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Dismembering September

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Occasionally, the UK provides little scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the wilds of the America West (admittedly there may be a certain lack of fire and brimstone).

One such occasion happened during our weekend in Minsmere in Suffolk where we enjoyed the spectacle of three otters winnowing about in the shallows of Island Mere. (There was also a fourth otter – we saw one earlier but it may have belonged to this particular trio). A Marsh Harrier circled the otters on the lookout for fishy scraps; a Kingfisher fished and caught a fish, a Bittern sailed into the reeds, and a Water Rail sprinted between reed beds.

Scratch

WaterRail

Water Rail Chick with a bald spot

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Rare Headless Water Birds

As dusk approached, a Red Deer trotted past us, and several Green Woodpeckers rose up and pegged it as we walked up Whin Hill. Late sightings of Stoats, Muntjac and Red-legged Partridges all capped a fine day.

Deer

With acres of woodland, wetland, scrapes and heath – and a bit of coastal to go with it, you could spend weeks in Minsmere and never think it enough.

Mingling with the ducks and waders were Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Avocet and godwits. Elusive Bearded Tits (stop sniggering at the back) showed well in the reeds, and a Red-necked Phalarope dropped in. Raptors were well represented by the harriers, a Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Hobby and Kestrel. Emerging from the grazing marshes, a Chinese Water Deer stepped out from the tall grasses for a quick munch.

Otter

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There is much to recommend Southwold for its proximity when visiting Minsmere. Not least the Adnams brewery, which faithfully stocks the town pubs with a selection of its wares.

The town was also the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony so it ties in nicely with the previous post.

Southwold has a pier, and a lighthouse; brightly painted beach huts overlook the sand and shingle beach.

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Pre-squabble Gulls

A short hop past the old and new water towers took us to Southwold Harbour, where a squabble of gulls fought over a dead rat. The rowing boat ferry service then rowed us over to Walberswick where a quick pint was quaffed. It was not long before the rain lashed down and forced us into Southwold’s pubs.

RainClouds

Now for a little Crow Collection cartoon before we go into the culture section: This one almost never made the cut as it was deemed too icky but it sold quite well:

nasal

 

At the Barber Institute, there was a Monet doing the rounds.

Water Lily Pond, on loan from Chicago in exchange for a Gauguin, was showing well in the Blue Gallery. Probably one of the most recognisable motifs of Impressionism – the Japanese bridge over the water lily pond in Monet’s garden at Giverny was a theme he became obsessed with – and this version is considered one of the artist’s most luminescent masterpieces.

MonetLilyPond500

Water Lily Pond

Minding its own business close by was an early oil painting by Henri Matisse – Landscape in Corsica – on long-time loan from a private collection.

The Barber Institute never fails to deliver, and in a little offshoot gallery, an exhibition was showing 19th-century portrait photography, with many public figures striking notable poses including Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and John Hanning Speke.

 

Craig Deeley was appearing at the Glee Club’s Rough Works with Joe Lycett, Andy Robinson and a whole bunch of comedians. For the comedians, Rough Works provides an ideal platform to try out brand new material, and the packed audiences are very encouraging and supportive. A very funny night out with drinks before, during and after – and the comedy was pretty good too (drum roll).

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The resumption of Film Club opened with the Spanish animation film Wrinkles, the story of a retired bank manager who has been shuffled off into an elderly care home. The Tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes website gives it 96% and the consensus can be agreed on as such:

Poignant and tender without succumbing to schmaltz, Wrinkles offers a thoughtful — and beautifully animated look at old age.

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The “I Want! I Want!” Art & Technology exhibition at Birmingham Gas Hall was inspired by William Blake’s engraving of the same name. This little engraving shows a tiny figure that announces his desire to get to the moon with a cry, “I want! I want!” It conjures up a memorable image of aspirational zeal.

The exhibition features work by contemporary artists who have been influenced by the rapid development of technology. Some interesting stuff was on show – particularly the Dawn Chorus video installation and a computer animation by celebrated Blur cover-artist Julian Opie.

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Bostin’ in Boston

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Revolutionary Boston has been the scene-stealer of several key events of the American Revolution. Events such as the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Siege of Boston and, of course, the Boston Tea Party.

The key role Boston played in the American Revolution is highlighted on the Freedom Trail, a walking route of historic sites that eloquently tells the story of the nation’s founding.

One of the most popular sites on this route is Faneuil Hall, an old market building sitting at the site of the old town dock. In the day, it was where Samuel Adams, John Hancock and other patriots debated the future of American self-government and set in motion the American Revolution.

Faneuil-Hall

Faneuil Hall has been a marketplace and meeting hall since forever, with a statue of the “incorruptible and fearless statesman” Samuel Adams, presiding over the plaza in front of it. Bidding for top billing is the gilded grasshopper weather vane perched on the top of the building.

Grasshopper

Quincy Market is behind Faneuil Hall, a bustling stretch of colour and sound leading to the waterfront. There’s no shortage of food or street entertainment along the way. The street entertainers were quite brilliant with some amazing gymnastic/dance troupes, nimble acrobatic comedians, and an impressive young musician playing piano and saxophone to an enthralled audience. Apparently, the “Boston Piano Kid” has played with Billy Joel and, one quick YouTube search later, here he is:

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waterfront

Burgerjoint

The Old State House is the oldest public building still standing in the eastern United States, now dwarfed by neighbouring skyscrapers. This was once the capitol of the colony, the centre of British authority, and also where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians from the balcony in 1776.

