Saturday, 30 October 2010

Happy Halloween


I think Mom really enjoyed making these costumes this first Halloween we had Johnny, who was 2 and a bit at the time.  He sure enjoyed wearing his, too, though the face paint was apt to get smeared pretty quickly.  There was a Papa Bear outfit as well, but you'll have to take my word for it. 

Do you see good costumes on Trick or Treat night?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Fire, Rain and Faith

My computer is broke for the moment.  Fingers crossed, Bill's diagnosis of a broken on/off switch is the whole problem and I just need to find a repair shop.  In the mean time, other people's photos will have to do.

The last part of our trip took us to what I refer to as the Burnt Church, the Church of Agia Mavra.  Bill pointed out the cracked patina on the front doors [which I could have shown you...] was similar to the finish on one side of my Grandmother's china cabinet, which was also involved in a fire in about 1944, I believe.  I would never have that refinished as I see it as part of the furniture's history - a special form of 'distressing' if you will.

Inside the church were both the new icon with jewellery and the old icon with the melted jewellery around it.  Bill pointed out it was brass, not gold, which I thought was a relief.  I'd hated to think about already poor people giving up what they could little afford.  Giving up something of sentimental value would be sufficient, I should think.  Interesting to read that the divide between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches included arguments about whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used at Eucharist and that the respective leaders of both each excommunicated the other.  How adult of them...

There was one last stop for another ice cream and some scenic photos of the bay below, only the scenery was more about storm clouds than shore line.  When one of the umbrellas took flight and a potted plant was shattered, we hurriedly finished off our cones and headed for the coach.  

One of the other bus trip stories that stuck in my mind was the tradition of having the local priest bless any new endeavor:  a new business on opening day, the first launch of a new fishing boat, a new home, etc.  Sometime around Easter was a good time to have each room in your home blessed, even if it wasn't new (I wondered if this was a religious version of 'spring cleaning').  You could even have the priest bless your cat if you wished.  Well, that's the tour operator's story.  I'd have to learn a bit more about the Greek Orthodox religion and perhaps live among the locals a while before I swallowed all that.

On our last before leaving day, it was good to have long trousers and a sweater to hand.  I was amused by the Brits' determination to have a holiday in spite of cooler weather.  A few even toughed it out by the pool during a brief rain storm.  Most were from the North of England, obviously, and so their temperature perceptions were different to mine.  As I said, on our last day the sun blazed so perhaps our Welsh neighbours would have a good second week.  I don't think I could have entertained myself sufficiently for a second week, so I was pleased to be headed home to my own bed, sunshine or rain.

I'll update this with photos when (I refuse to say 'if') they become available.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

All Things Olive

At some point in any tour, you are likely to be given retail opportunities.  I've no idea how these things are arranged, but some lucky business gets coaches outside their place.  One of the places we stopped sold crafts and honey, their own homemade wine, flavoured vinegars and olive oil.  They were generous with their samples and Bill ended up buying a jar of honey.  The wine was actually very nice and, at 4 bottles for 10 Euros, a bargain to boot, but we just took the honey.  We've brought local produce home before and it never tastes as good in Britain as it did where it was made.  You don't realise how much sun and warmth add to the taste of food; nevertheless, honey seemed a reasonably safe bet.  As cynical as I sound about these little tours I generally do feel beholden to make some contribution to the local economy when I visit, particularly a place not quite as wealthy as Britain or the US.

Another place we stopped was at an olive oil factory.  There a woman proceeded to lecture us on the process but as I couldn't hear or understand a word she said I was pleased to be shown a film that compared the old traditional methods with the modern factory approach.

Basically the olives are picked, cleaned and completely  smashed up into a paste.  A centrifuge is then used to separate the oil.  The paste that is left is made into things like soap (which I cannot recommend; we bought some years ago and it was not nice.)  


There was a bowl of crushed pits indicating that was about the only waste product...but I'd bet they find a use for it, like building roads or making little statues or something.  This explanation of making olive oil is probably a bit more accurate than mine.  


I didn't bother with the finer details about 'virgin', 'extra-virgin', 'cold pressed' etc.  They manage to hike the price in the supermarket with some of those labels I've noticed and personally I can't tell the difference in taste.  So far as I know they all have about the same number of calories.  Further more, though I can't claim to have read the studies themselves, I've always heard that the Mediterranean diet is very good for you because of the tomatoes, the olive oil and the high consumption of fish.  


