Weekend in Tuscany, May 25-29

We spent the long weekend in May in Siena. We flew out of Aberdeen at 6am friday morning and by late afternoon we were on a bus from Rome to Siena. Laurie met us at the bus stop and, after dropping our bags off at the hotel, we had a lovely dinner in the big Piazza, which has a tower and lots of sparrows and is lined with restaurants.  The menu had really bad english translations of their options – I don’t remember what I had for a main, but the starter was something like “black cabbage thrown on the furnace” (and it was delicious). Afterwards we got some gelato and walked by the Duomo. Magnifico!

On Saturday, we did Siena. In the morning we visited the home of St Catherine. Her home has been decorated in gorgeous Frescoes depicting scenes from her completely fascinating life story. We also went into St Catherine’s basilica, which has a couple of rather gruesome relics — her finger and her head — mounted in cases, and is otherwise quite a plain but airy space. The basilica was an interesting contrast to the Duomo, which we visited next. The outside is amazing enough, but the inside is just crazy. The most amazing thing is probably the floor, which is an enormous marble mosaic, sectioned off with different artists contributing different scenes and images from history and the bible.  But everything else was mindblowing as well, with amazing frescoed chapels, statues by Michelangelo and Bernini, paintings by Donatello, amazing guilded walls and dazzling ceilings, and on and on. We also went into the Duomo museum and up to the tower to take in the view. In the evening we went to a piano concert (Mozart and Schubert – not very Italian, but nice anyway!) and then had dinner (again, I can’t remember what exactly, but pasta and/or pizza is a safe bet).

Sunday was an epic day. We walked a long way out of the center of Siena to get to the train station, where we caught a train to Asciano, a tiny village of which we walked from one end to the other in about 10 minutes. The plan was to visit a monastery which was about 11km away. Being Sunday, there were no buses running and no taxis in the village, and the bike shop was closed for the day. So we walked there. My 6-months-pregnant feet are about a full size bigger than they should be, so my shoes felt too small, and it was about 28C, which is about 10 degrees hotter than it ever gets in Scotland, so I had a few cranky moments, but we made it, and had a picnic lunch outside under the umbrella trees. The monastery was gorgeous – more lovely frescoes and lovely rooms, a big library and stunning chapel, and actual monks roaming around in white robes. Then we got back on the road and walked another 10.5 km to the next village, Buonconvento. Given that was a little sore and a bit whiny after the first 11km, you can imagine what pleasant company I was after the next 10km – sorry Laurie and Brad!! But they took good care of me. We caught a bus back from Buonconvento back to Siena, where I went straight to bed.

On monday we spent a bit more time in Siena, visiting a few more churches and neighborhoods, and then caught a bus to Montipulciano, a lovely hilltop town in a famous wine-producing region. The town is stunning, with amazing steep and narrow streets ending with views over the tuscan countryside. Brad tried some of the famous Montipulciano wine and declared it delicious, while I tried not to be a little jealous (it wasn’t that hard, because I was eating amazing spinach flan and other yummy things). Then we had to run to catch our respective buses – Laurie back to Siena, and us to another small town with a train station, and then a train to Rome.

We arrived in Rome and checked into our hotel, which was a few blocks from the main station, and found some dinner – I had some awesome eggplant parmesan followed by the best tiramisu ever. In the morning we did a major blitz of roman sites – we walked through the colosseum, the roman forum, and the pantheon, and we walked by the monument to Victor Emmanuel II and the Trevi fountain. Then we caught a train to the airport, and the flight home again; Sore feet, some minor sunburns, and a lot of gelato later!


Back in April… we took a week-long climbing trip to Fontainebleau, France. For those that don’t know, Fontainebleau is a small city south of Paris, popular as a weekend getaway and known for the large forest and the historical château de Fontainebleau. For climbers, Fontainebleau or “Font” is a world-class destination for bouldering. There are dozens of areas scattered throughout the forest, each with a high concentration of hard sandstone boulders of all sizes. The whole area was once at the bottom of a lake, and the resulting rocks left behind are smooth and rippled, and often surrounded by flat sandy ground. The exceptional quality of climbing for all abilities combined with the beauty of the forest and easy access makes Font a world-class destination. A week was nowhere near enough.

We met up with our friends Dan and Linda and their little girl Viva and we all stayed in a lovely little gite just outside the picturesque town of Barbizon. Traveling there was easy and the weather there was pretty much perfect the whole trip with sunny days and slightly cool temps — it even rained on our rest day so we didn’t feel like we were missing out on a great day of climbing.

