Foods of Krakow Walking Tour, Poland

Let’s be honest about tours and their guides. Short tours can be either informative and enjoyable or drop dead boring. I’ve often noticed large, passive groups in city squares, churches and galleries huddled around a guide, and whispered surreptitiously how pleased I am not to be a part of them. A tour only works when the guide is not only knowledgeable but also engaging and open. A willing smile and a readiness to share a few jokes and inside stories also goes a long way.  The group needs to be small: dialogue is essential. The Food Walking Tour of Krakow, led by our guide, Nika, ticked all the boxes.

Nika, our guide who works for Free Walkative Tours in Krakow

Nika readily admits she loves her job and that’s pretty obvious from the outset. A graduate in Slavic languages and well versed in history, Nika grew up in the area. She’ll point our her primary school along the way, and often refers to her grandmother’s cooking, her love of pickles and her passion for Polish traditional food. With her love of language and travel and her passion for food, Nika makes a wonderful guide. As luck would have it, only three participants turned up on the day of our tour, and with Nika that made four in total, giving me plenty of opportunity to ask her lots of questions along the way. Most of her groups are much bigger but the company professes to keeping group numbers under 8.

Oscypek cheese from the Tatra mountains. Salty, smoky and very addictive.

The tour begins at the Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. The streets bordering this area aren’t as busy or as touristy as the centre of Krakow, which makes this tour more authentic. The tour includes visits to small businesses, a hidden farmer’s market, eateries and local vodka pubs, without the tourist markup. We start with a small sample of red and white Borscht, the latter called Zurek. Zurek is made from a starter (similar to a sourdough starter) made by fermenting rye bread, or rye flour with water for three days. The soup includes potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, with optional meat, and then the starter is added towards the end.

Fermented Rye and sourdough bread, the sour starter for white Bortsch. This is a commercial batch. Home made ferments are easy to make and were also on sale at the market.

At the farmer’s market we sampled generous portions of pickles and salted, cured cabbage. At the traditional sausage and smoked meats shop, the lone carnivore in our group sampled kabana made from horse meat, as well as a slice of fat sausage made from blood studded with barley. The local cheese, Oscypek, was my favourite, a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk from the Tatra Mountains  of Poland. The cheese is pressed into beautiful wooden molds and is often served with cranberry sauce. It is a bright yellow semi-soft cheese, with the salty flavour and texture of Haloumi and the addition of smoking from forest woods.

At some point we stopped for a little Polish plum drink and then it was off to the famous Przystanek Pierogarnia corner shop, home of Krakow’s best Pierogi. People queue to eat here, though there are only a few stools inside and some wooden tables and chairs outside. We tried three types of savoury Pierogi, one sweet one stuffed with fresh blueberries and cream, and an apple pancake. I had eaten Peirogi  in fine restaurants in central Krakow before this food tour. The delicate little pierogi ruski at Prystanek were by far the best.

Beautiful woman in the Peirogi shop
The team at Przystanek. Smile!

Following Nika through the suburbs, we then land in a glittering cake shop with tempting displays of sumptious layered cakes, reminding me of my first taste of layered Polish cake as a six year old child, a very vivid food memory. We sampled some rolled poppy-seed cake: the key to a successful poppy-seed cake is the delicate flavour and  moistness of the black centre.

Polish rolled poppy-seed cake.
Lovely girl in Polish cake shop. What a great tour.
Polish cakes. Cheesecakes too.

By late afternoon, the cold was setting in, a perfect time to sample a vodka or two. We visit two bars, both very different in style. At the first stop, we downed our Vodka, after learning the most important Polish word of the tour- Na zdrowìe ( pronounced Naz- droh- vee- ay ), followed by the traditional accompaniment, a small slice of rye bread with a slice of pickled herring, onion and dill cucumber. Nika stressed the importance of clinking of glasses, whilst toasting- Na-zdrowie- and simultaneously looking directly in the eyes of all drinkers. Failing to do this will incur seven years bad luck.

