Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rutland Water[fowl]

Friday night we got together with some neighbors for a little dinner and a lot of wine.  I brought one bottle over as a gift to the host, but I just caught him out side and he told me our crew of 8 went through 14 bottles over the course of the night.  We had a great time and had a lesson in the local Nottingham dialect, like the greeting "Ayup me duck!".  That's the only one that I can remember now.

Saturday was off to a slow start, but after some coffee and eggs we managed to clean up and hit the road toward Rutland Water nature preserve.  My coworker (ahem, I mean "collegue" as I was corrected at dinner), told me about this place as it is famous for waterfowl viewing.  The reservoir is an artificial lake for drinking water, but the south end is protected as a bird sanctuary.  It's was a nice drive through the hills of Leicestershire into the small village of Egleton.  It was cold and overcast, but you can't let that keep you indoors, you know.

Our landlord left a pair of binoculars in our bungalow's garage.

My parents used to take me birding at the Indiana state parks as a youngster - I even had my own pair of binoculars.  Kerry also took an ornithology class at IU as a technical elective; it was between birds or fungus, she tells me.  Additionally, we have about 8 bird feeders back at home - they entertain the cats (viewing from indoors) while we're out of the house.   So, between the two of us, we are dangerously close to a nerd-level interest in birds.  Deal with it.

Classic Garmin directions
While the reserve is technically free to enter, the Anglian Water Birdwatching Centre maintains trails and hides around the various lagoons for birdwatching pleasure.  I believe the area is protected thanks to Sir David Attenbourough, England's famous naturalist who grew up in the Leicester area.  So for a small fee, we got to tromp through the muddy trails in the cold and check out the bird activity from the comfort of the hides.  At least they blocked the wind.

I'm watching the widgeons, mallards, and greylag geese.

Kerry's checking out mute swans, coots, and little grebes
Our camera is not nice enough to capture the birds themselves, and if you cared enough you can easily look at pictures of these animals on the internet.  That said I will point you in the right direction.  The centre maintains a monthly count of the birds which you can use to plan your visit here.   We did see at least 15 different species, even on a cold windy day like today.  

So I think we got our money's worth.  But, if I had to do it again, or advising anyone else, I would wait until spring.  Mainly because it would be warmer and probably more activitiy, but the big deal is the osprey migration from western Africa.  But since you're on a small island, you can bet that about 10 times as many people will be joining you on a Saturday.  Also parking was free, but when I went to pick up my permit to walk on the trails the wanted my registration number... so that's how they get rid of the riffraff who try to visit without paying.

Kerry investigating the scene of a spontaneous pigeon explosion (or fox attack?)

Not exactly picturesque, and it was cold and windy too.  You had to be pretty dedicated to spend more than a few hours out here.
Hmm, trail got a bit muddy in spots.  And I forgot to tell Kerry to wear her wellies!

So, I offered a piggyback ride over the mud, she married such a gentleman!

Dexter cows grazing and trampling near the water edge for conservation purposes; I guess the waterbirds don't like it if the grass gets too long.  And their poo is important to attract insects which in turn attract more birds.

Kerry said she had to go through 5 additional doors to get to the actual toilet.
After our walk through the cold, we decided to go find a late lunch.  Luckily for us, we were driving back through the UK's "Rural Capital of Food", Melton Mowbray!

Will they live up to this claim?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Melton Mowbray is also the home of the pork pie, my favorite British delicacy.  So, you know we had to make a pit stop at...

The "OG" pork pie shoppe, Mark it off the bucket list!

I picked up my pies and we started searching for a cozy restaurant to order a hot bowl of soup.  It was approaching 2:30, and we were coming up empty.  Just basic sandwich shops and dirty pubs.  All the inviting-looking places were closed in this post-lunch pre-dinner limbo. 

We did walk past some very nice outdoor vendors selling produce, meat, fish, and flowers.  And the cheese - Melton Mowbray is famous for stilton, like blue cheese but more mild.  So there's your rural food.  But I wasn't in the mood to shop for groceries.

