The Banff Mountain Film Festival

A film festival all about mountains. What could be better?

Banff 1

For anyone who loves the outdoors, and there are a rapidly increasing number of us, this is the festival for you. It is action packed, and whatever your sport of choice, if you can do it on a mountain you’ll see it here. Climbing, kayaking, free running, snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, horse riding, snow-kiting… everyone driven by a passion for mountains and being outside will find something they like, but there are also quieter moments. You can’t just tear through the wilderness without seeing it can you, without breathing it in and having at least the occasional ‘wow’ moment. There’s plenty of that too.

The Banff Mountain Film Festival was launched 40 years ago in 1976, and has since become a highlight in every outdoor-enthusiast’s calendar. Taking place in the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, each year around 300-400 films are entered, and the top 60 or so are showcased at the festival in November. A selection of the best films then go on an international tour, visiting 40 countries in 2016 and being seen by more than 500,000 people. There are a variety of themes and styles, and they range in length from brief shorts to longer, more comprehensive films that the tour provides abbreviated versions of. I suppose you could call them documentaries, but each is telling a story, and the sense of narrative is as important as it is to films that are purely fiction. 

For me, this was a chance to observe the sports I enjoy in very beautiful and very dramatic locations, and to start a wish-list of other things I wanted to try. It was also quite exciting to be a part of the crowd; the MOUNTAIN crowd! What a wonderful group of people, all passionate about the environment and the outdoors, all driven by a thirst for adventure and exploration, and all positive, active and healthy. I definitely recommend.

The 2016 UK and Ireland tour is hitting around 55 cities, towns and communities, and there are still dates left all across the country – the last screening is in Ireland on 28th May. Tickets and dates are available here (£15.49 pp). We saw both the Red and the Blue programmes, but I definitely favoured the Red. Particular joys were the slapdash but talented climbers’ bromance in A Line Across the Sky, the beautiful but sad goodbye in  Denaliand Unbranded, a film following four Texas boys, who decide to break in eleven wild Mustangs to carry them from Texas to the Canadian border (so, across the whole of America. It takes them 5 months. That’s a lot of riding). Saying that, there were some fantastic films on the Blue programme as well, so just go and see them both if you can!

A Line Across the Sky 1

The line across the sky. Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold traversed the entire range you can see here in one go, something that had never been done before.

A Line in the Sky 2

Here they are. Aren’t they just the cutest?

A Line Across the Sky 3

And again. Still adorable.

Denali 3

Denali, taking things much more seriously than his motley crew

Denali 2

Looking after Ben in hospital

Denali 1

Denali and Ben at the beach

Unbranded 2

Cowboys heading North

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Boys and their… mustangs.

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My favourite film, Unbranded. This lot were an absolute pleasure to travel with. Trailer for the film here, and you can buy the DVD here.

Is anyone else a Banff fan?

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Loch Coruisk   Wild Swimming 2   IMG-20130406-00043

 

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Exploring Hong Kong

Hong Kong

On our penultimate day in Hong Kong I was lucky enough to have the afternoon off, so I got a taxi back to Kowloon as I had a lot more exploring to do. I started at the Jade Market off Kansu Street, the day-version of Temple Night Market. Don’t go here for jade unless you’re aiming for cheap and cheerful over quality, but it’s good for traditional snuff bottles, stone pendants and ornaments etc. They do overcharge, or try to, but it’s still fairly reasonable compared to the UK even with a 200% mark-up, so if you’re not a fan of haggling you can still pick up affordable souvenirs. The conversion rate can be confusing though, so just be careful they don’t add on an extra zero when typing the price into a calculator for you, taking £7.50 up to £75 for example… “Oh sorry, mistake” will get the price back to normal if you point it out.

I then headed North to Public Square Street, as I was curious about the Tin Hau Temple marked on the map there.

Hong Kong

Apparently the square used to directly face the Yau Ma Tei waterfront in the late 19th century, but it is now almost three kilometers from the shore as a result of land reclamation. Which seems a shame to me, denying the temple of its marine vista and influences (I’m particularly enamoured of a certain church in Cornwall thanks to its waterside location), but Hong Kong and Kowloon are woefully short of land on which to build. In front of the temple and enclosed by reposing banyan trees is the Yau Ma Tei Community Centre Rest Garden. It is meant as a gathering place for senior citizens, though I saw people of all ages enjoying the peace and quiet as they dozed on benches, or ate packed lunches whilst contemplating the trees.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

The temple is free to enter, the only stipulation being that you refrain from photographing worshippers and staff going about their work. There were perhaps a handful of people inside when I visited, half of whom were tourists like me, so this wasn’t a difficult rule to abide to. It is a small building, a little like a renaissance theatre in that the centre of the roof is open to the elements and the walkways surrounding it therefore cast into exotic shadows. As a willing spectator you are simultaneously a part of the spectacle and separate from it, until you stand or kneel before an altar where you are cast into a unifying glow of light. Unlike Buddhist or Taoist temples and monasteries, Chinese temples are built to worship Shenism, the Chinese folk religion, where people revere nature gods and ancestors.

Hong Kong

Huge, richly-hued incense-coils are suspended from the ceiling. Golden trays hang beneath each to catch the falling ash, and inscribed prayer cards laconically rotate at the centre of each spiral.

Hong KongThere are also a number of different altars at which to worship, though I observed supplicants moving between these in an incense-fuelled circuit, so suspect prayers to each and every deity are more likely to yield results.

Hong Kong

This guy was my favourite

Hong Kong

In addition to statues of the gods, the Tin Hau temple was also adorned with walls of photos of the worshippers’ ancestors

I spent as long as I could here, without wanting to intrude. The atmosphere was peaceful, but also somehow intense.  Clouds of incense drifted through the air, giving you the faintly surreal sense of having stepped into another world or plane, and the gentle ‘shhh’ of ash falling to the ground like snow was one of the few sounds to break the silence.