We arrived in Paris on Saturday afternoon and were kindly picked up by Dan in a rental. Forty minutes later we were pulling into the drive of our “gite rural” just north west of the forest town of Fontainebleau and only five minutes away from one of the most popular bouldering areas on the planet. We were greeted by Linda and Viva who was just a sleepy baby when we saw her last and who is now a happy little two-year-old. The gite was a cozy two bedroom cottage located on the grounds of a very large chateau surrounded by forest. The area around Font is all forest and it is immense. There were two other gites on the grounds as well. At some point they were outbuildings of some kind for the chateau, one a barn, another a guest house…. hard to say really. I wish I took pictures. For some reason I took no pictures on this trip, and I’m fairly annoyed by that.

We took care of the grocery shopping right away so we could devote the rest of the week to climbing, and we had a nice evening meal while catching up. Dan and Linda’s friend Magnus stayed with us for the first two days as well. His family had just gone home after being in Font for a month and somehow Magnus had managed to squeeze out just a couple more days. Sunday and Monday we climbed all day, each day at different areas.

Here’s the breakdown:

Sunday: Franchard Cuisiniere
Monday: Bas Cuvier
Tuesday: Rest day – Paris
Wednesday: 95.2
Thursday: Rest day – Font
Friday: La Roche aux Sabots
Saturday: travel home

Days would start with breakfast and cleanup. We’d hit the crags usually by 10:30 and climb until 6:30 ish. Packed lunches would be consumed in some sunny spot next to the climbing. Evenings were spent cooking, eating and playing with Viva.

On the Tuesday sore muscles and thin skin demanded a rest day, so we all piled in the van and went to Paris. Our aim was to visit the Science Museum which looked pretty cool. The weather was cold and rainy, and the traffic going into Paris was very congested. The lines inside the museum were epic and we all decided it wasn’t going to be a pleasant day fighting the crowds so we went for a walk outside up and down the canal instead. After our walk we just got back in our car and headed back to the tranquility of the forest.

I managed to hurt my knee pretty badly on Wednesday which forced another rest day on Thursday. We spent the day in Fontainbleau city. Meme and I visited the palace there while Dan, Linda and Viva went to find an internet cafe and run some virtual errands.

Friday we hooked up with some of Dan and Linda’s friends and we all spent the day climbing, some of us more than others. I was still a bit sore so wasn’t able to climb quite so much, or walk so much for that matter. But it was still a great trip. Pictures below.

June visit from my folks

We’re way behind with our posts – reports from an April trip to France and a May trip to Italy are in various states of completion, along with a few climbing adventures and tales of home renovations. But since Mom and Dad just left a few days ago after a great visit, and we have lots of pictures that I’m sure the family will want to see, I’m just going to post a gallery rather than attempt any long descriptions that might end up getting endlessly stuck in the draft folder like the posts above.

My Folks in Aberdeenshire

My parents were here for almost two weeks in June. The trip to Orkney was terrific, but doing stuff around Aberdeen with them was also fun. By now they know the area almost as well as we do (this was my Mom’s fourth trip and my Dad’s third) but there’s always more. On this visit we went up to the Moray coast to visit the aquarium in MacDuff, which is a terrific facility that demonstrates the ecosystems of the north sea. They may not be as flashy as tropical fish, but there are some pretty interesting critters in the water here. I liked the nursery with the baby sharks emerging from mermaid’s purses, and the baby manta rays (surprisingly cute, for elasmobranchii!). Feeding time in the deep sea tank was also fun to watch. These divers have a fun job.

While on the Moray coast, we stopped in Portsoy for some ice cream (because that’s what you do on a Saturday), and we also went for a walk around Bow Fiddle Rock, which is near Cullen. It’s a stunning quartzite rock formation. (Brad is in the bottom left of the picture below, for scale.)

We also drove up the river Dee to see the Garden of Historic Roses, at Drum Castle. The gardens are divided into four quads to represent the style and roses of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century gardens. They were all really beautiful.We took a quick walk around the castle itself, including climbing up the stairs to the roof of the tower keep to try and get a glimpse of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately it was quite a wet and gloomy day so we couldn’t see far.

We also visited the Burn O’ Vat, which is a glacial pothole near Dinnet. In involves a short forest walk along a stream. The trail leads you to the place where the stream flows out from between two house-sized boulders. There are handy stepping stones and you can walk along the stream, between the boulders, and emerge inside the pothole, which is very much like a large vat with a pretty waterfall at the back.

