Saturday, 31 May 2008

2 nights in Spain

After just one day back at work following the Venice trip, I caught an Easyjet flight from Stansted to Malaga on Wednesday morning. What a contrast with the ghastly Ryanair!

I had to see my late step-mother's solicitor to arrange for her to have power of attorney so she could sort out Liz's affairs, and I also had to be issued with a tax number, so I can pay the tax on my half of the apartment I've inherited from her.

There was going to be a curious contrast of frantic activity in the morning, followed by complete absence of deadlines in the afternoon, since both the solicitor and the police station (where I was to get my tax number) close at 2.

My brother had been out a couple of weeks previously, and had left directions, so I drove quietly through an older part of Fuengirola where I've not previously been. I loved this statue of a male torso emerging from a rock, though I've no idea what it's actually about.

The solicitor was OK, though I wasn't impressed by her competence (nothing definite, just an impression), and the power of attorney was easily sorted out. There was a minor difficulty of paying the 50 euros for it, as my bank card had been rejected, but we arranged I'd pay it the following day. By the time that was wrapped up, I was too late for the police station, so went back to Calahonda.

I phoned the bank and sorted out the card. Somewhat inevitably, the bank's security software had decided the card was being used fraudulently, and had stopped it. I'd pretty much expected that, given the gallivanting about we'd been doing. They were quite happy to fix it straight away, and I was able to draw money next time I tried.

FYI I used the 0845 number Lloyds TSB provide, just sticking 0044 on the front and dropping the leading 0. Then I had to speak my sort code and account number, as the keypad didn't send the right signals for the software at the other end, but that was OK once I'd caught on.

I walked on the beach and collected a few pebbles, then returned to the apartment an carved a couple of them. Nothing complicated, just simple and quick.
The first is just a piece of blue tile that's obviously not been in the sea very long and was clearly cut to the triangular shape it now has. When I threw it back, I tried to skip it over the water, but sadly it didn't go far, so I imagine it will be found pretty quickly. On the other hand, the terracotta clay is also pretty soft, so it won't last long in the surf anyway, so that's probably OK. It's about 10 cm across.

The second is a proper pebble, just with eyes and a mouth. I was aware the electric engraver was very loud in the apartment, and although I'd warned one pair of neighbours, there was a good chance I was disturbing others, so kept it as brief as I could. This one is about 7 cm high.

Having finished them as far as I wanted to and taken the obligatory photographs, I strolled back down to the beach to throw them in. As I say, the tile didn't go far, probably only about 10 metres, which puts it right in the surf. That will maximise the rate of wear, and actually, with no significant tidal movement, it'll never be actually exposed, unless it's picked up by a wave and tossed up onto the beach.

The real pebble went much further out to sea, so should stay lost for a reasonable length of time. It's much harder, of course, so will wear more slowly.
I took a photo of where I threw them in, just in case you want to try to find them.

What do you mean, it doesn't help?

On the Friday morning I was in Fuengirola bright and early. I got one form stamped at a bank, then went to the police station. Outside it was a balmy 25°C but queuing inside it was sweltering. I was really grateful that Liz had died in March. In July and August, the outside temperature can reach 40°C. Youch!

After queuing for 25 minutes I got to talk to a Geordie who told me the form I'd paid the bank to stamp was invalid and blah-de-blah-de-blah. Then he said I should speak to Angelina over at another queue and maybe she'd be able to sort me out.

Angelina was as helpful as he'd been the reverse, and in nothing flat I was done. Stamped forms and the 50 euros delivered to the solicitors and I was free. I'd allowed all morning, and at 11am I had nothing to do. No point going back to the apartment, as I'd thrown all the food away, turned off the electricity and water and shut the place down.