When I finally emerged back into the sunlight I decided to follow Shanghai Street, and weave my way South to the Star Ferry pier via Kowloon Park.

Hong KongI was quite pleased to capture this photo, as I’d read about these women in a guide-book! They look like they’re pushing carts of rubbish around the city, but in actual fact are often transporting mail, machinery and fresh produce as well as recycling and… yes, actual rubbish. Apparently they’re very efficient, and effective at traversing the steep and narrow backstreets. The bright-blue medical scrubs are a little alarming at first though, in conjunction with air-pollution masks and bags containing who knows what (or who)

Hong Kong

A typical Hong Kong skyline, populated as much by jungle as by skyscrapers. Vegetation is everywhere here and, rather than being planted in neat lines as in other cities, resembles more a perpetual invasion. Trees grow out of cracks in the buildings, and bougainvillea suspend umbrellas of delicate, fuchsia lanterns like tissue-paper origami above walkways.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

After perhaps 15-20 mins of ambling through the crowds, a few wrong turns and some mimed directions from non-plussed, non-English speaking locals, I found it. Compared to the bustle of the streets Kowloon Park is a verdant oasis, in a way that London’s parks never quite manage.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

The usual cyclists and joggers (or more serious ‘runners’ in their neon lycra) were absent, contributing to the peaceful atmosphere. There were plenty of people exercising, but they wore normal clothing in muted shades of navy, black and cream, stretched against the railings with calm expressions rather than histrionic grunts aimed to garner attention, and either jogged quietly or made use of the exercise equipment.

Hong Kong

Scattered across the park is a series of climbing frames, monkey bars and balancing poles, NOT it seems aimed at children, but in fact for the very-lucky adults to use, turning the entire area into one big adventure playground. I am very jealous of this, as these days I have to borrow a child to be allowed into a play-park, which quite frankly is one of the greatest disappointments of adulthood. I still want a tree house. And a swing please. In fact I’m planning an all-out Robin Hood Prince of Thieves style forest-village (you never know when you’ll need it – skip to 1.40), when Tom and I finally buy our own place.

I may or may… not… have told him this. I’m sure he’ll come round to the idea.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Meandering steadily upwards along tiered paths I came across an aviary of tropical birds, and then spotted a flock of flamingoes below.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

There was a lot more to see but I had to get back by this point, so trotted off down Kowloon Park Drive to the Star Ferry pier, past huge designer stores with floodlit windows and gallery-like displays. As I mentioned before this ferry really is incredibly easy to use (insert coins or notes into machine, and your change plus a token for the barriers instantly rattles back out at you), and costs a mere 29 pence. It also provides the best views of Hong Kong, returning via the sea and weaving in and out of other boats.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Tom and I had a rather special dinner-date planned, as we’d been invited to use Duddells, a private member’s club not far from our hotel.

Hong Kong

Any excuse to wear this Diane von Furstenberg dress

Our taxi dropped us off at the top of a dilapidated looking side-street, and we made our way somewhat trepidatiously along it until we found the entrance. Inside of course it was a different story, and the external camouflage gave way to a leafy, roof-top bar and crisp, light-filled restaurant.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

 We were recommended cocktails based on our favourite spirits, and the bar’s erm… mixologist? came over to explain the ingredients in each in detail. He was very nice. Plus mine had a scented feather on it, which pleased me no end.

Hong Kong

The grin of a girl with a feather in her drink

After an hour of chatting beneath the stars (you can’t see them obviously because of the light-pollution, but they are there) we headed back downstairs to the restaurant. The maitre d’ was keen to recommend our courses, which I cautiously acceded to once I’d explained what I could/ couldn’t eat (no red meat, no poultry, no fish, only seafood). I’m not sure this was entirely grasped, as Tom was brought enough meat dishes to feed three people, with – we realised – the expectation that I would be able to share them, but the courses specifically recommended for me were fantastic.

Hong Kong - Duddells

For my main, the ‘Braised Imperial Bird’s Nest with Fresh Crab Meat’ was suggested for me. Now, I wouldn’t have chosen bird-saliva soup on my own, but when in China… this is about as adventurous as I’m going to go in culinary terms (technically it’s not meat either, so I can hardly complain), so I thought I may as well pluck up the courage to try it. Edible bird’s-nests are a Chinese delicacy due to their rarity, and are literally nests constructed by swiftlets from solidified saliva. They’re harvested from huge caves, and are apparently the most expensive animal product consumed by humans. They’ve been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, typically softened into faintly sweet-flavoured, gelatinous strands and added to soup.

I did actually enjoy it, and it was amazing to have the opportunity to try something I’ve read about but never actually seen served in a restaurant before. I probably wouldn’t order it again, as although there were no prices on the menu I suspect it equated to at least a third of the total bill (which was a lot, though was very generously paid-for by our clients without our realising at the time), but I would recommend it.

Hong Kong - Cathay Pacific Business Class

Just enough time for a quick glass of champagne in The Wing, Cathay’s Business/ First Class lounge

The next morning we returned to London, after teaching one final lesson on top of Victoria Peak. This time, the flight was divine, as we were flown back in Cathay Pacific’s Business Class. Instead of rows of chairs, each passenger has their own little booth, angled away from the others and separated in the central aisle by an actual wall. The chairs slide forward and then recline until they are entirely horizontal, and everything is ergonomically designed to perfection. Every time you go to lean an arm or elbow on something, there is an ideally angled ledge or cushion waiting for it. The food was no better than in Economy, simply more fancily presented, but you don’t fly for the food do you, you fly for the reclining chair. Never again Economy, your days of torturing me are over.