OSH

To celebrate, they had a big bonfire and burnt flags and reminders of British rule, including the original lion and unicorn from atop the Old State House. Replicas of these have since been installed (quite right too!)

Beneath the balcony, there is a circle of paving stones laid out to mark the site of the Boston Massacre when a squad of nervy British officers fired into a jeering crowd and killed five of them – the first bloodshed of the American Revolution.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”

Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere is America’s most celebrated patriot (after Mel Gibson). Mr Revere took part in the Boston Tea Party but is better known for having embarked on a midnight ride to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the approaching British – the Battle at Lexington ensued, which led to a full-blown American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party was the result of a resistance movement against the Tea Act, imposed by those pesky Brits – it violated Bostonian rights to “no taxation without representation.”

To ensure their action wasn’t just a storm in a teacup, the protesters boarded the ships and threw chests of tea into Boston harbour. Some chests were thrown in with a little milk, some with a squeeze of lemon. Reports of a sizeable digestive biscuit on the side remain unfounded.

ReverHouse

Paul Revere’s little wooden house still stands – it is Boston’s oldest structure. Revere’s remains remain in Boston, lying in the Granary Burying Ground, buried with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a plethora of patriots. Mother Goose is also buried here.

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Sinking Headstones

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Samuel Adams

Named after its English counterpart, Boston was founded by the Puritans, a wealthier and more literate breed of colonist. The Old Corner Bookshop emerged as something of a literary centre with luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and that Longfellow fellow all bringing manuscripts here to be published.

As well as being crammed with American history, Boston has its fair share of greenery and water too. Well, being a port, it would have.

Taking an afternoon whale-watching trip out to the open sea to see slices of Humpback and Minke Whales in their natural habitat was an enjoyable diversion from all that foot-pounding history. It also presented a good opportunity to view Boston from a different aspect, and to appreciate the city from afar.

Boston Common is the United State’s first public park, with the Massachusetts State House overlooking it. Just on the edge of the park is the arguably more famous Cheers bar. I popped in for a swift four-pinter and although nobody knew my name, it was a friendly enough place and I managed to grab a corner in Norm’s seat for a well-earned quaff.

Cheers

Norm

Norm

StateHouse

Massachusetts State House

Before Boston, there was Charlestown.

Originally, the settlers settled (its what settlers do) over the river from Boston. However, the wells soon ran dry, and the settlers became unsettled. They decided to up sticks and settle in Boston – or Shawmut was it was then known. The plentiful springs of Boston ensured a steady growth while Charlestown became relegated to a sleepy country town until the Revolution.

The Bunker Hill Monument, a tall, towering obelisk, commemorates the Revolution’s first major battle, which the British won but at such a cost as to weaken their resolve.

BunkerHill

Patriot General Greene summed it up well: “I wish,” he said, “I could sell them another hill at the same price.”

Charlestown also harbours another monument of sorts in the Navy Yard – the U.S.S. Constitution; the most celebrated ship in American history is berthed here. The Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom when she defeated five British warships. Expect Mel Gibson to be starring in the film any day soon.

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U.S.S. Constitution

Although the Brits consider the War of 1812 as little more than a minor skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars, the Americans see it as a war in its own right. Of course they would, they won it!

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Washington wearing a Grackle

Grackle

A Grackle

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Salt Lake City to Denver

Steam+

First impressions show Salt Lake City to be an excruciatingly clean and tidy place, tucked-in and turned-down with nothing remotely unmade about it. True, there are a few homeless sprawled on the lawns of parkland and slumped on the swards but it still looks like someone has been busy putting this city together in as ordered a manner as possible.

The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons are to blame. They had such a work ethic when creating this city, Utah would forever be known as the Beehive State in homage to those crazy workaholic insects that find it impossible to pull up a chair and relax.

Seeking to escape religious persecution, top Mormon Brigham Young founded the city in 1847 when he and other followers settled in this inhospitable valley. The valley was dry and surrounded by the Great Salt Lake, as well as being circled by the steep Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges. (Average snowfall in the mountains near Salt Lake City is over 40 feet – nearly 5 times the average snowfall of Juneau, Alaska).

The streets of the city are wide, deliberately designed as such to accommodate the turns of wagon teams (without “resorting to profanity.”) It is also probably quite useful to contain those bloaters who are no strangers to the Kentucky Fried Bargain Bucket Feast. (The first Kentucky Fried Chicken was established in Salt Lake City in 1952).

SLC

Overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, Capitol Building is a striking architectural landmark, located on a hill, and set on over 40 acres of sculpted lawns, trees, flowerbeds and shrubs.

Temple Square is the main focal point that draws locals and tourists in, home to the granite-built Salt Lake Temple, and the neo-Gothic Assembly Hall.

The Family History Library houses the largest collection of genealogical information in the world with copies of millions of original records including the names of more than two billion deceased people.

In 1875, two 35-foot Australian whales were shipped to the Great Salt Lake, wherein they were released with the intention of creating a tourist attraction. Off they swam, never to be seen again.

The whales may have fared better in Bear Lake, a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border, with a rich turquoise colour, and a shoal of species that occur only within the lake and no where else.