Inside Bar Trojkat, Krakow. Organic Vodka in many flavours. Try the quince one.

Glowing inside and feeling more bonded, we marched on to bar number two, a great place offering organic Vodka with delicate flavours of elderflower, lemon, quince and caramel, to name a few.

Remember the toast!

Reaching for my third sample, a heavenly quince Vodka, my mind searched for that key Polish toast, but oddly, all I could think of was Perestroika or Lubie jezdzić na słoniu ( I like to ride on an elephant), crazy random words that seemed to suit the occasion, whilst meeting the direct gaze of all!

This walking tour of Crakow was run by Free Walkative Tour of Krakow. The Foods of Krakow Walking tour costs 50 PLN (13 Euro) which includes samples. Private tours can also be arranged. The tour lasts for around 2½ hours. You’ll learn a lot about Krakow, history and Polish traditions along the way. After all, food opens the door to a country’s culture.

Bruges the Beautiful and Bicycles

It’s hard to sit still when you first arrive in Bruges. The Flemish guild buildings lining the Market Square, the towering 12th century belfry, the fairy tale horse and carriages, the canals circling the old centre and the sweet smell of waffles in the air, it’s all too beautiful.

After the initial foray in and around the main tourist quarter, one thing becomes very clear – the importance of the bicycle to city life.

The residential streets away from the central area are surprisingly quiet: walking around the black blocks, along narrow roads with low rise apartment buildings and alongside the canals is a breeze; the city is flat and the traffic is confined to one way streets. Older folk ride for their lunchtime shopping, groups of children whiz by on the way home from school, young and old ride with nonchalance – no helmets, no bike lanes and definitely no lycra!

The bike culture here is European, non competitive, and integral to the street scene. No one is racing: cyclists don’t display aggression towards pedestrians or motorists. They weave their way through pedestrianised streets or squares, passing parked cars without fear of being doored, without the need for self-righteousness. Common courtesy prevails on roads and walkways. Meanwhile, an excellent bus services the city, and the train station is only a brisk 30 minute walk away, with cheap fares to Ghent and Antwerp.

 

Marriage Equality Interlude

Last week I noticed a photo posted by my friend, Adam, on the day of his wedding anniversary. What a beautiful and romantic gift. Adam cross- stitched this tapestry to give to his husband of ten years: the pattern was digitally converted from a photo. The photo was taken at The Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria. I forgot to ask Adam if this was the moment of their marriage proposal.

Cross stitched by Adam as a wedding anniversary gift.

Later that day, Barnadi made a cake to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. They enjoyed a beautiful meal together at their home in Melbourne, along with their cat and dog.

They’ve celebrated their wedding anniversary twice. Last January, they commemorated their Wedding Reception anniversary which was held in Melbourne, Australia, while this month, they’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of their ‘civil partnership’ held in Bath, Britain. At the time, the couple lived in Bath, but visited Melbourne annually to catch up with friends in Barnadi’s home town, hence the need for two weddings, two parties, and now two anniversaries.

Language, terminology and laws have never deterred them: they fondly refer to each other as ‘my husband’ in restaurants, airport border controls and all sorts of public places. I’ve never heard them use that modern equivalent, the oh so very politically correct, ‘my partner’. Of course they would have preferred a different set of words on their certificate back then: the word ‘marriage’, a simple word signifies a great deal when it comes to equality.

The following countries have legalised equal marriage rights: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark (and Greenland), Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, United States, Uruguay. Meanwhile, Australia, once a progressive country, has not yet done so. Starting this week, Australians will vote Yes or No in a plebiscite, a voluntary postal vote. At a cost of $122 million, this expensive opinion gauging exercise will do nothing to alter the opinions of those who oppose marriage equality. Is it possible that it might aid the Australian Prime Minister, the Machiavellian Prince who stays in power by doing very little to avoid disturbing his conservative allies, to finally make a principled stand?

Vote yes for equality, vote yes for love.
The following clip, while amusing, makes some excellent points.