Hong Kong - Cathay Business Class

I didn’t take the above photo, I had to steal it from the internet, as I got so excited I forgot to take proper pictures

We both enjoyed Hong Kong immensely, and there were even discussions about the possibility of moving there in the future. I don’t know if I could give up the British seasons though… it’s so nice to have four distinctive parts to the year rather than just ‘hot’ and ‘too hot’.

There will certainly be a return visit though, next time for a holiday, so any recommendations on what to do are very welcome.

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Arriving in Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Tom and I rarely take on travelling-placements these days as we’re usually too busy running Winterwood, but there was no way I was turning down an all-expenses-paid trip to Hong Kong!

I used to pass through it every year, as Mum, Dad and I oscillated between home in Australia and holidays with my UK-based grandparents, and then of course between Nauru and the UK, but I haven’t been back for twenty years since we moved permanently to the UK (Dad and I even got British passports eventually. And no, I don’t know why they allowed two obstreperous, misanthropic Aussies into the country either, never mind let us stay – probably an admin error). The only thing I really remember about Hong Kong though was my first ever cinema experience, when my parents took me to see the first Jurassic Park film as I was into dinosaurs as a kid and they didn’t realise I was going to scream through the whole film in terror with my coat over my face.

I still hate velociraptors.

The flight over was horrendous, as I am not used to flying long-haul in Economy (the benefit of belonging to a family of pilots. You have to listen to a lot of stories about planes, model planes, drones, birds of prey, bees… anything that flies really, but you are compensated with free travel). My recently-broken ankle swelled to twice the size, and in 12hrs I slept for perhaps 2 in total. Nevertheless we survived, managed to navigate immigration, and our driver dropped us off half an hour later at the Grand Hyatt. I enjoyed this hotel, a lot.Hong Kong

The hotel lobby

Our room was about the size of our whole flat in London, there was 24hr room service, a gym, spa and rooftop swimming pool, seven restaurants, two bars and a cafe – all in one building with quite spectacular views over the Harbour.

Hong Kong

We were treated to glorious sunsets over the island every evening, as a gentle apricot blush soon developed into carmine and copper streaks, enhanced I suspect by the high levels of pollution, then steadily deepened into an ocean of fire before the city’s neon took over.

Hong Kong

The ever-changing view from our hotel window

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

When we sent a bag of clothes off to be laundered they returned wrapped in tissue paper and ribbons.

Hong Kong

Oh, and there was a pillow menu. No joke.

I stuck to the gym myself, and a few tai chi workouts in the bathroom whilst Tom was fitting in evening Skype lessons with his London students (“what was that noise?” “Oh don’t worry, Jade just fell over again. She was probably practising ‘white rhino looking at the moon whilst defeating 2-3 ninjas’ or something. She struggles with that), but there was also a pretty special pool that Tom made the most of.

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We ate at the hotel a couple of times, as missing a whole night’s sleep then getting up at 7.30am every day instead of our usual 10.30 ish-probably-later am knocked us back a bit, and we were there to work so didn’t have that much spare time. We particularly enjoyed One Harbour Road, which served traditional Cantonese food and apparently “emulates the elegance of a high-society, 1930s era Chinese mansion”. Anything 1930s has my vote, and the food and service were both excellent.

We did manage to have some fun though, it wasn’t all fresh fruit platters and chinese herb pillows. On our second night we got the Star Ferry over to TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) then a taxi to Kowloon’s Night Market. A jumble of wonderfully-awful tat and old opium pipes, jade figurines and porn, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Hong Kong

The view of Hong Kong from the ferry, a ferry so easy to use I even managed it all on my own one day. It powers sedately across the channel between Hong Kong island and the mainland of Kowloon, skyscrapers and tree-clad hills first receding and then approaching. At night the sea turns black as bitumen, and is illuminated in streaks as if buckets of neon paint have been emptied forcefully across it. Plus it only costs $3.4 HKD, or 29 pence. Yep, pence. Public transport is practically free over here.

Hong Kong

The entrance to Temple Street, the main night market, but there are more stalls on neighbouring streets so make sure you explore. You can pick up a lot of bargains here, especially if you’re willing to haggle, and a lot of weird paraphernalia whose value lies solely in its entertainment factor.

Hong Kong

Hong KongHong KongJade like neon-signs

Hong Kong

We then got a taxi over to the International Commerce Centre, as this ludicrously tall building hosts the highest bar on earth, Ozone. Tom doesn’t like lifts, and I really thought he was going to have an aneurism in this one as it shuddered its way towards the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s lobby on the 101st floor in less than a minute, before we had to get out, and resume our ascent to the 118th floor (420 metres above sea level) in a second lift, this one shaped like a lovely marble coffin. Tom took one look at it and muttered “I’m never coming here again”, before grimly – but bravely – stepping inside.

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The view was worth it, just about, though my camera couldn’t cope at all so I had to borrow the above photo from Tom. No doubt better photos could have been taken from the outdoor patio, but this shuts when there are high winds.

Hong Kong

There were some interesting design details and the lighting was great for taking interior photos, but Ozone doesn’t really have a sense of its own identity; it really could be anywhere. Don’t bother dressing up as the expat clientele certainly didn’t, though maybe London’s sartorial standards are simply higher. That or Londoners are just less able to escape the hamster wheel… People certainly seem more relaxed in Hong Kong, as if the permanently tropical climate enforces a steadier pace and less-manic mentality than our colder shores.

