Whales – By George – I found Whales!


We wake to another beautiful day in South Africa – blue sky, blue sea, cool breezes. I’m finding it a bit cold, and since today we are going out on a Whale Boat Excursion – I choose to over-dress. I’m wearing almost everything I brought that’s warm – and thinking I wish I had more!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the odd thing. When we drove back from JJ’s Grill, we were stopped just below the entrance to the Conrad Pezula. There was a swing barrier and a guard checking your reason for going past his post. The odd thing – I didn’t see a guard gate when we drove up in the afternoon – nor when we drove back down for dinner. It’s a pop-up guard gate – only visible at night. Different, right?

Back to today – We enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast provided by the hotel, and then wind our way back down to Knysna. This time we look – nope, no guard gate. But onto our adventure. Whale Odyssey takes small boats out into the ocean to see the whales 4 times a day – and it leaves from Thesen Island, a paradise of lovely shops, cute restaurants, and adorable housing located across a causeway from the main town of Knysna. The folks at the hotel have recommended a restaurant for lunch – the Ile de Pain – I’m guessing French influence here? The sparkling cleanness of Thesen Island is very impressive – it’s a lovely enclave, without a guard gate. First one I’ve seen in all our travels. But based on the ‘odd’ thing last night, I’m guessing that a gate appears on the cross way after dark. And access to the ‘residential’ part of the island is barricaded by a huge metal gate and a swing bridge. So sure you can get on the island – but don’t get near our houses…

Our Whaling trip starts at the Odyssey Shop where we join up with our fellow whale boaters – there are 12 of us, and we are given life preservers and basic instructions – primarily follow the Captain’s Instructions.

Our Captain takes us to our boat – it’s tiny, but with super powerful outboard engines. We’ll find out soon enough how necessary those are. We take our seats in rows of 3 or 4 – and soon cast off. Because we’re old, slow, and polite – we’re last to board. So I’m sitting on the end seat on one row, Victor on the end seat of a different row. Turns out to be great seats though!

The Captain tells us that when he stops the boat – we are free to move around as we wish – and there are plenty of grab rails to make sure we don’t have a problem going over board. But when he says – SIT Down Now – we are to take the first available seat and SIT. That means he’s going to be doing something that will rock the boat – or he sees something that will rock the boat.

He makes sure we are all clear on this point, that no one is feeling ill from being on a boat – and with a “Yes Sir” – we are all ready to go.

Our trip takes us thru the Lagoon, and between the Heads and out to sea. The trip thru the Heads is truly neat. The Captain slows the boat to a crawl and watches the waves coming in thru the narrow neck. When he sees several smooth rollers in a row – he guns the engine and off we go. We shoot thru the neck and up and over the rollers. These waves are so large that often at the top, the engines are out of the water completely!

There is a Whale Spotter positioned high up on the Eastern Head – and he’s radioing instructions to the Captain. He manoeuvres the boat away from land and towards the East – moving towards the position described by the spotter. All of a sudden he says – this is too good to miss – and turns the boat sharply towards the South. We are quickly among a pod of around 200 Normal Dolphins – who think the arrival of a boat is great fun. They jump and splash and swim around and in front of us – around and around we go among the Dolphins – snapping away madly. The Captain says they are fishing, and rounding up a bait ball – but they still take time to play with us. You just know this will be the highlight – how often have you ever seen a pod of 200 dolphins at play?

The spotter radios down that he has seen a whale – and off we go among the huge waves towards the designated location. And when I say huge – I mean these are large waves. They tower over the boat – but since they aren’t breaking this far away from shore, we just roll. Up and over – or along a trough, the ride is actually fairly smooth given the size of the waves and boat. Lucky I guess – I spoke to other folks who took a boat out on Tuesday, the day we got blown off the Penguin tour, and the boat just made it out from the neck before the Captain announced – this is too rough, and they headed right back into the harbour.

We find the whales that the spotter had seen – and it’s underwhelming. I’m sorry – yes, they are huge – yes, there are 4 of them – but all we can see from our low vantage point 50 meters away is a broad back floating inches above the surface of the water. They aren’t even really blowing – I was expecting towering heights of water, but no – little puffs – and that’s it.

The first pair opt to dive – and they are gone. A second pair appear a bit further off – we move towards them, but like the first pair, they are busy doing their thing, and not really showing off for the tourists. Did someone forget to send the fax?

We piddle around in this area hoping for something more thrilling, and then head back. Whale ride over.

As I said – the Dolphins were definitely the highlight – and they were amazing. So I’m pleased – and I buy a sweatshirt to prove that I was here at 34 degrees South Latitude! Bonus, it’s warm and cozy. And as stated many times this trip – it’s been a lot cooler than I’d thought it would be (90 degree days dropping to 70 degree days… seriously confusing to this old body).

We eat lunch as planned at the Ile de Pain – and it’s wonderful. I opt for a flat bread with olives (they grow olives in this area) and it is delightful. A bit overly generous with the olive oil, but that’s been a theme here in South Africa – if you’ve got it in abundance – flaunt it! And apparently Olive Oil is on that list.

It’s back to the Palace for a Spa Treatment. I know – totally outrageously extravagant – but oh so relaxing. My husband has a hot stone massage which he rates as one of the two best he’s ever had. I had a lovely Swedish massage – and enjoy every minute. After the massages, they put us on massaging water beds for 15 minutes of ‘cool’ down. Totally extravagant and completely delightful.

Dinner is at the Anchorage – a tiny (6-7 tables, tops) sea food restaurant in downtown (can you call part of a 7 block city – downtown) that boast super high ratings and great reviews. And it totally deserves them both. Our waiter – Benjamin – is a riot. He clearly loves his job, his restaurant, and his food – and delights in making sure we pick the best options of the bunch. He and my husband get into a bit of a discussion on the subject of dessert – and not surprisingly, Benjamin wins. His suggestion of a milky chocolate concoction that is unique to the Anchorage is a clear winner. For the main course – I try the Prawns. Everyone has been raving about the Prawns here on the Whale Coast – and I’m finally convinced to give them a chance. It’s a bit like eating tiny lobsters – lots of finger work involved, and your reward is really just the sweet tail parts! Prawns, by the by, are what we would call Shrimp – but these are the giant size versions. Almost 5” long, they are about 50% head and legs – just 50% tail.

Victor gets Angel fish. This is surely not the same fish we call Angel Fish in the Caribbean – it’s a fairly large filet of a very delicious white fish. So good food and delightful service. Perfect.

Back to the Conrad Pezula and yes – the gate has re-appeared. Our fire is lit, and after enjoying the view, the stars, the absolutely giant full moon, we settle in for the night.

Tomorrow is a long driving day. I do look forward to those. (Not). But it can’t be helped. We must get to Port Elizabeth for the last few days of our trip along the Garden Route.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

A Bad Day – a very bad day


We wake in the luxury of the glorious suite in Le Quartier Francaise – and eat a marvellous breakfast. So how could a day that started so well end so poorly. Bad communication would be my fast answer – but it was a slow process.

Our start is delayed by the hotel who has assigned one of the gardeners to wash our car. He’s in the middle of a slow, careful job when we arrive, ready to go. Nothing to do but wait till he is done – and of course give him a nice tip. He did do a wonderful job.

Our plan for today includes going back and checking on the Antique store we’d seen in Stellenbosch, my husband is looking for those things you hang on decanters that describe what is inside – and this looked like just the right place. No problems there. And I need to buy some socks – it’s been a lot cooler here in South Africa then I’d expected – and my light weight summer socks just aren’t up to keeping my feet warm. Again – no problem. So after breakfast and saying good-bye to the staff at the hotel, we head back to Stellenbosch.

It is a bit of a challenge finding a parking spot, but eventually we do – and go into the local department store. This is the first time I’ve seen mixed races shopping at the same store – and it was a surprise. But Stellenbosch is a much smaller town, and I’m guessing that there are no other department stores. In any case – it was great to see. We found my socks – in the men’s department – and then checked out the Antique store. No luck there.

Now is when things went a bit south. My husband, I thought, had told me no deadlines today except a 6:00 dinner reservation – and the distance from Stellenbosch to Hermanus wasn’t huge. So I figured – todays the day for finding whales. There’s is a curvy road that hugs the coastline – offering stellar views of False Bay and later the Indian Ocean – and lots of turn-off sections where you can stop to scan the water for whales. It’s labeled on all the maps as “The Whale Route”. Sounds promising, eh?

And all the marketing for Hermanus virtually guarantees whale sightings from June to November – particularly in October when the males arrive to mate with the females.

