Hot cycling

I normally cycle in Scotland where wind, rain and midges are the major challenges and not necessarily in that order. How exciting then to come upon this ‘Group Cycling’ event in Florence – on a hill above Florence to be precise. Here hundreds of people cycled on gym bikes (I think this might be ‘spinning’) to music and loud encouragement. The moves were demonstrated by chaps up the front doing what the gang should be doing.

This seems a very strenuous activity and it was being done in 34 degrees Celcius. I can hardly walk on the flat in that heat, far less pedal furiously. At least one person looked as if he was about to have a heart attack. Emergency services were all around, as they needed to be. Respect!

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How to open a bottle of wine

You couldn’t make up the series of things that have gone wrong on this Italian holiday. I am a very positive person but there comes a point when even I fail to see the positive side of ‘challenges’. I won’t bore you with luggage issues, or key issues but would anyone believe that it took three corkscrews to open one bottle of wine? The first corkscrew broke in the cork. The second one didn’t work at all. I tried a knife and a pliers-thing and then went back to the supermarket for another corkscrew. Having run of out isn’t-this-an-adventure, I did not even attempt to return the faulty one. Mercifully the third one worked.

On the positive side (see, I can’t resist it!) I had many happy memories of my student days trying to get into bottles without suitable tools and the wine here is cheap and lovely.

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Turntable ferry – Glenelg

The highlight of an adventurous day on bikes was the last working turntable ferry in the world.  This is the community owned Glenelg to  Kylerhea ferry which is manually operated and only takes six cars. It runs across the Kyle Rhea straits south of the Skye Bridge in Scotland.

We biked 41 miles around from Kyleakin, under the Skye Bridge,. The day included two viewpoints of 900 feet each. Spectacular. Exhausting. Felt great to have achieved it, tough though it certainly was.

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Smooth tram-train link – finally!

Hurrah! Edinburgh finally has a covered, more-or-less warm and step-free link between the tram and the Fife train line – Edinburgh Gateway. If that wasn’t exciting enough there is a heater which can be operated by the travelling public. This is in the waiting area, out of the wind and rain which is so often a feature of our train stations in Scotland. Well done ScotRail!

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Serious Sunday drinking

I got on the train in Edinburgh about 12.30 on a Sunday, which is time for a lunchtime drink for many people, I suppose. I was joined by two young (in their 30s) women and the mother of one of them. These well-dressed, friendly, lovely women had gone to Edinburgh for the night and spent it in different bars, according to their phone conversations. Getting out their supplies and plastic glasses, they drank two bottles of wine between them in the first hour and then a can of premium lager each in the next 15 minutes. We all got off the train then (total journey an hour and twenty minutes) and their plan was to go drinking for the afternoon before going home to their families.

I have led a sheltered life, I know. #Gobsmacked.

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Free coffee – well, free to me

My first train south today was a VirginTrains one. As soon as the catering bar opened I was there with my Keep Cup looking for coffee. I often have problems wanting to use my travel cup and I take up the cudgels in defence of sustainability each time. Not only did I have no problem today, but my coffee was free. I questioned the staff member about this and she confirmed that it was free because I brought my own cup and she thinks that ‘that rocks’. If this is company policy, it should be broadcast but it was just this young woman’s policy – her contribution to saving the planet.

I asked her if I could tweet about it, or if that would get her in trouble. That would be fine, she assured me. So I did. Unsurprisingly @VirginTrains replied quickly asking what service I was on. Again I checked with my coffee benefactor if I could divulge this detail and she agreed. She didn’t seem in the least concerned about any consequence to her giving away the company’s coffee. On tweeting the train details and nice words about the onboard team, I got the following response from @VirginTrains:

@moiradunworth We don’t offer refills with these cups/mugs but it’s great to hear Una was on top form this afternoon. Hope you enjoyed your coffee! ^CB

Is it just me or is that young woman in line for a reprimand? She was still unconcerned. I would love to know the inside story of this kind of thing. Maybe Virgin really is the great employer that the team said it is.

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Cambridge – ‘Bicycle capital of the UK’

Bike facilities at YHA Cambridge

I knew there were lots of bikes and cyclists in Cambridge but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. Even in the Artic conditions of this weekend, the streets are full of bicycles. Bikes are used to carry children (often more than one), shopping, dogs and anything else that needs to be transported. YHA hostels always have bike ‘sheds’ but the Cambridge one has a range of bike lockers AND a maintenance point – so I didn’t need to bring my pump or multi-tool kit.

Alternative antlers in the Old Bicycle Shop restaurant

There are so many bikes that the riders don’t need to be afraid of the motorised traffic. Bicycles were here first, after all.  However, some of the manoeuvres are startling – cyclists in dark clothing just dart across the traffic wherever they like. It’s even more hair-raising (if you weren’t wearing a hat to stay warm) in the dark where bicycle lights are clearly considered a waste of energy. Make a stand against climate change – ride your bike without lights. Eeek!