Hong KongHong Kong

Hong Kong

Some of the drinks were excellent, some less so, and the prices were comparable with London bars ($180 HKD or around £15 for a cocktail). As to other rooftop bars, I also heard very good things about Sugar. Apparently a hit with Hong Kong hipsters and in-the-know expats, it’s ideal if you want somewhere more laid-back than Ozone’s club-like atmosphere. Otherwise there’s Sevva, if you want to go upmarket, a penthouse bar owned by Chanel’s former Asia Pacific communications director and Hong Kong style icon, Bonnie Gokson. If you’re short of time I’d recommend trying Sugar or Sevva over Ozone, as they seem to have more character, but then again it’s not every day you get to visit the highest bar in the world.

We eventually got a taxi back to the Hyatt ($180 HKD for a 20 minute drive, including the $20 crossing toll), already looking forward to what the next day would bring. Hong KongTales of temples, flamingos and eating bird’s-nests to follow.

Has anyone else visited Hong Kong recently or, perhaps more interestingly, not so recently? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Honeymoon Week in Venice

Venice is a little bit like Rye in East Sussex, in that it’s very beautiful and feels very old, but a Rye surrounded by a lagoon and packed full of Americans.

Technically Venice consists of a group of 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by bridges. You don’t really get a sense of this though. The canals are always in use, water taxis and gondoliers gliding along them at all hours of the day and night, so they resemble aquatic roads rather than barriers to movement. The extensive network of bridges also means that you’re rarely stuck on one side of a canal when you’d rather be on the other, and the meandering path you’re often forced to take only adds to the charm of Venice.

The water taxis are outrageously expensive, but worth it if you have suitcases with you. Just be prepared to part with fifty euros for a ten minute journey if that’s how far you’re going. They are of course a lot of fun as well. We shouldn’t forget that!

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Beautiful, beautiful VeniceDSC_0652 (800x533)

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Tom had rented a concierged apartment for us, so we jumped into a water taxi outside the train station that took us right to the front door. It was not as atmospheric as Palazzo Guadagni, but it was quiet and private, and close to but not right in the crowded heart of Venice. Despite the crowds in the centre, as soon as you manage to escape them you’ll find yourself almost completely alone. Tom and I spent our first day wandering around San Polo, and hardly saw another soul.

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Most of Venice gives the distinctive impression that it is crumbling, in a completely beautiful way. Plaster has been eroded away by the elements, painted wooden shutters are peeling and flaking, and even some of the buildings are subsiding, as if desperate to sink beneath the waves to escape the modern world.

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From a distance it is merely picturesque. Elegant and in proportion. When you look closely though you realise how stunning  it really is. Architecturally sublime.

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Venice is particularly famous for its masks, as it perpetuates its own Renaissance tradition of an annual Carnival. There are shops selling them all over the place, and though a lot have similar stock I would suggest checking each one if you’re particularly keen on masks like me, as there are always slight variations in the designs of the proprietors; you’re bound to find something unique if you keep looking.

The most famous square, the Piazza San Marco, functions primarily as a tourist trap these days. Though it’s worth a look I wouldn’t stay too long. We sat and had a drink only to find other tourists photographing us, so we soon left. We avoided Basilica de San Marco and instead made our way to Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo. It is actually the principal Dominican church of Venice, and after the fifteenth century the funeral services of all Venice’s Doges (elected leaders) were held here. Twenty five doges are buried within the basilica, and there are a number of medieval and renaissance wall tombs set within the vast space. It also contains many beautiful funerary monuments and paintings, and a foot of St Catherine of Siena, the church’s chief relic. Despite this, it’s often overlooked. Luckily for us. Quiet and peaceful, we whiled away an afternoon searching for Catherine’s foot.

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No flash photography was allowed, so the photos I took came out as being a little more atmospheric than I intended, but they certainly give you an idea of the scale and grandeur of the basilicaDSC_0734 (800x533)

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There are restaurants and cafes all over Venice, hoping to lure in the weary and indiscriminate, but I would definitely suggest asking for recommendations rather than leaving where you eat to chance. I should also add that you absolutely must make dinner reservations in Italy. Not just because the best places are often booked up days in advance, but because it is part of the culture. Without a booking restaurants will inevitably try to seat you by the door, toilets or kitchen even if they have plenty of free tables.

Hotel reception staff are happy to advise and make bookings for you, so make the most of this. The concierge at our apartment was incredibly helpful, even going so far as to mark out his favourite restaurants, cafes and gelateria on a map for us. Two particular favourites of ours were Osteria di Santa Marina and A Beccafico. The first of these served up an incredible seven course tasting menu, each dish a carefully crafted morsel that combined and balanced its ingredients perfectly. They also tailored the menu specifically to our tastes, replacing dishes we didn’t favour with ingredients that we did. It was just wonderful.

The food at A Beccafico was simpler fare but still excellent, and the service really stood out. We avoided revealing that we were on honeymoon to anyone, as we were wary of any sort of fuss spoiling things for us, but the staff here treated us so well we may as well have told them. They were friendly and attentive, offered to take photos of us together, and brought us a whole bottle of limoncello after our meal at no extra charge.

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Yes, it was a full bottle when it appeared before us. Yes we enjoyed it!

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Venice at Night

We visited a number of galleries and museums, all bursting with ancient marble, Byzantine gold and other treasures, but I had to share one in particular with you. We actually stumbled upon it one evening when wandering aimlessly through the backstreets, and vowed to return when it was open. Palazzo Mocenigo houses a museum dedicated to the history of Venetian fragrance. There are twenty room to wind your way through, all furnished with antiques, oil paintings and curiosities aimed at illustrating the different aspects of a Venetian nobleman’s life between the 17th and 18th centuries. Valuable ancient garments are displayed on mannequins, the fabrics, embroidery and lace embellishments testament to the the refined elegance Venice was famed for. Each room tells a different story, paintings and ornaments helping to construct the narrative, but what I had really been drawn to was the perfume.

