Love it or Louvre it, or where to find a moment of silence in Paris

I’ve been to Paris twice now. The first time, back in 2001, I was there for a week and a half just hanging out, drinking pastis in basement jazz bars, running through the cobbled streets in the rain, practicing my french on bored Parisian check out girls. I was a proper backpacker, staying in a hostel and making friends with fellow indie travellers until I felt it time to leave. One guy I met, a Canadian, had another friend who was house sitting in the Marais in a flat as beautiful as the one in Taken. Another, an English dude, was in Paris to spend time with his daughter. Me, I was there to wander the streets and see the sights.

And because I wanted to see everything in Europe in three months (bless) I had to be judicious about which sights to pay for. So I picked one of the big ones and said, “next time” to the rest. Versailles won.

So next time came well over ten years later, and this time the Louvre was our must-see. So, what did I learn about the Louvre that I can pass on to you?

I think this calls for a list!

  1. Don’t stand in the queue. Buy your tickets in advance!
  2. Arrive at your alloted time and sail by the line people in your very special lane.
  3. Get one of their brochure mappy things. You’ll need it because there are over half a million things to look at from art to objects to cities. Literally.
  4. No matter what anyone says: see the Mona Lisa. It IS that impressive. It IS mobbed with people. And who cares? It’s the most famous work of art in the world. Ignoring it is just lame. It’s like going to New York and not going to Times Square. Has to be done at least once.
  5. Pick a part of the museum far from the great ML and head there for some solitude.

After fulfilling #1 on the list above by purchasing our tickets at the billetterie spectacles at FNAC in Forum des Halles…

… we had just enough time to grab some lunch before our timed visit to the House of the Mona Lisa. The walk back to the Musée revealed more of Paris’ rich history.

The Fountaine des Innocents is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris. It’s kind of a big deal, having Pierre Lescot’s name attached to it. Did you know he was the architect in charge of a little museum called the Louvre?

What a coincidence!

And speaking of, we’re heading there right now. Follow me!

Item #2 on the love it or Louvre it list, the special advance ticket line was VIP only. There may as well have been a red carpet. We strolled in the pyramid and down the escalator, snapping pics along the way.

As you can see, I prefer to look up. Less people up there. How may of us take photographs of the underside of escalators?

I’m not going to lie. It’s busy in the atrium under the Pyramid, known as Hall Napoléon. And somehow I managed to get a fun shot, even caught one girl’s attention. Check out the red-haired lass looking directly at me.

Spooky.

That photograph was taken whilst fulfilling #3 on the list, grabbing a mappy thing. You’re gonna need it to find the ML and the VdM (Venus de Milo to those not on a first name basis). Besides the sheer volume of artifacts contained in this horseshoe shaped museum, there are four floors. Without some sort of map… good luck!

We set off on a wander, letting the crowds go their own way. I’m not even going to pretend we knew where we were going, so just enjoy these photos and note how the crowds thin as we go (#5).

We found ourselves in the Coptic Egypt Art Gallery and the Bawit Room beyond enjoying the rebuilt Byzantine Monastery Church with one of Egypt’s greatest icons…

In complete solitude. (see above, #5)

How about a painting on wood from the Bawit Monastery, circa 8th century?

We sat alone across the room Christ and Abbot Mena from for almost ten minutes, knowing it couldn’t last forever but hoping it would.

Our secret was out. As the tourists started walking in our cozy monastery hide-out, it was time for us to leave and find the big guns. Lots and lots of  photos to come.

Melpomene, artist unknown
Apollo
Winged Victory of Samothrace, front
Winged Victory of Samothrace, back
Aphrodite (Venus de Milo)
Aphrodite, Ramses, and another dude
Left
Right
Centre
Outside Galerie d’Apollon
Slightly distorted Galerie d’Apollon

That’s only just a few of the ridiculously famous artworks you’ll stumble across in the Louvre. Even the building is art. Ceiling panels, anyone?

 

I keep my cupid above the door, too.

Ornate angel cornice? Yes, please.

Okay, no more messing around. It’s time to find the famous lady herself. If we don’t get lost (#3 again).

Maybe past these sitting Egyptian dudes?

Or perhaps through the hallway of many sphinxes?

Past this sphinx?

Okay, maybe this one…

The Great Sphinx of Tanis

Is it around this moat?

Don’t be distracted by the modern art selfies…

Oh hai!

Maybe it’s this way. After all, where there are crowds…

You’ll find Mona. (Finally, #4)

Here’s a little advice on getting your photograph of the most famous painting in the world. Treat it like a mosh pit. Everyone is jostling for their place in front of the velvet rope so you can’t be shy, though try and be nice. If the museum were smart, they could charge even more money to queue up and get your pic of this piece. Instead it’s every man, woman and child for his, her or little oneself.

  • So just walk in, say excuse me, scusami, pardone mi, pardóname, entschuldigung, sorry, whatever gets you to the front of the crush.
  • Then don’t mess around.
  • Take your photo on the highest possible setting, not JPG, but RAW, so that later you can zoom in and crop to your heart’s content.
  • Have this setting programmed before you walk up.
  • With an iphone, just take the wide shot because the zoom function blows. I relied on Instagram to make her sweet smile come to life.
  • Be polite and get yourself out of everyone else’s way as soon as possible. Believe me, they are happier to watch you leave. But don’t hang about. Want to stare at her to figure out DaVinci’s hidden messages? That’s what the internet is for.
  • Oh, and turn around:
The Wedding Feast of Cana

You’ll barely have anyone in your way to view the massive and classic Wedding Feast of Cana. You’ll probably recognize this beauty from such classes as Art 101 and Art History.

So there you go, your beginner’s guide to the Louvre. Don’t worry about trying to fit everything in. Just wander, sit every once in a while, and enjoy the view!

Oh, I forgot to add something to the list.

6.  Wear comfortable shoes. There’s no way you’re going to see it all in one day, so save something for next time!

Au revoir!