We continued on, stopping at Tomnaverie stone circle, to Craigievar castle. It’s a very pink castle. We’d never been before because they’ve only just re-opened it after a lengthy renovation. Apparently some time in the 1970’s someone thought it was a good idea to re-harl the castle using concrete, which they thought would insulate and keep out moisture better than the mixture of lime and granite that originally coated the outside of the castle. They assumed modern building materials would better preserve the furnishings and gorgeous plaster ceilings in the castle. Unfortunately had the opposite effect, by trapping all the moisture inside. So they’ve been stripping off the concrete and re-harling it using the original material. The color comes from the local pink granite, and so probably matches its original color.




Orkney Day 3


On Sunday, we wanted to visit one of the other nearby Islands, but it turned out we were pretty limited by what ferries were running to which islands on a Sunday (the woman in the Kirkwall tourist bureau used a word that sounded something like “kirky-bodies” to describe the folk on the outlying islands, which we took to mean church-going types). But Shapinsay was a quick ferry ride, so we went down to the harbor to try and figure out how to get there. As often happens in Scotland, there were no signs, schedules, or posted fares. But we spotted a ship coming in to harbor that said “Shapinsay” on it and we followed it to where it docked and walked on. On board, a man came around and collected fares, and we docked in Shapinsay in about 30 minutes.

It was a very sleepy farm island. There’s a castle to visit, but we felt more like going for a walk. So we chatted with a local and watched the seals for a while, and then wandered along up a country road past lots of cows to an old ruined kirk that the moss and ivy had taken over in beautiful ways. My folks turned back to visit a bird blind and Brad and I continued on down the road a little ways – we’d hoped to get to the other end of the island, but had to turn around before we got there so we wouldn’t miss the ferry. On the way back we were passed by a ragtag group – a young girl on a pony, a man on a bicycle with a horse on a lead, and a woman in a funny metal cart being pulled by a Shetland pony. Just out for some exercise, I guess. We also came across a group of young steers that seemed a bit desperate for something, though we don’t know what. They came running over to the fence as we approached and followed us along the road, mooing desperately. The seemed especially fixated on Brad, and when he broke into a trot they all started trotting along beside him. We felt a bit bad leaving them to moo in their field all alone.

Highland Park

Back in Kirkwall, we stopped in for a tour of the Highland Park whisky distillery. We’ve been on a few of these tours before and they always leave you with the impression that their distillery is the best in the world (because they don’t cut corners or compromise on their malt, water, peat, process, casks etc etc) and this one was similar. But I will say, with the caveat that I’m not really a fan of whisky, I did think their 18-year old tasted better than many other whiskies I’ve tried. Not good enough for me to start drinking it regularly, but I was able to finish the sample anyway! And they had a malting floor on site, unlike other distilleries, and that was an interesting feature.

Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces

Next we visited a couple of interesting ruined palaces in Kirkwall, near the cathedral. The Earl’s palace was built in the 16th century and occupied by the Stewart Earls, who, by all accounts, were jerks, and the palace was built by pure force of brutality. So I guess it’s no wonder the Orcadians let it slip into disrepair and eventually ruin. The bishop’s palace is a bit older (12th century), and has a tower you can climb (albeit on some tricky stairs) to get nice views of Kirkwall and the Cathedral below.

That evening we saw the Scottish Chamber orchestra again (Mozart’s requiem among other things, really good). Afterwards we retired to our hotel in Stenness for a pint to find it much quieter than the night before, when it was overrun by a few dozen drunken superheroes.

Orkney Day 2

Continuing our visit to Orkney, on Day 2 we visited a few more neolithic sights (seemed to be the thing to do) and poked around Kirkwall.

Skara Brae

This was probably the most fascinating of the neolithic sites we visited. It’s a 5000 year old village that was buried in sand dunes, and then uncovered by a storm in the 19th century.  There are about a dozen dwellings interconnected by passages and they all share an outer wall. It’s a bit like a tiny, rudimentary walled city. The interior of the dwellings looks quite cozy, each one with a firepit in the center, ringed by beds and seats and then these amazing clever touches of comfort and creativity, like layered shelving, and a little water-filled hole that would have acted as a kind of refrigerator, and a larger central hut that they believe was the community workshop. Seeing it as we did on a warm sunny day, sitting over a pretty beach in the rolling farmland, it was possible to imagine that they didn’t have such a bad life.