Renaissance Venice turned scent into an artform, and there are five rooms in Palazzo Mocenigo entirely dedicated to it. Both informative and sensory, the history and reality of perfume are thoughtfully illustrated. One room evokes the alchemical laboratory of a 16th century perfumier, in another is a collection of perfume bottles dating form the Middle Ages to the present day, but in my favourite room there is a table covered with herbs and spices. The magical raw materials of perfume.

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

I would like a room like this. Huge bowls full of frankincense and myrrh, sticks of cinnamon, lavender and star anise, gleaming black vanilla pods, and the more unusual musk from animal glands or ambergris (a solid, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales). There are also 16th century books on display (and in electronic translation) revealing the secrets of the art of perfume. Part cosmetic, part medicine, part magic.

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Finally though, it was time to leave.

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Our final water taxi, taking us to the airport (jumper Henry Lloyd, lace skirt Ralph Lauren)

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When we left Venice, our taxi driver got into several shouting matches with the other boats as we made our way through the congested canals. When we reached the open water he chucked an empty pizza box over his shoulder into the water, swore at the city, and proceeded to drive twice as fast as all the other water taxis trundling towards the airport. The horrified faces of drivers and their passengers swept by us in a flurry of spray, as we bounced, delighted, across the wakes of all the boats that had preceded us.

We came back to reality with a bump when we returned, forced to dive straight back into work that is only just starting to ease off enough for us to catch our breath, four months later. It wasn’t all work though. I’ve got a few stories to share with you about dolphins, lochs and mountains!

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Honeymoon Week in Florence

After a week in Cornwall with our friends, we popped back to London, then flew straight on to Florence!

I visited Florence once before, with my drama group when I was sixteen. I loved it then, and vowed to return; but I didn’t realise I would do it in quite such wonderful circumstances. Tom and I stayed at Palazzo Guadagni, a Renaissance palazzi that has been converted into a hotel. Formerly a grand private residence belonging to a wealthy 16th century family, it is not only completely charming but located in the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, which is much quieter than other tourist-filled areas and also renowned for it’s antique and artisan boutiques.

We listened to La Traviata a lot. I really could not have been happier.

Palazzo Guadagni

The loggia, now converted into a ‘rooftop garden’ (bar) that overlooks the city centre and Florentine hills beyond. I would like a loggia please.

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Reading on the loggia after breakfast

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Posing on the loggia at sunset

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The rooms were spacious, far more so than any of the 5* hotels we’ve stayed in, and we spent a fair amount of time admiring the view across crooked terracotta rooftops. My only complaint about Italy is that it’s very difficult to get champagne anywhere. You’re forced to drink prosecco, and I can’t stand the stuff. Sorry Italy. We managed to buy a bottle of champagne nearby though, and the hotel were good enough to bring us an ice bucket and champagne flutes (prosecco flutes?), so we could enjoy it on the ‘rooftop garden’ one evening.

Our room was at the top of the palazzo, and whilst there was a creaking lift Tom preferred taking the stairs. When the stairs are as pretty as these I could hardly complain though.

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It’s a long way down

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The elegant private-entrance to Palazzo Guadagni

We spent a lot of time simply exploring the streets of Florence, admiring the architecture and wandering into boutiques and galleries we came across. I do think this is the most relaxing way you can explore a city, and you get a far better sense of its soul than if you simply follow the other tourists. Occasionally we would stumble across the main thoroughfares, and recoil in horror at the madding crowd.

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The whole city seems to glow a warm, golden colour.  I couldn’t help but suspect that the warmth of Tuscany would pervade even when it rained.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

My absolute favourite boutique was Maurizio Salici. We came across it one evening on our way home, and it beckoned to me like a magical toyshop. “We can come back tomorrow!” Tom promised, dragging me away. The window display alone was enough to lure me in; its carefully crafted clutter of antiques, ornaments and books had me transfixed.

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We did indeed return the next day, and I wandered around blissfully. My eye was caught by a trinket from the 1700s, when pieces of coral were attached to wooden lion’s feet (the lion being Florence’s heraldic symbol thanks to the Medici family), and gifted to newlyweds as good-luck charms. Maurizio Salici doesn’t usually allow photography, but as I, er, bought it, they suggested I might like to take just one photo of it in the shop before it was wrapped up. So I did, of course!

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The shopping in Florence in general is delightful though, and I was guided by Louise Fili’s little book ‘The Civilised Shopper’s Guide to Florence’. She took me to artisan chocolate shops like Dolceforte, seventeenth century perfume shops like Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella, and Scriptorium, which sells everything for the lover of handmade books and calligraphy.

The Civilised Shopper's Guide to Florence

There are too many wonderful things to see and do in Florence for me to tell you about everything, but I must show you the Boboli Gardens. The wealthy and powerful figures of the Italian Renaissance competed to illustrate their status through increasingly spectacular gardens, and a few of these still exist today. Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian gardens is an excellent introduction, and he is invited into many gardens as exclusive today as they were in the Renaissance, but the Boboli Gardens are actually open to the public.

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Your tour-guide Tom will show you around

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Neptune and heron

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Tom and I spent a very enjoyable half hour hunting the lizards that have made their home in the walled garden, to the horror of all the other tourists there

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For seven euros you can spend as long as you want exploring these beautiful gardens. They’re well maintained, and different areas lead you cleverly onwards to discover a multitude of grottos, statues and temples. They cover 111 acres in total, and overlook the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany in Florence.

Oh, and there’s a nice cafe as well. Which is very important, I’m sure you’d agree. Here’s a picture of Tom looking at the menu in front of some lemons.