 

And so Paris…

When good Americans die, they go to Paris -Oscar Wilde

If you’ve missed me, it’s because I’m preparing some of my more recent travels for the blog. But I seem to be caught in indecision city. Australia? Seattle? Maybe that weekend in Waikiki? The confusion of what to write here has echoed in the planning for my next trip, a certain birthday coming up in a few months. Brisbane? Indonesia? A bucket list trip to Kathmandu? I want it all.

The very act of going through photographs from past trips feels almost like caffeine coursing through my veins, a heightened sense of smell, of sight allowing me anticipate the next. It’s equal parts torture and nostalgia. Perhaps that’s all travel is for me, going out into the world to execute my plan, looking back fondly later.

Who am I kidding, I love the travel part, too.

So whilst I agonize over Tijuana, Prague or Zeeland, here is the first of a few posts, snaps and snippets from two nights in Paris, which is what I shall call my book of short travel stories some day. (All rights reserved, natch.)

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Not everyone in England is lucky to live near an international airport, though most airports in England are. It’s on an island, after all, the North Sea separating it from the continent. And as an American expat, I was always so amazed at how easy and inexpensive it was to fly internationally, the travel time on a flight to Belgium taking less than rush hour traffic through Downtown LA on a Tuesday to Pasadena.

For real.

So being in Leicestershire, we have the delightful East Midlands Airport just thirty some odd minutes from our front door. It’s a small facility that used to be an RAF base, Castle Donington to be exact. It does the requisite European short-haul flights and recently even added some long haul to the mix, though I don’t think that will ever stretch to direct flights to LAX. Long of the short of it is if you’re happy for a quick hop to Spain or Paris, you’re in luck.

We chose to do a mid-week trip, thinking the crowds in the French capital may be a little more forgiving in the height of August’s peak season and knowing the locals have mostly skipped town for their summer holidays. We were partially correct, the locals had definitely split town, but the tourists were abundant.

And the nostalgia… The last time I was in Paris I stayed on the right bank in a youth hostel by the Anvers Metro, just in the foothills of romantic Montmartre and the stunning Sacré-Coeur. It was September 2001, just a three days after the 11th. It was an interesting time, with a quiet city going about its business under the watchful eye of soldiers with automatic weapons on high alert. Since then, not much has changed on that respect, though the city was far more vibrant on this visit.

Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant. -Honoré de Balzac

So true, Honoré, and that’s why we stayed at the delightful Hotel le Bellechasse just across the Seine on the left bank. Le Bellechasse is a boutique hotel using its Christian Lacroix designer pedigree to make it stand out in a city full of beautiful design hotels. What made this hotel stand out for us was its location only a few short steps from the Musée D’Orsay, du Louvre and the outdoor cafés of Saint-Germain des Prés. For a two-day trip we didn’t want to travel far to our tourist destinations.

We arrived late on the first night, checking in after ten PM and realizing our desire for dinner was going to go unanswered. That meant early morning hunt for un café et deux croissants. We wandered south toward Rue de Bac Metro in search of caffeine and popped into a little brasserie that served the purpose.

I’d heard somewhere that most of these little cafés and bistros, like pubs in the UK, are chains. That didn’t ruin the charm of standing at the bar with our breakfast cafe au lait. Saying à bientôt, we marched into the nearby Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger to stock up on our continental breakfast. We had a big day ahead of us.

But first… one of my favorite things to do in a city is strolling to find a place to picnic, wandering to a local lunch spot, picking up provisions and dining al fresco. With our fresh croissants in hand, we were on a mission.

The walk from our hotel was gorgeous, bright sun and blue skies with nary a tourist in sight. The Seine shimmered its hello.

Our plan was to check out the queue at the Louvre, so what better place to plan a picnic than at Jardin des Tuileries, Louvre-side?

Flaky pastries consumed, we found where all the tourists were hiding.

Why yes, that is a queue of people snaking around the side of the pyramid, the entrance to the Louvre. Without tickets.

What are they thinking?

I’m not one to judge. The boy and I have a habit of heading to a destination without pre-booking tickets. Maybe it’s the lure of our younger years as seat of the pants travellers. It’s definitely how we’ve managed to miss out on some of the world’s greatest attractions. Like that time we went to New York just after the Statue of Liberty opened and we couldn’t get tickets to the top. Too bad. And the time we went to Paris and didn’t get our Tour Eiffel tix either.

Oh, you mean this trip?

So we weren’t going to miss out on the Louvre. Our hotel concierge gave us a tip of purchasing tickets from the counter in FNAC, a shop that sells electronics slash cultural products (yep, that’s the description, and kind of what it looks like on the inside). We did a little research and discovered the Forum des Halles was the place to go. We designed a further wander through the streets of Paris to the mostly underground des Halles, determined to find something new.

Like a different view of the Louvre.

Or a look down one of the covered arcades of le Palais-Royal, a grand palace that used to be Cardinal Richelieu’s house and was later absorbed by the crown after his death. Now it’s the home of the Ministry of Culture,  the National Library and the Constitutional Council. We chose to wander through the arcade adjacent rue de Richelieu alongside the Comedie-Française, one of France’s state-run theatres.

I feel like its worth mentioning at this point that we’d only walked a mere 3 minutes from the entrance to the Louvre. It’s impossible to visit Paris without marvelling at the history literally everywhere.

A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. -Thomas Jefferson

C’est incroyable.

We kept walking up rue de Richelieu to rue des Petits-Champs, a street originally opened in 1634. That’s where we stumbled upon Galerie Vivienne (Metro: Bourse).

As you can see, Galerie Vivienne is one of Paris’ many covered passages with a purpose. Built in 1823, it’s now filled with boutiques and cafés fit for luxury city centre living. One might say this could be the inspiration for modern-day malls.

If only our malls looked like this.

Upon leaving Galerie Vivienne, we soon stumbled across another Notre-Dame:

Basilica Notre-Dame des Victoires, to be exact.

This little church began its life as part of a convent in 1619. King Louis XIII himself laid the cornerstone. How’s that for pedigree?

Leaving le petit Notre-Dame we made our way toward Forum des Halles via the picturesque back streets…

… past cafés that would not have looked out of place in Amsterdam or Brussels…

… to the under construction entrance to the Forum des Halles.

