first put on display and then its open slather, there was a bit of a crush to get at the feast. Yours truly and Homealone just took pictures of our American fellow passengers getting into it!
Next stop is to be Katakolon. There are a lot of stops on this cruise starting with a ‘K’. Katakolon is the gateway to the legendary city of Olympia, the classical birthplace of the Olympic Games.