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I really do love Florence, and it was a perfect continuation of our honeymoon. Tom’s organisation skills were not limited to one Italian city, however. The wonders of Venice beckon…

I’ll show you around in my next blog post!

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WordPress Wedding Website, or a Guide to Cornwall

Mylor

I’ve been away for over a month, sorry, but I do have a very good I-got-married-excuse and I’m back now! The wedding was lovely, no disasters, and we’re getting the photos back early next week which I am very, very excited about. I’ll write about it all properly soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d share with you the wedding website I made for all our guests.

We wanted to make the trip to Cornwall as easy and as fun as possible for everyone, so there are pages on accommodation and travel in the area, as well as things to do and places to eat out. Oh and a page of gift ideas, which is my personal favourite. It was a private site, but I’ve now unblocked it so just click on the link below and browse away!

Our Cornwall Wedding

 
Any comments please do put them on this blog, rather than on the wedding one – let me know what you think!

Impressed by the Prestonfield

I’ve mentioned The Prestonfield before, so I’m very glad to finally be able to show you around.

© Jade EveringhamThe main entrance.

© Jade EveringhamSomeone’s lovely leather luggage awaiting collection.

Built in 1687, this gorgeous manor house was originally the private home of Edinburgh’s Lord Provost. By the 1960s, however, it had fallen out of use, so was converted into a boutique hotel. It sits in twenty acres of gardens and parkland, at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, and the view from every window is breathtaking. With only eighteen bedrooms and five suites, you’re also guaranteed a personal service, and indeed the hotel prides itself on this. There are also a number of drawing rooms, complete with roaring log  fires, so even if you’re not a guest there are plenty of beautiful rooms to while away the hours over a glass of scotch or afternoon tea.

The first time we stayed at The Prestonfield it started snowing just as we drove up the main driveway, and we spent an incredibly romantic couple of days there. It was a wonderful introduction to Scotland. The best part, however, was being upgraded to a suite completely free of charge! There’s a big difference between the £170 price tag for a double room, and the £375 you usually have to pay for a suite. The complimentary bottle of Champagne that awaits, the his and hers bathrooms, the separate drawing room just for hanging out in…

© Jade EveringhamHere’s Tom looking very pleased with himself for finding us the most incredible hotel to stay in.

© Jade EveringhamAnd here’s me discovering the complimentary champagne and chocolate truffles.

SO. This time, we thought we’d see if it would happen again. We booked a normal double room and, lo and behold, on arrival we were indeed upgraded to a suite again for free! Apparently this is perfectly normal at The Prestonfield if they’re not already booked up, so if you’re able to go midweek and off-season then for goodness sake do.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in the Ben Franklin suite (shoes L K Bennett, dress French Connection).

© Jade EveringhamThe bedroom.

© Jade EveringhamLounging around on the chaise lounge.

© Jade Everingham

Not a renaissance oil painting, but the reflection on one of the windows of the room’s interior.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in our private drawing room. The leopard print carpet and draped-satin wallpaper may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly makes an impact.

© Jade EveringhamThe Yellow Room

After we’d changed for dinner, we sat by the fire for a while in the ever-so-decadent Yellow Room. All gold and yellow Baroque patterns and black leather sofas, the log fire sent shadows darting around the room, and we were able to write in peace for a couple of hours. A fantastic range and array of scotches are also available, and the knowledgeable staff are happy to offer advice based on your preferences whenever they pop in to stoke the fire.

© Jade EveringhamI took a couple of photos the next morning, so you could see all the gorgeous details.

The Prestonfield is also the location of Rhubarb, a very decadent and very delightful restaurant. It’s located in a pair of oval rooms at the heart of the hotel, each hung with a large gold chandelier. The walls are papered in bold red, black and gold stripes, black candles glitter on every table, and oil paintings watch over you as you explore the menu. It put me in mind of dining in the captain’s cabin on board a pirate galleon.

© Jade EveringhamAlthough it looks like a mirrored reflection, the second chandelier you can see is actually suspended in the second dining room.

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© Jade EveringhamPoor Thomas, looking very tired!

The food was very impressive, and beautifully presented. We asked for a cheeseboard to be brought up to our room so we could relax, and this array of delights arrived soon after (hot chocolate for Tom, port for me). I can’t remember what all the cheeses were, but they all disappeared pretty quickly!

The next morning we skipped breakfast so we could have a much needed lie-in, and had tea and coffee in The Yellow Room instead after we’d checked out. As we were waiting for our taxi I spotted something through one of the windows, so I grabbed my camera and ran outside…

© Jade EveringhamCan you see them?

© Jade EveringhamPEACOCKS! Sunning themselves on the lawn.

© Jade EveringhamThis is clearly the king of the peacocks.

The Prestonfield was wonderful, as ever, and I’d highly recommend it. Even just the one night is worth it as a treat, especially if you’re able to go mid-week!

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Teaching English on a Private Plane, and Civilised Pirates

The last week has been both wonderful and surprising in equal measure.

After a week of shying away from my novel, instead reading in every spare second I had or diligently preparing new lessons, I finally returned to it. The break was incredibly useful. Instead of the laborious effort I had found the first 15,000 or so words to be, my characters came to life on their own, and I actually enjoyed taking the time to craft their story. The first seven chapters felt like slowly pulling barbed wire out of tar. I knew what I needed to do to ‘open’ the story, and I found it a little tiresome. Largely, I’m sure, as I wasn’t sure how I actually wanted it to end.