 

The Edinburgh Sessions at Sandy Bell’s

Leaving that famous royal mile, the narrow ridge that defines the tourist heart of Edinburgh, with its wall to wall tartan and cashmere shops and sinister themed tours, we descend the steps in search of the real Edinburgh. Down the stairs of Castle Wynd which hug the old rampart walls to the first terrace, then further on to another level or two until we find Forrest Road. Looking back up at the narrow terraces as they climb that ancient mound gives one a better appreciation of Edinburgh’s architecture. We wander a little further along to the home of celtic music sessions, Sandy Bell’s pub. It’s a tiny single fronted place with a cluster of chairs here and there and a designated spot down the back for the musicians.

Waiting for the musicians. Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

A session in a pub refers to the music played by those who arrive to play celtic music, that is, jigs and reels, at a set time. A good session will go for four hours or more, improving along the way as the participants get to know each other. It is assumed that the musicians are competent in their chosen instrument. There will usually be a leader, often an older player, who sets the tone and keeps the session running smoothly. A good leader will open the set, determine the pace, and show, through a series of hand gestures, when a shift in a set is about to take place. In the session we attended at Sandy Bell’s, an older gentlemen playing two mouth organs at once set a rigorous pace. Other players included a guitarist, three fiddles, then later a uilleann piper and a pianist.

Musicians gather for a session, Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

Singing is not usually a feature of a session, though a song or slow lament might be sung by a single musician between sets. This was certainly the case in the many sessions I had the pleasure of hearing in the pubs along the West coast of Ireland some years ago and it was also the case here in Edinburgh. The guitarist quietly sang a solo of ‘Ranting, Roving, Robin‘, a most unusual Robbie Burns tune, during the break.

Uilleann pipes in action, Sandy Bell’s

The aim of a session is to practice and share music; it is not a performance and so clapping is not usually appropriate. Posturing or grand standing by individuals is also frowned upon: personal musical virtuosity is less valued than the collective effort. Most participants in a session understand this etiquette.

Uelleann pipes, Sandy Bell’s

We stayed at the session at Sandy Bell’s for four hours and with each tune, the group became more cohesive and the music intensely enjoyable. It had nothing to do with the pints consumed, I swear.

https://www.sandybells.co.uk/

Skye Boats. Elgol to Loch Coruisk

For many years, I’ve dreamt about returning to Elgol, a remote village near the black Cuillins on the Isle of Skye. During a previous visit 17 years ago, Elgol became a fantasy village promising isolation, a place to write that novel or master the fiddle. During a recent return visit, this time for a longer look around and a boat trip across the sea from Elgol to Loch Coruisk, I finally put that fantasy to rest.

On the way to Elgol

The road to Elgol is a single lane narrow road with plenty of passing places: it can still be quite alarming during the high tourist season. Most side roads off the main route are similar: the combination of distracting scenery, concentrating on the hairpin bends and tourists who are unused to driving on the left hand side, makes for an ‘interesting’ journey at times. There are, fortunately, many wider verges for the obligatory photo snap.

Road to Elgol, Skye
Road to Elgol, Skye
Elgol’s shores.

There’s not much in Elgol itself, just extraordinary beauty. Most visitors come to take a boat across the water to walk around Loch  Coruisk. Two companies run boats which leave from the small harbour in Elgol. If you go in August, expect to book your place as these trips are popular. The trip takes around 30 minutes each way and includes 1½ hours stopover on the island for exploration. One boat has some covering for inclement weather, the other, run by Misty Boat Tours, the one we chose, has none. Be ready to get drenched en route if you choose the latter. There’s no shelter on the island, except for a small bothy used and paid for by trekkers, and no toilets or trees! The boat you travel on departs once you have disembarked. This is a journey for those who are happy to experience the wild and are prepared to rough it.

Nearby passengers on the way to Loch Coruisk. They were well prepared with wet weather coats and trousers. View on board the boat run by Misty Isle Boat trips. No concessions made for weather, and overcrowding on board can be the norm. 
The weather sets in en route from Elgol to Loch Coruisk.