I’m so psyched to finally see whales! Free Whales, up close and personal. The photos on the web are amazing – and I’ve totally bought into the marketing. I shall see whales.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, my husband has spotted info on a winery that is just outside of Hermanus and offers some of the best wines in Africa. I suppose if I’d said – oh by the way – I’m expecting to stop at all the overlooks, we’d have been ok. If my husband had said – I want to go to this winery and I don’t want to arrive around 4:00, it’s too close to closing time – we’d have been ok.

But we’ve been married 47 years – and still manage to get it wrong.

I spend the drive thinking – this time my husband will take the overlook – he knows I want to see whales. At one point dozens of cars are pulled over – with folks obviously seeing something below them – and I totally expect him to stop. But no – he keeps on driving – eyes straight ahead, clearly hating the curving road and keen to get off it. Finally he pulls over at an overlook where there are no other cars – and naturally – not a whale in sight. “See – no whales”.

Back in the car… drive on. Looking at the map, I can see what seems to be a village called Pringle’s at the end of a bay that juts out into the Indian Ocean. That would be a nice place for lunch. We stop in – but the only shopping we see is a mini-mart – so it’s Pringles and an ice cream for lunch. Then back on the road. A bad food choice never makes my husband happy.

At this point, my husband has let me know that he really wants to go to this winery – so I sadly forget about seeing whales and we motor on. We pass a sign at a village called Betsy’s Bay that advertises whales and penguins – which I read out loud. “Do you want to stop?” At this point my husband’s body language, which he has refused over the years to admit he has, is saying “No – Don’t stop”. So I go, no – let’s get to the winery. About 30 minutes later he admits that it’s taken too long – that he doesn’t want to go to the winery too close to closing time – they won’t open the better bottles for him.

At this point, it’s too late to go back, so we continue forward. I haven’t seen whales or penguins – he won’t get to go to his winery. I try to convince him that we can go tomorrow on our way to Mossel Bay – but I’m not sure it’s working. The drive to Mossel Bay will be a long one, and a good winery tour can’t really be rushed.

The Whale Route eventually ends at Hermanus, and we arrive at our hotel a bit before 4:00 PM. It looks great on the outside – beautiful windows overlooking the bay – which in theory should be brimming with whales. Not a one in sight right now – but maybe later. We are taken to our room – which is outside of the main hotel, across a barren parking lot, past an iron grate, thru a narrow passage between high walls, and eventually up a flight of stairs.

We are in the ‘beggar’s quarters’! It’s been a hot day – maybe 30 (90 to those in the West), and our room is amazingly stuffy. There’s no A/C, a very basic bathroom, and the windows overlook the green metal roofs of the next houses. It’s not the worst place I’ve ever been – but it is certainly the worst place I’ve even been that cost what this one does! There’s a single fan under a table, no chair, a bed, and two end tables. No room for anything else. The decor are cheap whale posters that are faded with age, the curtains are dusty, and the window in the bathroom leads out into the hallway – perfect for strangers to get a listen to you doing your business.

To add insult to injury – there are folks fighting – loudly – in the room 2 doors down. I expect the doorman to say something, but he doesn’t. Just accepts his tip and leaves.

We take out our essentials – not much choice, and walk back down the stairs, thru the alley, past the gate, across the parking lot and into the hotel proper. It’s at least 20 degrees cooler in the hotel – heavy stone and proper fans makes a difference. I ask at the desk if there’s an option to change rooms – but I’m told no – the hotel is full.

We carry on the best we can – we take a walk along the ‘whale watching’ path (still no whales), get to the whale museum too late to go in, check out the shops (kinda yucky), and eventually find a big grocery store – Pick and Pay. This is the highlight of our walk – a grocery store.

Slowly we wander back to our room, freshen up a bit, and head out to dinner. Because we rushed so much driving the ‘Whale Route”, we are actually too early.

The restaurant – called “Harbour Rock” overlooks the Old Harbour of Hermanus – and it is famous for it’s sushi, it’s seafood and it’s whale watching. But no whales show up – and I foolishly as my husband reminds me – order Pork Belly.

It’s horrid.

But I’m not ashamed to complain – and let’s give the restaurant full credit, they immediately suggest that I take the fish and chips. Perfect choice – totally yummy.

Dinner done – we head back to our stuffy bedroom to settle down for the night. We leave the windows open to capture any fresh air that might wander in, although that means enjoying the sounds of the local teenagers showing off their cars up and down the Main Street. You can’t see them – but you can surely hear them. And that couple is still fighting two doors down. Wow – they have stamina.

We finally get to sleep – only to be awoken by gale force winds blowing madly thru Hermanus. The room is actually shaking! Victor gets up and closes the windows – leaving us with only the fresh air from the corridor to enjoy.

Finally – it’s time for breakfast and we discover why the hotel is full. There’s a huge school group of Primary Age (10-13) staying here. They are incredibly polite – but have been assigned all the better rooms. And of course gobbled down most of the food set out for breakfast. Teen age boys can really eat!

I’ve had it up to here! And let the resort know about it. The manager, who makes no attempt to make me feel better, explains that they have three kinds of rooms – Ocean front, Not ocean front and budget. Months and months ago, when my husband made the reservation, he picked Budget. And this is what we got. And when you asked for a room change, the front desk clerk didn’t realize that you’d be willing to pay more – and those rooms in the back with no AC and no ventilation are our budget rooms.

My comment – if you want to go that route – make it clear on Booking.com that you are getting no AC, no cross ventilation. Don’t expect guests to figure that out for themselves. She does admit that she’s been trying to convince the owners of the hotel that they need to be more careful. Nice – now it’s the owner’s fault!

I’m not happy – but I’m not sure if my major angst is related to the distinct lack of whales, the lack of communication between my husband and myself, or the ‘budget’ rooms in the hotel.

To make me feel better, my husband kindly agrees to drive me back to where we saw the sign for penguins and whales yesterday. So we make the attempt. But the wind has picked up to gale force overnight – our little car is getting blown all over the road – and some of the gusts threaten to take us into the gutters. Once we get to the penguin park, I attempt to walk out to the viewing platforms, but the wind is so strong, I can’t make forward progress. Victor gives up before I do – the blowing dust is hard on the skin and eyes. He takes shelter in a cafe near the car park, and when I give up on the penguins, I join him.

The cafe is housed on the site of a whaling factory in the early 1800’s – brought on two ships from Norway. Photographs of the workings of the factory, and of the folks man-handling the whales up onto the ‘plate’ in front of the factory are very cool.

I feel a bit better about the entire thing – and slightly modified, we head off on the long drive on N2 to Mossel Bay.

Despite N2 being a major highway – it’s one lane in either direction for almost all of it’s length in this section.

Driving the N2 turns out to be quite the adventure. Don’t forget that we are still getting those wind gusts – although they are easier to deal with further inland. As we drive, we learn a lot about the driving rules in South Africa, most of which aren’t in any book I’ve ever seen.

First off – there are shoulders on the sides of the road. In Canada – those shoulders are only for stopping, not for driving. But in SA – that’s not the case. IF you are overtaken by a faster car – and you manage to spot them trying to pass, the polite driver pulls over onto the shoulder. He doesn’t slow down, or heaven’s forbid – stop. Nope – he continues driving at his normal speed, but on the shoulder. We don’t quite get that rule – and the first few cars that pass us – pulling into the on-coming line and then pulling back into our lane – seem to try to clip us by pulling in as tightly as possible to our right front bumper. This is pretty scary – and we don’t know what it is we’re doing wrong. It is only when I notice how other cars that we attempt to pass are pulling over that we get the hint.

Following that rule – the overtaking cars just pass us – sometimes blinking their lights to say ‘thanks’. Whew – one lesson learned.

Another lesson – cross walks are few and far between, so if folks want to cross the road – they just run. So slow down when you see folks on the side of the road. They could well be in the middle of your lane by the time you get near.

And a third lesson – N2 is boring. You pass herd after herd of sheep, the occasional herd of cows, and ever more occasionally – horses. We did spot an Ostrich farm – but Victor was in the drive till we arrive mode – so no stopping. Once I even saw a single Oryx watching the traffic fly by and a herd of Springbok in amongst a herd of sheep. Interesting, eh?

We eventually pull into Mossel Bay – and find our hotel. When the doorman carrying our bags exits the main hotel and heads for the back section, both Victor and I involuntarily go – Oh NO! But we shouldn’t have worried. He’s taking us to a lovely room – with AC and windows on two sides – that overlooks the harbour of Mossel Bay. Lovely. And again – the huge bathroom. Boy folks in SA love huge bathrooms.