I'm not aware of any claims that only Greeks or Italians who consume extra expensive olive oil benefit from such a diet.  Until I hear something of that ilk from a reliable source (ie one, among other things, not selling olive oil) I'll assume that those phrases have more to do with marketing than health.  In any case, we like olive oil and so Bill bought a litre in a tall tin bottle.


At some point we drove past the village of Ex Hora, where the guide pointed out a huge olive tree reputed to be some 2,000 years old.  I was thinking she had said it was the world's oldest, but as Wikipedia points out, such claims can be contentious and perhaps I mis-heard her.  In any case, this tree is notable enough to be on the list, which is how I know the name of the village. 

During the coach ride the guide had time to tell us stories.  Guides like to do that, or maybe it's part of the job description.  Anyhow, she told us a story about Zeus, who went among the humans disguised as a peasant.  An elderly couple he encountered shared their meager food and their hospitality impressed him so well that he identified himself and said he would grant them a wish.  They didn't feel they needed anything, but asked if they could be allowed to die together.  Their biggest fear was that one would die and leave the other to be alone and grieving.  (This called to mind my Mom's cousin and his wife, both in their mid 90s, married for over 70 years).  Zeus granted their wish and went back to Mount Olympus.  Some time passed until one day, whilst working in their field the couple felt their time to die had come, so they laid down and wrapped their arms around each other and died peacefully together.  Zeus made an olive tree grow in that place.  This explains why the the trunk of the olive tree is of several strands twisted, it represents that couple with their arms entwined.

I confess to shedding a tear when I heard the story.  I was going to check my Bullfinch's, but can't seem to locate it.  I can't find anything about this on the internet, except for at a Greek tourist website, so I'm thinking it's not proper mythology.  It's still a lovely story, don't you think?  

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Rabbit and The Cat

The coach pulled up in a small village road that had a cluster of restaurants, all with their marble floored terraces with plastic protective walls rolled down against the grey cloud and cool breeze.  Bill and I remarked on the fact that the other restaurants were completely empty but that we were joining a couple of other coach loads of people in the chosen place.  We wondered if they had won the tender for the coach tours or whether the restaurants had a selected day of the week to share the bounty.

We soon found an empty table and one of the first things I noticed was the cats darting around under and between tables.  None of the staff paid them any attention and given the open nature of the restaurant, a determined cat (is there any other kind?) would always manage to get in.  I wasn't bothered as long as none of them hopped up on my table.  

I looked for goat on the menu, but finding none decided to have rabbit for the first time.  I wasn't sorry as it was delicious but, as it had lots of small bones in it and tastes pretty much like chicken, I probably wouldn't bother with rabbit again.  

We watched a woman at the next table feeding bits from her husband's leftover scraps to a young cat.  When she missed a beat the cat glanced our way and I told it "No chance here."  Bill agreed with me, saying it would be cannibalism.  I continued eating for a while and pondered the taxological relationship between cats and rabbits.  The penny finally dropped and I realised he was implying I was eating cat.  

Before I could kick him, he pointed to the next table where a cat was poised in a chair at a vacated table, studying the cat-sized carcass someone had left on their place.  Before I could get my camera out, the cat had swiped the skeleton and disappeared under the plastic wall into the bushes outside.

I didn't begrudge the cat the bones, but it did make me start wondering about what sort of dish washing arrangements the restaurant had.  We passed on dessert.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Bill Enters Monastery

After the boat trip the coach took us along to the Monastery of Anafonitria.  

Bill thought it was wonderful and would be a great place to live.  I'm guessing that had more to do with the lovely farm animals and the quiet serenity than with religious convictions.  I seem to have found it quite picturesque as well.  

The patron saint of Zakynthos, Agios Dionysios, lived in this place in the 16th century.  

He was noted for being a very forgiving man;  Bill's that way, too, but I doubt I could live with a saint. 

We weren't allowed photos inside the church.  

Apparently it is a custom to have an icon, such as a painting of Mary or Jesus, inside the church and for people to give pieces of jewelery to it in thanks for wishes granted, or perhaps in hopes of good things to come.  