So I drove up to Mijas, where I had a very pleasant lunch in a restaurant we know there. Amazingly, I've found a picture of the actual restaurant! The platform on the lower right is a pizzeria. The upper one, on the left, is where I sat, on that actual balcony. A glass of chilled white, a plate of boccerones (fresh anchovies, treated like whitebait) and a view down over Fuengirola and the Med from on high. I couldn't resist the temptation to phone Jenny and eat my lunch at her.

I've just looked up some birds I saw from the balcony. A bit like lightly-built blackbirds, they had a startling white flash on the tail. I was a bit far away, so didn't see any more, but that was enough. The book says they were black wheatears, which are resident in Andalucia.

Venice - the real thing!

This is St Mark's Basilica in Venice. I have sung there. It doesn't get much better than that. What a privilege!

As is so often the case, I have too many photos, and not enough text, so you may struggle slightly to connect the words with the pictures.

We flew from Stansted on Friday, 23rd May.

Ryanair is just the absolute pits.
Squalid, cramped, uncomfortable, disorganised and late. There will have to be no alternative before I'll fly with them again. Full stop.

Italy, on the other hand, was just a complete delight. For reasons that never became clear, we flew to Verona Brescia airport, and had a 2 hour coach transfer to Venice. We were perfectly happy with that as it was our first visit to Italy, so a drive across the country showed us sights that were all new, and therefore, worthwhile.
Right outside our hotel was a shoe shop. For weeks, I've been wanting to replace the rather ratty old trainers I've been wearing, so of course, we looked in the window and saw some really good-looking shoes. Then we saw our conductor inside, with his girlfriend, so we had to go in. They came out with 4 pairs, I with only 2!

First I bought a beautiful pair of flip-flops, then the shoes you see somewhere to the left here. Now tell me those aren't cool shoes, dudes!

And they are wonderfully comfortable. They weigh nothing, and feel like a pair of gloves. I've walked miles in them since day one and had nothing but joy from them. I don't rave about shoes, ever. Shoes are just shoes. I'm raving about these, 'cos they're fantastic! Sadly, when I wore them to work, no-one was impressed. Philistines!

I did, however, stick to the male shopping ethic. I was in and out of the shop in 20 minutes!

Our guide/translator walked us to our first church on Saturday morning. This was Saint Nicolo dei Mendicoli, where we rehearsed, then followed the guide to a bar where we had canapés and wine. Afterwards, she took most on a guide around the city, but Jenny and I wanted to just wander, so that's what we did.

Venice is a city of buildings planted on the sea floor, more or less, with canals between and occasionally a walkway. It's easy to misread the map, and to walk up blind alleys. After a while, it became rather wearing, so it was a relief to find the Grand Canal and a vaporetto (water bus) stop. Two sympathetic English women explained the procedure and we rode the canal back to our hotel, taking a brazilian photographs on the way, of course.

This is the inevitable Rialto Bridge photo. I was glad to have the good fortune to get a gondola in the foreground. I didn't actually spend much time looking at the bridge, being far too busy taking photographs. There's a balance to be found there, but I haven't located it. I either take photos, but don't see much, or I gaze in wonder, and take no pictures.

I thought the scaffolding-enclosed dome was rather sculptural, and almost regret the fact that some time they'll take it all down. Almost.

At 6.30 we sang mass in St Nicolo's. We did 3 or 4 pieces beforehand, the Byrd 4-part mass during the service and a couple of anthems, then 3 or 4 pieces afterwards.

I think the congregation found the Byrd rather hard work. Mostly the mass was just said -
Kyrie elieson, kyrie elieson, kyrie elieson, move on. A quick recital of the Gloria, move on. The Byrd probably added 15 minutes to the service.

On the Sunday we made our way to St Mark's where there was a parade of paratroop veterans, stamping and shouting through the piazza. Fortunately it had stopped by the time we got to sing. This picture was taken by one of our groupies, John Henderson, and it's miles better than the same shot I took. As you can see, St Mark's is big, and cool, and ornate. Not really my style at all, but I'm keeping stum.