I took absolutely no photographs in this mainly underground expanse of shopping, cinemas and passageways to the Metro and nearby residences. It’s something out of a science fiction film, so futuristic in its retro design that I knew my sad camera phone would not do it justice, my micro 4/3rds Olympus Pen even worse.

Besides, we had a FNAC to visit and my high school french to exercise.

Bonjour, je voudrais deux billet s’il vous plait, le Louvre. -this girl

And so we walked back.

Did you know that you don’t have to wander through Paris streets to buy tickets and avoid the queue? Just head to the Carrousel du Louvre, another underground shopping mall, literally across the pavement right next door.  It even connects to the Louvre by another clever underground passage. Just head downstairs and there are museum passes ready for purchase.

Secrets travel fast in Paris. -Napoleon Bonaparte

Yes, Napoleon, but fast is not the way to see Paris. Stroll, take in, taste. That’s how you experience this city.

Next time I’ll show you there are places in the Louvre where you may actually find yourself blissfully alone.

à bientôt!

Sleat, Ardvasar and a secret hike

And so we finish the last day of our Isle of Skye adventure on the Sleat Peninsula. Sleat is well regarded as “the garden of Skye,” a badge they wear with pride. To this visitor, it was just as beautiful as the rest of the island. Just with more trees. I approve.

Shortly after arriving at our bed and breakfast, the host told us of a hike down to a secret cove where we might spot some otters. Otters, you say? I cannot say no to cute wildlife sightings. So off we went.

We were told to take a short stroll up the single track road, past farms and other vestiges of rural island life.

Then at a little sort of bridge, instead of crossing it, take the path just before it on the left.

Little bridge

It didn’t look like much at the start being heavily overgrown, however we followed it down and found the path into the leafy canyon below.

It was then we heard a waterfall, so I kept my eye out for the little otters that were known to frequent the stream.

The otters were behaving elusively, if one could behave as such, so we continued down the narrow path toward the secret cove.

A brief aside whilst we are walking down this Sleat garden path to the shores below. Upon arrival at our B&B we were quite excited. At this point in 2013, Homeleigh B&B was a small bungalow with two bed and breakfast rooms, and it turned out to our good fortune that the double bedded room was available. At the time of our visit, the proprietors were a lovely couple who were about to sell on. We didn’t think too much of it at the time as our heads were filled with notions of secret hikes to secret rocky beaches and secret otter sightings.

I bet they told that to all the guests.

Anyway, the path continued along the brooke and broke through the canopy to give us a sneak peek of our destination, complete with a view to the landscape across the loch.

And more path…

… revealed better views.

And as we peeked into the cascading waters, we thought we heard something. An exploring otter, perhaps?

Alas, scuppered again. One last look up over the ferns to the stream brought nothing but otter disappointment. (Get it? Go on, read those last two words again.)

Reaching the rocky beach was a treat. And really, that’s the best descriptor for it. It wasn’t a huge challenge considering the hike was all downhill (not looking forward to going back up) and very short. It wasn’t the most beautiful of evenings, the sky being lightly overcast which gave my photos an interesting glow around the rocks. But it couldn’t match the dramatic blue skies over Ullinish.

Yes, the beach was a treat. And it definitely looked like it was a popular hang out for the area youth.

In the town I grew up in we had a pond. And that pond had access roads we’d walk along, creating our own paths to the pond’s edge until we found the best place for our debaucherous pastimes of sitting by a bonfire drinking cheap beer and skipping stones. One summer we put up a rope swing, and henceforth that’s what the little campsite became known as: The Rope Swing.

It felt like we had a place of our own that no one knew about. Of course everybody knew about it, and on occasion the police would come to break up our revelry. As you do.

But that summer we felt invincible, as the kids who hang out on the secret cove of Ardvasar probably felt as they skipped stones and drank cheap beer amongst the rocky shore.

My partner scoped the beach for some excellent skipping stones whilst I scoped for ideal desktop background images.

And how excited was I to stumble upon proof of our otter friends.

Dinner, perhaps?

Speaking of, the evening was getting on and we spied a pub on our way in. Time to wrap up our nostalgic secret hike with the real reason why we are here:

Time to skip some stones!

 

Six! Well done. Off to the pub.

The Ardvasar Hotel is the only game in town. It’s the closest hotel to the ferry, about 15 minutes walk, easy for those who are not laden with hire car like we are. Part of me wishes I’d booked this little inn, seeing as we were having dinner and drinks there, it would have been ideal to just wander up to our room and say goodnight.

But instead we just took in the view, dining al fresco watching the skies clear to blue and the tide go out.

And of course, a little bit of Instagramming.

The cows came out at low tide, dining on some pretty tasty grasses as we dined on sausage and mash.

And finally! Some wildlife. The fierce pub cat we shall call Stan.

Saying goodnight to Stan, we walked back up the short hill to our bed and breakfast. I’d like to say that it was a relaxing evening in our comfortable en suite room, however, upon returning to the Homeleigh, our hosts informed us that we were not allowed to use the ceiling fan, nor the pedestal fan. You see, her sick mother (bless) was in the room below and she couldn’t sleep through the noise of the fans.

Now I can’t sleep without the noise of fans, and it was hot as balls (excuse my French) so we were at a moral standoff. The customer, they once said, is always right. So if we just put the fan on, would anyone really be the wiser? But we couldn’t be those people. You know, those people who can’t follow the rules. So wanting to be respectful for the ill mother in the room below us we did as asked.

We even tried to get some respite from heat by opening the window. Alas, it was broken and could not open! The cold showers helped, though.

Not to malign a small business, but it was miserable, and turned out to be the last time I stayed in a B&B. The experience was so terrible that I’m not really over it almost three years later.

At least I was still awake at the wee hours to take this photo out the broken window of the sun trying to set, the moon keeping me company in the illusion of night blue sky. Glass half full.

In the spirit of friendship, I have good news. The Homeleigh was indeed sold and has been taken over by another lovely couple. Recent tripadvisor research shows that the new owners are far more accomodating and have three rooms to let. No mothers to be seen. I would even consider staying again as long as I’m able to use one of the fans.

