Sunday, March 19, 2017

I Didn't Die

Except for the first few hours of my trip here it was rainy in Edinburgh. Not the drenching skin-soaking rain of a summer downpour but the damp drizzle I grew up with: enough that you need an umbrella but not enough that you need to wring your clothes out if you forget it.

Enough to make the walk up Arthur's Seat muddy, scary and treacherous especially with crepe-soled shoes.

I mean they sort of warned me.

After climbing Scott Monument on my first morning here I spent a couple of hours at the National Galleries at which the Impressionist room was a lovely surprise.

Before my trip I spent some time researching places to eat because I know how it is if you don't: you just end up at some disappointingly mediocre tourist trap because you're hungry right now and don't have the wherewithal to make a better decision.

By and large I ate rather well.

After a very Scottish Eggs Benedict (black pudding instead of Canadian bacon) I visited Edinburgh Castle.

This might have been the first Close in the city which is full of Wynds (staircases connecting streets at different levels on the hillside but sometimes just a short length of road - often a dogleg connecting two parallel road. But not always. I'm not sure what exactly makes a wynd)

and Closes (usually covered walking passages between streets).

We have this idea - or at least I do - that a castle is just a building like a very large house but so often it's more like a walled compound especially when its at the top of a hill as this one is.

There are buildings and passageways

and a prison which turned out to be the most interesting part for me not least because of the fire alarm that caused us to be chased out.

After the castle I stopped at Tartan Weaving Mill which is at the start of the Royal Mile where I had fascinating conversations with the three kilt makers (after an apprenticeship it takes about ten years to work up to two kilts a day and they're seeing fewer and fewer apprentices) and a weaver who had fascinating information about the looms used by the mill, some of which may be well over a hundred years old.

He explained how the tartan patterns are programmed, how the rapier looms work without shuttles and have a stitcher which keeps the cloth under tension by stitching it to a selvage as it's being woven and then cutting it off as the warp advances. He showed me the machines that wind the warps, let me feel the selvage from looms that do not use continuous weft threads so that each end is woven back into the selvage creating a double weight edge. He seemed happy to answer any questions I had and talk about the history of the mill, different types of tartans, the rugs (more like blankets) that they weave at a looser sett using more softly spun yarn that they can brush to create a fuzzy surface - it was all so very intrtesting. The most modern looms they have date back to the nineteen seventies or earlier.

On the way to Holyrood Castle I stopped at St Giles Cathedral with its pretty vaulted ceilings.

Sadly I was too late and the castle was already closed so I started walking back in the twilight drizzle.

And then I found myself in the Calton New Cemetary where I saw headstones for people born in the seventeen hundreds.

The next morning I found the coolest coffee shop specializing in cold brew (but that's not what I had) and made my way to Holyrood Castle.

This is a working castle used by the royal family. There's an annual garden party and a massive hall where important people get to hobnob.

So the thing that struck me about the castle wasn't so much it's history or its massive walls in the oldest section or the wood paneling or priceless antiques; it was how worn and shabby all the textiles were. The red silk damask curtains in the bed chamber were badly streaked and faded. The needle-pointed chairs in the sitting room were threadbare - there were great holes on the sides of the seat cushions. The carpets were worn and faded.

I'd say nothing if this were a museum but as we were repeatedly told it's a working castle. The royal family sometimes stays there. Sits in those holey chairs, walks on those worn carpets. These people with wealth through the ages are surrounded by shabbiness among the grandeur here. It's weird to me.

What I really loved was the ruined Holyrood Abbey.

It's ruins. They speak to me.

And then since it's right there, I had to climb Arthur's Seat even though it was still damp from the morning rains.

I was warned after all but I didn't take my grippy-when-dry but lu Ed-when-wet crepe-soled shoes.

The lower path was paved but roughish so the walking was fine. As the incline got steeper so the path got muddier and slicker.

I was very careful.

The final (or so I thought) ascent was via a rough stone staircase, rough and uneven enough that I was reasonably confident that careful and measured placement of my feet would avoid death by mountain and I was doing pretty well until the steps were displaced by a very steep very muddy path perhaps twenty feet from the summit.

At that point life won over ascent and I turned around only to find the descent almost more unnerving.

But I didn't fall off the mountain and die which I celebrated later that evening by gorging on seafood.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

And Now It's Raining

I've been on the move for less than twenty-four hours and every couple of hours it's something new and I didn't even post about the genius way I fixed my yarn on my last trip - wait what?