If you don’t like walking on rocks and boggy grass, you would be better taking the tour minus the stopover. Grass and bog are an ever-present feature of walking in Skye, requiring waterproof walking shoes, waterproof jackets and a sense of adventure. The rocks, fortunately, are not slippery when wet, making walking up steep surfaces quite safe. Wild beauty comes at a price.

Walks around Loch Coruisk, Skye
Loch Coruisk, Skye
Seals near Loch Coruisk, Skye
Rugged Black Cuillins, Skye

 

In My Scottish Kitchen, September 2017

One of the most common complaints of the traveller is the dearth of vegetables served along the way in any type of eatery, cafe, restaurant or pub. Despite veggies being in vogue, we don’t see many on the plate, other than a token salad or a potato, the latter usually in the form of the dreaded chip. After 6 weeks on the road, we were longing for our own apartment or little house, just to be able to cook a pile of vegetables, a soup or vegetable bake, as well as catch up on some washing. It’s rather ironic really, that these simple domestic tasks become so overwhelmingly desirable when you no longer have them.

View from our York Kitchen. Had to pick some wild weeds along the way- purple buddlea is the local weed, growing out of walls and concrete paths. Adding a homely touch to the plastic ikea plants and slate tiled York roof tops.

Our first pot of soup, a leek and potato soup, seemed fitting for our little kitchen in Aberystwyth, Wales. Our York apartment, a spacious Ikea fitted out place in a converted office building, provided the means to cook, but as we were also visiting friends that week, we had little chance to use it. My dear friend JA made some wonderful salads and dishes loaded with veggies from her Lottie ( affectionate English name for an allotment garden), the most memorable dish being her Summer Pudding, filled with plump, ripe blackberries picked from verges, along with raspberries and blueberries cured inside a mold of organic white bread. Ecstasy. There’s an art to making these carmine concoctions that taste like berry velvet.

View from JA’s apartment, overlooking the Minster, York. JA’s Australian roots have given her a passion for freshly grown vegetables.

Now that we’re in Skye, our little stone cottage by the sea has enabled some real cooking to take place. But first, before driving across to the island, we did a big veggie shop in Inverness. Vegetables are much cheaper in Britain than Australia, so long as you stick to seasonal ingredients that are locally grown. My big bag of vegetables, including a cute Wonky cabbage, cost very little, necessitating a few little add ons, such as box of raspberries, some odd looking flat peaches, French butter, lovely cheeses, some Scottish and others a bit too French, and of course, a bottle of single malt whisky. All in the name of keeping up with the locals, of course. Or as the late Angus Grant, fiddle player from Shooglenifty would say, in the only words I have ever heard him sing, ‘Suck that mother down,’ during his live solo on the tune ‘Whisky Kiss.’

On special for 16 Quid. Going down nicely. In memory of Ian Channing.

Wonky vegetables are NQR shaped produce, an idea that has also taking off in Australia. We don’t need perfectly shaped vegetables thankyou, and we definitely don’t need them wrapped in plastic. Most of my bargain veggies came pre -wrapped or bagged in acres of plastic. I’m wondering if the ‘War on Waste’ campaign is happening in Britain and Scotland. The other aspect I found unusual about the local supermarkets was the volume of pre-prepared foods. You name it, it’s available, pre-cooked and ready to ding. Fish cakes, fish pie ingredients, including the sauce, pre-cooked mussels, all sorts of meals, mash, even mashed swede. I’m not sure that Jamie Oliver has made much impression on the English diet.

Wonky Cabbage, 45 p

I was hoping to find a farmer’s market on Skye to supplement these goods. It turns out that farmers markets are quite rare, but then given the climate, I can understand why. We found one at Glendale in the north-west of Skye, a longish drive. We arrived early to find 7 stalls huddled together against the wind: one lady had a pile of fresh organic chicken carcasses for stock, another chap had one small bag of rainbow chard and black kale, nearby was the cucumber specialist, with two kinds on offer, on another table were a few carrots and apples and further down a lady with some sticky buns. And in the midst of all this I found the lady from Tinctoria, a specialist hand spinner and dyer from these parts. She has been hand dyeing since the 1980s and grows her own herbs to make the most extraordinary colours. Needless to say, I wanted them all.