After some discussion between the conductor and the high priest, we were informed we could sing 4 pieces, but he did agree we could have a warm up, so we did. Then it was time to sing. We sang a piece, there was no sign of any clergy, so we sang another, and another. Eventually the service started.

In the mass we sang the Lotti Crucifixus (Lotti was organist at St Marks) and something else. After 3 masses in 2 days, I can't remember which we did when. It may have been the Richard Deering Ave Virgo Gloriosa. At the end, we did the Gabrielli Jubilate Deo (Gabrielli was also organist at St Marks) and then a couple more pieces, so having been limited to 4 pieces, we actually sang 8, and the congregation applauded when we'd finished! Our smugness was magnified when the conductor of another visiting choir came up and told our conductor that we were much better than the preceding choir! Lovely!

The evening mass was in Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a vast brick-built church with fabulous accoustics. The decay lasts about 7 seconds. The place has a huge bell tower which is sinking into the ground. Various attempts to stabilise it, including connecting it up to the main building, have failed, and now that corner of the church is sinking, too. The latest effort involves injecting concrete underneath the whole thing. I seem to recall a similar-sounding project on the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the 20th century made matters worse.

Montiverdi is buried in this church, so of course, we had to sing something of his. We did Cantate Domino, which is just such a great piece. Same pattern, 3 or 4 beforehand, a couple in the mass, then 3 or 4 afterwards. These included the Pärt Magnificat, Rachmaninov Bogoroditsye, Harris Faire is the Heaven and Gorecki Totus Tuus.
This latter I was almost sight-reading, whereas with most of the rest of the program I was just seriously under-rehearsed and depending heavily on my fellow second tenor.
After quite a few pages of rather repetitive phrases I was getting bored, and imagined the congregation feeling the same, until we really did start to approach the end, getting slowly quieter and quieter, until we were hardly making any sound at all.
It's amazing how quietly you can sing in a building with such a good accoustic, and still be heard perfectly well. I was completely wiped out, snivelling in the back row, barely able to read the music, my voice quavering with emotion. Fortunately the altos in front of me are used to it!

In the evening, Jenny and I found a really nice little restaurant with a garden by a canal, where we had great food, but more particularly, a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from le Fraghe, which is a local winery. Sadly, they don't import it into the UK, though the Wine Society does stock their Bardolino, so maybe I can persuade the WS to get some of the cab sauv.

There's a certain inevitability about the last photo!

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


We went to Venice on Friday, to sing masses in 3 different churches. We had a fantastic time, and came home exhausted. After one day back at work, I fly to Spain tomorrow for 3 days to see my late step-mother's solicitor and sort out a tax number so I can give the Spanish authorities a third of my inheritance. I don't feel as though my feet have touched the ground yet!

So although I have 115 photographs of Venice, it'll be a while before I have the time to actually post any of them for you to see.

Actually, I'm rather looking forward to Saturday morning, when I can lie in bed and go "I think I'll just stay here for a bit longer, having nothing else to do!"

Monday, 19 May 2008

Paris, France

Some months ago, the usual bunch of us decided it would be good to go to Paris for a weekend. It took a bit of organising, but eventually we had our Eurostar tickets and on Friday, off the seven of us set. Six of us caught a train from Royston to Kings Cross where we met Jane, then walked to St Pancras and, after a coffee, checked in.

The pause for refreshment allowed those of us new to St P to investigate the sculptures. For your information, we are all agreed that the Betjeman is brilliant, and the kissing couple are a waste of space. They might be OK if they were located somewhere you could actually get a decent look at them, but they're not. I didn't waste a digital photo on them.

Because our train wouldn't get to Paris until 10:30, we'd laid on a picnic to help pass the journey. Jenny and I supplied 1 rosé, 2 white and 3 reds, others produced bread, cheese, ham, and a selection of salads, followed by fruit salad. The young Italian woman in the 8th seat was a little startled, but took it in good spirit, especially after we plied her with wine.