No mare's milk! (maybe you've heard of the whole horsemeat debacle going on over here)
With my pies and a loaf of "special plum" bread in hand, we left hungry.  It just was not meant to be on this day.  I went home and made a hearty beef stew that did the trick.  But, that took about 2.5 hours to simmer, so we had to snack to take the hunger edge off, since we missed lunch.  This was the perfect opportunity to enjoy some fresh pork pie.

Since Kerry's not a fan, I ate one for myself, with my Branston pickle garnish of course.

Oh, did I mention this pie weighs in at 1 pound?  And at 1500 calories, contains over 100 grams of fat?  Yeah that will sneak up on you - my dinner appetite was more or less ruined, I only had a small portion of stew.  The plum bread was very tasty though - like a dense raisin bread with a citrus kick.  I warmed mine up and ate it with butter - before I checked the nutrition facts on the pie.

So yeah a bit of a pie binge this weekend.  But, before you all leave thinking I'm just fattening up, I did set a personal best for my 2-rep back squat today.  Maybe I'll write a book on my pork pie diet idea...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Driving [and Drinking] in Belgium

Note the order of the activities in the title - we were very responsible; as Doug pointed out in his recap post.  We made a road trip from Derby to Brussels with our friends, fellow expats, and travelers-extraordinaire Doug and Tara by way of the Eurotunnel.

Chillin' in the car as the train speeds along the bottom of the English channel at 90 mph.

Thanks to Doug for getting us into Brussels city center despite the fact he's not allowed to drive in Britain (at the time of this writing)

Celebrating a successful arrival in Brussels with an Orval and red wine. (Kerry is not a beer fan.)

Celebrating a successful arrival in Brussels with a framboise (raspberry) lambic and a Duvel.

STOP HERE - go read Doug's post about the trip, then come back for my recap.

It may seem silly to say, but Belgian beer is best in Belgium - the freshness, serving temp, and proper glassware all roll up into an elevated experience that lacked when I'd drink it back home.   I think freshness is the key:  a few of the breweries do permeate the international scene thanks to partnerships with big name distributors, but most Americans are limited to the dusty selection of questionable age at the well-stocked package liquor store.   Here in Brussels one may walk into the equivalent of a 7eleven convienience store to pick up top-rated quality beers such as Westmalle, Orval, Chimay, or Corsendonk for under $2/bottle.

For me, the Belgian style has always been the most complex in terms of flavor profiles due to their "no rules" brewing methods.  Here's what I mean:  when you read a beer connoisseur's tasting notes of Belgian ales, you will see some really pretentious descriptions of the taste like orange peel, banana, clove, cracked pepper, leather, apricot, pineapple, or even cough syrup.  All this has to do with the type of yeast used to ferment the beer, and the temperature at which this process takes place.  In addition to ethanol production, the yeast  produce many byproduct chemicals called phenols.  While the Germans tightly controlled their beer recipes and brewed at low temperatures to prevent phenol production, Belgians are a bit more relaxed and used the phenols to characterize the style.

All that to say, this last weekend in Belgium was a delightful beer appreciation weekend (except for Kerry) with friends, and we just barely scratched the surface.

Beer was not the only Belgian delicacy that was appreciated this weekend 

In 1958, Brussels hosted the World's fair, called Expo '58 and they haven't stopped talking about it since.  To my surprise, there are still World's fairs occurring, with the most recent being last year in Yeosu, South Korea.  For some reason I thought these fizzled out in the early 20th century after the invention of the ice-cream cone.

Under the Atomium
We walked through the bubbles to experience modern Brazilian architecture from 1930 to 1960. This small exhibition introduced us to an exuberant, humanist and utopian architectural style thanks to Sergio Bernardes.  In addition to other architects with a modern, socialist theme.  In other words, we looked at chairs...


The views from the outside were great, so I'll steal one from Doug.

Smart looking group, I'd say.