The main other thing that I recall was spotting a painted pattern high up on a stucco wall that reminded both of us of the faux wallpaper effects found in the wealthier homes of Mary King's Close.

After the monastery, the next stop was lunch.  I was ready!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Boats and Goats

Right.  I was going to tell you about the tour we took. Perhaps I should explain about tour operator type holidays.  They are the simplest, sometimes cheapest way to book a holiday if you know just what you want, but there are caveats.  For one, soon after arrival everyone is expected to attend a meeting with the tour rep for your hotel.  Expected  might be too strong a word, but they will hunt you down and ensure that everything is OK, etc., etc., if you don't show up; it's easier just to go and get it out of the way.  

The presentation is always longer than you want, full of hokey jokes and the point of it is to sell you tours:  a boat ride, a bus trip to a market, a camel ride, Greece dancing - with broken plates - and dinner in a warehouse on the other side of the island, and so on.  You also get a bit of local information, some recommendations for places to eat, how to negotiate a taxi fare, whether the public transport is reliable, where to buy English food if you don't like foreign stuff, usually a map of some kind and the all important hours the rep will be on site if you have any complaints or problems.  They used to bribe folks to attend by serving free - and often nasty - alcohol, but the recession has obviously hit the tourist industry which is perhaps just as well in this case.  

After the meeting they pretty much let you alone, bar leaving cute little notes under your door hoping you're having a great time or notes about your departure time and such.   

Tour reps, rightly or not, are generally reputed to have round heels, probably because they tend to be single.  Though they wear smart uniforms, I've never yet seen one not baked and bleached to a crispy, wrinkled future and looking like they've packed a lot of experience into their relatively short lives.  That said, they all seem to be very organised and on top of meeting your needs.  Being based in a foreign country for six months at a time must be similar to military service, only without the violence (bar a few drunk tourists), the retirement package or the respect.  I'm certain they work quite hard for a small paycheck with only sun-and-vodka-drenched perks.  

Anyhow, at our meeting where our poor guy, Colin, was competing with the loud music from the pool bar, Bill decided on a boat trip and a bus ride.  That particular boat trip turned out not to be available, so he took another.  The second was later cancelled due to rough seas, so we gave it up.  The bus ride is what I'll be telling you about - and it turned out to include a short boat ride!

We met with other members of the tour at the top of the road.  The coach took us up to the top of the island (north-wise and elevation-wise) on a number of switchback roads.  At one of the turns we were invited to admire the goat population found there.  At a certain vantage point it was recommended we disembark and take pictures of the view, which we all duly did.  I felt a bit like herded cattle at that point, but the weather was pleasant so I didn't mind, really.   Turned out also to be a 'comfort stop' before we took a ride in a glass-bottomed boat.  We had time for an ice cream while we waiting for our boat to come, something I've not had in I don't know when.

The glass-bottom was of limited use unless we were in a cave because of light reflection.  The main attraction of the trip was to show us some caves where there were pretty turquoise lights, caused by the sun reflected off the chalk and limestone underwater.  

We've done this before somewhere; Malta, perhaps.  All the while I was clicking away part of me thought this was a daft thing to do, but was also blessing digital technology, pitying the film developing industry and enjoying the warm weather.

The young boat driver looked liked he had the job from heaven driving from cave to cave.  Besides turquise reflections there were interesting boats on the water, as well as buildings on the cliffs above us.   I decided that if I was going to start being cynical I might as well just stay at home.  There were stories about some of the caves, something about priests and smuggling, but I didn't follow it all.

Our boat trip concluded just about the time the clouds and the air cooled a bit; we'd had the best part of the day and I didn't envy the folks in the next boat load.  


That was just the first portion of our tour, so more coming up soon!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Greek Food

If I practically lived on Insalata Capresi (tomatoes and mozzarella cheese) in Italy, I did the same with tomatoes and feta cheese in Greece.  Whilst the two cuisines share the important role of tomatoes and olives/olive oil, I can't immediately call to mind much else that is exactly the same.  Of course the food of the poor all has something similar in the way of breads or pancakes:  tortilla, naan, pitta, focaccia, cornbread and other uses of starches e.g., rice and potatoes.  In really poor soil such as found in both Italy and Greece, olives and grapes are the crops that fare really well.  The Greeks seem to be starting to develop their wine industry, or perhaps it's just something we'd not noticed before.  Cucumber seemed to be prominent on the restaurant menus, be we couldn't find any in the stores that were wizened.  In fact, aside from the luscious tomatoes, I thought the fruit and veg on offer were fairly grim and extremely limited in variety.  We far from starved, however.  The melons were fabulous and the grapes as good as they come.