Green ball, dyed from Brazilwood then over dyed with Indigo, the pink is Brazilwood and the blue is from Woad. Not quite kitchen goods but probably made in a kitchen. Dyewoods are woods providing  dyes for textiles. Some of the more important include: Brazilwood or Brazil from Brazil, producing a red dye. Catechu or cutch from Acacia wood, producing a dark brown dye. Old Fustic from India and Africa produces a yellow dye.

My vegetable stash is lasting well. In my Skye kitchen I’ve made lentil and vegetable soups, swede, onion and Orkney cheddar bake, pan scorched green beans with garlic and lemon, ( loving the very skinny beans here), caramelised whole shallots in olive oil, butter and beetroot glaze, Cullen Skink full of undyed smoked haddock, pasta with veggies, mushroom risotto, cauliflower cheese and loads of salads. My cooking has taken on a distinctive Scottish style- the view outside my kitchen window, the rain and the ever-changing Skye light having a profound effect on my cooking and pastimes. It’s odd, given my gypsy tendencies, how homely and settled I feel here.

Simple foods, just vegetables, some butter and cheese. The swede bake layered with onion and Orkney cheddar was a winner.
A bag of shallots become caramelised in olive oil, with some fleur de sel butter, and a reduction of balsamic and beetroot dressing.
Cullen Skink, with smoked haddock, potato, leek, and parsley. Crofter’s bread and French butter.

Fat Raspberries, sweet and seasonal, lead to the obvious choice of dessert- Cranachan- except that I was rather heavy-handed with the single malt and the toasted oats. It ended up more like an alcoholic breakfast. Mr T has promised to pick some neglected black berries along the verges, down near Maelrubha’s well; before we leave this special place, I’ll try to make a more restrained blackberry version.

A heavy-handed Cranachan. Too many oats and way too much single malt.
Crafting and Crofting. My travelling project, a bramble berry scarf, in memory of Skye.

I could go on and on about the wonders of Skye and how inspired I feel here, but I’ll save it for another time, another ramble into the mist. The media file below depicts views from our cottage. It’s hard to stay sane around such ever shifting beauty.

Thanks once again to Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for hosting this monthly series.

Tidal cottage on Breakish. I could stay here for a few months or more. Celtic dreaming.

Speed Bonny Boat

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about Skye, and about that young girl, Marion, who left here during the clearances 180 years ago, and the voices that I hear down by the stream of Maelrubha, the Irish red-headed bald monk who came to preach to the Picts in 671 and the healing water of his well. And about the Norwegian Viking princess who was buried, along with her servants, on top of a stark mull in the Cuillins, and of the warrior queen, Scáthach the Shadow, who lived in the Dunscaith castle on the edge of wild sea at Toravaig in Sleat. Legendary figures surround me, they seem to live and breathe.

Dunscaith Castle, Toravaig, Skye

I am struggling in my search for superlatives: none will do. My English language doesn’t fit this place: it’s too modern and limited and fails to describe what I see. Older words portray these land forms and features, some of them still in use today and if we say them aloud, we might hear our ancestors speak. This is a land of heather and bracken, of cairns, crags and tors, forges, braes, straths and burns. The colours of tartan are spread across rock cuttings and moors, colours mixed by rain and light: heather with burnt orange bracken and oat, scree with mustard seaweed drying at low tide, lichen on birch, black slate and rowan berry. Sometimes the heather is dun, sometimes purple and pink. These are the colours of hand dyed wool woven into the plaid of old.