BearLake

For those with piscatorial leanings, you may be interested to know that these endemic fish include a strain of Bonneville Cutthroat Trout, Bonneville Cisco, Whitefish, Bear Lake Whitefish and Bear Lake Sculpin. No sign of the rare Bonneville Whales though…

For those with Pleistocene leanings, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake.

For those wondering who the heck Bonneville was, he was a fur-trapper and explorer in the American West, noted for blazing sections of the Oregon Trail. He was made famous by an account of his explorations written by Washington Irving (who also penned Rip Van Winkle while residing in Birmingham…)

For those wishing I’d just get on with it, we continued out from Bear Lake and made for said Oregon Trail, trundling along to the little town of Afton with its impressive arch of elk antlers and stunning chocolate emporium.

Afton

ChocShop

Mmmm…chocolate!

Jackson Hole is a valley, which has the rather majestic Teton Mountain Range ranging along beside it (that’s what ranges do). The town of Jackson is also very much into antler arches and has a selection looped around the George Washington Memorial Park. A few of us settled down to a beer perched on saddles at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

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AntlerArch2

We were to spend a couple of days in the Grand Teton National Park, and checked into the Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge is listed as a National Historic Landmark with a flat roof and huge windows providing stunning views of the Tetons with Jackson Lake shimmering in the near distance.

LobbyView

When the sun goes down there is another stellar performance lying in wait when the night sky floods with countless constellations and luminous whorls of stars.

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…and the sunrises weren’t bad either.

Sunrise

A quiet welcome to the morning was provided by a rafting trip along the Snake River, which ran smoothly through a pristine natural landscape of open meadows and low forests with the ever-present peaks of the Teton Range keeping pace. It was really a gentle ten-mile float entirely within the Grand Teton National Park, covering this most scenic stretch of the Snake River in the Jackson Hole Valley.

tetonStrip2

A couple of Bald Eagles, and an Osprey provided ornithological interest, and a female Moose munched away on a riverside salad.

The name of Snake River was derived from an S-shaped gesture the resident Shoshone tribe made with their hands to represent swimming salmon. Explorers misinterpreted it to mean a snake, giving the river its present-day name.

StainedGlass!

The Church of the Transfiguration is a wooden chapel sited within view of the celestial peaks of the Tetons – there is little point in having stained glass in such a window.

Then it was time to enter the legendary Yellowstone National Park.

Renowned for its unique geothermal activity, wide, sweeping landscapes and spectacular wildlife, Yellowstone has run out of boxes to tick. A little taster in the form of the Lewis Falls and the surrounding forests readied us for a similar cascade of memorable wildernesses that bubbled and steamed with fire and brimstone.

A Grizzly Bear was spotted swaggering along the Hayden Valley; Elk were spied sporadically, and there were plenty of Mule Deer, but it was the herds of Bison that bossed the park.

Yellowstone was the first National Park in the United States, and is crammed with natural wonders – many of which would burn, scald or eat you.

A stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin, the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Norris Geyser Basin made you think there was more basin than bison in Yellowstone. The colours of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its dramatic drop of the Lower Falls perfectly illustrated how the park came to be named as such.

Of course, you can’t visit Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful, the reliable geyser, which has a good gush about every 90 minutes or so. The nearby Old Faithful Inn is also worth gushing about. Built with Lodgepole pine logs, wooden shingles and stone, the hotel features an immense lobby (complete with tree-house), plus a massive soaring stone fireplace and handcrafted clock.

Let the photos begin:

ThumbGeyser

Alas

Alas! He sank and left hardly a trace…

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DragonMouth

Dragon’s Mouth Spring

MudVolcano

Mud Volcano

Clarke's-Nutcracker

Clarke’s Nutcracker

Bison

Bisons

JCLewisFalls

Yellow-Stone

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MuleDeer

Mule Deer

Castlething

Castle Geyser

CrestedPool

Crested Pool

Steama

BacteriaMat

Fountain Paint Pots

Elk

An Elk

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Old Faithful

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After departing Yellowstone, we travelled through the stark Shoshone Canyon and Absaroka Rocky Mountains to reach the Wild West town of Cody. En route we checked out the old hunting lodge of Buffalo Bill – now a trendy hotel.

Cody was named for William Cody AKA Buffalo Bill, which trips off the tongue a little more smoothly than the more accurate Bison Bill.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West was built in honour of the great American Western legend. It is also a quite brilliant museum, or rather five museums rolled into one with whole wings given over to the history of Buffalo Bill, a Natural History museum, a Plains Indian section, an impressive Art Gallery, plus a detailed exhibition of firearms.

Buffalo Bill Fact: When touring England in 1903, one of the entourage gave birth to the first Native American Indian child born in England. They were performing in Aston at the time and named the child Alexandra Birmingham Cody Standing Bear.

Obviously not content with our appetite for the awesome, the landscape conspired to blind us with more staggering views as we crossed through the Bighorn Mountains on the way to Gillette.

After staying overnight in Sheridan, and with a Solar Eclipse looming large on the horizon, we headed over to the astounding Devils Tower, the stark geological feature that protrudes out of the rolling prairie surrounding the Black Hills.

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Dtower

It’s also difficult to imagine a more fitting location in which to witness the solar eclipse and, sunglasses at the ready, the eclipse was summarily witnessed.

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Plains Indians depended on buffalo for most of their material needs – food, clothing and tools – but before they had horses, the buffaloes were hunted with bows and arrows. Tribes often joined in communal hunts by driving herds of buffalo over a cliff – one such is a natural sinkhole now known as the Vore Buffalo Jump. Huge volumes of bone and assorted artifacts have been held in place over time by the bowl shape of the sinkhole, and archaeological studies have unearthed much evidence about this period and its people.