Bill lived on feta cheese - though he eventually tired of it (not me!) - and salami sausages.    He also discovered 'Russian salad', a kind of potato salad, and wonder-of-wonders, olives with pits in.  He doesn't touch olives of any kind as a rule, but as with many strange foods, they seem to taste best when eaten at their place of origin.  It may have to do with having them slightly warm and eating outdoors.  Though we stored the olives in the  fridge, they did soon warm up and even though I normally won't bother with any but seedless olives, I put up with pits on this occasion.

Greek yogurt is much richer than regular, more like cream I though.  We had that with fruit for breakfast or desserts.  The one Greek food I'm certain most folks would love is baklava.  I love it - in small quantities - in spite of not having much of a sweet tooth.  If you've never tried the layers of filo pastry and sliced almonds saturated with butter and honey, you have truly deprived your taste buds.  We only had it the once of r dessert.  I tried to convince Bill or order a single portion to share, but he insisted on all or nothing.  I didn't dare have it more than once  for fear of needing a new wardrobe.

The resort town of Kalamaki was only comprised of two main  streets forming a right angle, each packed with restaurants, pubs, leather goods, beach and tourist tat shops and other tourist aimed attractions such as boat rides and bus tours.  We  strolled the length of the L-shape, the beach and the back road to our hotel  a number of times, assessing the menus displayed in front of each restaurant.  In the evenings, 'touts' would stand on the pavement and encouraged pedestrians to enter their establishment or at least peruse the menu.  We have yielded to a few in the past and rarely regretted it, but as so many of these places seemed to lack commitment to their native fare, I was determined to find a 'real' Greek restaurant.

The Milos Restaurant (or perhaps it was Milos's) advertised Greek and International cuisine, but the board on the pavement listed only Greek dishes:

souvlakia, moussaka, tzazikimezes, lamb, chicken, beef, etc.

I don't buy lamb and I never order it at a restaurant.  I find it to be greasy, expensive and I don't know how to cook it.   The Greeks do, though.  I'd made up my mind also to try eating goat or kid on this trip which I'm assuming will be our last to Greece.  As it happened, there was none on offer, but I still manged other culinary adventures.  The first night I had lamb stew, which was delicious, as was my starter, comprised of dolmades, tzaziki, something rolled in bread crumbs and fried, something wrapped in filo pastry and fried and taramasalata.  

Bill had something with chicken, I think.  We ended up going to Milos twice more, the food was so good.  The staff had just the right approach as well:  service was attentive but not obsequious, friendly but not familiar, serious but with humour, careful but also comfortable.  The manager - perhaps owner - shook our hands when we left and recognized us when we returned two nights later.  He fairly danced when we said we would return the next night, our last.

The second night Bill discovered Big Beans, as it was listed.  Large butter beans in a tomato and garlic sauce that had min groaning with delight.  I felt much the same about my lamb in a honey sauce.  He had that lamb the next night - and more Big Beans.  I had a small adventure:  saganaki, which in spite of sounding like a Japanese city translates into baked cheese.  Imagine tender bits of beef and ham with mushrooms in wine sauce, baked in a small clay pot covered with melted Gruyere cheese.  I wasn't certain about that cheese, whether it would be too strong, but it was not.  It was heaven, but so rich I couldn't finish it all; though I did my darnedest.

What I hope you'll take away from this is an intention to try some Greek food next time you meet it.  True, the names are strange combinations that include too many Ks and Zs for comfort and you may turn your nose up at goat or lamb, but if you like Italian I suspect you would like Greek if you gave it a go.

The last night we let the manager talk us into adding bread to our order.  When he brought the small basket he recommended salting the buttered bread, saying how nice it would taste.  We told him we'd already discovered bread, olive oil and salt and he rushed away to fetch some olive oil.  he was stuttering with pride - and limited English - to tell us, several times, this was HIS olive oil that HE produced.  When the season ended and the restaurant closed, as it would very soon, he would next go to harvest olives for HIS olive oil.  We were impressed at his multiple talents.  I suspect than in a challenging economy the most successful people are those who can be this flexible.  I half expected him to try to sell us a bottle, but that didn't happen, which was good as we'd already purchased some olive oil on a tour we'd taken.