We checked into the Hotel California Saint-Germain around 11, but were still fired up, so shot across the road to a café for a nightcap.

In the morning Jane had some shopping she wanted to do, so she disappeared quite early, leaving the rest of us to investigate the Pantheon and agreeing to meet outside the Musée du Quai Branly around 12, since she'd bought timed tickets online.

Having investigated the Pantheon crypt, which was quite disorientating, Jenny and I resurfaced, only to see Peter and Julia high up in a gallery. I would have liked to go upstairs myself, but reasoned that there probably wasn't time. As we hung about waiting for them to reappear, we did start to get a bit concerned that we weren't going to keep our 12 o'clock meeting arrangements. And still they didn't appear.

Finally they turned up at 11:30. They'd somehow got mixed in with a guided tour, who's guide had locked the doors, so they couldn't escape. We hurtled to the Metro, but were still 15 minutes late. Fortunately, the tickets were good even so, and in we went. I was quite stressed by the whole thing, but Jane was as cool as a glass of chardonnay, as usual.

One outside wall of the museum is covered with a pocketed membrane in which loads of plants grow. Of course, there's an irrigation system, but I'm still astonished at how well it works! The purple stuff is aubretia.

The museum was brilliant, as ever, and after a while we emerged for lunch in the museum café. You can come out and re-enter once, so we'd known we could do that from the start. Then back in for a second bite.

The spectacular feather tunic is South American and made from parrot feathers. From behind it's blue, but the photo is rather dark and I don't have time to Photoshop it right now.

When we finally emerged, we strolled gently down some avenues in search of a coffee.

This was the only bad bit of the trip. We stopped in a café where we were served by surly staff and then charged 42 euros for 3 coffees, 2 cappucinos, one tea and one orange juice. That's about £35, the exchange rate being rather worse than it was a few months ago. What a rip-off! Sadly I didn't keep the receipt, so can't tell you the name of the place avoid.

In the evening it poured with rain, so instead of searching for somewhere interesting to eat, we shot straight over the road to where we'd been drinking the previous night. It turned out to be excellent, and we had a really great evening.

On Sunday we went to Sainte Chapelle which is spectacular. Built in the early 13th century by Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns which he'd bought for more than he spent building the chapel, it has just the best wow-factor of any church I've been in. When you go to Paris, you must do it; it's definitely worth the queue. Apparently, two thirds of the stained glass is original 13th century. Amazing it survived the Revolution.

After yet another coffee, we returned to the hotel to collect our bags, then took the Metro to the Gare du Nord, where Jenny and I have eaten at the Brasserie Alizé several times before. It met our expectations, particularly with the bottle of Petit Chablis that accompanied our meals (mostly gigantic salade Niçoise or Caesar salads).

Then it was a simple matter to hop on the train and snooze back to St P., arriving at 5.30 local time.

Jenny, Jane and I had dinner in a local restaurant in Royston, being too idle exhausted to cook anything ourselves. It's a hard life.

I keep thinking of more stuff to add to this post.

One of the really great aspects, was that there were seven of us, we all had ideas about what we wanted to do, but managed all to be so relaxed about what we actually did that nothing really mattered. Whatever we did was OK.

I won, because I'd demanded Musée du Quai Branly, but then so did whoever suggested Sainte Chapelle and also the flower market on the Isle de la Cité, which we also did, but I failed to blog.

I have a feeling I'm going to continue to add to this post.....

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Great weekend; shame about the singing!

Each year around this time we sing Eucharist and Evensong in Binham Priory, on the north Norfolk coast. It was an important monastory up until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, when it was largely destroyed. In the 19th century the existing church was restored, but a lot of the work seems to have been very shoddily done. Still, it's a lovely place to sing, with a very forgiving accoustic.

Jenny and I rent a holiday flat in Sherringham and Lorna and Richard stay with us.

On Saturday afternoon, it being warm and gorgeous, we walked in Sherringham Park where we noticed, that despite the summery feel, the season was actually rather behind where it normally is.
Some camelias, normally long gone, were still out and the rhododendrons for which we went there, were barely starting. Managed a few photos, even so.

The bluebell is a proper English bluebell, and I put the photo here because there's a big fuss going on in the UK right now.

For the past 100 or so years, we've been importing Spanish bluebells and planting them with gay abandon. Sadly, they hybridise with the natives, producing a paler, taller flower without the characteristic droop of the English one, and they seem to be taking over. It's too late, of course, but I thought you might like to see the genuine article before they disappear entirely.

On Saturday evening we usually eat at the excellent No 10 restaurant close by, and on this occasion we were joined by our friends and fellow choristors, Jane, Theresa and Ian, forming a jolly crowd, verging on raucous by the end of the evening.

Sunday morning we sang a mass by Sindl which we've not done before, and inevitably, being somewhat under-rehearsed, some of it went wrong. Fortunately it wasn't too obvious to the audience congregation, so that was OK. The conductor did glare at the tenors, who were the main culprits. The communion motet was the lovely (is there any other sort?) Oh Lord, give thy holy spirit, by Tallis.

In Evensong we did more Tallis as an introit, If ye love me, then Ayleward responses, Weelkes Mag & Nunc and Veni Creator Spiritus by Victoria. The latter is also new, and sadly, the tenors were again unable to get it right. More glares. It'll be OK next time.

Another high point for me was on the drive over from Sherringham to Binham, spotting a marsh harrier over the marshes (where else?) near Cley Next the Sea. A first for me, though sadly only for a couple of seconds as I was driving at the time. You'll spot that I stole this picture from the internet.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Pictures of DC

I finally finished my webpage of the photographs we took in Washington DC the other weekend, so if you've nothing better to do, please take a look.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Tonight's recipe

Jenny is at a high-powered Darwin College celebratory dinner and won't be home for ages, so I cooked myself some dinner and am idling the evening away waiting for her. Actually, I'm not idling it away entirely at all, I'm doing stuff. My web-page for the Washington DC weekend is progressing well and I'm catching up on my friends' blogs, many of whom I've not visited for weeks. Sorry to all of you.

So I treated myself to a grass-fed, organic Aberdeen Angus rib-eye steak from the local farm shop. First I did couscous, as there isn't a potato in the place, and the couscous could sit cooked, under a cover, for 5 mins, without coming to harm. I took the seeds from half a dozen cardamoms, crushed them and threw them in the couscous before cooking in the normal way. I have to tell you, the flavour was subtle, but worth repeating. Very good indeed, though I say so myself.

The steak I just peppered and fried in olive oil, but I did also make a sauce for it. Chopped up a couple of dried apricots, a couple of dates and added about a tablespoon of sultanas. Fried them up in butter for a bit, then threw in some dry sherry. Added a bit of water, covered and left for 5 mins to simmer. If it had been too liquid I'd have taken the lid of to reduce it a bit, but it didn't need it. I imagine the selection of dried fruit you use will depend on a blend of personal taste and what's in the larder (or does that come to the same thing?)

God, I'm a genius!

Oh, OK, and frozen peas as there isn't a vegetable in the house either. Hey, come on, we were away all last weekend!

Accompanied by a bottle of 1993 Señorio de Guadianeja Gran Reserva Cab Sauv, most of which has gone, which accounts for the rather lackadaisical attitude to what I've written. Hic!

And before I go, I can hear the strains of James Taylor seeping up from BBC4 downstairs. I got a shock, I can tell you, when I switched over. I knew he was on, but you have to realise, I have a vinyl lp downstairs which I bought new in about 1975, and he had hair on his head then. Lots of it. I've not seen, heard, nor thought of him since, before tonight. It was a shock, believe me!

India launches the world's first coal-powered rocket.

A spokesman said the hardest part was finding a fireman who could shovel the coal fast enough.