Bones

A talk given by a Native American about this period was undertaken in the blazing sun amid tepee and props from the Dances With Wolves set. A piece of artwork commissioned by Kevin Costner rides over such a jump.

Injun

BuffJump

The wonderful Spearfish Canyon was the splendid setting for our next stop-over.

“How is it that I’ve heard so much about the Grand Canyon, when this is even more miraculous?” Thus spake Frank Lloyd Wright when viewing Spearfish Canyon.

“That was a bugger of a climb.” Spake me thus, after inadvertently following the route up to the rim of the canyon rather than the recommended preprandial recce to the local waterfall. It was a decent slog up to the top with wide vistas across the canyon, and ever-diminishing views of the spacious hotel we were lodging in.

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Spearfish Lodge

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Spacious for sure…

Custer State Park is renowned for its beauty and serenity, and home where the buffalo and antelope roam. On a scenic tour of the back country by jeep, suitably attired in cowboy hats and neckerchiefs, close encounters with Bison were inevitable and we enjoyed getting up close and impersonal with the shaggy beasts. Pronghorn antelopes roamed about in small herds, Prairie Dogs chuntered around their network of burrows, and there was always a Mule Deer peering out of the forests.

Finishing the jeep tour in a secluded canyon, an authentic Chuck Wagon Cookout was served up with Old Western entertainment providing the tunes.

YeeHaw

Yee-Haw

Cowboys

Crossing the high plains to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we made our way to Deadwood, the town made famous during the gold rush of the 1870s. Famous residents included gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok and not-much-of-a-looker Calamity Jane. It is not difficult to imagine the Old Western days of Boot Hill here despite the sidewalks being paved and bereft of tumbleweed.

Deadwood

Deadwood

Legs

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Wild Bill enjoying a Skinny Latte

WildBill

Where Wild Bill was Killed

A cool beer was taken in the bar where gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok met his end, shot in the back of the head while holding the playing cards that would become known as Dead Man’s Hand.

Here’s a photograph of Deadwood from 1876 to help with the imaginings:

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Probably the Black Hills most famous landmark is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a carved mountain monument to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt (Ted to his friends). Jefferson was originally intended to appear at Washington’s right but the rock was unsuitable – the original unsatisfactory result was dynamited out and a new figure was sculpted to his left.

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JCMR

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GrandView

Elsewhere in the Black Hills is the much larger Crazy Horse Memorial, carved into the granite rock face and constructed to commemorate the famous Native American leader as a response to Mount Rushmore. It will eventually be nearly ten times larger than Mount Rushmore.

CrazyH

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear insisted.

The United States had seized the area from the Lakota tribe despite it having been granted to them in perpetuity (might have had something to do with gold being in “them thar hills.”

Crazy Horse took up arms against the U.S. Federal government to fight against encroachments on the Lakota territories. He helped defeat US Army Poster Boy George Custer at the Battle of Bighorn, forever etched in history as Custer’s Last Stand.

Work on the memorial began in 1948, and it will eventually depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Crazy Horse refused to have his photograph taken so it would be interesting to know what he would have made of the memorial. (“My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?”)

CrazyRock

Time for some Native American wisdom:

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Crazy Horse

When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

Cree Prophecy

When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.

Cherokee proverb

Denver was our final destination on our group tour although several did escape in Rapid City en route. Rapid City proved a bit of a diversion for the rest of us, trying to identify the statues of former U.S. presidents that loitered on every corner.

Denver, the Mile High City and capital of Colorado, lies at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and dates back to the Old West era. I was already hooked by the fact that Colorado produces more beer by volume than any other state and Denver ranks first for the U.S. cities.

Denver’s bustling downtown is centred on 16th Street Mall, a mile-long promenade with free buses shuttling up and down it.

In between sampling some of that voluminous beer, there was time to visit the Colorado State Capitol with its rather fetching gold-plated dome, and the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel with its massive atrium and equally impressive guest-list. Having played host to presidents and pop stars alike, the Beatles seemed the least impressed with the plush surroundings of the hotel and didn’t even bother coming out of their room.

Now for a Photography Masterclass:

PhotoClass

Nailed it!

 

Next morning, it was time to fly out to Boston.

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New York, New York, so good so far, etc.…

NYC_Montage

Jleon at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A bunch of us (Dave, Annie, Martin, Simon, Natalie, Me, Julie and Steve all found ourselves USA-bound when we met up at Birmingham Airport for our grand trip out.

During the flight, one attendant recognised Annie and asked if she had been on the flight that landed in the Hudson River in 2009…

“Are you sure you weren’t on it?”

“I think I would have remembered that.”

Once ensconced in our respective hotels, (my Empire Hotel being some 40 minutes walk from their Iberostar) it was only natural to launch ourselves into every attraction and sightseeing must that the Big Apple has to offer.

However, it seemed marginally more natural to launch ourselves onto the rooftop terrace and have us a few beers.

And afterwards – a pizza! Not an average British pizza but an American one that would have been equally at home spinning atop Devils Tower awaiting a close encounter of some sort – possibly a third kind.

There is too much written about the city scape of New York that to even attempt a justifiable regaling of such landmark architecture is somewhat futile – so I’m just going to throw in a bunch of photos!