About which I'll tell you tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Frugal Greece

It's one of the best things about living in England:  loads of interesting (foreign) places in Europe are a puddle-jumper away, which means the possibility of fairly inexpensive holidays.  The tourist industry here has the sunny spots well charted and colonised, so even timid tourists can feel right at home.  However, there can be a downside to this.   

Brits are famous for insisting on their very own fry up for breakfast and their very own fish and chips for their evening meal.  There is at least one Irish pub in every tourist place I've been to.  Of course not all British tourists feel this way, but I've heard of someone who even packed a suitcase with tins of beans and loaves of white bread when going abroad!  

Whilst Greece is listed as a 'high income economy' they aren't fabulously wealthy by Western standards overall.  I'm sure there are areas of Greece that might look different, but in all the places I've been, the poverty shows in the unfinished buildings (something about avoiding property taxes) and the rusted cars.  Certainly on Zante (which is the Venetian name; Zakynthos is the Greek name for the island - we kept wondering about that...) they know who butters their bread.  Restaurants advertise not just Greek (if even that), but British, Indian, Italian and Chinese (other comfortable cuisines).  Everyone down to the hotel maids speaks at least a little English - and probably a bit of German and Italian as well.

We chose a holiday completely opposite to the one we had in Italy earlier this year.  This was going to be all in one place, we chose self-catering accommodation (which means a small kitchen), we chose something with a pool and near to a beach (unfortunately it was also near the airport).  Instead of booking the flight and hotel ourselves, we went with a tour company, even knowing the sales spiels and anxious attentions we'd get from the tour rep.  We didn't go to learn anything historical or cultural, only to veg out in some warm weather and eat different foods.  The holiday was no doubt even cheaper because we were at the very end of the season.  Many of the businesses in Kalamaki were already shut for the season, though there were plenty of restaurants still available.

I took a swimsuit, but we didn't spend a lot of time at either the pool or beach.  I'm not big on sunbathing anymore; I'd rather walk in the surf.  I took more clothes than I absolutely needed, but some of those were sewing projects -- shortening long skirts to knee length -- that I've meant to get to for ever and finally did.  I read 4-5 books, 2 magazines, did my sewing, made the occasional meal, washed the occasional dish.  We shopped for food about every other day.  We ate out for 3 dinners and 2 lunches; the rest were light meals in the room.  Bill was so good:  he went for a short run nearly every day.  I made it out once.  My pathetic "excuse" is that the bed was quite hard and so I woke up tired and a bit bruised each morning.  We each bought a new pair of sandals.  My purchase made it possible for me to get rid of two less useful pairs of black sandals.

We sat out on our balcony a lot. Unfortunately, so did our neighbours.  Bill deduced that we had Mancunians on our left, Welsh on our right.  Everyone was pleasantly friendly, but also rather noisy and smokers one and all.  We bought a citronella candle in hopes of warding off the cigarette smoke that drifted our way.  Though I couldn't understand much other than swear words (why are they always so distinct?), the Welsh woman seemed to speak a continual stream of consciousness.  She had a wonderfully deep whiskey- and-fag voice, and the accompanying thick cough.  Her husband seemed bored with his new retirement lifestyle; he often struck up conversations with Bill over the balcony wall.  The 30-something woman further down the row spoke to her pre-adolescent child in a tone that near took my skin off; he was a whiney child, but mostly pretty quiet. 

Everyone (else) had bacon for breakfast which set off their smoke alarms.  We watched a young man in our block do an amazing sprint towards the office one afternoon.  I remarked on him to Bill, saying he didn't look at all like a runner.  Turns out they'd gone out of their flat to see the airplanes and a breeze had blown their door shut.  They were locked out and there was bacon frying inside.  Well, it's good he could still shift when it was important.  

In the first part of the holiday it tended to rain at night but be sunny and in the 70s-80s during the day, which feels surprisingly warm to me now that I've been in England for 15 (!?!) years.  In the last few days it was cloudy and cooler but, just as Bill predicted, when we were getting on the plane to leave it was gorgeously hot!  