Moss on a tree in the park, funny how I'd rather look at this over chairs.
Back in the city we hit up some chocolate shops and tourist spots like this one below.

As I type this I just ate my last whisky-filled Godiva chocolate.

This picture makes me laugh.  Kerry's look on her face as I took a picture of the crowd admiring at the statue of the peeing boy.

I quickly lost interest in the statue when I found the escargot street vendor nearby.  11 snails for 4 euro in a very nice broth.

The Delerium Cafe is a must!  Doug and I approve.  Thousands of beers, with a huge selection on tap.  If they served food no one would ever leave.  We picked a table under a giant kettle top.

We walked by this functional art a few times on the way to the hotel and back.  I think the Atomium should buy it as a reading lamp for that chair I was looking at earlier.

Kerry looking cute at dinner

So the next day the Schetzels devised an intricate plan to get away from us even though it meant they'd miss Bruges.  I joke of course.  I don't need to rehash what happened (because you read Doug's post).   I will say that my rental car (a Focus now) has an average MPG calculator.  When I handed the keys over to Doug, that number dropped significantly.  He might want to consider some weekend rally car races once he gets his UK license.  

While they ran laps around Belgium, we took a Rick Steves walking tour on a foggy day.  We started out in the square.

The cost to go up in the tower was definitely not worth it today.  It did play music nearly the entire time!

Here's a nice [creepy?] video for those who couldn't be there in the courtyard of the Groeninge art museum.

This must be the nicest post office building I've ever seen

You'll notice all the times are different.  That's too bad - it would've been a neat experience to visit this Christmas shop at the top of the hour.

The liege waffle is different from the lighter Brussels waffle.  Yes, we're waffle connoiseurs too. 

In the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a vial of Jesus's blood brought here by Thierry of Alsance after the 2nd crusade in the 12th century.  They were having a service (it was Sunday morning) so we just popped our heads in for a quick look around.
Thank God for Wikipedia for pictures of the vial.

Bruges town hall - Stadhuis.  We didn't have time to go in, but I'll recommend it to Doug and Tara to check out if they can make it back (they're here for another year yet).

I took this because it was a picture in the guidebook as an example of scenic Bruges.  I can't complain!  And mine is in color, but the fog blocks the bell tower.

Admiring the picture in the book at the same time as being in the actual place the picture was taken.  I used to make fun of Doug's obsession with Rick Steves, now look at me.

De Hallve Maan is a brewery in the heart of town.  A nice pit stop to enjoy some more beer and eat some of our chocolates.   Beware - the chocolate covered cherries contain the pit!

More picturesque Bruges

A Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady.  Very nice, but tell you what, artists were obsessed with this topic for about 200 years...

My favorite chocolate shop for its interesting flavors - we found rice wine vinegar, soy, chili, Cuban cigar, vodka-passionfruit, mint-coriander, and hempseed (they called it cannabis to be edgy).

Horse fountain surrounded by horse-drawn carriages.

More mossy trees in the park with swans.  Very peaceful here.

Here's another video that I ruined by talking, but a really nice area, called Minniewater.

No talking allowed in this square.  The white buildings are apartments for beguines, a sort-of informal nun.  This place is called Begijnhof, 

Back at the bus station we waited for the Schetzels to return. 

Here's some footage of them approaching

We made it to the Westvleteren brewery thanks to our GPS...  This place is like an oasis in the desert.  Walking into the restaurant In De Vrede reminded me of when Dorthey stepped out of her house and into Oz.  Also, it vaguely reminded me of my visit to Stone Brewery in Escondido. 

Doug's pics of the Westvleteren beer tasting event can't be beat, so please have a look and a laugh.  I'll just share a pic of of my dream job. 

It will be a weekend to remember!  A huge thank-you to Doug and Tara for letting us tag along.

Be well, all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cambridge says "No"

Keeping with the academic theme from last week, we made a quick day trip to the University of Cambridge.