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Street4

Street1

A&DNY

Central Park was the focal point next morning – some cycling, some getting lost in the park (during a fruitless search for the boathouse inn – located ridiculously next to a lake. Couldn’t find it).

We did find the Strawberry Fields Forever memorial to John Lennon, stepped out over picturesque bridges and contemplated a lake crammed with turtles – basically enjoying a sunny amble through the park greenery.

Central-Park

Continuing with a Merseyside theme, Birkenhead Park was the original inspiration for Central Park. Designer Frederick Law Olmsted visited Birkenhead in 1850 and was quite taken with the town’s park and incorporated its layout within his plans.

New York is, of course, frenetic, bustling – all manner of energetic adjectives apply – even without us being trapped between a Dominican Republic Carnival and an anti-Trump Protest March but these things seem bye-the-bye in a city on the go 24/7. However, the previous evening, thinking it really was the city that never sleeps with its nocturnal vanguard of street entertainers, I realised it was only 9.30pm!

Times Square is always a fun place in which to perch for an hour or so. So bright and crazy, it doesn’t need daylight – sunglasses are recommended such is the glaring intensity of the billboards and neon displays.

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TimesS2

TimesS3

The High Line is an elevated freight rail line, which has been transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side, and obviously needed walking along. This repurposed railway line initially overlooks the Hudson River before passing under, over, through and along the various streets and avenues. There is an ongoing gallery of art installations and sculptures en route plus several rest areas even though it’s not exactly a taxing yomp.

Close to the new One World Trade Centre is the 9/11 Memorial. Reflecting Absence represents the watery footprints of the Twin Towers, symbolising the loss of life and physical void left by the attacks. Names of victims are inscribed on bronze plates and arranged along the parapets of the memorial pools. A rose is placed on any name that would have celebrated a birthday today.

It is a solemn place, the waterfalls muting the sounds of the city, but is nevertheless an impressive testament to the resilience and can-do attitude of the States.

It was a dull, overcast day when we visited but even on a sunny, glorious day it would be difficult to override the poignancy this powerful memorial invokes.

FreedomTower

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GZ2

 

The grotty weather continued for much of the day, causing us to explore a few drinking dens along the way. Drinking pints of Brooklyn while looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge was a thirst.

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Goodbye July

Malverns

The Malverns

A fairly quiet month hardly deserving of a post so its going to be mainly filler and not killer this time!

In between bouts of drinking and watching the cultural twin peaks of Wonder Woman, and Spiderman: The Homecoming, there was a nevertheless an excellent walk to record.

This one took in patches of the Forest of Dean, views of the Malvern Hills, and a Roast Beef Ploughman’s at the Glasshouse.

It was Stuart’s walk and here’s the gen:

Map: Explorer sheet OL14 Wye Valley & Forest of Dean

GR: SO721260.

The walk:

The walk is mainly along field paths, through woods, and along quiet country lanes.

Go west from the car park in the market town of Newent, across playing fields then SW to Briery Hill. Follow Three Choirs Way southwards to Clifford’s Mesne, continuing along quiet lanes past the now closed Yew Tree Inn to ascend a long but not difficult climb to summit of May Hill (977 ft).

Crop

Tree

There are breath-taking views to Malvern Hills, Black Mountains, and the Severn Estuary (let’s hope for good weather). From the summit continue along Geopark/Wysis Way SE then NE to Glasshouse for lunch at The Glasshouse Inn.

Dogs are not allowed in the pub but there are pleasant gardens.

Glasshouse

After lunch we head northwards through the pleasant but occasionally muddy Newent Woods, and then past apple orchards to return to the cars.

 

1930s Poet Laureate John Masefield describes May Hill in his narrative poem “The Everlasting Mercy.”

It’s about a fist fight with a fellow poacher over territory with the main protagonist called Saul Kane with some Christian/Satan overtones and implications.

Its way too long to reproduce here so here’s some of the more memorable verses. It’s worth reading just to roll out the fantastic names of two of the peripheral characters: Doxy Jane and Dicky Twot!

Ploughing the hill with steady yoke
Of pine-trees lightning-struck and broke.
I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay
There on his hill, day after day
Driving his team against the sky,
While men and women live and die.
And now and then he seems to stoop
To clear the coulter with the scoop,
Or touch an ox to haw or gee
While Severn stream goes out to sea

and this bit’s quite good:

“Where is it, then? O stop the bell.”
I stopped and called: “It’s fire of hell;
And this is Sodom and Gomorrah,
And now I’ll burn you up, begorra.”

as is this:

“After him,” “Catch him,” “Out him,” ” Scrob him.”
“We’ll give him hell.” “By God, we’ll mob him.”
“We’ll duck him, scrout him, flog him, fratch him.”
“All right,” I said. “But first you’ll catch him.”

Finally…

They drove (a dodge that never fails)
A pin beneath my finger nails.
They poured what seemed a running beck
Of cold spring water down my neck;
Jim with a lancet quick as flies
Lowered the swelling round my eyes.
They sluiced my legs and fanned my face
Through all that blessed minute’s grace;
They gave my calves a thorough kneading,
They salved my cuts and stopped the bleeding.
A gulp of liquor dulled the pain,
And then the flasks clinked again.

This last bit was after the Boxing Day Sales at Selfridges…

Speaking of which: This was taken at the Green Man in Harborne on July 24th – WAY TOO EARLY!!!