Cuillins and colours
In need of Gaelic words. Skye
The colours of plaid, Breakish, Skye

When it rains, which is often, the Isle of Skye weeps from every cranny. In the mountains it floods with tears as waterfalls rip and carve great channels through these bald hills. The roadside verges gently seep. Black rock faces flash wet glint, the burns and creeks darkly rush. Tread lightly on the sodden machair, that deceptive verdant sponge by the sea, now solid grass, now  quagmire, now submerged. The sun appears in the late afternoon, a watery limpid glow that seeks out new colours of the evening. Rocky crags, hidden by morning mist, appear as if a new day. And then in late summer, that mystic light returns as the gloaming beckons, inviting exploration before the tide and the night come rushing in.

Dark burns rush after rain
Skye weeping
8 pm. Sky on Skye
Over the sea to Skye
A craggy mound near St Maelrubha’s well

From Breakish on Skye. Skye fills me with yearning. More words will come.

Mr Tranquillo’s post on Skye is here. His great grandmother, Marion Grant, left Breakish on Skye as a young child during the Clearances, travelling to Australia and eventually marrying Alexander McKenzie from Ullapool in the Highlands. Their children never returned to Skye, but all their grandchildren and some of their great-grandchildren have. Speed Bonny Boat.

View from Breakish on Skye. Dreaming of Marion

Lists of English words with Scottish Gaelic origin.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Scottish_Gaelic_origin

The list of all lists: Gaelic words for hills:

https://cuhwc.org.uk/page/meanings-gaelic-words-commonly-seen-hill-names

Walking York

I love walled towns and cities; ancient walls define a place so well. Inside a walled town, things are generally more historic, well preserved, expensive, touristy, and interesting. York is no exception to this general rule. In the height of summer, York’s main historic streets, especially around the Shambles area, can be jam packed. While this part of York is pedestrianised, making walking a breeze, the crowded narrow streets can be overwhelming, especially on the weekends and any day between 10 am and 5 pm when bus loads of tourists arrive for the day. The best time to see old York is outside these peak hours or in months other than July and August.

Why are these people queuing? York’s Harry Potter shop!!
The Shambles- an old quarter in Central York and extremely busy in the day time.
Mr T and JA, walking the pedestrian friendly streets of York. So much to catch up on.

Walking the walls is a great way to escape the busy pedestrian traffic, offering an excellent view of the city below. The walls can be divided into three sections, each with a Bar or gate. You can ascend the walls at these Bars and if thirst should intrude upon your exercise, simply descend at the next gate for a refreshing ale. Some walls look down directly into inviting beer gardens or onto old pubs, making this option highly probable. Other wall walks offer views into the backyards of fine homes and hotels, especially around the Minster. A good way to approach this walk is to you choose one section at a time, followed by an on ground exploration. Layerthorp Bridge to Monk Bar and on to Bootham Bar is the best section. The Micklegate bar section looks out onto an interesting industrial view along the railway side, then ends at the delightful York Museum Gardens, a 10 hectare park situated in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey and the remains of a Roman tower.

St Mary’s abbey, Museum Gardens
Views from the wall near the Minster.

Another acquired map, though the distances can be deceptive. Courtesy of Friends of York Walls CIO, an invaluable website to study before the walk.

York. The Minster and a Song

York is a great city to visit. Vibrant, with many ancient and modern attractions, it is easy to while away a week within the city walls, as well as walking on top of them too. The Romans spent some time here after CE 71, naming the town Eboracum. Then the Vikings, who invaded in CE 866, left a strong impression: they named the place Yorvik and left a street plan that still survives today.¹ The Christians left their beautiful small churches and a notable cathedral, the York Minster, which dominates the townscape, its ethereal steeples, like medieval skyscrapers, are markers for the lost.

The York Minster in sepia.