Now, who wants to take a ride on a ferry boat??

 

Never mind the Brexit, today’s all about Scotland

My phone blew up this morning over Britain leaving the European Union. Or rather, the referendum vote to leave. Like most Londoners, if you look at the map, I would also have voted to stay. As did Scotland. After all, they just voted two years ago to stay in the United Kingdom, and now the ungrateful Britons do this to them?

You know what I say, Scotland? Get thee to the beach!

If you are visiting Castle Dunvegan, you would be doing yourselves a disservice to not pop up to the beautiful little beach at the tip of the peninsula in Claigan aptly named Coral Beach. It’s just a 10 minute drive. We came across a family who walked from the castle – and being the good samaritans we are, we shoved the family of four in our rental and drove them back to the Dunvegan car park. After all, it was 30F and no shade. Living in Los Angeles, I know what that’s like. The sunburn alone…

Here’s how you get to Coral Beach.

From the Dunvegan Castle car park, take a right and keep going. The single track road will take you to, well, the end of the single track road. There’s a car park there. Shove your vehicle up against the hedges and be ready. There are flies a plenty ready to become your very best friend.

It’ll then be a nice 1 mile stroll to the beach. Takes about 25 minutes. In the hot, burning sun? Feels like forever. Don’t forget your water! Hydration is key.

Speaking of, there’s a little stream that needs crossing. I can imagine this being an issue if there has been recent rain.

Like most of the Isle of Skye, this is crofting land. Crofting, if you haven’t seen me define it for you before, dear reader, is the traditional social system in Scotland for farming. A croft is a farm. So on that croft you might find either cows or sheep. And on this out and back trail you may run in to either.

The sheep on this croft were smart. They found whatever shade they could, I imagine, in order to avoid the blinding sun. Which for us made a beautiful beach day and stunning clear blue skies almost unheard of in Scotland.

Turning back to look where we came from, you can see that the trail is really quite pronounced thanks to the sheep tracks. Loch Dunvegan in the background.

You come to the top of a little hill and voila – ahead you can see the beach as it sits at the mouth of Loch Dunvegan. The far island is Isay, one of many uninhabited islands off of the Isle of Skye.

In fact, right next to Isay is a small island called Clett. Apparently legend (and the BBC) has it that singer Donovan owned it and sold it off foot by foot to tourists. You couldn’t make any changes, couldn’t build, stay overnight or alter the island in any way. I imagine it’s a lot like owning a star.

Note the animal tracks. They also like going to the Coral Beaches.

A brief look back at the track and the tourists who decided to climb the hill. Better they stay there and not clutter the beach, I say.

There were a fair amount of people on the beach. Some who’d climbed up the rocky outcrop behind. Locally this outcrop is known as Ghrobain.

The little island out in the Loch in direct view of the beach is called Lampay. Only 150m or so offshore, it could be an ideal swim. Apparently at low tide a causeway is revealed so you can walk across.

I have this thing with sticking my toes in water. You may have seen me do this at Loch Lommond. The water there was pretty chilly. Here? Downright icey despite the afternoon sun.
Coral Beach-3

It even turned my toes blue!

Coral Beach-4

Jk.

Coral Beach-5

With the skies so blue reflecting in the sun drenched waters, you’d almost mistake this place for a tropical locale. Or perhaps more Mediterranean. Maybe even Spain.

Coral Beach-6

The Coral Beach gets its name for being made of coral. No, that’s not true. It’s actually made of little bleached skeletons of Red Coralline seaweed and bits of little colorful shells.

Coral Beach-7

A panoramic view almost shows how beautiful it is here. LA’s beaches wishes they were this stunning.

Coral Beach-8

Being so unbelievably hot for Scotland, we’d noticed a distinct lack of something incredibly important to hot weather.

Beer.

Where are the pubs?

You’re in the countryside. On an island. Off the Highlands. Of course there isn’t a pub on every corner, no local in which to bide your time. And to get to the nearest one? You have to drive. I didn’t rate our chances on single track roads against drunk drivers. Though oddly you never see a car in a ditch on the side of the road.

So we decided to chance it at the Stein Inn, the oldest Inn on the Isle of Skye, says its website. And I believe it. To get there is a 20-30 minute drive (depending on the sheep in the road) from Dunvegan Castle on the A850, then the delightfully tiny B886. Mind the cattle grates in the road.

The Stein Inn is quaintly perched on the shores of aptly named Loch Bay on the Waternish Peninsula. The B886 will drop you directly in front of the pub. Car park is behind.

Proof of the age of the Inn hung over the doorway. 1790, not too shabby.

The pub is a small, cozy wood paneled affair, everything you’d expect a pub in the far reaches of Scotland to be. And today, on this heat wave day of days, it was bloody hot. The publican was not happy, practically dripping in sweat, using bar towels to wipe down his face each chance he got. I doubt he’s usually this grumpy. Tolerance of heat is likely something Scotts don’t usually have in spades.

I knew there was only one tipple that could take away the woes of a summer day by the shore of Loch Bay.

Stein Inn-1

Glorious cool and refreshing lager. Stella, you charmer.

Stein Inn-2

This fair haired lass was taking a well deserved nap – I hope she was wearing sunscreen!

Stein Inn-3

If there were any doubts of the tropical nature of this quiet corner of Skye, this palm tree proved it.

Stein Inn-4

To give you an idea of where we now are, the hilly land jutting out across the bay is the Dunvegan Peninsula. Just over that hill? Claigan and the Coral Beach.

Kids play on the boat ramp, enjoying a cool off in the Loch.

You can barely see it, but there are a couple of seals out in the calm Loch enjoying the sun. And despite the grumble on the barkeep’s face, he had to have been enjoying it too.

Maybe just a little?

Dunvegan Castle and Gardens, my version of a photo tour

If you are going to the Isle of Skye, go to Dunvegan Castle. It’s a must-do on all the hip kids’ travel lists. Besides, the Clan MacLeod is kind of a big deal around these parts, and this castle has been the clan’s seat for over 800 years. In fact, it’s the 27th Chief we have to thank for opening up his home to the public in 1933.

Thanks, Chief!