Cambridge spares no expense to make their "NO" signs clear and abundant.  If you wanted to smoke, loiter, park, get change, pay with a debit card, leave a bicycle against certain surfaces, walk on grass, be a visitor in certain areas, or moor your punt, you're gonna have a bad time.

That said, no one ever makes a sign that says "NO ___" as a preventative measure.  Usually it's only after whoever's paying the bills gets sufficiently annoyed by the antics of others to invest in a sign.  While a sign never stopped anyone from doing anything, it's the vague threat of a violator getting in trouble if caught that hopefully prevents further annoyance.  Cambridge was backing up their signs with plenty of security guards and CCTV surveillance.

The fun started at the park-n-ride, where we were tempted with a discount price from ticket machines which took only coins in pound, 50p, and 20p denominations.  Of course I had none of those.  I have noticed that my UK friends have an uncanny ability to produce exact change all the time.  Back home I'd go without currency for weeks, and when I do have a stack of pound coins, they seem disappear in groups of 3 (but oddly pints appear at the same time...).  Since the park-n-ride fined us 60 pence for not having exact change in the right denominations, I passive-aggressively gave the bus driver my five-er note and dumped a thick stack of pennies into her palm.

Ahh, it wouldn't be a proper weekend trip without a good parking story, so anyway, on to the actual activities.

Comparing Cambridge to Oxford, I would say that Cambridge has more of the university feel I'm used to.  The academic campuses were spread out with lots of green spaces, and the nearby shops and restaurants had that eccentric college feel that I'd get when I'd visit Kerry at Indiana University.  Of course, even though Cambridge is younger than Oxford, it has a couple hundred more years of history than any other school I'm familiar with.  Oh and there were more bicycles here than I've ever seen in one place in my life.

A narrow lane lined with old flats

Punts are boats you push along the canal with a long pole (works in shallow water only)

King's College was the real standout in terms of architecture
Side view of King's college, with the chapel on the right

More amazing architecture, manicured lawns, and picturesque bridges. Get the idea yet?

We had a nice stroll along the Backs - a greenway along the canal with a footpath, but kept running into dead ends on the campus grounds - gates to prevent visitors from trespassing We kept having to weave back out to the street, and couldn't get too close to the buildings.  They were impressive, however.  That said, the best way to see the buildings and enjoy the scenery would be by punt - 30 pounds for about an hour, and they offer a guide who can give you some facts and figures.  We passed.

The bridge was gated to prevent visitors from storming the yard and causing a ruckus. Got to keep a 400 meter distance; can't be disturbing the students, you know

Early blooms cheered us up for spring!

Requisite tudor-style building in the town

Farmer's market detour - we never pass up an opportunity to look around one of these

Stopped in a university bookstore - new English translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica for 600 pounds (almost $1000!)

The bookstore was a fun stop.  So many interesting titles covering economics, anthropology, zoology, physics, and politics.  All this knowledge at my fingertips makes me feel like a slob when I go home and watch an episode of Parks and Recreation (via Hulu using a virtual private network to get US progamming).

To try to make up for our 15 minute hyper tour of Pitt Rivers at Oxford, we gave ourselves 2 hours to go to free museums at Cambridge.  But there's no comparison.

After Pitt Rivers, Cambridge's Anthropology museum was a bit sparse...*shrugs*
We made it through that museum pretty quickly, so we moved on to the highly rated Fitzwilliam art museum.
Fitzwilliam art museum's exquisite roof - taken before Kerry saw the sign that said no pictures.

I would say this is worth going to, similar to the National Gallery, these old paintings must be growing on me.  The modern art was decent as well (not like the quack Tate modern).  We had some tasty chinese food at Charlie Chan's, and warmed up with some jasmine tea.  I like it done properly with the tea leaves just floating freely in the kettle, no pouches.

I forgot to take pictures of us so here's one on the bus back to the parking lot. We got front row seats on the upper deck, which was more fun than you might think.

Well that's a brief recap of a short visit to a nice college town.  2.5 day weekend coming up with a road trip to Brussels! Time to charge the camera battery.