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Noooooo!!!!!!

 

Sometimes, when you’re feeling a bit peckish, only a Seafood Fujiyakko will do, and fortunately one was at hand for our footy A-Team social at the Miyako Teppanyaki restaurant .

Kraaled around a Japanese teppan grill (with live cooking and loose egg throwing), an entertaining evening was in store with salmon, lobster and scallops being fired up on the Barbie. Of course, we had to have some traditional Japanese ale to help us along.

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Gavin failed to catch the egg in his mouth

A visit to the Falconry Experience in Swadlincote ensured a surfeit of raptors for our appreciation. For the first section there was a selection of owls including Little Owl, Barn Owl and Eagle Owl before the falcons, hawks and eagles took centre stage. The Kestrel, Harris Hawk, Buzzard and Tawny Eagle were all mightily impressive but even a guest appearance from a Kookaburra couldn’t diminish the star of the show – a Golden Eagle.

The talons on this eagle are impressive enough – then you learn they have a gripping strength of over 700 psi, which is up there with me hanging onto a Topic (the average person has a grip strength of about 20 psi.)

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Check out the talons…

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Nature Note: Raptor comes from the Latin word “rapere” which means to seize by force.

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And finally, this cartoon from the Crow Collection – I always liked this one but it never sold particularly well. I just like the silliness of it…

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Attuned to June

Mercury

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National Trust, Waddesdon Manor / John Bigelow Taylor

Waddesdon Manor was the venue for our annual Staff Social day out. This plush country house in Buckinghamshire is the ancestral seat of those bankers, the Rothschilds. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French chateau by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, it came in very handy for entertaining house parties and for showing off his fine collections of art.

Baron Ferdy originally bought it as a farming estate from the Duke of Marlborough (thanks to a hefty inheritance from his father) and he set about transforming the site with lavish gardens and an aviary.

The last member of this illustrious family, James de Rothschild, bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust and is one of their most visited properties.

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It was the hottest day of the year (Scorchio!) and the food festival was in full swing as our coach set down and set forth the staff. The cider tent was a particular favourite…

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The hot weather continued into the following week, which meant our regular visit to the Aegon Classic did not involve as much scurrying to the beer tent whenever rain threatened.

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Svitolina to serve…

Thus we managed uninterrupted tennis on the first day and enjoyed four decent contests:

Naomi Osaka (Jpn) beat Laura Davis (USA) 6-1, 2-6, 7-6

Barbara Strycova (Cze) beat Yulia Putinteva (Kaz) 6-3, 6-3

Elina Svitolina (Ukr) beat Heather Watson (Gbr) 6-2, 5-7, 6-3

Naomi Broady (Gbr) beat Alize Cornet (Fra) 7-6, 6-0

 

Nature Notes Warning:

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Frampton Marsh The RSPB

Frampton Marsh was to be the venue for the season finale of the West Midland Bird Club.

Frampton is one of many coastal wetland reserves where seeing anything ornithological is merely a bye-the-bye bonus to accompany a brilliant walk. However, high vantage walks look out across the Wash and inland views take in reedbeds, freshwater scrapes and marshy fields. With a new digital camera making its juddering debut, I blurred fairly decent views of Corn Buntings, Avocets, Lapwings, Yellowhammers, Reed and Sedge Warblers and Spotted Redshank – plus a pair of loved-up Spoonbills.

There are some great photos on the official Frampton Marsh website, which I’ve included here plus my own meagre offerings and a classic photo fail!

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Yellowhammer

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Avocet

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Another One

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Spoonbills

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And if we are on the cute chick photos, we cannot fail to show these reed warblers (though they may want to improve on their toilet training!). Photo by Paul Sullivan

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And these photos are by Neil Smith:

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The parents are busy looking after their young. You don’t get more protective than avocets, who chase off things which might want to eat their chicks…

…and those that wouldn’t, but just get a little too close

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Transylvania

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In the nineties, Michael Jackson moonwalked out on to the balcony of dictator Ceausescu´s Bucharest Palace and addressed the worshipping throngs below him. The King of Pop held out his arms and squeaked:

“Hello Budapest!”

He wasn’t the only one. So many people mistook Romania’s capital city for Hungary’s, that Bucharest once launched a “Bucharest not Budapest” campaign to encourage visitors to learn the difference between the two cities. There was even a rumour that 400 Spanish soccer fans accidentally flew to Hungary’s capital for a Bucharest-based game!

At least the King of Pop got to address a crowd from the hallowed balcony, which was more than Nicolae Ceausescu ever did, having been overthrown (or rather, shot dead) before such an accolade could be accorded.

The Bucharest Palace has since been re-named the Casa Poporului – which means Palace of Parliament in Hungarian – sorry, Romanian.

A 90-minute guided tour of the palace reveals only a mere 3% of what’s available with 12 floors and at least another 8 underground levels (you also need to bring your passport to get in). The Palace is immense and plays host to the Romanian parliament, as well as providing ample room (it has 1,100 rooms) for various conferences, museums and theatres.

Incredibly, the person responsible for the construction process of the Palace of Parliament was coordinated by a mere slip of a girl – 28 year old Anca Petrescu.

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Palace of Parliament

The presenters from popular BBC show Top Gear once recorded a programme where they drove cars through vast tunnels hidden beneath the palace. These tunnels were originally designed so the cautious Ceausescu could do an underground runner to the airport in case of a revolution.