Two weeks ago I went to Sunnyvale (near San Jose) for work and due to the delays I finished my sweater on the flight there because I had time in the airport to fix improperly plied - by me to my shame. Pride, fall, etc. So many spinners ruin perfectly nice singles by underplying them, and I'd done the same and there I was in the airport without a spinning wheel or spindle but I did have four double-pointed needles.

It was slow and awkward but I added the requisite twist and finished the sweater which was just as well because after Sunnyvale there was San Francisco which was chilly and drizzly.

And now I'm in Edinburgh a few hours late, having caffeinated my underslept self, climbed the Scott Monument (all two hundred and eighty-seven steps), eaten haggis (tasty) and watched as the sky turned from deep blue with pretty clouds to dull grey with sheeting rain.

Luckily I'm in the Scottish National Galleries and can escape the damp with art.

Not complaining. I brought an umbrella with me anyway - I know what to do with weather forecasts.

And I even turned the heel on my sock on the flight here but favoured a couple of hours of sleep over substantial knitting progress. No one's holding a gun to my head after all.

Monday, February 6, 2017


I left for Rome on January 6th with yarn for a new travel knitting project and started knitting in the airport waiting for the first leg of my flight.

I stayed with my brother and his family in Rome and while we went out some evenings I found myself in my room too early to sleep most nights so while I watched episodes of True Blood I'd saved to my iPad (luckily; the wireless signal didn't reach my room) I made galloping progress on my knitting while on vacation.

I got home and found myself wanting to keep up the pace to the exclusion of all else - I've done virtually no beading since the beginning of January - and so I found other shows on which to binge while I worked on my knitting project.

By the end of January I could see February 6th: a month after the beginning of my project and I fixated on completion, trying to accelerate to get there.

I didn't quite make it.

Two sections of the last sleeve remain, as well as the neckband and one cuff, not to mention all the ends which were too awkward to weave in while knitting.

Still, for someone who has barely been able to knit for the past couple of years, even if I only managed ninety percent of a sweater in a month I'm not displeased.

Apparently with the disintegration of my thumb joint comes a certain amount of deadening of the nerves in the area so I'm assuming my ability to knit without too much pain (except after consecutive days of multiple hours of knitting which I suppose is reasonable) means the nerves are considerably less alive than when I stopped knitting.

I'm ok with that.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

No Complaints Here

The last time I took the train from Rome to Florence I seem to recall it took forever but now there's a high-speed train that takes under an hour and a half.

Unlike that time, the carriage is clean and comfortable and not subdivided into little wooden compartments with two heat settings only: boiling and frigid.

On the train we decided to go to Pisa since we were so close and the family hadn't seen the leaning tower. The town of Pisa turned out to be pretty much a highlight.

I loved the very old little church which was first mentioned in 1061 - who knows how much longer it had been around before that.

We happened upon an exquisite little gothic church on the river and the nearby bridge yielded charming views of the town.

The buildings are all colours!

We had a really good lunch and walked to the tower which I had somehow forgotten was next to a really gorgeous church.

We decided not to climb the tower as it was almost three times as expensive as it had been to climb the dome of St Peters and we didn't really think it would afford three times the value.

Besides, the church was absolutely stunning.

We made it to Florence but had later dinner reservations and my hotel room was boiling so I took a walk before eating.

The Duomo at night was well worth the chill. Alone with my thoughts I could immerse myself in its appreciation: the colour of the marble (white, green and pink), the intricate detailing of the carvings, the mosaics over the entryways - transcendent.

The next day was drizzly which would have been fine (since I had an umbrella) if my shoes hadn't delighted in letting in as much cold water as possible.

The Duomo was very lovely by day too but the inside couldn't even begin to compare to the outside although the octagonal dome was pretty.

Not that we had any (and why not???) but the gelatos were so very deliciously displayed.

We took a walk to the Ponte Vecchio via the Uffizi which we didn't actually visit.

We went to the Mercado Centrale where I had Trippa Fiorentina for lunch. I mean, I think I had to (not that I'm complaining).

All this was just preparation for the main event.


The first time I saw him in 1979 he brought tears to my eyes; the day was bright and the light shining on him through the dome above him seemed to illuminate him from the inside so that he glowed almost as if alive.

I didn't think I'd feel the same way this many decades later.

I did.

The family then insisted on doing one of these room escape things which I didn't refuse to join but kinda sorta wanted to.

Turns out it was decently fun and I'm not as bad as I thought I'd be at deciphering the clues. Without me no one would have solved the three equations that opened the door to the room with the bomb deactivation device.

Supposedly we we did better than most people who found The Bunker "impossible".