The Castle is located in the north west corner of Skye, just one mile north of the village of Dunvegan. Lucky for us, we were only a 20 minute drive away.

So let’s get started!

I noticed immediately how busy it was, chock full of tourists. Although happy for the clan getting all that entrance money (£12 from each of us for entrance to the castle and gardens), it did mean that I had lots of strangers in my photographs. I am one of those photogs that will wait until the tourists clear the area. Sometimes I am not so lucky. This guy below looking at camera features heavily in a few of my pics.

Hello!

If I may be honest, I am not a fan of pebble dash. And at some point in this castle’s illustrious renovation history, someone decided to render the exterior in little tiny pebbles. Pebble dash may have been de rigeur at one point, however I prefer my castle exteriors to be clad in big-ass stones. Perhaps this is the working man’s castle. I’m not judging.

The inside was pretty cool. Lots of museum pieces collected over the years, including some Jacobite relics. They were especially proud of their famous visitors. Photographs of Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Walter Scott lined the walls.

I was more excited about what was happening outside. Lochs and more Lochs.

It was at Castle Dunvegan that I learned about my iPhone’s panorama function. I am hooked.

Now, about those gardens.

There are apparently 1 hectare of land to wander. Although I have no way of measuring a hectare in my brain, I can say the gardens were quite compact, with a few different areas to explore from formal gardens to the vegetable garden. I really enjoyed wandering the more wild, natural parts. The waterfalls were pretty neat too. Nice gardens. Five stars.

Considering how hot it was, the gardens did offer lovely pops of shade to hide in.

And little paths to wander.

Oh, and I mentioned waterfalls. My Olympus Pen did the waterfalls no justice.

The gardens lead to the water where, if you time it correctly, there will be a boat trip in your future!

I was filled with glee to discover that they run seal boat spotting trips on Loch Dunvegan for only £7.50pp. And as we wandered up, we found a boat practically waiting just for us.

View of the boat launch from the castle grounds.

The Clan McLeod’s motto is “Hold Fast”, so this salty gent’s tee shirt is appropriate.

The boat was quite small, so if you are squeamish about water or wake or whatever, these little motor boats might not be for you.

All the more closer to the seals, I say!

Oh, and how about a couple of poorly shot videos?

We got pretty close up to these gentle beasts. Obviously they are quite used to the tourist boats. I wonder if they are as excited to see us as we are them?

 

Lone seal

Something tells me no.

After all that seal excitement, it was time to head back to shore.

Heading back to the castle, I shot off a few choice pics using some of the art scene filters the Olympus Pen has on offer, to varying degrees of success.

And just when I thought I’d got the shot of the day, another tourist photobomb. Such is life in Scotland. It’s kind of a big deal.

 

Here’s a link to Dunvegan Castle’s website for all their opening, closing and other dealings. Pick up a tea towel in the shop! Super cute and easy to pack reminder of your trip in the north west corner of Skye.

Next time I’ll let you in on one of Skye best kept secrets. What’s that, you say?

You’ll just have to wait and see.

Walking and whisky in Scotland

Did you know that most distilleries in Scotland have a claim to fame? The most this or the highest that. Well, Talisker’s claim to fame is that it’s the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye.

More on that later, though. It’s time for a walk.

So in my last post, I introduced you, dear reader, to our accommodation for our three night Skye adventure, the delightful Ullinish Country Lodge on the western coast of the Isle of Skye. We’d just spent the good part of a day driving up through the Highlands, had a wicked five course dinner worthy of a Michelin Star (imho) and a restless night’s sleep. That’s right, what a shocker, I had a crap night’s sleep. I’m pretty sure it had everything to do with the fact that, at mid summer, the sun really never set before it was time for it to rise.

Never mind that, we had an island to explore!

Breakfast consisted of Benedict for me (of course) and a coffee. We were planning to tackle the delightful walk to the tidal island of Oronsay, the trail head just a short stroll from the Lodge.

Oronsay is a small hilly island inhabited by grazing sheep. And, my crafty research has turned up that Oronsay is a Norse word for tidal island. There are two around Skye alone, and one further south that comes up when you google maps it.

Go on, check it out, I’ll wait for you.

We double and triple checked when high tide was to make sure we didn’t get accidentally trapped on the island with the sheep. Just in case we brought snacks.

The 3.2mi (5k) walk started, for us, at the car park of the lodge.

A delightful morning greeted us as we hit the Oronsay Path.

There she is, our destination: that little cliff just above that cottage.

A sign at the kissing gate directed us off this patch of road.

We read that the walk could get muddy depending on the whether, but since it hadn’t rained in days, our boots remained unsullied. In case you were wondering, lack of rain is a strange occurrence for Scotland.

We came upon a really beautiful, picturesque gate which lead to the main event of the walk. But my lovely other half is in the pic, and he would absolutely hate me for posting it.

You’re welcome, babe.

And past the gate it just gets better and better:

We crested the hill topped with sheep to find Oronsay just hanging out, waiting to be climbed.

But first! The tidal causeway and Oronsay Beach.

It looks much smaller from far away. This causeway was not in any danger of flooding during our hike. (Phew!)

Can’t stop now, the peak beckons!

A brief look back to Ullinish shows why the Isle of Skye is known for being rugged and wild. Note the little trail created by the sheep. Yeah, we totally followed that.

The views up top are pretty great. You get clear vistas of the other small islands in the lochs as well as to the hilly northwestern Duirinish peninsula with villages on it with such names as Roag and Skinidin.

Wicked.

I didn’t realize when taking the photos of the little pink flowers that sheep poo was everywhere. My face was inches away.

Inches…

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I wish you could see this panorama full size, cause it’s awesome. I just don’t know how to make that happen on this blog thing. Do you??

A few more pics before heading back of the Minginish peninsula.

And with a sigh we head back. We still had a couple hours before the tide thought about coming in, but didn’t want to chance it. Who knows how friendly the sheep actually are???

Remember I mentioned the pretty little gate? Here she is.

It’s much prettier looking the other way.

Ullinish may not be much, but she is beautiful. I don’t know if I could live here year round, especially with all the rain but what a lovely place to visit.