After emailing the first 23,000 words to Tom for feedback though, he insisted that I decide, so I did. Just like that. I’d been avoiding it, not wanting to get stuck with a plot or concept I later turned against, but I finally just got on with it and planned out the entire plot in detail. The children reacted differently to each other when I explained why I was always typing. Seventeen year old Rupert seemed impressed. Too right. Fourteen year old Lisa, however, sniggered! ”You are writing about your adventures?!” Brat. She’s great though – stoic and smart (and into horses. Definite bonus as far as I’m concerned).  I really like all of them, and am actually a little jealous of the tutor who will be taking over from me in September, and moving to Moscow to teach them full time. Not jealous enough to contemplate going myself; but I like them.

On Monday, we went to Sardinia. I was told where we were going, that it would be for a few days, and that we would be going on their yacht, but when the driver pulled into Grosseto airport I was… surprised! “Er, we fly?” “Yes, of course”. Of course. Duh. Of course we’re going to get on a private jet and fly to your yacht, then cruise along to Corsica for lunch, then on to Bonifacio for dinner. Of course!

The private plane

Anchoring at Bonifacio

The private plane was like being in a flying living room. Instead of the usual plastic the interior was covered in fabric, like ivory hessian, the carpets and leather seats were a pale caramel, and the walls and other surfaces were glossy varnished wood. The tables were spread with white tablecloths, and bottles of Evian and bowls of fresh fruit were laid out next to every chair. My coffee came with a large plate of Italian biscuits, and a second plate of Russian sweets. Nobody put seatbelts on when we took off and landed, and there was just a curtain – left open – leading to the cockpit. The children were completely au fait with the whole thing. ‘Like yawn – private jet again? Oh well, guess that’s okay’. It reminded me of flying with my father when I was little, when I’d be allowed to sit in the jump-seat behind him as he powered the plane into the sky.

I remember being fascinated by the view through the cockpit window, as Dad named the different islands we flew over in the day, and named the stars for me at night. I think most little girls hero-worship their fathers, but to be honest I still do. I think both of my parents are incredibly people, and I often feel guilty that they got stuck with me for a daughter!

On Monday morning we had a lesson in the air, snaffling sweets and biscuits together on the family’s jet, then played chess as we flew over mountains and Italian farmland. In the afternoon, lessons took place on the top deck of their yacht (well, most of the lessons. Rupert spent the afternoon asleep on the sofa, so had to miss his. “Rupert?” “Unh?” “Are you asleep?” “Unh.” Boys eh.) Not quite as exciting as sailing on a pirate galleon with Cap’n Jack Sparrow, but we can’t have everything we want.

The view from the upper deck

Winning at chess. Yes, of course I photographed it!

On Tuesday evening we anchored at Porto Cervo (Sardinia), and the family and crew were surprised to see pop-up designer stores had been set up all along the quay since they were last there. We peered at them, curious, as a crowd of people gathered to watch us (well, the crew) negotiate the yacht into a ‘parking space’ between the others. “Oh look, it’s a Harrods!” Someone noticed. The trees and bushes sparkled with fairy lights, sports cars were on display between the shops, and glass boxes glowed from within, trying to entice the super-rich through their doors. The family disappeared for a couple of hours, and returned laden with Prada and Miu Miu shopping bags (I wanted to yell out a suitable pirate curse/ greeting as they trotted on board with their bags, then find myself some rigging to climb, but I didn’t.) I just about managed to console myself with thoughts of a little designer present I’ve promised myself when I return to London.

My first sight of Porto Cervo

Harrods followed me to Italy. Just WAIT Harrods. I’ll buy the handbag when I get home!

Some sort of art installation. You can just see the yacht I was on in the background.

On Wednesday we passed another, even larger yacht, which incited great excitement on board. It turned out that the sixty metre-long monster, with five decks and a helicopter on top, used to belong to them. In fact, they’d built it. In the evening we watched The Great Gatsby in Russian, as the sun set and the yacht was driven back to port. Luckily I happened to have read the novel the day before I arrived in Tuscany, so could follow it (the only Russian I’ve learn is ‘porhah’ which means ‘bad’) but it was a little surreal. It seemed a lot more sinister in Russian! It was night when we returned to the port, and an incredibly firework display was exploding in the sky above us. It went on for about half an hour, at the end of which all the yachts let off an impromptu volley of horn blasts.

Impromptu fireworks

The yacht itself was stunning. The living areas were beautifully decorated in shades of grey, cream and tan, and the rest of the interior lined with mahogany. Cashmere blankets folded over the backs of chairs (1,300 euros each, the crew told me), and expensive cushions to sink into. Everything had a place, with no clutter or awkward corners, and the crew ensured that we always had everything we wanted – a steady supply of snacks and drinks were kept up between meals. There were also small fridges dotted around, discreetly hidden in cupboards, so we could help ourselves if we wanted to. My cabin was small but not cramped, and the bathroom… ah, the bathroom! The shower was lined in white marble (really, truly!) and it was crammed with Molton Brown toiletries.  Heaven. Though the motion of the boat did make it feel a little like showering in a lift.

The crew didn’t stop working for a second, constantly refolding towels, discreetly cleaning, and organising anything the family asked for. When we weren’t at sea, the family spent a lot of time on various beaches, or playing with their jet-ski and jet-surfer, to name but two of the million or so fancy water-toys on board. They were surprised that I didn’t want to join them, and I was frequently asked why I didn’t go to the beach at the villa, but I really wasn’t that bothered. I was perfectly happy reading by the pool, or on the yacht, and otherwise wanted only to get on with writing. Beaches to me are for holidays, so I’d prefer to save them for when I’m actually on holiday myself. What do you think – should I have just enjoyed myself?!

The children were reluctant to give up their holiday time for lessons, but I nevertheless heard very few complaints from them. (aside from eight year old Emily – I had a few sulks from her!) They would sometimes give me excuses for having lessons ‘later’, which I typically acceded to rather than make them miserable, but I was very impressed by how well-mannered and hard-working they were.

I wouldn’t do it again! But I’m glad I did it this once.