Check it out:

When the Romanian Revolution did start, Ceausescu and his wife Elena made their escape from Central Committee Building by helicopter. They didn’t manage to get far as the pilot dropped them off in the countryside where they were arrested and later shot.

There is a fascinating blend of turn of the century elegance and communist excess in Bucharest, which can be appreciated through its architecture. The city centre is a melting pot of Medieval, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings with blocky, functional communist-era architecture lumped in for good measure.

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Oana was our guide and she gave excellent potted histories to several landmark buildings during a walking tour of the capital. There were many interesting back stories to life under the exacting communist regime that Romania experienced after the Second World War. Shackles were finally struck off in 1989 and Revolution Square was an obvious place to begin our city tour. It was here where Ceausescu addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee Building, blathering on about the small matter of a recent uprising. He completely misread the crowd’s mood, which resulted in that emergency helicopter dash for freedom.

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Central Committee Building

After being shot, footage of the trail and execution was released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The moment of execution was not filmed since the cameraman was too slow – only just getting into the courtyard as the shooting ended. (There is a rumour that the cameraman had, in fact, gone to Budapest first).

Ceausescu whittled away at the national debt by exporting all the choice food abroad. Throughout the 1980s increasingly grim reports tumbled out about the Ceausescus’ “State of Terror”. Too much food was being exported to repay Western loans and many Romanians were starving.

“It was as if he sold all the best parts of a chicken – the breast, the leg, the thighs – and left the offal, feet and necks for his people.”

Bucharest boasts many fine buildings besides the Palace of Parliament. The Romanian Athenaeum, an impressively columned concert hall, is just one of several landmarks in the city. Other impressive edifices include the Triumph Arch, the CEC Palace, and the National Museum of Art of Romania. Bestriding the square is the equestrian statue of King Carol, a German who became king (the Germans have a knack for this sort of thing). The Romanians fancied that a bit of monarchy would be just the ticket to spruce things up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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Romanian Athenaeum

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National Art Museum (former Royal Palace)

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Old Court Church (the Old Princely Church)

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Romanian Savings Bank (CEC Building)

The National Museum of Romanian History has a strange statue on the steps featuring a wolf being held up by a naked fella.

This is a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia, the province located in Romania. He is holding a Capitoline Wolf, whose head is joined to the tail of a dragon.

When popped on its plinth, the statue was not exactly lauded by the locals, with some describing it as a “monument to Romania’s stray dogs.” Others wondered why the dog was levitating and why it was wearing a scarf while the emperor wasn’t even wearing any underwear.

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National Museum of Romanian History

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Trajan and his pet dog

The Memorial of Rebirth is another monument in Revolution Square, commemorating the struggles and victims of the Romanian Revolution that overthrew Communism. It also sparked spiky controversy when inaugurated for being too abstract and unrepresentative of the suffering and hardships of the revolution. Others suggested in looked like a potato on a toothpick.

Looking like a Giacometti figure having a bit of a sit-down, the statue of Iuliu Maniu pays tribute to one of Romania’s foremost politicians and former Prime Ministers who scorned the Russian influence and was imprisoned when the communists came to power. The statue is slyly positioned in Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters.

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Iuliu Maniu

Somehow along the way, we managed to get trapped in the Stavropoleos Monastery, a small Eastern Orthodox Church for nuns. With a service in full flow and some impressive chanting from the black-clad nuns, there was some reluctance to push past the imposing bouncer on the door: a terrifying lady with a thousand yard stare. Fortunately, Oana rescued us.

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Stavropoleos Monastery (Fusionofhorizons)

After a decent walkabout, there were a number of bars and hostelries crying out to be repaired to and we summarily obliged.

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After which, we were all going on a bear hunt.

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The Carpathian Mountains bustles with bears – brown bears, which require a certain level of care when traipsing through their territory. Romania has a healthy bear population, over 40% of Europe’s ration, and this region is of key international importance in their conservation.

If confronted by a bear, do not turn and run and, if attacked, curl up in a ball and protect your face. There would be no ball-curling for me – I was just going to leg it as fast as I could and hope to overtake the slower members of our group.

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Bear tracks were clearly visible on the path as we walked through the woods, and then quietly tip-toed up the wooden steps to the hide.

The hide overlooked a small clearing in the forest, and already a large bear was snuffling around below us. Binoculars and cameras were cocked and ready. As dusk approached, more bears dipped in and out of the clearing with five bears showing up at one time; a couple more timorous beasts circled around and sniffed the air suspiciously.

It was all quite splendid.

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The Transylvanian village of Moieciu was to be our base for the next few days. The view from my room, one of sweeping hilly slopes with wildflowers and birds, was in stark contrast to the vista from my room in Bucharest, which was, basically, a wall.

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Room with a View – Moieciu

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Room with a View – Bucharest

The following morning, Romania did away with its natural modesty and decided to show a bit of leg.

A walk in the Bucegi Mountains up through forest and woodland brought us into a vast clearing with a Sound of Music backdrop. Dark mountains bulked against the sky and low cloud slipped across slightly snowy slopes; wildflower meadows rolled up to the curve of the hills.

It would’ve been rude not to have a beer with such a backdrop and a shack-like bar doled up the necessary refreshment.