A bit of a wander before dinner lets us discover a place that employs folks from the Townships to make and paint traditional African Animals like Elephants and Giraffes made of layer upon layer of paper and glue. They are lovely – and they have a warthog – aka Pig! Of course I buy it. They also have hand made construction paintings on match boxes with magnets. The logic, explained to me by the very adorable artist is that folks always know where the refrigerator is when the power goes out. So putting the matches on the fridge just make sense. Making the boxes look nice – and they look very nice – was an after thought.

Well – I like it – and buy several to give as gifts to my family.

For dinner we go to Kaai4 – a braai (BBQ place to you) that is extremely casual, extremely fun, and right on the water. We relax, have a beer, and thank goodness that tomorrow isn’t a long driving day!

We do a slow wander back home, a quick look at the stars (I’d really like to see the Southern Cross), and it’s bed time.

Tomorrow we are off to Knysna- another of the towns on the Whale Route. And I’m foolishly hoping to see whales…Signing off – The Soup Lady

4 Wineries in one day is too much of a good thing..


It’s not that I object to visiting Wineries – I’ve been to dozens. It’s just doing 4 in one day really wipes you out. Even if you only sip small amounts of the wine – and carefully spit as much as possible, the mental effort is telling.

So I was a bit concerned that today we were doing 4 wineries – and that we had to get from the lovely Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek to the first winery in Stellenbosch by 10:00 AM. But we gave it our best. Things went great at the start – we drove past the beach towns on the Indian Ocean side of False Bay, and up to the major road that cuts Eastward along the water. Everything would have been fine – except that the major highway was closed to Eastward traffic. No worries – we’ll just follow the detour.

Except the detour takes us right though the center of the Khayelitsha Township.

Ok – I’m not worried. We just won’t stop.

Of course that’s easier said then done. Folks treat the road running thru the township as a walking path – so they cross anywhere they like, and cars have to stop or run over them. But because we’re travelling slowly – I get a chance to see what early morning at the edges of the Township look like, and it’s interesting. The dozens and dozens of guys who run the grills are setting up for the day. They drag 1/2 steel drums that sit on wooden legs out to the side of the road and fill them with either charcoal or wood. Then a grate sits on top and they grill their meat – from the looks I got – it’s mostly chicken, with some other cuts. And it honestly smells wonderful. I’m curious as to the prices – or for that matter – why they do this. We decide that it’s hot and stuffy inside the tiny houses – and cooking out on the street makes cooking a social adventure – plus keeps the house cooler. And if you can manage to sell some – even better.

The key point here is that the number of folks doing this is staggering. I spotted probably several hundred in just our short drive on just that one road. And I’m guessing there are hundreds more doing the same on all the other roads thru the township.

I also learned a new term – there are townships – legal areas for folks to live, provided with what we might think of as the minimum infrastructure needed – roads, basic sewer, running water (although it might be a single faucet for several homes to share), and electricity. Again – several homes might be sharing a single electric ‘box’, mainly because one ‘plot’ might be shared by 4 different family homes. But still – infrastructure exists. Then there are the informal homelands. These are not provided with any infrastructure by the government – no water, no sewer, no electricity, no garbage removal. At best, there might be port-a-potties. The problem – they are as ‘permanent’ as the townships. Luckily, we are driving thru a legal township, so there is infrastructure including stop signs and cross walks.

We eventually clear the township without any problems (it huge, remember), other then getting a bit hungry, and continue to head North East. Our goal is the wine making area of Stellenbosch.

There are literally dozens and dozens of wineries in this single area, by one account over 150 of them – and the hill sides are covered with grape vines, both bush type and trellised. Squeezed among the vines are the manor houses and wine making facilities. The ones called Estates use only the grapes grown in their own vineyards to make their wines. The other wineries will buy grapes from smaller producers, refining them on site to make their wine.

The 4 wineries we visit are Beyerskloof, Kanu, Mulderbosch, and Overgaauw. The first was probably the best of the bunch – not only was the wine great, but we could easily get it shipped to our address in the states. Winner! Kanu was utterly forgettable – not great wine, not a wonderful manor house – absolutely nothing to recommend it. We hit Mulderbosch in time for lunch – and ordered a pizza for me and a charcuterie plate for Victor – they served us enough food for 4 people, we couldn’t finish even half of either portion. This has been an ongoing issue here in South Africa – frequently the portions are completely unexpected – and we end up with way too much leftovers. The wine tasting itself was ok – but not great. Last, and probably the nicest in terms of personal service was Overgaauw. The gal that gave us the tasting was the sister of the current owner – who is the fourth generation of his family to run the winery. Her wedding pictures were featured in several places around the tasting room. We absolutely loved both the wines and the history of the winery. And we actually walked out with a bottle of their port. Oh, was it yummy.

Wine tastings done, we drive on to our hotel in Stellenbosch. And what a charming village it is. Part University Town, part tourist Mecca for wine tasting, it’s lively, open, and easy to wander. Our hotel, the Olde Werf (Old farm yard) was a recent complete renovation – the entrance way was an older manor house, but once past that you are in a completely modern facility – including heavy glass panels in the floors allowing light to filter down from the sky lights to all the walk ways. The Glassed in Elevator shaft is also a statement piece, as is the area around the infinity style swimming pool. In our room, the bathroom is part of the bedroom – so much so that one wall of the glassed in shower forms a part of the wall of the bedroom. Not great for privacy while showering, but we’re all friends.

Huge floor to ceiling double sided mirrors formed dividing walls between the sink and the bed area. With a floor to ceiling curtain pulled to one side, but available to close off the bathroom.

If I’ve done a bad job of describing the room – it’s because it’s rather hard to describe – but very ‘designer’. The bad news – the walls are incredibly thin. We can hear the folks on either side of us, not distinctly, but clear enough to be annoying. Hopefully they will quiet down after dinner.

It was suggested by the gal at Overgaauw that for dinner we try the ‘Wine House’ – which turns out to be spelled Wijnhaus. It offers wines by the sample size (for about 50 cents a glass), by the glass (for maybe $5), and by the bottle (for around $20). Wine here in SA is inexpensive, readily available, and delicious. It is also abundant. Folks start drinking wine at noon – and we are not sure when (or if) they ever stop. For dinner we order what we think are reasonable options, but both main courses turn out to be huge. Victor’s Chicken Schnitzel consists of two huge pieces – and my 4 Lamp chops are ample for me – Victor is on his own to finish – and he can’t. But it was delicious.

We meander down the busy street – filled with cafes bustling with students enjoying the warm evening, and head back to our hotel. Once there, we say hi to the doorman, parking valet, and security guard – all standing at the front door. We also greet the two night clerks at the front desk before climbing the stairs to our room. I also spot at least one other employee at the bar serving late night drinks and coffee. Staff levels in SA are very high by North American Standards – which is a good thing I guess – given the level of unemployment.

The best news – our neighbours are also exhausted – so all is quiet.

Signing off in hopes of a good nights rest – The Soup Lady

Wine, Whales and Penguins – All on the way to the Cape of Good Hope


Our journey continues with a lovely breakfast at the Cape Heritage Inn (oh, I do love this place), fond good-bye’s from our hosts, and our first attempt at driving on the Left in South Africa.

Unlike St. Croix, which is also drives on the Left, but with normal US cars – these cars have been built for drive on the Left. That means that the driver’s seat is on the right, and the controls for simple things like windshield washers and turn signals are reversed. Victor struggles manfully with the controls – while I attempt to navigate us out of Cape Town.

Our first destination is a Winery called Groot Constantia. It’s the home of Grand Constance – world famous for being Napoleon’s wine of choice while he was on St. Helena. Naturally – we have to try some. It’s quite yummy, and the personalized tour of the wine making facility, while not new news, is still very interesting. Our wine tasting paired the wines with chocolates that had been custom made to match – yummy.

All of this takes quite a bit of time – so we decide to eat lunch at the Vineyard, and we share a traditional African meal, Bobotie. It’s a ground meat pie, topped with a fried egg, and served with yellow rice that’s been flavoured with raisins. It is huge and delicious – and very filling. We relax (perhaps a bit longer than we should), and eventually head out ever Southward.

Our next stop is Boulder Beach near Simon’s Town. It’s home to over 2,000 Penguins – who have been living, fishing, mating and having babies in this rock strewn bit of South Africa since 1982 when 2 breeding pairs first arrived. The Penguins are everywhere – they live in depressions under the African shrubs that dot the hillside, and they splash around in the waters of the Indian Ocean that lap the shore. Because of all the huge rocks, the waters here are just rough enough to bring in the fish, but not so rough as to make it hard for the Penguins to get in and out. It’s a perfect place – and they clearly love it.