All this probably makes me sound really snooty and discontent, but I wasn't. It was all pretty much just as I expected.  I may not have had much in common with the neighbours, but no one spoke unkindly to me and I didn't figure much of the rest was really my business.  On other trips we've experienced slightly better or slightly more basic accommodation, had better resort locations and quieter neighbours, but we chose to go down-market and we got what we paid for.  I agree with Bill that the tour company could have been a bit more forthcoming about the proximity of the airport -- though we did know it was pretty near.  Then again, imagine the challenge of convincing someone they wanted to experience the terrifying thunder of not just tourist but USAF and RAF airplanes!   

Maybe we just should have taken up plane-spotting.  Then again, maybe not in Greece...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Going Different Ways

I thought I did rather well, getting all those posts out of only 2 days in Edinburgh.  Simon stayed on a bit longer with Sarah and Jane & Chris came back home with us.  We only had another day with them and so we took them blackberry picking for entertainment; we are all easily amused, obviously.  The next morning Bill got up and took them to the airport at about 4 am, bless him.  I just managed to toddle out of bed quick enough to give Jane a kiss good-bye.  They were off on a coach tour of Spain and Morocco.  

We considered going with them to Spain, as that's high on Bill's list, but they had opted for a rather luxurious travel package that cost more than we were prepared to pay.  It's an easier way to keep Chris corralled, he loves to see every corner of anywhere he visits (Bill says he's even worse than I am, which is pretty amazing).  This way he has to get on the bus or be left behind, so Jane's choice was brilliant in that respect.  She's sent a couple of glowing reports that are making me reconsider Morocco.  We are already making plans for the Alhambra, a place Bill has long wanted to visit, but that is in the future.

We chose instead to go to Greece, though we've been twice before, but to different places.  I think Greek food is heaven; I place it second only to Italian.  Bill had some leave to use, we wanted some sun before winter sets in and it was relatively cheap to go to Greece, more specifically to Zakynthos. (You can click on the '-' symbol to get your bearings.)

So, as you might guess, that's what I'll be telling you about next, not that we did anything wildly exciting.  I just thought you might want to share the experience and I get even more value for money:  nearly three holidays (the one we plan, the one we have and the one I write).  That's being frugal, right?  

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Writers' Museum

We were happily investigating funny little closes on the Royal Mile and accidentally came upon the Writers’ Museum.

Chris and Jane disappeared inside for a while but I was enjoying the pavement outside.

Bill wondered who you had to know to have an address like ‘2 Lady Stairs Close’.

Chris came out and said the stairwell was worth investigating, so I did, taking my camera with me.

I assumed that to enter the museum cost money but since I crossed no doorway but the outside entrance and never met another person, I’d not entered the museum.

I was wrong on two counts – a) the museum was free and b) no photo allowed.  Oops, too late.

The stairwell was beautiful, right up to the ladder leading to the hatch in the loft; also the quaint windows with the bullseye glass. This used to be the cheap bit, but of course now it is a novelty and therefore more expensive.


(If you’ve never read John Buchan, you’ve missed a treat).

We returned the next day to see the museum – all about Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, all Scottish writers of note. 

The house was also beautiful.  It was built in 1622 by a man named Grey and owned in turn by several upper class families, including a Lady Elizabeth Something of Stairs, AKA Lady Stairs, who bought the house in 1719. It was rescued from near demolition at the turn of the last century by a gentleman who donated it to the city for use as a museum.


Somes it is well to note comments writ on stone as well as those carved in it.  Just so you know what some folks are thinking...

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mary King's Close

Another thing we did was to visit Mary King's Close, something Bill was keen to do.  I know I said I've seen this before, but it was over 15 years ago and what I saw this time was altogether different.  Photos weren't allowed, sadly, but there is a photo gallery here which will show you a bit of what we saw, but it wasn't quite as hokey as you might think.  Oh, there were the usual ghost stories and all.  I suppose people see what they want to see at these things. 

Our tour was led by a young man, an actor of sorts, who gave us all the safety advice - much of it necessary as the tour was not well lit and floors quite uneven, steep, etc.  I didn't learn too much history I didn't already know, but the fact that this tour actually only discussed real people and real history made it pretty good in my book.  I got a better understanding of the geography of the closes in Edinburgh as well.  They were basically very narrow streets - perhaps 3 people could walk abreast  - that ran down the hill from the Royal Mile (at a high elevation, running between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House) and Nor Loch, at a much lower elevation; this was handy for when the buckets were emptied into the streets twice a day (at 7 and 10, but I can't recall which was am or pm) with a shout of "Garde a l’eau!" (which sounds over here like gardy-loo).  Of course the refuse eventually drained down into the loch, which was as much 'mud' as water.  

Our tour wasn't simple of the one street, but rather we walked back and forth in parallel to the Royal Mile, crossing and re-crossing several narrow streets.  The is a misconception that it is a buried city, but it is just dis-used and ancient housing over which the local Council decided to build offices (that was the reason given for not allowing photos, being under a government building, right?) and it is not permitted for people to live under ground, so the tenants back when the offices were built had to be bought out.  We got to see through the front door of the last tenant, very wealthy compared with many, having something like 7 rooms for 5 people (that's a guess), compared with the first room we visited, about 15' square for two families, perhaps up to 12 people (with perhaps one or two pieces of furniture, like a chest; a coal fire if they were lucky, and a bucket in the corner:  Home Sweet Home).

There was a story about one of the residents of Mary King's Close, a fairly wealthy woman who owned a shop on Market Street.  She was a real miser, apparently, and rather than pay her daughter's dowry to her son-in-law as owed (recorded in court records), she killed him.  Her daughter was pregnant and so saved from immediate punishment of death.  I believe she escaped to Europe never to be seen again.  The mother's punishment was drowning in the Loch, which apparently took some time given the thick content.  

Mary King was another resident who was fairly wealthy from trade.  She inherited her wealth from her father and being one of the notable residents, people began to refer to the close using her name.  Her wealth and position were documented in the tax records during the time of Charles I (1600-1649).  

Edinburgh claims to have been the city with the first skyscrapers and it is because of the height of the tenements built over the closes which ranged from perhaps 2-3 stories at the main road to, it was claimed, as many as 14 stories down at the Nor Loch end.  It wouldn't take much logic to work out that the wealthy lived at the top - near the Royal Mile where they likely had shops - and the poorest lived at the bottom.  I can't even imagine life on the ground floor nearest the Nor Loch, can you?  I can't recall the name of the houses - something like turnstile houses or turnkey houses, referring to the winding stairs that gave access to the upper apartments.  

Of course, to widen the market appeal, they talk a lot in the adverts about plague and ghosts. I believe one of the volunteers at another site we visited (Gladstone's Land - not that interesting) said that Edinburgh experienced 11 outbreaks of plague.  I can tell you from my previous line of work that plague is one of the more fascinating diseases (zoonotic diseases are much more fun, generally) if that sort of thing interests you (in which case I'd highly recommend The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett)...but where was I?  Oh yes, if a family was known to have plague, they weren't boarded in, but they were placed under quarantine and only a designated plague officer could bring you food, etc.  There is a room on the tour that has a mountain of toys -- I was reminded of the fence around the Federal building in Oklahoma City -- brought by tourists to 'comfort' the ghost of Annie, a little girl abandoned by her family in the time of plague.  apparently a psychic from Japan was able to identify this presence and the fact that she was distressed at being left without even her doll for company.  Oh well, it is a tourist trap after all...

Personally, I found what little I could grasp about the reality of life in Edinburgh in the 17th Centure to be sufficiently gruesome without any ghosts.  If you ever find yourself in Auld Reekie, I'd recommend this tour (even at £11).

Thursday, 14 October 2010

St Giles Cathedral

Not sure what do say about this place, really, other than it sits on the Royal Mile and is very pretty inside, but in my opinion, even better outside.

It is free to tour, but not to photograph inside, and there is a loo downstairs, also free.  All important stuff.  

Outside, in Parliament Square West,  the brick paving is interesting, showing the first paved road, 

laid to allow lawyers dry access to nearby Parliament House and the Signet Library.  The gold bricks are the locations of the Tollbooths,

the place where the townspeople came to pay their taxes.  I’m sure that it was thinking about the gathering of people, rather than the payment of taxes, that caused Sir Walter Scott to describe the Tollbooths as the heart of Midlothian, hence the stones shaped in a heart.

Either that or he loved paying his taxes.  In which case, he can come back and pay mine for me.