Oh yeah, and there’s the whiskey!

Talisker is the first Scotch I’ve ever had that I actually liked. In fact, I recommend to anyone who does not like whiskey: get thee to a distillery and do a proper tour! Get someone to teach you how to drink it, what the nuances are, the differences before and after you add water or ice or when to swirl or savor. You’ll be glad you did.

Talisker is the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye. It’s on Loch Harport in Carbost, a short drive away from our Lodge. Yes, I planned it that way. Never too far from the whiskey.

We took the fancy tour, a two hour walk through and tutored whiskey tasting that cost us £25pp. It now costs £35 and imho it’s worth the extra £££ – go on, splash out! It’s really fun.

They ask you not to take photos on the tour, if only to protect everyone from blowing up. Camera shutters and the Angels Share do not mix!

The water they use in the distilling process comes straight from the moors above. Our tour guide opined that if it didn’t rain soon they would have to stop production.

Noooo!

We were given 6 of their malts taste. If I recall correctly, they had a new make (the clear, moonshine looking drop upper left), then the 10 year, 18, 25, Distillers Edition and the non-chill filtered 57 North.

My fave? The 18, for sure. Highly recommended.

After that wonderful morning walk and an afternoon of whiskey tasting, it was time to relax. On the menu tomorrow? Castles, beaches and sea lions.

Oh my!

One summer evening, we took a walk in Glasgow

Driving into Glasgow, Scotland was rather like driving in to any major US city, a freeway running right through it which drops you off at the city centre. My thoughts went to Hartford, Connecticut or even, in a much smaller way, Downtown Los Angeles, where the elevated 110 freeway slices through on its way to Pasadena. That is how I felt about the M8 which cut through Glasgow like a butterknife. To keep going we’d eventually run out of motorway and end up following along the River Clyde until it turned into Lochs.

But our focus for just one night was the city of Glasgow. I can’t explain how much I loved the little stone city, recent stand in for Philadelphia in the zombie flick “World War Z”, more that I thought I would. And it turns out I didn’t even see the half of it.

I was there for the architecture. I wanted to see Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, walk down Buchanan Street and visit Glasgow Cathedral. Unfortunately we arrived at our destination pretty late so that all we wanted to do was find a nice place to sit down for a meal and check in to our hotel. So why not see what we could see along the way?

Thus begins our walking tour of Glasgow.

After checking in to the budget friendly and incredibly comfortable Citizen M Hotel on Renfew Street, which by the way was incredibly easy. Computerized check in with staff on hand nearby in case one gets confused. We wanted a high floor, so it was necessary to talk to a lovely human.

Clever signs and copywriting. I approve:

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And a stunning view.

Heading down Renfew toward Buchanan. I really liked the mix of old and new:

Buchanan Street – at least one thing off my list. The street is your basic pedestrian shopping thoroughfare, the more upmarket of the shopping areas of Glasgow. Though by the time we arrived there was no shopping to be had for us, just a lovely stroll.

Should we have stayed in town longer, taking the subway would have been a great way to get around the city. Again, I really appreciated the appearance of the modern glass subway access against the Victorian architecture. Pretty.

And next to Nelson Mandela Place (once St George’s Place, natch), the spire of St George’s Tron, Church of Scotland.

Looking down George Street. I can see why they may have used this area for Philly.

On the other side of the church, the old, Venetian Gothic style Glasgow Stock Exchange.

Now home to a bustling Urban Outfitters.

Looking east down St Vincent Place and more grand Victorian buildings. If I’m correct, on the right hand side, that cast-iron fencing may actually contain, erm, subterranean public convenience. Ahem.

On the left, it’s a bit dark due to the back light of the sun in the west, however at the corner of St Vincent Street I discovered a building that at one time was far too important to house a Post Office and Jack Wills.

In fact, with a little research, I found out quite quickly that the crest (which might be the Royal coat of arms) was on the old National Bank Chambers, the word “Impune” above the now modern Post Office sign.

A little further research and I found the motto of Scotland to be:

Nero me immune laces sit: No one provokes me with impunity.

Here here.

Continuing our walking tour, we took a right on Gordon Street and found the entrance to Central Station, the Grand Central Hotel presiding above it. It is a beautiful specimen of the Queen Anne style. Or so I’ve read.

 

Our culinary destination was just around the bend from the station. After a day on the roads of England and Scotland, we were hungry for some steaks. And, housed in another stunning Victorian, The Grill on the Corner obliged.

It had some pretty amazing interior details. What this photo lacks in style and composition, the interior of this restaurant held in spades.


Lovely cornicing.

After a wonderful dinner that I can’t actually remember these almost three years later… although when I look at the menu, I have a certain hankering for the Sirloin or the Sea Trout, hoping the trout might be from local seas, but I may have just grabbed myself a burger, because there is nothing more lovely than a grass fed, premium beef burger. America, pull yourself together.

Upon leaving the restaurant, it was still light enough to snap a few more photos of the beautiful red brick found in the area. These have made some pretty awesome desktop images.

And being just past 9pm. And being full to the brim with tasty food. And arriving back at our little hotel with the 7th floor view. It was time to bid Glasgow adieu and bon nuit and get ready for tomorrow’s drive.

Isle of Skye, here we come.

My Summer Holiday

When does a holiday truly begin?

Is it when the clock turns 8pm on the last day of work, you grabbing your bag and shutting your computer down as you scuffle out the door with smiles and waves?

Is it when your bags are packed and being lifted into the back of your cab for the trip to the airport?

Is it when you settle yourself into your uncomfortable, expensive airplane seat, perusing the Skymall mag with mild amusement (zombie garden statue anyone?) and taking photographs of Dogbear in various positions?

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Meet Dogbear:

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(Nice look!)

Or is it when you’ve slathered on the sun screen, walked out the door in your sarong and floppy hat, destined to get sand in uncomfortable places?

Who bloody cares. You’re on holiday!

After a brutal 6 months of hard work, my dear husband (further to be known as DH) needed a well deserved rest. So we scoured the internet for possible locations. SE Asia: well, that’s sure to make our money last. Maldives? Eek! Expensive. And the flights – brutally long. Australia! Well there goes our savings.

Europe? Now we’re talking.

But D, I hear you ask, isn’t Europe one of the most expensive places to go, especially in the summer? What are you thinking?! Go to Australia, you daft cow!

Well, dear reader, I can’t believe I have to remind you of this, especially since you just called me a cow, it’s winter in Australia, and with the US dollar falling against the Aus dollar, well it would be foolish to spend all that money on a winter holiday during summer. And with an average hotel stay being over $200/night, well, need I say more? And as it so happens we have DH’s family and our friends who would happily put us up for a few days here, a few days there, in between our jaunts to the continent, up north to Scotland or day trips down the street to Leeds or Liverpool. We haven’t spent a summer in the UK in years, somehow managing to only be there when it’s cold (remember that 7 months we spent there during winter??) and since to me it’s like coming home, it seems a no brainer to return to a place that gives us such joy.

Awww.

And, as it turns out, the weather is freaking fantastic!

Warm and sunny, with fluffy clouds filling blue skies, we have yet to need the brollies (umbrellas) we forgot to pack. Our jumpers (sweaters) have remained in the suitcases and I’ve even had to buy a few more vests (tank tops) to cope with the 30+ temps (85+). Why am I writing in Britishisms? When in Rome, people, when in Rome.

But if we rewind a little, our holiday didn’t start when we disembarked at London Heathrow. It actually started in Harrisburg, PA with a visit to my fabulous niece and nephew. I don’t mean to brag, but they are two of the most awesomest human beings on the planet. Oh, and their parents are okay too :).

So what can you possibly get up to in rural central Pennsylvania during a hot, muggy summer?

Check it out:

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We weren’t the only ones out for a walk:

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The end of the walk was at the railroad tracks with a view over the Susquehanna River (not pictured).

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So we turned around, and on the way back we had to ford the stream. Definitely didn’t want to get our feet wet. PA-17

Oh maybe we’ll just test how warm the water is.

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Ah, who needs dry feet!

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Panoramas anyone?

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Stitched Panorama

So yeah, our holiday began in rural Pennsylvania. Beautiful hikes, a morning kayak trip and loads and loads of barbecue.

Where did your holiday begin?

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Spring is here. But for some of us it’s still wearing a winter coat.

A few days ago this time last year, I marveled at the glorious sunshine and high temps that baked London’s streets, sending each and every able bodied Londoner to the nearest patch of outdoor space, grass or bare step at any availability to grab every ounce of vitamin D they could. I went for a walk, as I am known to do, down Regent’s Canal through Camden, taking photographs of yellow daffodils reaching for the bright blue skies. Read all about my exploits here in my post titled Spring is Dead. Long live the Spring! or March is the new July.

This year I am over 6,000 miles away in a whole different weather pattern. And they aren’t wrong, whoever they are. Living on the westside has its temperature perks. When it is unbearably hot in the Valley, with temps at 90f+ (30c+), it’s in the 70s (20s) over this side of the hill, cooled by the ocean breeze. The flipside of the ocean breeze is the ocean itself. It brings with it fog, what we call the marine layer, that sits on us all morning, sometimes all day. Whilst the rest of the city is bright eyed and tee-shirts, we are long sleeves and cardigans. Compared to the current winter weather that’s gripped the UK and Europe, I’m happy for a bit of overcast. I’m satisfied with cardigans. I definitely prefer it to the Valley’s high temps and requisite sunburns.

In a salute to weather passed, here’s a walk I took with the DH (dear husband, as a reminder to you readers) on the Regent’s Canal heading east – a direction I’d not ever been before. It wasn’t exactly margarita weather, mind, but we were able to start off the sunny Sunday at the pub. We were wearing jackets as the temps were a little more normal March/April with clouds that threatened to open on us as the day went on. And in order to truly participate in the UK’s national pastime (complaining about the weather) one has to get out in it and experience just how very diverse it is.

And you may get lucky with a day dry enough to wander around with a camera. Of course, I’m sure most Londoners would just prefer it warm enough.

Since the sun was out and a beer garden so tempting, we stopped at the Lion & Unicorn Pub in Kentish Town on the way.

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An empty pub and a blue, sunny sky. We were tempted to stop here for the day but instead kept going. We had a canal to explore!

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So we walked from Kentish in to Camden Town, down Kentish Town Road.  At the railway bridge we could not be more certain about our location.

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And instead of turning right toward the big money of Primrose Hill, we went left towards the hipster edginess of Hackney.

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The above building looks like a Victorian Pump House, another reason to love this city, because here this beautiful building sits amongst broken down boats and a rail line. The section of canal just east of Camden goes through the construction site known as King’s Cross. At present there are major works going down all around the prolific railway station, including refurbing university buildings for Central St Martin’s, a prolific art school, that is already housed on site. Soon one can actually enjoy the walk through this area to the fullest. I thought I’d save the photos until then. Here’s a website for the development itself so you can see the scale of what they are doing to this once rough part of London.

One thing we didn’t actually realize, though we both knew considering I’d even been in the tunnel itself, was that the canal actually goes under Islington fairly soon after you leave Camden, meaning as pedestrians we had to find our way through the streets of well to do neighborhoods Islington and Angel to get back to the canal. Upon making our way back to the canal, the first thing we stumbled upon was another lock.

City Road Lock, as it’s known, is just a bit east of the Islington Tunnel, constructed sometime around 1812.

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Even with the hipster graffiti, it’s looking pretty old for a 100 year old lock.

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This area is full of contrasts – like the new, designed buildings next to old industrial warehouses, likely soon to be expensive flats.

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And like any day with a bit of sun, the locals have come out of doors to find their patch, ideally with a pint in hand. This might be what I miss most about the UK, and especially London: getting outside and socialising with friends with a few cans or a bottle of wine. I have fond memories of sitting along the Thames in Chiswick with a can of Fosters (yes, I said Fosters, get over it), surrounded by happy people and their picnics. Completely legal, drinking out of doors. Tourist tip: don’t go doing it on the tube or trains as that’s a no no.

This is where our canal journey ended – as building work along the canal meant we had to take a detour through the De Beauvoir Estate. And although there are a lot of buildings that look like this:

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There are all these modern new builds along the canal that can only mean one thing: gentrification of the area is going to make the above eventually go away or be converted. Give it 20 years, maybe.

Doesn’t mean we can’t take some artsy black and white photography before that happens.

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Like the above, a new build with lovely glass balconies. And in front of the construction, an old woman in ragged clothes smoking a cigarette. It won’t be long until she won’t have a place to sit anymore.

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Yet, as it so happens, Hertford Road changes again. This area, De Beauvoir Town, was once meant to be residences for the upper classes in the 1820s when the area was purchased from some De Beauvoir chap. However, delays to building due to supposed illegal acquisition of some sort (likely to do with paying off planners for a speedy approval) meant that the upper class folk who were going to move in here instead moved to the west end. What story would Hackney have written for itself if De Beauvoir Town had achieved its upper class desires? An east end Mayfair? And has it taken this long, this almost 200 years, for this part of Hackney to reclaim its crown?

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Even if its past was pillaged from it, Hackney keeps on.

Okay okay, I don’t need to hear the groans. I thought that was a pretty good bit of wordplay, if I do say so myself. Pirate. Pillage. Whatever.

Our walk ended at Haggerston Overground station, just a couple streets over on Kingsland Road. The weather had started to become bleak, the sky threatening to open up on us and the wind picking up to warn of the coming storm. Not 30 minutes later we were safe as houses back in our flat, even though deep down we both wanted to go back down to the pub to eek out as much of the day as we could.

So, who wants to talk about the weather?

One year ago in South London, aka taking a walk down someone else’s memory lane

Outside my window right now it looks like this:

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But one year ago, the view looked like this:

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Both days were beautiful, sunny spring days, the kind of days that really stick in one’s memory long after one leaves. Okay, to be fair, that top photo is what it looks like almost every day in Los Angeles. Isn’t that just boring? Sun sun sun!

Blah blah blah, I say.

If I had to chose a winner of a day, it would definitely be 11 March 2012, the day my man took me on a little tour of his old hood, Lewisham and Catford. And of course, I brought my camera.

My London knowledge is mostly centered around west and southwest London, with the recent addition of north London to the mix. It’s when it gets to southeast London that my knowledge gets fairly lackluster, my opinion formed of what my man told me, what my friends told me, what I saw on telly, and that one time back in 2001 when I went to the Greenwich Observatory on my first visit to town. Shame, I know, all those years living in London and the furthest southeast I’d gotten to this point was Bermondsey.

Lewisham has a bit of a reputation for being a bit rough. Perhaps that’s because it hasn’t become as gentrified as other parts of London; it still keeps its urban roots. Ten minutes by train from London Bridge, it’s definitely not a shopping mecca. It’s shopping centres are serious blasts from the past, built in the 60s and 70s and in desperate need of some of that regeneration money that’s being poured into the area. The shops are not Westfield standard. You won’t be buying anything Vuitton here unless it’s a knock off. But in saying that, it’s kept some of the local heritage alive, the fact that American Apparel and Gap haven’t moved in keeps the daily Lewisham Street Market authentic.

Lewisham was actually not so bad once you got to the pedestrian shopping area. Of course, that may have been the sun blinding my eyes. The walk from the station to the high street is down a busy road that’s not quite as pretty. But if you walk left around that first roundabout, you’ll see a little bit of green and an old church that could use some help – and in front of it the River Quaggy, which at this point is what’s knows as an urban stream. Think a really small LA River – once it used to be a natural waterway, but now it consists of run off and is likely redirected because of the population around it. I even think that part of the Quaggy is actually subterranean, but I’d have to look further than just Wikipedia to find that out. Ho hum.

So here’s some photographs of lovely Lewisham to show you what I mean:

Starting with a boot scraper from St Mary’s Lewisham.

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Can’t. Get. Enough.

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A little further down the high street you’ll find the gorgeous old Lewisham library. Not sure what the building is used for now, but it is in incredible nick for its location. Might be used as a government building as it is attached to the Births & Deaths office. Anyone know?

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Now originally I thought that the tower blocks pictured above might have been built on land destroyed by bombs in WW2, as Lewisham was indeed ravaged by German bombs. However, that’s actually not the case  in this instance. This is the the location of Lewisham Park, and it was once surrounded on all sides by houses. But these three tower blocks were built during the mid sixties, an era where councils thought it better to buy up (if applicable, sometimes they just moved residents if they were already council tenants) all the houses along this stretch of the high road and build purpose built tower blocks instead and named them Malling, Kemsley and Bredgar. This practice happened all over London, in many instances to get rid of areas the government thought to be slums: families living in one room, no indoor plumbing, that sort of thing. Little did they know that by building these forward thinking homes in the sky, they were actually creating the very slums they tried to eradicate.

Wow, deep.

Further down Lewisham High Road you hit Catford. Poor Catford really had the shit beat out of it during the 1960s and 70s with some truly appalling architecture. The obsession with tearing down beautiful old buildings and replacing them with brutalist office blocks and residences continued. Lots of brick. Lots of concrete.

But these days it’s probably best known for it’s Cat:

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Its shopping centres continue in the same vein as Lewisham…

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And at least there are small businesses about, like this Chick Chicken! Word of advice: avoid all fast food chicken shops in the UK unless you want to play russian roulette with food poisoning. Luckily I’ve not succumbed to such a fate, but many others I know have. What were you thinking, boys?

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… a stall where you can get a mobile phone case, a banana and fresh fish inside (take that, Asda!).

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Looking down Catford Broadway.

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A bit of old Catford… I think this alleyway into the Catford Conservative Club is a front for organized crime.

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VW driving crime lords. Why not?

Okay, so Catford’s history may a bit prettier than its present, however I think the area has a lot to offer the interested photographer. Fulham it is not – but even Fulham has its rough edges. One day someone’s going to get wise about Catford and spruce it up, because in the light of day, it might not be a bad investment.

I wish I took more photos, but at this point my dogs were barkin’. In Catford.

Get it?