I was sad not to have adventures on my bike here. It is really too cold for recreational cycling – at least for this softie! But the city is beautiful and
the history so interesting. Bikes are not at all a modern invention, relatively, and so it should not seem so incongruous to see this bowler-hatted College porter behind all the bikes at this College gate. There is an ‘illumination’ festival on just now during which complex lighting shows are played on many of the old buildings in the city – gorgeous.

Note to self: come back with a bike in warmer weather!

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Korea – a visit to the Border

Unification Piano with barbed wire for strings

South Korea is an energetic, efficient and scrupulously polite place to visit. I ‘discovered’ it on a one-night stopover and have now come for a slightly longer visit. The highlight of any time spent here must be a trip to the border with North Korea. On the way we learnt some of the history of the division, which is a source of great distress to people in the South. Those in the North can’t be all that happy either, if one accepts reports of starvation and lack of everyday freedoms. Only the army are well fed in the North – young men serve 10 years in the military and women serve seven. Ouch! We heard about Korean families who have been separated for decades, with absolutely no contact possible.

Putting the country back together

There is a demarcated area (the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ or ‘DMZ’) of two kilometers on either side of the border in order to avoid war-starting skirmishes. This no-man’s land is an ecological haven for birds and wildlife, has very clean air and great quality land. It would – there are no humans interfering with it. We were able to look across the border but it was snowing and so the visibility was very poor. However, the music continued – this is the ‘peace weapon’ of choice of the South – they broadcast loud music at their neighbours. We were able to walk into one of the tunnels. Tunnels are dug from the North with the apparent intention of attacking Seoul. Several have been discovered but it is likely there are many more – this seems to be the stuff of Holywood but is real enough here in Korea.

The South lives in hope of reunification and, to that end, have built a train line. You can ride the train to the border and they hope to extend the line North as soon as peace is restored. Everywhere that we stopped there are monuments and pieces of art reflecting the separation and the tensions. My ‘favourite’ is the ‘Unification Piano‘ in which the strings are replaced by barbed wire. Eeek!

On returning south to Seoul the contrast between the bleak border area and the bustling, colourful city is very striking. Here in Seoul there is the now-regular Saturday protest about the impeachment of their President. It is a lively, colourful event with flowers being used when protesters feel the need to throw something. I detect a theme here in terms of weapons of choice – music and flowers. I do love this country and hope its partition is resolved before too long. That seems optimistic but let’s be optimistic – they are!

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Sydney – a quick visit

I have fallen in love with Sydney in spite of the unpredictable weather. It can go from a heatwave to damp and cool in a day – and then back again. But it is so varied. Walking from Bondi Beach to Coogee in a heatwave (as you do!) I snapped this chap with his surfboard on his bicycle and the dog too! Reminiscent of Japan where cycling your board to the beach seemed commonplace.
Back in the city, I love lots of things. Going to the opera at the Sydney Opera House was an experience to treasure forever. Eating there in the evening, watching the Harbour Bridge light up and ferries going to and fro was magical. The huge cruise liner heading out of town was a bit terrifying size-wise and raises issues about whether these cruise ships are good for the city or not.

Recycling is strong here in Sydney – you can post your recyclable waste in these machines and get points on a card, which are presumably exchangeable for something useable – in a recyclable container, of course. And so it goes on. If your offering is not recyclable there, it politely rejects it. For people living in places without easy access to a recyclables collections, this is a great idea. Wonder if you can get gin and tonic with those points?

Tourist tip: look out for the Susannah Place museum. It’s a set of houses from the 1800s – preserved, rather than restored. Well worth a visit – only open 2 – 4 pm.

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The joy of independent bookshops

Independent bookshops are such an endangered species in the face of the relentless march of online shopping. How lovely, then, to find two very different indie bookshops in Auckland.

The Women’s Bookshop in Posonby has become a go-to place if you want to find good and interesting books of all kinds. Their purpose is to promote women’s writing and to provide a range of books that meets the diverse interests of women, though there are many male authors represented there and many male customers too. Everyone likes the different focus here.  I enjoyed the hand-written mini-reviews of many of the books on display. This review task is clearly shared among the staff as each one is signed. The walls, where not covered in books, present articles about women writers’ lives and achievements. Generally this is an uplifting place – do bring your credit card as it is hard to leave empty-handed.

Another amazing institution is the ‘Hard to find’ secondhand bookshop in Onehunga. Keeping part of the orignal window from its time as a fruiterer’s, it’s a maze of small rooms and under-stair spaces with books on subjects ‘from the rare to the recent’ as their blurb says. So bookworms will never be bored in Auckland!

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