The interior of the Minster is vast and requires a few return visits. Fortunately, the entrance ticket lasts for one year. You may need binoculars to look at the detail in the stained glass windows, most of which have stories to tell, such as the famous Rose Window, with its combination of red and white roses alluding to the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York by the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York. ²

The Minster and stained glass

Attending Evensong at the Minster, which is held most evenings at 5.15, makes this vast space more meaningful. During August and school holidays, visiting choirs take the place of the regular choir to sing at Evensong. The ritual during Evensong is quite formal and follows the Anglo-Catholic service. During our visit, while trying to stay unaffected by the religious elements that were stark reminders of a discarded childhood indoctrination, I was, nevertheless, anticipating a musical thrill, that quintessential shiver when a piece of performed music enters the soul. During the performance of  ‘And I Saw a New Heaven’ ³, just as the conductor, a black caped Harry Potter figure with a shock of grey hair, swayed ecstatically as the choir and pipe organ consummated in heavenly sound, I briefly went to that new heaven. This piece of music is not your typical earworm for a fun holiday abroad, but nevertheless, it’s a moving one and will now always be associated with York. The piece is included below.

The chancel, York Minster
York Minster

¹ http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/timeline

²https://yorkminster.org/geisha/assets/files/fact-sheet-the-principal-windows.pdf

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Bainton

And I Saw a New Heaven, by Edgar Bainton

Wales. More Celtic Wandering

Wales, beautiful, wild, celtic Wales. I’ve always had a predilection for the western celtic lands: visiting coastal Wales helped fill in the celtic jigsaw that is never far from my consciousness. Scotland in the north and its Hebridean islands, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia, old kingdoms fringing the same sea, facing the same way, turning their backs on the rest of Britain, France and Spain, each with their own version of Gaelic and, along with it, a cultural independence and a certain defiance.

Map courtesy of National Geographic Society and included because I love a good map. Take me to the dark green bits. You can keep the rest.

Driving from Aberystwyth, we stopped at the black stone village of  Dolgellau for lunch. The town is pronounced Doll Geth Lie or Doll Geth Lee or Doll Geth Lai, depending on whose Welsh grandmother you listen to and noting that the’ ll’ sound is made by putting your tongue in the roof of your mouth as if you are going to say an L then blowing. And then on past towns with interesting cat and dog sounds, Porthmadog and Ffestiniog, past more maddening street signs designed to keep our mouths working in unaccustomed ways, on past the quarrier’s village, Rhiwddolion, a place surrounded by mountains of slabbed slate glistening in the late afternoon sun showers, with enough slate to pave and roof the world. Our final destination was Llandudno by the sea, not so far if you drive in a straight line but we have a tendency to get distracted. ETA, what’s that?

I’m including this little beginner’s guide to Welsh because the language sounds so nice and because the presenter is so charming.

Wales is a ruggedly beautiful place, with more open farming district, and mountainous forested areas, with the highest mountain in Britain outside Scotland, Snowdonia ( Yr Wyddfa) and a much lower population density than Britain. Each village and town beckoned, dark villages made of dolomite and slate, brave working villages and some more stately.

In this part of Wales, you get a sense of ‘other’, in contrast to the picturesque villages of the border where black and white houses and inns lean precariously onto the road and into each other, those Welsh towns like the book village of Hay- on- Wye, closer to the English border districts near Hereford.

The Llandudno pier. Punch and Judy show?
Bandstand on the Parade, Pier in the distance. Llandudno, Wales

Llandudno is a seaside resort dominated by a long and wide promenade with an arc of Georgian and Victorian guesthouses facing a gentle bay. It was given the title of ‘ Queen of the Welsh Resorts,’ in 1864.  For the Australian visitor 150 years later, it is an astonishing sight. Not much has changed from those earlier times. You get the feeling that older folk come here to ‘take the sea air’ or stroll out for a cup of tea. There’s a tram ride to the top of Great Orme, a prominent limestone headland, built in the 1903. I am sure people swim here sometimes too, but we saw no evidence of that, despite it being summer and late August. The guesthouses were all full and the restaurants well patronised. Nice to visit once perhaps, just for the audacity of that big parade. I hope to return to Wales, but have a preference for her wilder, wet and darker stone places.

Saving the planet. Wind farm off the bay at Llandudno.
Walking the parade, early morning, Llandudno.

Thanks to all those readers who offered information and links to Welsh scrabble last week. The links to these may be found in the comments page of my last post on Aberystwth.