Part of South African’s National Park System – there’s a fee to enter, but it’s clean, well kept, and well – full of Penguins. It was great.

We take lots of pictures – my favourite shows a tiny baby staring directly into my camera from under his mother’s protective wing, and then head on South.

Every Southward we go – past adorable towns, beautiful beaches, and African Scrubland. We arrive at the entrance to the “Cape of Good Hope National Park”, and pay our $13.50 Canadian each to go in. A bit steep – but clearly this is a place for tourists – and South Africa knows a tourist trap when they see one. If you went to Cape Town – wouldn’t you go to the Cape of Good Hope?

The well maintained road winds along the top of the ridge – with the Light House at the tippy top of the final peak – Cape Point – clearly visible in front of us. When we arrive at the base we realize there are two options for going up to the Light House – climb a zillion steps, or take the tram. We decide to do neither – Victor has plans for later today, and wants to see and get gone. So we turn around, and head to the lower road that runs along the shore. Here we end up at the actual Cape of Good Hope – and reward ourselves with a bit of a walk, a bit of a stare into the ocean – and a photograph! The waves that roll in are unhindered in their journey North from Antarctica and are huge. They crash onto the rocks at our feet – then fall back into the ocean for another try. It’s beautiful. We spot Ostriches that have made this scrubland their homes – and they are apparently raising a family based on the number of what I think are Ostrich chicks at their feet. We also spot Baboons who have decided that the tourists here are easy pickings. They aren’t the least bit concerned about us – unless we happen to have some food. They climb on cars – try to get into car windows, even test the door handles. Wily beasts…

We now head back towards Noordhoek, where there is a Food Market on Thursday evenings. The idea – grab food from a stall, and enjoy sunset! Sounds good – so we head North. We pass folks doing a bit of whale watching in the Indian Ocean (I can see the spouting of the whale as we drive past) and somewhat surprisingly – a shanty town.

Housing in this part of the Cape has been quite a bit better -so the sudden appearance of the shanties is a bit of a surprise. It’s the one and only we’ve seen since we left Cape Town. In general this part of South Africa is less barricaded and blocked in – which feels better to our western sensitives.

And after a few wrong turns, and some GPS confusion, finally find ourselves at the Market. This is a hugely popular local event – the food is reasonable, and the view spectacular tonight – not a cloud in the sky.

We check out the offerings – there are about 2 dozen stalls, set up with cooking facilities and serving Pork Belly, Fish and Chips, Pork Steaks, Greek Food, Vegetarian options, BBQ Pork Belly Sandwiches, even Tuna Steak. So many choices, and all priced at around $8. I opt for the Pork Belly with cooked yams, Victor gets the BBQ Pork Belly Sandwich, and then goes back for the Tuna Steak. He also gets a bottle of white wine, and we relax on a picnic table to watch the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean. Peaceful and so lovely.

After dinner, We carefully drive on to our lodging for tonight. We’re staying at the highly rated Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek, and it’s worth it’s rating. Our double sized room features another of these huge bathrooms – with a large shower and huge freestanding tub. We’re warned yet again about the water crisis – and asked not to use the tub. Well – we weren’t planning on it – so you are ok. Our charming hostess explains that the fines for ‘over use’ of water are extremely high, and she’s being forced to use the shower at her son’s place to avoid having the guest house deemed an over consumer. That kind of thing is really hard to control too. We promise to be careful, and she wishes us good night.

We remove the fresh lavender stalks that have been carefully laid on our towels, our pillows, and the bath mat, and settle down for the night.

Tomorrow we are heading North to the wine tasting district of Stellenbosch.

Signing off out of total exhaustion – The Soup Lady

Exploring Cape Town with Maurice Podbrey


We have long been supporters of Centaur Theatre in Montreal, and in fact this trip is based on an ‘Auction’ item that was part of their 2016 fund raising campaign. Completely independent of that – my husband has long maintained a casual friendship based on the occasional donation with Maurice Podbrey – the founder and original Artistic Director of Centaur Theatre.

So – it seemed natural to let him know that we were coming to his hometown of Cape Town – and I guess it seemed natural to him to give us a tour of his ‘city’.

Today and tomorrow are planned to be spent with Maurice – but before we can meet up with him, we must change hotels.

I was unimpressed from the start with the Southern Sun – and after taking advantage of the two nights that were part of our Auction package, I suggested that we change locations. Our new ‘home’ is the Cape Heritage Hotel. And a lovely place it is! Where the Southern Sun Cullinan was cold, expensive, and decidedly too large for my taste, the Cape Heritage is warm and friendly – and breakfast is included. It’s a bit further from the Water Front – but in a much nicer area of town. There are shops around – which means there are people around – and it feels a lot more cozy.

The Hotel itself is small – but glorious. Hard wood floors, high high ceilings, African inspired art and furniture, lovely rooms for relaxing that are not so massive as to make one feel lost. Our room is lovely. A huge king sized bed, a full sized desk, a small fridge (I’m beginning to see a pattern – we’ve had a fridge in every room so far), and the bathroom is huge. At least as large as the one we had in Pretoria at the Opikopi – but without that insanely large walk-in closet. The decor in the bedroom is African Oriental – so red and black colours, wall hanging that vaguely imply ‘Orient’, and occasional touches that scream orient like boxes of soap crystals and a painting of a modern geisha. On the main floor of the hotel are a collection of common rooms and open spaces – two ‘lounges’, plus an enclosed courtyard with a coffee shop and bar. Called ‘The Vine’, it celebrates a grape vine planted here in 1771 – and still producing wine grapes every year. Since it is early spring here – the vine is just beginning to put out leaves – but it is massive.

On to our tour. Maurice picks us up in his ‘little buggy’, an older car that while small – completely works in this very crowded city. Our destination is ‘Fish on the Rocks’ – a Fish and Chips establishment in Hout Bay. To get there we climb out of Cape Town, over the saddle between Table Mountain and Signal Mountain, and on thru a decidedly touristy beach area towards Hout Bay. The ‘Fish on the Rocks’ lives up to its reputation – the fish and chips are lovely. Two portions is more than enough for the three of us – and there are even left overs. The highlight of my visit here is not the food – it’s the seals that are swimming and playing in the Kelp forest right below the shack that houses the restaurant. They are having such a wonderful time – floating on their backs, sunning themselves, and occasionally ducking down into the water to munch a fish (or two).

After lunch – we head on towards Noordheok thru Chapman’s Pass. This is a scenic and rather dramatic road carved into the mountains that form the backbone of this part of South Africa towards the Cape of Good Hope. I’m very glad that Maurice is driving to be honest – and rather happy that for this part of the trip we are on the inner lane! The road drops off precipitously into the rocks and water below, with little in the way of guard rails or American security features. Don’t lose control – it would not be a happy ending.

But the views are stunning – a huge and very empty beach stretches for at least several kilometres after the crest of the pass, and there are frequent pull-offs where you can enjoy a picnic lunch, or just admire the view. At one there are folks whale spotting – and we can just see the fins of at least 2 whales fishing casually in the waters far below us.

Maurice explains that this is the ‘cold’ water side of the point. On the Indian Ocean side, the water is warmer. So the fish life is different. We’re heading towards the ‘warm’ side later in this trip to see the whales. And I think the Penguins also live on the warmer side. On the ‘cold’ side is Cape Town – and trust me – it’s cold. Colder than I expected in any case. I feel a bit like my dad did on a trip to Montreal – I’m wearing everything I own – all at the same time!

Anyway – our destination is a coffee shop. Maurice loves his coffee – and this is one of his favourites. So we stop in Noordhoek, get our coffee – and head back to Cape Town.

Maurice invites us to his home in Cape Town after the ‘long’ drive – and we accept. He lives in a 2 bedroom apartment that he rents from an older gentleman in England. Since Maurice is 83, and the gentleman in question is in his 90’s – one must wonder how long this arrangement can continue – but never mind – we are invited in and it’s quite fun.

Maurice is working on a new project – a one hour version of his life story. And since Maurice has been famous forever, at least in Montreal terms, getting his life story down to an hour isn’t going to be easy. He is or was friends with Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Peter Sellers among others. As Artistic Director of Centaur he ‘discovered’ and remains friends with David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi, and Rich Salutin. He regales us with short tales from his life – stories his father told him, stories he has told others, and summarizes a bit of his life. His wife is still living and working in Montreal – so they get together as chance and travel permits. His kids and grand-kids call him on the phone frequently – and this is probably one his greatest thrills. He quips that he must be lonely – he hasn’t stopped talking since we arrived! I disagree – he is simply a marvellous story teller – and we are an appreciative audience.