We all turned in early when we got back to Rome.

On my last full day my brother and sister-in-law were all Panic Stations about their impending move: after six months in Rome they're returning to Sydney so the boys can finish school but all the housewares and linens they bought in Rome are going to their new apartment in Lisbon (yeah that's another story) so there was packing and organizing to be done, leaving me on my own for the afternoon.

Lunch was at a very lovely restaurant where we were seated in the wine cellar which is much nicer than up on the main floor, and then I made my way to the Coliseum via I dunno, various ruins.

I made it in by fifteen minutes and they didn't start kicking people out until about an hour after closing time so I could amble around at my own pace.

I was very taken with the spots in which the bones of the place are exposed like the huge stones at the top which were covered in bricks.

What can I say? I love ruins.

One of my best vacations ever was three weeks driving around Greece and stopping at every ruin we could find, from the ancient to the merely pretty old.

Sadly I couldn't get into the Forum or Palatine Hill although there were still plenty of ruins to see.

I lay in bed on my last night in Rome, planning the next couple of trips...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

All the Art

I really had not much of an agenda coming to Rome except to spend time with my brother and his family but it's been that and more.

We visited the Ara Pacis at night so you can see the projected overlays on the various bas relief panels.

We walked home via Piazza Navona with its church and fountain.

And stopped for gelato (obviously).

On the way to a day of art, we walked past the cat sanctuary at Sant'Eustachio. Apparently there's an organization which cares for cats and they all seem to end up here in the ruins.

We saw the wonderful Renaissance collection at Villa Borghese although what I really liked were the ceilings and window-frames and other secondary decorations: the faux marble and faux-relief painting mimicking sculptural scrollwork and moulding was so artful, so effective and such a perfect setting for the actual paintings and other artwork.

And for lunch we had The Best Pizza Ever.

Oddly enough they're an international chain and I'd go back in any city. Perfectly pillowy, chewy and slightly crisp crust, just the right amount of toppings (mozzarella, Gorgonzola, dried figs and prosciutto) in just the right proportions. After lunch it was time for the National Gallery of Modern Art at which one of my nephews agreed to join us.

Gorgeous space with a really varied and interesting collection. Turns out I really like all the works by Alberto Burri. There were a few pieces I'd happily hang in my home.

Mostly I just love wandering around Rome - the neighborhood where my brother lives is utterly charming with picturesque alleyways that ate actually streets on which vehicles expect to drive. Small vehicles. Small cars and lots of scooters. Smart cars are everywhere slotted into the tiniest of spaces.

The pedestrians and drivers are equally respectful of and patient with each other. The sidewalks are nonexistent, small or are filled with parked scooters and car bumpers so you walk in the road. The drivers rarely use their horns so you turn and check for cars everyone and again and move over to let them pass when you see them. It's pretty civilized.

I've now been there long enough to recognize some of the neighborhood fixtures like the handyman swaddled with tookbelts and encrusted with piercings, always in shorts no matter how cold.

Yesterday we crossed the bridge on the way to the Vatican Museum, both nephews in tow, complaining vociferously (actually the seventeen year old was fine; it required all three adults to get the fourteen year old out of the house).

Honestly I could happily have spent more time staring at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The first time I saw it was before the 1980 restoration when it was still dark and almost monochromatic and the second time was partway through the restoration when some of those dull browns had given way to the sunlight-bright pastels and skin tones. Yesterday all was bright and colorful and gorgeous but I really did love seeing the contrast during the restoration.

And then we made the boys climb (with us) to the top of the dome of St. Peter's.

The first two hundred and forty-seven stairs take you up inside the cathedral where you can see that most of the paintings on the ceiling and the upper walls are actually exquisitely fine mosaics.

The last three hundred and four steps are in the walls of the dome so the walls in the stairwell are slanted; very disconcerting.

The view from the top is pretty magnificent though and for the most part the steps are shallow enough that your legs don't get sore or tired; it's just the lack of air that I found difficult trying to keep up with my very talk and very thin sister-in-law and nephews. Plus they're all a lot younger than me...

We had to have a look at "the dudes" on the way down. You can see their backs in the view from the top.

There are a few very small doors in the stairwell that leads back down into the cathedral. That's the fourteen year old. He's well under six feet. I think the doorway must be for gnomes who take care of the dome. Dome Gnomes.

The interior really is over-the-top impressive. In a bad way if you want to go that way but impressive nonetheless.

On the way out we had another view of the dudes.

The Tiber was perfectly still as we crossed the bridge at the end of the day.

Back home to the 'hood.