The Ring of Brodgar

We didn’t so much as visit as dash past this standing stone circle on the way to Maes Howe. There are stone circles and single standing stones all over Orkney, and a lot of mystery around what they were for and why there were so many. This one hasn’t been excavated or dated but it’s probably from around 2500 BC. It is within sight of another large standing stone circle (the Stones of Stenness, which I forgot to mention we visited on Day 1). Apparently a lot of these circles had to be rescued from a farmer in 1814 who, fed up with trying to plow around them, decided to knock them over. He did a lot of damage before he was stopped.


Maes Howe

Not many pictures of this – you’re not allowed to take any pictures inside, and from outside it just looks like a mound. It’s a chambered tomb dating from 2700BC. You have to phone ahead to book a time to be taken inside. The tour was good (especially considering that we’d already visited a lot of ancient monuments in the previous 36 hours or so, and you can really only ponder for so long on all these unanswerable questions of who made these, why, how, etc). An interesting feature of this tomb is the graffiti left behind by 12th century Vikings. Most of them say amusingly lame things like “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes”.

Kirkwall Harbor and St Magnus

Kirkwall is the biggest town in Orkney, and while not the most exciting town ever, it does have an interesting old cathedral and a busy harbor. The cathedral is more solid than soaring, but the rough red sandstone fits the landscape well. It was built when Orkney was part of Norway (12th century) and has a norse feel to it, as does most of the town. After visiting the cathedral we got some ice cream (because that’s what you do on a saturday) and walked around the harbor. Lots of action here – mostly working fishing boats, and of course also lots of ferries running to and from the many islands north of Mainland. That evening we scored (or so we thought) some return tickets to see The Tempest in Kirkwall. I will spare you all the gruesome details of that event and suffice it to say that we left at intermission.


Orkney Day 1

A few weeks ago, we spent three very nice days on Orkney with my folks, ostensibly for the St. Magnus music festival, which is a week-long classical music series in Kirkwall. We spent more time sightseeing than we did at the festival (“Festival” seems to have a slightly different connotation here – it was more like a concert series). Here’s some stuff we did on Day 1.


The Italian Chapel

The Mainland is connected to South Ronaldsay by a series of causeways, which were built by Italian prisoners of WWII. The causeways were originally intended to keep U-boats out of Scapa Flow, which was a key strategic harbor for the royal navy during the war. Prior to building the causeway the navy had tried to block the channel by sinking lots of old ships and barges in it – unsuccessfully, since in 1939 a german U-boat snuck through and destroyed a ship (killing 843 people) and then snuck out again. So the Italian POWs were brought to this uninhabited little island between Mainland and South Ronaldsay to build what are now known as the Churchill Barriers, to keep further U-boats out. While laboring in this isolated place far from home, the men managed to cobble together a touchingly ornate little chapel out of a couple of nissen huts and a lot of bits and pieces lovingly salvaged, painted, carved, and arranged. The chapel they created is beautiful and touching.


The Tomb of the Eagles (Into the tomb: The movie)

On the south coast of South Ronaldsay is a tomb and a homestead that are about 5000 years old. The visitor center is owned and operated by the family on whose land they happen to sit, and it is kind of a weird tourist attraction as a result. They hand out various ancient precious artifacts for you to touch and pass around, including a 5000 year old skull. Then they send you off along a mucky path into the remains of an ancient house, and then further along the clifftops to the tomb itself. Leaned up next to the entrance to the tomb, which is under 3 feet high and probably 10 feet deep, is something that looks like a skateboard – you lay down on it, on your back, and pull yourself into the tomb, using a rope fixed to the roof of the tunnel. The tomb itself has been capped with a roof, and has several chambers. When they excavated it they found 85 human skulls and thousands of eagle bones.

Brough of Birsay

The remnant of an ancient village sits on a small island off the northwest corner of Mainland. The approach to the island is tidal, so you can only visit for a few hours each day, and you need to keep your eye on the time. The village was inhabited by Picts from the 6th-8th century and by Vikings from the 9th-13th century. There are quite elaborate foundations left behind, including evidence of baths and rudimentary plumbing. The island has lovely sea cliffs with dramatically layered rock formations – we argued a bit about whether and how much of it was artificial (I am pretty sure it’s natural). We also saw a puffin there.


Scottish Chamber Orchestra

In the evening we went to see the SCO do a few pieces by Mendelssohn and by Peter Maxwell Davies in Kirkwall. We had seats behind the orchestra, which meant the sound was a little unbalanced (too much French horn!) but in exchange we got to watch the extremely animated and engaging conductor, Thierry Fischer, head on. Terrific show.