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Tuscany Teaching Update: Making Animal Noises and A-Level Economics

I thought I’d update you on how my lessons have been going, and explain how tutoring differs from normal teaching.

I genuinely enjoy tutoring and find it hugely rewarding, but there’s a lot more to it than just teaching. It requires a LOT of different skills.Your teaching has to be adaptable, for a start. No lesson plan is infallible, and effective lessons frequently have to be developed on the spot, depending on the unexpected requests of both parents and students. Sometimes an extra child will appear, a friend or neighbour who happens to be visiting, and it becomes a group lesson – different lesson format, teaching style and content are required. They may not be the same level, or even the same age.

That has happened here; the fourteen year old (we’ll call her Lisa) has two lessons each day, and a neighbour’s son appears every afternoon to join in with the second of these. They enjoy working together, but have completely different skills. The boy (‘Matt’) barely seems to understand a word I say, but (after Lisa’s translation of my instructions) his writing surprised me by proving to be imaginative and literary. Lisa’s comprehension and vocabulary are actually pretty good, but her writing is logical and practical, and lacks Matt’s creative flair. I stick to comprehension in the mornings therefore, so that Lisa and I can discuss poems and newspaper articles, and creative writing tasks in the afternoon so that she and Matt can share vocabulary and work on written composition together.

Sometimes your student will be bored by a topic, or have already completed a practise exam paper at school for example, so again you have to adapt. Sometimes a task proves too difficult, or too easy – it has to be changed on the spot. You also have to manage the expectations of the family, and get on with them – you need to be likeable as well as well-presented and respectable (well, I try). You have to monitor progress, to ensure success is guaranteed but the student still enjoys the lessons, and learns useful skills as well as how to pass an exam. I also have to sell the agency, promoting the different services we offer, which does not dovetail as easily with being a tutor as you may think. It’s a bit like being two different people.

I have to be nice and silly with younger students (animal noises and impressions are standard fair), adopt an academic vernacular for my older students to mirror whilst still being ‘cool’ enough (ha) for them to want to listen to me, and then resume a professional, business-like manner for their parents. I’m finding this even more difficult in Tuscany, as every member of the family additionally has a different level of English. When I talk to them together I have to take this into account, and when I teach the children one after another I have to remember to alter my vocabulary, phrasing and speed accordingly. Luckily my hopelessness with two year old Fred was subtly noted, so when I offered to tutor seventeen year old Rupert instead… the family agreed! I lack the words to express quite how happy this made me. Let’s just say that actual skipping occurred afterwards.

I also like surprising my students into enjoying themselves at the same time as learning. “Today’s lesson will be in the garden” is one of my favourite lines; I love watching confusion turn to incredulity, before delight beams out of their faces. Some of my students’ greatest progress has been outdoors. That makes me sound like Miss Jean Brodie, I know, but it works. Matt and Lisa couldn’t believe their luck when I marched them out to the pool for their second lesson together, so we could write a story about being attacked by an insect by a swimming pool. For the majority of my students though, learning to enjoy a subject they are underachieving in, and even to enjoy learning itself, is not enough. They have exams to pass, and specific skills to master.

Short stories, for example, require a very specific format. Maintain a simple plot by limiting time passing and travel/ movement, and instead focus on description by ensuring you describe every object, person and place. If you want to set a story on a railway platform, then you cannot leave the platform. “But…!” (they all cry out the first time, confused and horrified) No buts. Setting such limitations forces students to think, and they learn to write well. Mine are not the only methods that work, but I know how to get the best out of students if they follow my rules, and my success rate speaks for itself. Saying that, I can’t teach all students. I am not suited to those who lack intelligence, or who do not strive to prove themselves. Not because they cannot be taught, but because I simply do not understand them. Tom, however, is very good at coaxing those who lack drive or academic aptitude into achieving wonderful things… a skill which I am incredibly jealous of!

Lessons with Lisa are going well. Her English needs a lot of work, but she’s smart and wants to improve. Her eight year old sister (‘Emily’) hardly speaks any English at all and is resistant to learning it, so our lessons have been a challenge. She’s slowly coming round though, as she’s realised that she actually has to speak English to communicate with me. Her favourite phrases are ‘come and play’, ‘come and swim’ and ‘look at me!’ I have not taught her these – I’ve been trying to teach her prepositions – but she’s learnt them somehow and uses them a LOT. Rupert’s lessons are taking a fair amount of preparation, as he will be taking A Level Economics from September, so has asked to focus on this. We’re only discussing and analysing newspaper articles, but I’ve discovered that I have an utter dearth of knowledge in this particular field. It’s fascinating though, once you get past the associated boredom.

I never really grasped before that the government and the Bank of England actually control and help the economy. Mark Carney’s decision to restrict interest rates until unemployment rates fall, for example… well, yeah – that makes sense! I’d always assumed that banks were simply run like businesses, always aiming to get as much money out of people as possible. Likewise the government – the more tax people pay the more money the government has to spend on what it thinks it should spend money on, right? Well, it seems there’s a bit more to it than that. All of you who actually understand Economics are rolling your eyes at me right now, I know, but I really never thought about it before! I totally get GDP now as well. Check me. Another obvious one? Well Rupert didn’t know anything about it, and he’s about to take an A Level in this crazy subject!

I’ll always be drawn to the Arts and Humanities, because the right-hand side of my mind works better than the left; a well-oiled machine rather than a rusty (but not broken!) mangle. I can’t help but be intrigued by the Sciences though, in a voyeuristic fashion. As a teacher, you’re always learning new things.

Does anybody else teach in a school, or tutor privately? What are your favourite methods for enthusing your students?

My afternoon lesson. Who says you can’t teach dogs to talk?

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