He demonstrates with a pencil how life evolves. He starts by balancing the pencil on his finger, this is middle age. 1/2 your life behind you, 1/2 ahead – balanced between the past and the future. As you age further, the pencil slips downward – more past, less future. But then you have grand-kids – and the pencil flips. Now the future extends ahead of you forever.

Beautiful.

We chat, eat a bit of fruit, and eventually decide to do a Greek dinner. Some wine – not so much song, and then Maurice takes us back to our lodging.

Tomorrow he has promised to take us to his newest love – a sports club he supports in one of the Black townships that surround Cape Town. He has described Cape Town to us as the most segregated city in South Africa, perhaps in the world. The whites live in very specific sections, often with a view of the water, and incredibly high real estate values, the ‘colored’ folks live in bands of housing that surround the white enclaves, and the ‘Black’s’ live in bands that surround the ‘colored’ bands. The bands are kept intact by several forces – the price of real estate, the value of being ‘in’ your community, and the discomfort of being ‘out’ of your community. I suspect that unspoken forces also have an impact – I’m thinking of condo and community associations that must approve new owners (and thus can control who buys in). Clybourne Park, recently performed at Centaur Theatre, referenced this issue. It’s not a new problem – but here in Cape Town, I’m guessing that this kind of pressure is real.

So – tomorrow should be an interesting day – Today was definitely a winner.

Signing off in anticipation of more to come – The Soup Lady

Opikopi in Pretoria – Such a delightful surprise


We leave London on British Airways – an 8 hour but thankfully boring flight to South Africa.

The plane is one of those double decker numbers – with a great deal more seats in First Class and Business Class than are found in lowly Economy. Clearly BA has decided that catering to the wealthier makes sense, because I counted just 140 seats in Economy – with an additional 32 seats in ‘Premium Economy’. The rest of the giant plane was filled with those oh so comfy flat bed seats with your private walls.

In walking past the better folk to our seats in ‘Premium Economy’, I even noticed that there were double flat bed seats for two in the center of the ‘business’ class section. Well, if only I’d know that was on offer…

Service in Premium Economy was rather nice – real silverware, even if the knife couldn’t cut anything – and plenty of service folks to ask if I needed anything. Food looked good, tasted OK, and at least prevented boredom from setting in too fast. I watched 3 movies – of which Rogue 1 was probably the best. Attempted to sleep (not successfully), and generally whiled away the time.

I did enjoy the new BA short film on safety. It’s done in a tastefully moderately comic style, and featured name (and not so name) actors giving the traditional ‘fasten your seat belt by pulling on the buckle’ announcements. The highlight was when one of them actually pulls the toggle on the life vest. I’ve always wanted to do that.

The flight only seemed endless – eventually we did land in Jo-burg and after an uneventful tour of the customs area, we were greeted by a rather portly, fairly casually dressed gentleman holding a sign with our name on it. Ah – our driver. We were driven to our home for the next 2 days – the Opikopi Guest House in Pretoria. And were immediately impressed.

Our host greeted us with an offer of ice water or coffee (I’ll have a latte thanks) which we enjoyed while the younger man on duty carried our suitcases to our room. Coffee done – we were duly escorted to the ‘President’s’ suite. Given that there are only 17 rooms on the property – and that apparently they are all fairly to extremely fancy – don’t be too impressed. Although I’ll admit – I was! Our room was actually 3 rooms. An entrance room with two twin beds, a microwave and a small fridge, leading directly to a Mahoney floored ‘Master’ bedroom with a king sized bed – and the largest bathroom and closet I’ve ever walked into. Huge. The bathroom featured a giant free standing whirlpool tub, a two headed shower the size of a standard bathtub, a sink, a separate room for the toilet, and the aforementioned closet.

And what a closet it was. I mean – you need two safes don’t you? One tall and thin for those critical tall and thin objects (swords? Canes with gold heads? Reams of paper files? What would you put in such a thing), and one a bit larger than standard for purses, money belts, gold bullion… There were drawers and drawers and drawers – the ceiling had to be about 18′ from the floor – and the drawers went floor to ceiling. I’m not sure how you’d even reach the upper ones. And there was hanging space galore, but none for dresses. All were sized at 1/2 size for suits and jackets and pants. The effect was marred a bit by the actually useful stuff – an iron and ironing board, and about 10 hangers. I can’t imagine what this space could have been before it was the ‘President’s Suite’. I’m guessing that the twin beds in the entrance room are a recent addition. Perhaps that was the sitting/dining area for a one bedroom apartment. Well – we’re comfy – and that’s what counts.

Being the exploring type – I checked out several of the other rooms at this ‘Guest House’. Most of the rooms seemed to be normal sized, albeit with high high ceilings and generally huge bathrooms. Single showers though – not our double sized monster. But there was one room that I admit did make my heart strings flutter. It’s a multi-bedroom home – with a private pool, several dining areas, a full kitchen – and at least one bedroom on the main floor and two on the upper floors. Lots of space for a one night visit to Pretoria.

The center part of the Guest House – the public areas so to speak – are open to the air dining tables surrounding the small but at least there swimming pool. There are French Doors that open into the main parts of the public space – more dinning areas, and a very full breakfast bar. An Expresso machine tucked into a corner answers the question – where did that Latte come from. And there must be a rather full kitchen hidden in the back because the rather extensive menu would require it.

It’s a perfect place to sit in the sun or the shade and relax, read, or in my case – Blog!

There is also an on-site ‘wellness spa’ – one room devoted to massage tables and a machine for removing tattoos. I was told that this is a big business these days among resort guests. Who knew?

There is a tiny conference area – in use while we ere on site, and lots of housekeeping types wandering the premises. The owner – a lovely woman in her early 60s came over to greet me personally yesterday, and we chatted a bit about future travels. She’s off on a cruise next month with her brother and sister-in-law. I’m headed for the Garden Route of South Africa.

Like most of Jo-Burg that we’ve seen – security is an issue. If not a stated issue, it’s an understated current. For example, To get to the Opikopi, we drove thru a gate into a ‘guarded’ community – and then thru another automated gate to arrive on property. The Opikopi property is surrounded by high cement walls, topped with live electrical fencing. And all the rooms at the ground floor level have wrought iron grates as well as classic wooden doors. There is staff 24/7 – and while I didn’t see a ‘security’ guard, it is clear from the layout that you’d have to pass the office area to reach most of the rooms.

We didn’t feel much like leaving our peaceful surroundings with it’s water fountains, mirrored planters, and singing birds, so we didn’t. We spent the day sitting around the pool – generally relaxing after our oh-so-hectic stay in London. By silent mutual consent, we opted to ignore our surroundings, and just enjoy the Guest House.

Speaking of birds – they are up very early here – and very noisy! There is one that sits outside our window going tuc, tuc, tuc endlessly. And the birds are well hidden. While I can hear tons of bird song – I don’t see any of them. But then I’m not a bird watcher – so I suppose my lack of vision isn’t that surprising. But it is lovely to hear them going about their business so happily.

Food at the Guest House is rather interesting, given that both my husband and I are pretty dedicated ‘foodies’. I would generally rate it a 4. They are keen, the offerings are interesting, there is lots of variety – and some nice highs with the occasional oops.

Our first try was a simple Pizza – and it was perfect. Nice size, great tasting cheese, well made – perfect.

Our second meal – dinner – was less successful. I opted to try a new kind of fish (well – new to me anyway) – the King Klip. Being in the experimental mood, I also ordered Pumpkin Fritters with a Carmel sauce. The resulting dish was unappealing. The fritters were sweet, sweet, sweet – and the fish bland. And the ‘stir-fried’ veggies had been cooked that afternoon – and thus were over-cooked by the time they arrived at our table. My husband did a better job of ordering, his stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon was quite delicious. My dessert selection – a Peppermint Tart was extremely rich – way too rich for me to finish. Oh well – there’s tomorrow.

For the next day – I boo-booed again at breakfast. As an included meal – it was extremely complete. The ‘cold’ portion was a buffet with various sweet pastries (I’m getting a theme here – South Africans either love sweets – or think all tourists need more sugar), stewed prunes, apples and apricots (more sugar in the syrup), grated cheddar cheese to put on your toast, several jams and chutney’s (are you surprised that they were sweet too?), and some dry cereals. The ‘Hot’ portion was on order but included. The very kind waitress suggested the Tuna Pancake or the Avo Omlet. I decided to try the pancake – which was actually a crepe stuffed with tuna fish – and topped with goat cheese. Oops, I’m allergic to goat cheese. So I swapped plates with my hubby who described my choice as delicious, and tried his French Toast served with Maple Syrup and Bacon. The Bacon was good, the French Toast forgettable, and the Maple Syrup a fake. But I loved my latte – and my plain toast was perfect.

Lunch was a lot more successful. I choose what was described as a cheese sandwich – and it was amazingly good. Properly grilled, served with a delicious salad with lots of Avocado and Walnuts, and with an order of beautifully made French fries (Chips) on the side.

Ok – I’m getting the drift. Go for simple… Expect sweet!

So for dinner I ordered a ‘Man’ size portion of Mutton Chops. These were absolutely delicious – perfectly cooked, tender and super tasty. And I loved the salad. Unfortunately the stir-fried veggies were yesterday’s veggies – over-cooked and sad. So I just ate around them, loving what was well made – the mutton chops and salad.

And keeping with the simple is best motif – I ordered vanilla ice cream for dessert – and it was exceptional. Rich, creamy, almost the texture of the best made soft ice-creams but clearly with a very high butter fat content. Huge portion too.

Today’s breakfast was again a hit – a simple perfectly cooked poached egg on a lovely piece of brown toast. Give me that with a Latte – I’m happy.

Unfortunately, I looked up South African Cuisine AFTER dinner last night to realize that I’d miss ordering two very traditional dishes – Bobotie and Hoenderpastei. The latter is Chicken Pie, and the former is described as a meatloaf with raisins and a baked egg on top, often served with bananas. Oh well – I shall keep my eyes open for other opportunities to be a bit more experimental.

Our plan for today is pretty much the same as yesterday – relax, listen to the birds, do the email thing – and eventually wind up at the Rovos Rail Station for the next part of our trip – a 2 night, 3 day adventure on the most elegant train on earth, “The Pride of Africa”.

I’m excited…

Signing off to pack. The Soup Lady

Glasgow – not so great – but I’m glad I visited


In thinking back on it – There was no way that Glasgow was going to compete with Edinburgh. Our new friends from last night had told us that we were going from ‘culture’ to ‘clutter’ – and they were of course correct.

Our Glasgow Air BnB is at best adaquate – and totally loses when compared to the palace that is Isaac’s and Derek’s pad in Edinburgh. It’s a tiny 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom flat in a forgetable building above a store that sells wall paper in an industrial part of Glasgow. The living/dining/kitchen space is tiny, and the only table is hogged by our host Neil’s computer. To add insult to injury, he’s ironing when we arrive – so there’s his laundry everywhere. I’ll give him credit for asking what food to buy for our breakfast, but he’s also clear that we are on our own. He works evenings into the night, and won’t be up in the morning. He also has no maps to give us, and can’t even make suggestions on places to visit. Still, he welcomes us warmly, and that’s a good start.

Our room is basic – a bed, a window, a tiny desk, and the best part – an en-suite bathroom. That and the location near the city center are the best parts of Neil’s place. Oh well – this is our 6th Air BnB in 30 days – I guess one had to be 4 star. And after Isaac and Derek’s place – I’m not sure what would be needed to be 5 star.

Surprisingly – Neil tells us that he’s fully booked – and the income from Air BnB pays his rent. Hmm.

Anyway – we make our selves comfy. After he leaves for work, we move the computer off the dining table, fold away the ironing board, and basically create a space we can at least enjoy dinner in! We walk up to a nearby grocery store, get the makings of a nice dinner – and decide to tour Glasgow in the morning. We’re done for today.

The next morning – our one and only day in Glasgow – we opt to start by finding me a place for coffee – and then decide to check out the Cathedral. After that – well – we’ll go from there.

Unlike all of our other locations, this one is mostly industrial and shopping – so no upscale coffee shop to be seen. We hike up hill towards the Cathedral, going thru the ‘university’ section – I’m thinking there is bound to be coffee for the students. And I’m right – there it is! A cute coffee shop, with take-away latte. Color me happy.

The tour of the Cathedral is wonderful. The guide (where do they find these people) is super knowledgable, and very easy to listen to, and the history is very neat. Our fellow tourists are a german choir – and at one point they ask to test the acoustics. Lovely – totally lovely.

We then walk across to the St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. Seriously – St. Mungo’s of Harry Potter Fame. St. Mungo was a real guy – and he’s the patron saint of Glasgow. The Museum is well worth a visit. There’s a fairly large section devoted to different religions, comparing how various religions treat the same ‘life’ events – birth, death, marriage, coming of age, etc. It’s fascinating. They do lump some religions into big groups – Jewish and Christian are just two groups, there’s no effort to distinquish between variances in these groups, and probably justifably. There is a lot more difference between Christian and Sikh say.

We then stroll thru the University Campus, and wend our way towards downtown Glasgow. We check out the bronze of the Young Queen Victoria in George’s Square, admire some of the truly incredible building designs – and we grind to a total stop to admire one building that features an absolutely huge abstract metal peacock running the entire city block. Naturally, we also visit the Lighthouse – Glasgow’s center for Architecture.

Soon enough, we’re back at our overly cozy pad for dinner, relaxing, and bed. Tomorrow we begin the long – and since I’m writing this after the fact – thankfully uneventful trip back home.

So ends our 31 days in the UK.

We visited at least 28 museums, stayed in 6 Air BnB’s, visited 7 cities (London, Oxford, Birmingham, Morecambe, York, Edinburgh, and Glasgow), met some amazingly interesting people, ate glorious meals, learned a lot of history, rode the tube, took the train, traveled on buses and even managed one uber taxi.

And we did it all UNDER our $3000 Canadian per person including all travel budget.

The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady rock another trip!

Signing off until the next time there’s something to report – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – The Intrepid Traveler.

Edinburgh – A Perfect Day


Some days are simply the best – and when you say goodnight – you know that this will be a day you’ll be talking about forever. That totally describes our third day in Edinburgh. An absolutely perfect day.

It started off really the night before. We’d gone to Evening Services at the Roman Catholic Cathedral – a totally enjoyable meeting with a wonderful sermon all about how G-d is just waiting for you to do your part. It reminded me of the old joke – A man keeps praying – G-d, let me win the lottery, G-d, let me win the lottery. After years of this, he finally hears a voice – “Buy a ticket already!”

If you don’t participate – you will never know what you are (or are not in some cases) missing! Anyway – it was a lovely, clearly local event – full of reminders of things upcoming (they are having a cocktail/mocktail party to fund raise and ‘meet the neighbors’ for example). The Priest was clearly playing to a full house – and knew it.

Services over, we returned home and our hosts warned us before heading out for the evening – tomorrow we are having a ‘brunch’ party with some friends – but it should be over by 5:00.

So pre-warned, our plan is to stay gone all day. Shouldn’t be a problem – Edinburgh is such a cool city.

Our first stop is Gladstone Land, a National Trust House that dates back hundreds of years – and has guided tours. The bottom of the House is a retail shop full of interesting things (plaid and wool being very popular motifs), but it’s the upstairs that you can only see on the tour that is the real prize. Our guide is at least 90 – and he makes it clear that his knees aren’t up to going quickly up the narrow sprial staircase (not original, built by the NT). He’s probably our best guide ever. His knowledge is encyclopedic – not just about the history of the House (it’s amazing), but about what the NT does and doesn’t do right. We alternatively laughed and sighed with him. He’d walk into a room – and ask – “Any Questions”. We’d just have to pick out one item – and he’d have the bit in his teeth and be away! He talked about making Bannock – and showed us Bannock flippers. He described the real estate doings of Gladstone (he was a terrible business man – but amazing at real estate), and made the rooms and the furnishings burst into life.

Wow. The Intrepid Traveler and I agree, not for the first time, that the Canadian Museums have seriously got to up their game. The Brits and the Scots have totally got us beat.

We leave 2 hours later much impressed with the challenges of living in Edinburgh thru the ages, and completely amazed that any of these buildings survived at all – let alone is such good shape. They knew how to build in those days – seriously solidly! This particular building was at least 5 (walk-up) floors – and it’s not a unique example. Some buildings are known to have been 14 stories – this is pre-elevators of course. The top and bottom floors were for the ‘lower’ class – middle floors for the ‘upper’ class. You can guess why!

Next on our list is lunch at a pub (this and Fish and Chips were on the Intrepid Traveler’s must do list). We bypass Onik (with it’s roasted pig in the window), The Witchery, and The Boosy Cow to eat at Deacon Brodies Tavern. Delicious Fish and Chips to share works for us – and we chit chat with our fellow dinners before venturing out again.

Our next stop is The Real Mary King Close, but I keep seeing men in Top hats, morning suits (that’s tails and grey pants – just FYI) and carrying large wooden batons. We passed a group heading down hill on our way up to Gladstone’s Land earlier, and are spoting more groups heading back up hill now. Can’t be a wedding – they aren’t ‘groupy’ enough. So naturally – curiosity gets the best of us, and we stop a pair to ask – “who are you”. And are rewarded by meeting two members of the Society of High Constables of Edinburgh. Today they are mostly ceremonial, but once they were the police of the city. And they regal us with a bit of their history starting in 1611 by order of King James VI. The older man of the pair tells us that he’s the last veteran of WWII in Edinburgh. He fought in Germany for 6 months at the end of war, having just turned 18.

You never know if you never ask!

On to The Real Mary King Close. We know this is going to be touristy – it advertises heavily, and you can find it mentioned on every map and in every guidebook. But our hosts thought that it was worth doing, despite the rather ‘touristy’ feel – and I must agree with them. You are greeted by a young guide who plays (rather on and off) the part of one of the folks known to have lived in the Close. The Close itself survived in tact because in 1875 or so, the city condemmed it, and built the Council Chambers (where our friends the High Constables were meeting) on top of the close.

Eveyone living in the close had to move out, and the rooms were sealed. So while the Close is now underground, it wasn’t always like this. In the late 17th century – this area was a warren of living spaces – some upscale (on the higher floors – above the stench of Edinburgh), and some lower class. But all happy to have a place to call home.

The tour lasts an hour, includes some pretty neat talking pictures that give you a bit of a flavor of life in these spaces in those days – and a rather dingy and dark room intended to impart the flavor of life in these spaces during the plague.

It’s not at the incredible level of the Jorvik Viking Experience in York, and our young and very friendly guide did her best but didn’t have the wealth of knowledge, nor the freedom to deviate off the route that our other guides did – but I did find it an interesting experience. I’m glad we did it – but I’m also glad we did it last!

Tours done – we decide to walk down the Royal Mile – mainly because every guide book says to do it, but eventually run out of steam and knees. We hop a bus – planning to get off at the port and at least catch a peek of the Royal Yacht “Britannica”. But before we get all the way to the port – we spot a huge Tesco’s! Food – glorious food. So we jump bus and do a quick shop for dinner. We’ll need food for tonight (It’s just past 5:00 and surely the party is finished), and tomorrow because our journey is taking us to Glasgow and we don’t know the lay of the land there.

Shopping done (We have become incredibly fond of Tesco’s Roast Chicken – I admit it), we grab a bus back home. Walking up to our cozy home, we spot two young guys standing on our stair case. We take bets that they are from the dinner party – and are proven right when they greet us by saying “You must be Isaac and Derek’s guests!”

How did they figure that out so fast. Do you think Isaac and Derek were talking about us?

We walk up to the flat and are greeted by Derek who invites us to join the party. After saying no a few times, we finally admit to being totally keen to meet some locals – and join in.

One of their friends, a very good amateur chef, has made roast pork with apple sauce and potatoes – and two fabulous desserts. The Pavlova is a killer dish – she’s planning on submitting it to a cooking contest in the fall, and I’m sure she’ll do well. There’s wine (lots and lots), there’s chocolate, there’s cheese – and there’s delightful conversation.

We are easily as curious about their lives as they are about ours – and when one conversation lags, another one even more interesting begins. At around midnight – The Intepid Traveler and I admit that our stamina is not up to more of this – but our new friends delight in singing us ‘good-bye’.

Memorable day, memorable evening, memorable place, memorable people.

It’s been a perfect day.

But tomorrow we’re off again – it’s a bus to Glasgow this time – so we trade hugs and thanks – and say good night.

Signing off – The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady.

Finally the Viking Experience


During breakfast – Liz reminds us to be sure to walk the top of the walls of York – so we head out to do just that. I’m determined to find the Viking Experience, but I’m also determined to revisit one of the ‘charity’ shops we checked out yesterday – they had a lovely Silverplated Serving knife and fork that would be great for our Regency Dinner parties at home.

We are rewarded in many ways. The walk along the wall starting at BoothBar (which means Booth’s Gate – or the Gate of Booths – in reference to market stalls that would have existed here hundreds of years ago) is lovely. We are 30 to 40 feet above the ground, with clear views to either side of the wonderful gardens behind the homes on either side. Another York Must do!

We hit the Oxfam charity shop – and my serving knife and fork are still there. If they are there – I was meant to have them – so I buy them. Jill finds a gift for her daughter at the same time – so we are both happy.

We continue on walking the wall – and eventually end up at the King’s Pond – a water feature in Medevial times that protected a huge section of York from attack. Nearby is a decommissioned church that now serves as a ‘reservable’ place of meditation. You book ahead on line, and are given a code to enter in the keypad on the door.

We’ve been constantly impressed with how creatively folks here are dealing with the issue of old, but under used churches. Some are turned into housing of course, but others stay churches, albeit smaller, and house cafes, restaurants, or even public service offices. In this case – another less appreciated need is being met. How nice.

We are now back at the York Castle Museum – still no Viking Experience – and decide to finish what we’d started the day before. The highlight of this visit is the Prison Section with audio/visual projected lectures by 5 of the famous inmates of the Prison. They tell you their side of the story – and then in the end, you can read up on the historical accounts. Morbidly facinating. I’ll save you some time and tell you that none come to a very good end!

Ok – now I’m getting serious. I will find that Viking Experience or else!

And of course – it turns out to be a lot easier to do than our mis-adventures can explain. It’s hidden in plain sight down a narrow passageway into Coppergate. Ok – just a bit of Old Norse for you – gate means road, bar means gate. This area is called Coopergate because it is presumed that ‘Cooper’s’ worked here making wooden objects. That information is revealed during our Viking Experience.

Bit of York arcological history now – in 1976 to 1980 a huge cache of Viking material was found hidden for over 1000 years in the wet clay (aka oxygen deprived) soil of York in this exact location. They were digging the foundations of a shopping center – and everyone was shocked to find over 40,000 Viking remains. The wet soil had preserved them so well that even pieces of material – including a silken head scarf were perfectly preserved. Most dramatically – there was even a Viking helmet found – complete and in perfect condition. No swords were found however – this was not a burial site – these were the remains of an entire village street. Pig pens, wooden houses, personal grooming items, all the stuff of ‘comfortable living’ were found right here – right under our feet. Incredible.

So of course a museum was created to house the artifacts – and in doing so the Jorvik (York in Old Norse) center was started. It was always intended to be an immersive experience – aka Disney-esque ride thru time to the time of the Vikings – but by Christmas of 2015 it was getting old and tired.

So nature intervened with a huge flood. Ok – maybe not on purpose – but the result was the same. The entire center had to be refurbished and re-imagined – and it just reopened under a month ago. I can’t speak for the old display – but we can tell you that the newly opened display has a ton to recommend it!

You can choose to pre-book, which puts you in one line, or you can take your chances and queue. We did the latter, and were rewarded by entering before the folks that had pre-booked. Not sure how that happened.

One interesting note – remember that Serving Knife and Fork I’d bought? Well they were not allowed in the center – and thus had to spend time with the ‘Viking’ on guard at the door. All of the staff is dressed from head to foot like Vikings – From men with long beards that were either braided or tied, to gals sporting Viking shoes, dresses and head gear – the staff were impressive in not only their appearance – but also their knowledge of the place and the Vikings. All were either archologists or story tellers – and they were great – if you bothered to engage them. Here-in lies the rub. It is easy to run thru a museum without talking to a single interpreter – and if you read reviews of the center that earn it less than 5 stars – that is what happened.

It is not sufficient to just ‘ride’ the ride and leave. It should be about learning about the Vikings – but we can understand how folks could easily get confused by the ‘Disney’ feeling that the ride conveys. It’s wrong – but understandable.

Anyway – we enter down a staircase into a large space that has a glass floor. Under our feet are evidence of the dig – including re-created timbers, objects and the like. Video footage on the walls explains what it was like on the dig – and invite you to participate in a current dig happening only 200 or so yards away. In one corner is a costumed interpreter with objects that you can touch and handle, and in another corner is a computerized interactive exhibit on the challenges of conserving the materials of the primary items found – glass, wood, metal and stone. Most folks just line up for the ride – missing the good stuff in the corners. So sad.

The ride itself is amazing. The detail is incredible – sights, smells, sounds are all here to make sure you know you are visiting a living viking town. I actually ride the ride 3 times to try to see and hear everything. There are audio interpretations in 12 different languages – including an ‘adult’ English and a ‘child’ English. Of the two English commentaries – I actually prefered the ‘child’ version. In that version, a young male voice pretending to be a local of the period explains to you what you are seeing from his point of view. “Oh, there’s my friend Eric, he’s been learning how to make knives from his father – looks like he might be doing better.”

From the front of the ‘ride vehicle’ you can see that the ground underneath is complete with muddy footprints and sewage. There are rats hidden here and there as would have been the case in those days, and tiny details add to the realism in surprising ways. At one point, a figure in a boat suddenly looks up at me and welcomes me in ‘Old Norse’ – it’s actually a staff member!

But you can’t appreciate the level of detail in just one ride thru – good thing that the ticket they sell you is good for a year.

When the ride ends you are in a small, but very complete exhibit area – with at least 3 interpreters willing to take time to answer in great and loving detail any questions you might have. There is a young man making coins, the hard old fashioned way by slaming the dies with a hammer. We chat with him on the origins of coins in general – and Viking coins in particular.

This is a wonderful experience – but as with most museums – you take out what you put in. Take time to chat – it’s wonderful.

Lunch is a brief respite on a bench in Coopergate and a lovely chat with a Welsh gentleman who lets us know that he was very anti-brexit. We’ve actually not come in contact with folks who voted yes – but since it was a 50/50 vote – that’s not totally surprising.

Our next stop was supposed to be the Viking Exhibit in the Yorkshire Museum, but instead we opt for the physically closer and much less demanding Barley Hall. This is a medieval home that once belong to The Lord Mayor of York. Suitably large and painstakingly re-done – it’s now a quick and dirty history of Henry VIII. The exhibits are interesting, and I must admit that I didn’t know that much about Henry VIII coming in, but the lack of guides and the limited about of interior furnishings made this tour a very quick in and out. Not our favorite museum, but after the two ‘Must Do’s’ of the Jorvik Viking Experience and the York Castle Museum, it’s almost a good thing. We’re pretty wiped and keen to head back home.

Liz is shocked to see us this early – but we hand over our bottle of wine and tell her not to worry – we’re going to hide out in our room and nurse our feet and backs into better shape with a spot of tea.

A couple of hours later – and suitably refreshed – Liz annouces dinner. Again we are impressed. After bringing each other up on our travels today, our conversation centers around her desire to enlarge her Air BnB empire by buying another flat. We are keen to find out how that goes down – but of course won’t ever know if she doesn’t keep in touch. So I’m seriously hoping she will read this – and keep in touch!

Another relaxing evening enjoying the birds, the bees – and Liz’s wonderful backyard and it’s off to bed.

I think this is becoming a pattern!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Still no Vikings – but the York Castle Museum is a Must Do


We are awoken early by the birds. Liz’s house is just outside the city walls – a 200 year old Victorian that she has carefully restored – and there are lots of trees – and lots of birds. A flock of geese call the open space behind her place home, and there’s a colony of doves that spend the night perched in a tree in her neighbor’s yard. Dawn at Liz’s home is a sympthony concert on steriods.

We head downstairs for breakfast, served at a table in her ‘living’ room. Delicious Quarker Oats, some yogurt, your basic local buns, coffee or tea, and a bit of fresh fruit combine for a perfect start to the day. Walking past Liz’s door alerts the excitable Bertie to our presence – and he’s perfectly happy to start the day too. Liz drops in to check if we have any questions about where to go and what to see – then sends us on our way with specific directions to return for dinner at 6:30.

We repeat our walk into the walled city, and wander around pleasantly lost amid the mydrid shops and wandering tourists. Our official destination is the Viking Experience, but the maze that is Old Town York is more challenging to navigate than expected. Liz had suggested that we take a ‘Squiggle’ or narrow part between buildings into the back area behind the ‘Hole in the Wall’ – one of zillions (yes I counted) Pubs. We are in the narrow laneway behind the Pub when the bells of the Minster announce 10:00 AM. No sleeping late in York I’m going to tell you! Peter (that’s what they call the big bell that sounds the hours) is seriously loud. You can feel the vibrations all the way from your feet to your head.

We wander in the gardens, quickly visit the old chapel (now library), and see the Treasurers House. We check out some of the ‘charity shops’ dotted amongst the more touristy offerings, buy a Cornish Pasty for lunch, then head toward the Viking Experience. We twist and turn – and eventually end up looking up at a castle on a mound.

It’s Clifford’s Tower – the site of one of the darkest days (not my words – that’s how they describe it in the history notes) of York’s long history. In 1190 approximately 150 Jewish citizens of York were trapped in the tower by an angry mob. Egged on by wealthy men who were in debt to the Jewish Moneylenders and had not secured Royal Appointments and thus could not repay their debts, the mob surged around the then Royal Castle. These events were cronicled by at least 3 different sources at the time. In the end, most of the Jews committed suicide, the men killing their wives and children, and then killing themselves. The men owing money to the Jewish Moneylenders then burned their notes, thus freeing themselves of the debts, and the land and possesions of the Jews reverted to the crown. (http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/norman/the-1190-massacre)

The event is recorded on a plaque outside the tower for all to read.

But on to happier thoughts. Right beside the tower, which stands at the highest point of York, is the York Castle Museum. Not the Viking experience we were heading for – but it was on our hit list as well, so in we go.

The York Castle Museum is a huge winner. It occupies a former prision that was in use for over 400 years, and today contains not only information about the prision, but also a re-creation of a complete Victorian Street, an exhibit on the 60’s, a series of ‘demo’ kitchens dating from 1650 till 1960, and ‘demo’ Victorian Parlors from humble farmer to moderately well-off middle class. There’s a section devoted to toys from the 1900’s up to 2017 (truly fascinating), and a display on undergarmets that spans several hundred years.

This museum is almost impossible to leave! We can’t get enough of the complete Victorian Street scene – it extends for several blocks, is complete with period appropriate ‘smells’, and what really makes it great – knowledgeable guides in period clothes who delight in telling you about their times. Our favorite is a gentleman in a top hat who spends almost 30 minutes discussing his world. So cool.

We don’t finish – we simply run out of time and must head back to the Minster for Evensong, then on to Liz’s place for dinner. Fortunately, the ticket we got is good for a year – so we will definitely be back!

At Evensong, we are almost trampled by the rush of people trying to get good seats – but are rewarded for our slow pace by a young female priest who directs us up into the choir stalls. We are seated 6 seats away from the Dean of the Minster – the Very Revd Vivienne Faull – a lovely older woman whose face is featured on most of the marketing for the huge Cathedral. The Minster was spared by the German Blitz because it acted as a landmark for the German Pilots. We are told this by one of the tour guides, who was lucky enough to have given a tour to a former German Pilot! He told her that they would never have hurt it – if you were flying from the South and came upon a huge white cross in the middle of a green circle – you turned right to get home to Germany. And if you were flying from the North – it was a left turn.

And it’s actually a good thing that this lovely building was not hurt. The main tower is high enough to contain the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the vast vault with it’s Gothic finishings is the 2nd largest such building in Northern Europe. It was built between 1220 and 1472 – and is justifably one of York’s main visitor attractions. But we are here for Evensong – and are rewarded by a 45 minute long service sung by a mixed choir of 18 children and 12 adults. Lovely.

Our dinner with Liz is equally pleasant. We again chat on various topics – and Liz tells us the recent history of her lovely home. She has lived here for 10 years, and it was in the spring of the 2nd year that problems began. Her ground floor (aka basement) was flooded – not just once but 3 times. And it wasn’t just her basement – all the basements in the area suffered, and the city of York determined that the fault was theirs – inadequate sewers. So the city decided to fix the problem for the entire area of several hundred homes and businesses – and a major hospital – by building a huge underground water holding tank in the vacant land to her left. They made one tiny error. They ignored the sandy soil that lay adjacent to the site of the new construction, and in digging out the tank, caused an earthquake. Liz’s home literally split in 2 – while she was inside!

The house between her home and the ‘hole’ suffered more – but since it was owned by the hospital, which in turn is owned by the National Health Service, it was less of a problem. Since her home was privately owned – and terribly damaged, after some litigation, the city paid for her renovation.

And the home was saved – and better than saved – restored to it’s former glory. She took that opportunity to move the kitchen into the basement, making an extra bedroom on the ground floor. The work was only completed about 2 years ago – and she’s been doing Air BnB only since March.

We mentally observe that one would never have a conversation like this in a hotel – one of the reasons Air BnB is such fun is the delightful chance you have to really get to know a local!

The Intrepid Traveler and I eventually toddle upstairs to bed. Tomorrow we are definitely going to find the Viking Experience.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.