Known as the ‘Pearl of the Carpathians’ because of its stunning scenery, Sinaia was a short drive away. Faced with such natural beauty, imported monarch King Carol felt compelled to build Peles Castle here – a Neo-Renaissance chateau crammed with ebony, ivory, Persian carpets, stained glass and all manner of curios.

There is a statue of King Carol overlooking the main entrance, presiding over a goodly amount of other statues aligned along the terraces.

In one corner of the terraced gardens is a statue of King Carol’s wife, Elizabeth, stoically setting about her embroidery. It probably wouldn’t have been her first choice when it came to the commission – surely striding majestically alongside a steed or brandishing an impressive breastplate to the elements would have done the job better.

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Queen Elizabeth – Giving it some welly

Pelisor Castle was within touching distance of Peles, an Art Deco/Art Nouveau creation of Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Known as the Artist Queen, Marie set about Pelisor Castle with great gusto – and probably a paintbrush. Lots of oak-timber, a working glass ceiling that slides away when the weather’s good. An intricate spiral staircase loops up one side of the hall, and various other chambers lead off from the corridors. There is a ‘golden room’ with gilded walls and thistle decorations – a Celtic nod to her Scottish roots (although she was actually born in Kent).

There is, of course, another castle Transylvania is quite famous for – Bran Castle.

Yes, the family seat of Count Dracula, the notorious Nosferatu who liked nothing better than settling down in front of the TV with some Nachos and a pint of Rhesus Negative.

Not that Bran Castle was ever visited by Bram Stoker, the novelist responsible for bringing all things vampirism into the public consciousness when his book was published in 1897. However, Dracula was banned in Bran and throughout Transylvania due to the communists banning all vampire fiction until 1990.

Vlad the Impaler, the notorious 15th century ruler of Wallachia, never actually lived at Bran yet his fearsome reputation stoked macabre myths more monstrous than anything Bram could.

In modern Romania, dracul means “the Devil” so we can see where this is heading.

Stories about Vlad’s evil deeds began doing the rounds during his lifetime, and he was often described as a man of unheard cruelty and justice – the perfect personification for the creation of Count Dracula.

A lengthy poem about Vlad, the “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia” deftly outlined a few of his more unsavoury pursuits. Vlad had two monks impaled to assist them on their way to heaven, and also ordered the impalement of their donkey because it brayed too much.

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In fairness, he was a rubbish lap-dancer

On another occasion, some Turkish messengers refused to take off their turbans when paying dutiful respect to Vlad. Vlad simply reinforced this custom by having the turbans nailed to their heads.

Although described as a ”demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, and a masochist” his brutality was probably exaggerated to some extent by some old adversaries – the Saxons.

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“Throw another shrimp on the barbie.”

In the curiously titled documentation “About a Mischievous Tyrant called Dracula” it was alleged that Vlad (old cove that he was) ordered some women to be impaled together with their babies. He was also not averse to boiling alive the odd dissident or two but impaling was really his thing.

It is doubtful the intended sequel to this document, “The Naughty Antics of Nasty Vlad” ever got published.

It is easy to see why Bran Castle was considered the home of Bram Stoker’s creation, allying its location and details with the jumbled descriptions offered up by the novelist: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.”

The vast ruined castle being on the edge of a terrific precipice, at the bend of the Carpathians and looking triumphantly down from a rock, has all the hallmarks of Chez Dracula.

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Bran Castle by Florin73m

The castle is indeed perched high up on a tall rock, following an irregular outline with tall towers and trim courtyards. Inside the castle walls, narrow and low hallways lead down winding wooden stairs, through lobbies and chambers, bedrooms and corridors and out on to terraces. Much in the way of weaponry and armoury adorns the walls and spaces, with the odd wolf pelt splayed randomly across a floor.

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At night, under a fanciful full moon, it is hoped some bats would set the whole scene off nicely.

One of the most historic medieval cities in Transylvania is Brasov, a cluster of ancient fortifications where Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance influences abound around the narrow passageways, wide open squares and cobbled streets.

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German settlers originally founded Brasov to protect routes that threaded their way through the high passes of the Carpathians.

The Saxons built massive stone walls around the city that are still visible today with Catherine’s Gate being the only original city gate to have survived since medieval times. The town has a fine central square, claimed to be the spot to which the Pied piper led the children of Hamlin. The most iconic historical building in Brasov is probably the 600 year-old Black Church, which became known as such after a great fire blackened its walls. During its tenure as a place of worship, several permutations of different persuasions knelt down at its pews including Catholics, Lutherans and Protestants.

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Catherine’s Gate

The History Museum of Brasov is worth a look with rare exhibits and collections but on a bright sunny day, a visit should never be at the expense of a cable-car ride up Mount Tampa.

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Fringed by the peaks of the Carpathians, Brasov is known as the city at the foot of Mount Tampa. When our old Friend Vlad attacked Brasov in 1458-60, the citadel was destroyed and 40 merchants were impaled on top of the mountain. Nowadays, you can enjoy a leisurely cola and look down on the red-tiled rooftops of the old town sprawling out to meet stern communist blocks on the outskirts.

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A tasty traditional Transylvanian meal was waiting for us back at the guesthouse – bean soup, Tochitura – a sort of pork stew, with Sanmale (cabbage rolls) all washed down with some robust local wine.

All that remained was to toast the hospitality of Romania with the local firewater, Tuica.

As they say in Romania – Noroc!

Cheers!

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…finally, what happens when a bat flies into an Irish home: