It was a rather odd Leeds Meet yesterday as many of the regulars weren't there. This meant it was quite quiet, although we had an influx of a large number of new people from as far afield as Carlisle and Birmingham. This made for a rather fresh and relaxed meet, where it was possible to chat with everyone and there was enough space to be comfortable. I believe that everyone had a good time although the number of people who left immediately after the fursuit walk was somewhat concerning. Speaking of which, I got to fursuit for the first time at a meet in ages and had a great time, largely because we got to go on a number of fairground rides as part of the Winter Ice attraction around the Library and Millennium Square. This saw us hit a minion in furusit before going on a little spinny car thing, which unfortunately a number of us having to get off as we were too heavy. In Millennium Square, we also got to ride a mini rollercoaster, which was about as ferocious as I can personally put up with, before whizzing down a helter-skelter, which was great fun. The staff manning the amusements were great and while we decided to avoid the huge spinny waltzer thing, which undoubtedly would have made me sick in fursuit, it was a fantastic two hour walk. Alas, some people were getting tired so we couldn't do everything we wanted to do, but it was fantastic nonetheless. We even met some of the cosplay crew outside the Library, as they were having their meet too at the same time, and it's fair to say that I have my fursuiting mojo back after being a little apathetic towards it in recent months. Indeed, I can't think of a recent weekend when I have done so much suiting that hasn't been a furcon.
The bar thinned out quite quickly after the meet, and Avon was rather pissed so just walked off home when he felt like it, meaning that by 6pm there was only about seven of us left. A few furs I hadn't spoken to before, including a bird suiter called Navaa, were in this number and we opted to go to Trinity Kitchen as we hadn't been there for about a year. Consequently, the stands had changed and I was delighted to discover a haggis themed one, only to be disappointed by the fact that they had already completely sold out. The same was the case at the place serving halloumi fries, which made me think how bizarre it was to have an eatery place running out of food so early on a Saturday evening. By the by, I ended up with a baked feta and butternut squash pierogi served with coleslaw and while it was a little stodgy, it was very hearty quality fayre and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The coleslaw was crisp and sharp too, making it perfect.
After this, Patter, Stray, Luna, Wolfie and I headed over to the new-look Atlas Brauhaus, which has been modelled as a German style bar, having reopened in October. The range of beer is far less exciting than it used to be, but the snack food of potato and cheese dumplings were delicious, even if the cheese wasn't fully melted inside, giving it an appearance of butter. The beer was largely fizzy German pilsner, which was alright, but they did have a number of their own ales brewed by Stod Fold which were good to try. We had intended to only get one beer here, having to get up early for a charity event on Sunday morning, but alas the times were good and we ended up staying far later than we should have, having an inciteful geopolitical debate in the process.
We got home just after 11pm, giving me enough time to shower before heading to bed, having to be over at Temple Newsam for 8:45am. This was for the annual Bark In The Park event that we do - a sponsored dog walk on behalf of a local hospice. They usually do it across two venues, but had consolidated it down to one this year, meaning it was at least easier for us logistically. We picked up Arcais just after 8am and trundled down there, arriving bang on time and suiting up before many of the walkers arrived. We usually just provide the entertainment but this year they wanted us to go out with collecting buckets. This saw me stand at the bottom where the one mile walk branched off from the three and five mile ones, while Arcais took the entrance. Many of the dogs were quite scared of us and barked, but many of the kids liked the furry characters, including one who hung around for half an hour and wanted to take me home with them. We saw a cute doggo friend being sick on something in his throat, while some others just wanted to say hello, making it a delightful three hours of suiting. The weather was ideal for us, cold but dry, although the ground was a little tacky, which is why we stuck to the paths largely. There seemed to be fewer people there than last year, but we were reassured there weren't, although they had taken over a huge grassy area this time rather than having a smaller stall in the main house area. Either way, it was great fun and we did manage to raise a fair bit of money. After this, instead of going to our usual pub meet, we decided to go over to MOD Pizza in Kirkstall as Arcais hadn't tried it and they offer pizzas with diary-free cheese, which is useful to her. I had only been once before, back in early January, and loved it. It didn't disappoint again as it was exceptionally good - and I like the deli sandwich bar idea but with pizza (even if I did have one of their standard pizzas - chicken, BBQ sauce and blue cheese). Due to other commitments, Arcais needed to leave early afternoon, so we dropped her off back home and have done little for the rest of the day. Wolfie has been revising as he has an exam on Tuesday and I went to the gym. That's pretty much it.
So a week last Sunday (5 February), I left my friend Paul at Herne Hill, heading to Earl's Court via Victoria, a pretty straightforward journey that didn't take particularly long. Upon alighting at Earl's Court, I crossed the road and found my hotel with some ease, checking in before relaxing a short while, with the need to head back out again not so pressing. I departed about half an hour later, grabbing some food at a local Gregg's as I went, as I was scheduled to meet JM Horse on the steps of St Paul's at 4pm. In the end, I was about fifteen minutes late, but this was largely due to marvelling at the wonderful architecture of this iconic building, not to mention the monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London, which stands like a golden orb in an adjacent square. If this vista was breathtaking, this was nothing compared to the view that is afforded on the sixth floor of a nearby shopping centre, which overlooks St Paul's and gives a stunning panorama of the London skyline. Apparently, this was a public space that hardly anyone knows about and is somewhere that JM comes quite often, and it certainly was a little-known gem.
Speaking of little-known gems, we were soon walking to another - the Guildhall School of Music inside the Barbican Centre. My stepdad studied cello here in the 1960s but the current building dates to 1977 so was built after his time. It is situated in a triumph of urban planning that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be pretty bad as the years progressed. The whole area is quite sterile and somewhat soulless. It was meant to be a model village built out of purple bricks, with indoor walkways connecting the complexes and a number of pubs and restaurants scattered about. Many of these are since closed and most of the residences are no longer occupied, but the main stage area is still a hub of performing arts, with the theatre of the Barbican Centre being the centrepiece. There is still a number of fountains adorning the main square, which is perfectly symmetrical, a symbol of the urban planning of that era. Perhaps this is one of the things that was wrong with it - it was just too perfect - but either way it made for some very interesting exploring, with JM admitting that he sometimes comes here to work as it's quite close to where he lives.
As we walked, we talked about a range of things, but travel mainly, which was quite appopriate as soon I was boarding my first ever Boris bike as we were bound for Stepney Green, some ten minutes' ride away. I was a little apprehensive initially as I hadn't been on a bike in about twenty years, but once I got used to the sensitive three-gear system, it was quite a breeze, particularly as the network of cycle lanes insulated you from the traffic. We rode to Tower Hill, with the Tower of London looming on our right before following the line of the DLR, only cycling on actual road for a short while until we found a bicycle rack near Whitechapel Road. It was an excellent ride, albeit a bit nippy in the bitingly cold early February air, but it is such a fantastic system and one I wish would be emulated in other British cities. I like everything about this, from the green bicycle shape light as you are riding to the ability to lock your bike if it's broken, pushing a button to alert an attendant that it needs fixing.
Our first stop in the Whitechapel area was Rinkoffs Bakery, which was underneath a rather sorry looking housing estate but which had been there since 1911, serving the Jewish community in particular. As a consequence, their baked products were of exceptional quality and we were urged to try the crodoughs - half croissant and half doughnut - which were thick and layered as opposed to the lighter varieties to which I am more accustomed. We took three - for myself, JM and Bastett who we were meeting in a pub down the road - with us making the mistake of not eating them until after we had got to the pub, meaning we were eyeing them hungrily as we were drinking our beer. The King's Arms was about ten minutes' walk from the bakery, which gave us more time to chat before meeting Bastett, who was already sat down when we arrived. The range of beer was impressive and I tried another Cloudwater dIPA along with a few other interesting tipples as we chatted some more about a variety of things. Alas, even though it was only approaching 7pm, time was running short as JM and Bastett had to go to a Super Bowl Party, meaning I was largely free for the rest of the evening.
I had noticed earlier in the day that there was a new BrewDog bar in London, conveniently in Homerton which wasn't too far from where I was. As a consequence, I was directed to the nearest tube before waving goodbye to my friends, with me getting to Stratford by Underground and Homerton by Overground shortly afterwards. I had already had about five pints that day and was desperate for a pee, but fortunately I discovered the bar pretty easily so there was no huge crisis. The bar had only just opened and was in the middle of a housing area, which was quite an odd place to choose, although I had been reassured that Homerton is an up-and-coming area. It was quite quiet though, at least initially, but this gave me time to chat to the three guys behind the bar. By 8:30pm, I was the only one there, but things got a little more lively after that when a couple of regulars walked in, including a rather angry looking Scots bloke. They all knew the bar staff though and before I knew it, I was embroiled in conversation and they were buying drinks for me. In the end, it was quite a good night, but I wasn't in any mood to call it a night, meaning that by the time I left, it was past 11pm. I walked to Hackney Wick station with one of my new friends, but upon arrival I was informed by a member of TfL staff that I had missed my last train and that I needed to call a cab. Fortunately, the nice gentleman gave me a number and soon one of the local taxi firms was on hand to meet me. My driver was a rather nice Albanian gentleman and we talked a lot about his homeland, making the rather long drive seem quite short. The price was only £28, which wasn't too bad for a journey across London I thought, although it was an added expense that I could have done without paying. On the way back to the hotel, I picked up some food before heading back to the room with the intention of watching the rest of the Super Bowl. We were already into the second quarter and as I settled down to watch on the bed, I must have fallen asleep as I awoke to the sound of Lady Gaga doing the half-time show. I watched this for a short while before falling asleep again, awaking at some point towards the end of the fourth quarter before switching the TV off. It was a shame that I missed it really as it was one of the classic Super Bowls and having watched the last three, I somewhat lucked out. Still, I had had a good evening so I couldn't complain all that much.
On Monday I had arranged to meet up with Paul at the British Museum at 1pm ahead of going over to Tower Hill for my first work meeting at 6:30pm. Remarkably, I was bang on time, probably as a result of having to check out at midday, and he was waiting for me in the main square of this rather impressive building with its Greek style portico out front. I had never been to the British Museum before, despite being to some of the world's top cultural venues, so this was bound to be a huge treat. I got through security okay and put my bag in the locker room, being charged double due to it being overly heavy, before we had a quick chat about all of the things we wanted to see. I wanted to check out the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles and the stunning carvings from the city of Nimrud, the remainder of which having been destroyed when ISIS took over the city a few years ago. This made visiting here even more poignant, while the craftsmanship behind such intricate pictures was truly breathtaking. The fact that all of the friezes told a story, and a rather brutal one at that considering the warriors were paid by the number of severed heads they had, made the sight even more remarkable. The same was true of the Parthenon Marbles of course, which had such beautiful detail, particularly on the dress work and the horses' form. It was quite a treat to see them so close up - of course they had been situated just below the roof of the Parthenon originally, which only highlighted the dedication that had gone in to craftwork that no-one was ever destined to see. Paul wanted to see the Mildenhall Treasure, which is a large collection of Roman silverware dating from the fourth century. Discovered in 1942, remarkably most of the items are preserved, including the truly beautiful Great Dish or Great Plate of Bacchus. Weighing over 8kg and with a diameter of in excess of 60cm, this was the outstanding item in the collection, although there were a number of smaller bowls and spoons which were equally intricate. While in this very room, we also got to see the Lindow Man, whose tortured facial expression and twisted corpse was disturbing, particularly based on the knowledge of how he died. Despite all of this, however, the highlight for me was The Rosetta Stone, largely due to my fascination for languages. Seeing this most famous of linguistic tools, which enabled the Egptian hyroglyphs to be deciphered was a real heart jumping moment and I was privileged enough to get exceptionally close to it, just dodging the huge posse of Chinese students who were marching in behind me. These were the main sights and once we had seen them, we were free to amble around the Museum in a more relaxed fashion, taking in some of the lesser-known exhibits. After all, we knew we were never going to see everything so we just did what we fancied. My favourite was arguably downstairs in the African section where there was a tree constructed entirely out of machine guns, while we also got to learn a lot about clothing in that region. I also enjoyed the airy centre of the Museum, the Great Court, with its towering glass roof and stone column right in the middle. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was another exhibit which was a highlight, along with the intricate carvings of the religious nuts depicting a range of Biblical scenes.
We spent about four hours in the Museum in total and barely scratched the surface, such was the wealth of the collections in there. However, we were all Museumed out and it was only half an hour until closing, so we decided to grab our bags before going for a quick half in a local Sam Smith's pub, a place which had retained its fabulous Victorian feel. It was definitely stuck in a timewarp but it was a great way to end my trip with Paul as I was then bound for the work section of my visit to the capital.
The weekend before last (4-5 February) I spent in London ahead of the biggest conference in my company's calendar, which I was due to attend on the Tuesday. I always try and use this as an opportunity to see friends in the capital, as it is a place I rarely get chance to visit, and with work paying for the travel, it does save on costs. Meanwhile, noticing that Middlesbrough were playing at Tottenham in the late Saturday kick-off was too good an opportunity to turn down. I hadn't been to a football match for nearly two years and not an away day in London for about nine years, which is quite shocking considering I used to go to four or five games a season in the mid-2000s. Furthermore, there looked to be quite a gathering on the messageboards I frequent, with 11 Boro lads from Teesside and London confirmed, so I asked them to get a ticket on my behalf and booked the trains accordingly.
I had to change at Sheffield due to engineering works, but this allowed me to have a fascinating conversation with a Canadian student from SoaS, about a range of political things. We shared similar views on most issues, so it was great to rant about things like Brexit and Trump, as well as have my views confirmed by an outsider who had been subject to the xenophobia which has taken this country alight. Her course in philosophy was also quite interesting, so the two hour journey passed in no time, with us exchanging business cards at the end, promising to keep in touch. I walked her out of St Pancras station before grabbing an overpriced sandwich and a poo, before headng down to Sydenham Hill to meet my friend Paul, with whom I was going to stay the night and with whom I was going to the match. We had just enough time to deposit the bags and take a shower - as well as meeting his daughter, who is now 18 years old. This was a bit of a headfuck considering I had first met her when she had been five or six, highlighting the passage of time as I hit my mid-Thirties. It was great chatting with his partner Carol too, with whom we had a greater conversation once we had returned after the game over some delicious vegan curry which was expertly prepared.
We left shortly before 3pm, with our destination the One Mile Road Brewery just outside of White Hart Lane. The initial plan had been to go to an Irish Centre, but it had been suggested earlier in the week that this microbrewery was opening its doors for away fans and was serving beer and food to the Middlesbrough contingent. They certainly didn't skimp on the accommodation, with the food being catered by the excellent Parm Star, which offers the Middlesbrough delicacy of parmos in a burger bun. The two ales they had on were also delightful and at £4 a pint, reasonably priced for the capital, while I couldn't quite believe that there were around 250 Boro fans drinking craft beer in a microbrewery as opposed to the fizzy lager and dodgy pubs that used to be par for the course when we were doing this ten years ago. We met a couple of the old lads again in the bar, some of whom I hadn't seen in nearly a decade, although as we had arrived quite late, some of these acquaintances were quite fleeting. Alas, we did get to speak to a couple of the lads though, including some Leave voters, which at least added a personification to them as outside of politics they were personally decent people. In a way, this did heal the wounds somewhat, although not enough to assuage the anger completely. Still, this was a football day rather than a politics one and with kick-off approaching, we finished our drinks and headed off, being amongst the last ones to leave as Paul needed to grab his parmo burger before heading off. He was suitably impressed, as I told him he would be as I had tried Parm Star before, at the Canal Mills Beer Festival back in November.
The journey to the ground was through the same dodgy housing estate we had walked through to get to the brewery, but the distance wasn't too far and soon we could see the huge concrete pillars which will form the stadium extension shadowed in the gloaming, with huge cranes towering in the sky to meet the moon. It sounds romantic, but it was just a football match, as our friend Adam, who was the only Spurs supporter amongst us, told us how great their chairman Daniel Levy is. By the by, we walked around the arse end of the stadium and entered, where we discovered that Paul and I had two seats away from the others in our own private row which was nice. It was great watching a match again and the Boro fans were in full voice, while the home fans were muted for most of the match. We sang, we shouted, we encouraged, but we also got frustrated as our lack of offensive prowess was apparant for all to see. In the end we lost the game 1-0 having conceded a soft penalty, but we made their star players - of a side that were sitting second in the league at the time - look quite ordinary. Granted, we played the offside trap well a couple of times in the first half, but our defence was quite strong, limiting them to few chances. It was just a shame that we didn't look like scoring at all in the entire match, apart from one shot towards the end which could very easily have been the equaliser. All in all then it was exceptionally frustrating and I left the ground fearing the worst, with other results going against us and the relegation trapdoor approaching nearer and nearer. Whether we survive is going to be touch and go, but if we are to survive, scoring is a must.
White Hart Lane is in the middle of nowhere, with transport links at a premium. The problem is particularly acute at the end of a match as you have 35,000 people heading towards the limited infrastructure. We opted to walk down White Hart Lane to Seven Sisters Tube station, noticing local bakery Percy Ingle along the way, one of the few pasty shops not to have been taken over by Greggs. In all honesty, this part of Tottenham was a place where gentrification was forgotten, so getting out of here was a priority, which made the wait to enter the tube station all the more frustrating. Still, in the end it was reasonably efficient as after a ten-minute wait, we were allowed on to the platform and got a train almost immediately. We were headed towards Euston and the Bree Louise pub, a bar that hasn't really left the 1950s with its open kegs covered in tarpaulin and bare wooden decor. We had agreed to meet Colin and Adam here, with all of the others having headed back to Teesside on the official coaches, and we arrived about five minutes after they had done, largely because they had told us that the bar was behind Euston station when it was really next to it. We initially started off outside before perching in a corner inside the bar, sharing a rather large table with a hairy bloke and his partner. We had two drinks here, flat real ale type but of reasonably high strength and thus flavour to be interesting, before heading our separate ways, in our case back to Paul's house. It was great seeing the lads again and I had half a mind to go down again at the end of the month for the Crystal Palace game, which is a must-win affair as they are one of our relegation rivals. Alas, the tickets have since sold out but with a £30 cap on all away tickets mandated by the league, at least it's now more affordable and I would like to do another London away day again before too long.
Once we had returned to Paul's, we chatted for a while and watched Match of the Day followed by the Super Bowl preview show before going to bed around midnight, with me waking up at around 9am as everyone had already arisen. I was on an air bed in the living room and so was awoken to the sound of voices and cooking in the adjacent kitchen, with Paul rustling up a fantastic cooked breakfast, which was the perfect way to start the day. We ate with his daughter Grace and chatted for a while before heading out to nearby Herne Hill, which has a farmer's market on the main street every Sunday. This was very interesting as there was a range of high quality local produce, with the food being of particular interest. I had a raspberry version of the Portuguese Pastais which was delicious, while Paul bought some cards from a local craft stall. The market has become so popular that its frequency changed from every month to every week, and it was certainly busy when we were there. It was only up and down one street but there was a surprising diversity of produce, and it was a shame that I couldn't take some of it back with me as it looked so good. Alas, having no access to a fridge for the next 48 hours meant taking the cheese wasn't wise.
After this, we headed to one of the local bars, where we grabbed a couple of local ales, including one brewed in a brewery just down the road. Paul went to their tap room later on in the day, but I had to leave mid-afternoon as I had arranged to meet JM Horse outside St Paul's (via my hotel at Earl's Court, where I intended to drop off my bag). A trip to this brewery tap is definitely on the agenda for a future visit though, one I am hoping to make very soon. We watched a little of the Six Nations as we chatted over our final beer, with my head right in front of the big screen TV so probably obscuring the view for some people. Still, this was the only place with a chair so what could you do? Opppsite from us we saw a dog playing with his owner, and he desperately wanted some cream from a dessert one of this party was having, but he wasn't allowed any. Meanwhile, we both enjoyed our final pints before Paul walked me back to the station, seeing me off as I headed for the furry part of the trip with very happy memories of the last 24 hours and a resolve to visit the capital far more often.
Sunday was an incredibly lazy day of doing chores, nothing overly exciting, but we did get back in the early hours of the morning after an interesting 24 hour stay in Manchester.
We went over there on Friday night with a list of intentions, but circumstances dictated that we didn't get round to doing many of them. We had hoped to go to a local fetish club called Club Lash, but work overran and by the time we had checked in to our hotel, it was touching 11pm. As a consequence, by the time we would have got to the club (which wasn't in the city centre) the event would almost be over and thus we felt it wasn't worth bothering with. This was a shame as we have been aiming to go here for the best part of two years, and the winter months are always the best as the hotels are more reasonably priced. I was quite disappointed as this isn't the first time that work has interfered with my social life and I feel that things may soon be coming to a head there. All of this made me terribly depressed and the train journey across the Pennines was done in some kind of daze, not aided by my irritation with the uncouth yob who was cutting his fingernails on board, letting the nail shavings descend onto the floor.
By the by, we did end up going into central Manchester and trying a number of bars, including the fantastic Cafe Beermoth in the financial district, which served a good range of beers across their 17 taps. They also had some really nice spicy pork and apple snausage, as well as some blue cheese infused ones, while we also got to sample a newly launched beer called Santa Muerte, a chocolate and vanilla porter. They had a wide range of Mikkeller's Spontan series in the back, but they don't offer takeout, meaning we had to miss out this time, even though there were two beers there that we had not had before. Cafe Beermoth was slated to close at 12:30am and it was thinning out about half an hour earlier, so we departed to go to No 10 Watson Street, another craft beer emporium on the other side of the city. Manchester is deceptively big - bigger than Leeds certainly but with wider roads giving the appearance it's larger than it actually is. As a consequence, we got from one side of the city to the other in about fifteen minutes. Along the way, we just so happened to walk past BrewDog, so we decided to drop in for a beer as they had a few new ones out this week. Alas the Cloudwater collab was out, and the Vermont IPA died as she was pouring it, meaning we had to settle for the new Born To Die offering, which was resinous and perhaps overly dry. While we drank, we played chess, with Wolfie and I pretty evenly matched, although I had to concede as we had finished our drinks and he had a Queen advantage over me (while I still had one Bishop). This partly came about because the bar refused to serve me draft beer at 1:02am even though they were happy to sell takeaway bottles. I've never been refused service in a BrewDog so anally, perhaps it's a Manchester thing I don't know. Either way, we left the bar a little disgruntled, crossed the road and headed to No 10 Watson Street, which was open until 2am but the bouncer on the door said that they had decided to close early as there were so few people inside. Fair enough, so we headed back to the hotel.
We had intended to go to the Manchester Meet on the Saturday, but we failed to set an alarm, meaning we slept in until the early afternoon. We had booked late departure in the hotel, so we could check out at 5pm, and as we had packed a range of fetish stuff, we decided we might as well use some of it that afternoon. As a consequence, we didn't leave the hotel until 4pm and didn't get to the meet until going on 4:30pm after we had grabbed some food at Subway, where we were greeted with a fight between a pissed bloke in a stripy top and a burly bloke as we walked up Canal Street. The pissed bloke then decided to pick on a homeless person before trying to get into the furmeet venue, with the bouncer on the door stopping him. As a result of this, he then decided to phone 999 and insisted he had done nothing wrong, before swearing at the operator on the other end of the phone. Meanwhile, as he was stood between the entrance to the bar and the street, I didn't really want to cross the rubicon, which was just as well as there were a number of furs to talk to outside, despite the grey, cold and damp weather that afternoon. It was good chatting with Skapup again, albeit briefly, while in the end we just spoke with most of the Leeds crowd who had come over. I am not really a huge fan of Canal Street and the furmeet venue in particular after events which happened there eight years ago, so I wasn't overly bothered about missing much of the meet, but in the end I didn't need to go inside as we had an enjoyable hour chatting in the street. I do feel a bit bad that we missed the opportunity to make more friends in Manchester, particularly the ones who had been messaging me on Twitter, but in the end we were busy doing other things and the events on Canal Street that afternoon really didn't sell the Meet to me anyway.
We met Tommah at the meet and he told us he was heading to a local sandwich shop called Northern Soul he highly recommended, so with little else to do we decided to join him with a number of others in tow. Fen, with whom we had arranged to have drinks after the meet, was also there while we bumped into a limping Patter as we walked up Canal Street meaning most of the people to whom I had spoken prior to the weekend were now with us. Enteirah found us in the place, which did some excellent toasties and mac and cheese, with me opting for the latter having had a Subway sandwich just two hours before. Ent's Croque Monsieur was undoubtedly the highlight though as it looked so perfect. The place was a tiny kitchen set inside a deliberately ramshackle shed, with an arched corregated tinned roof and dusty old benches and tables. It was most excellent and a place definitely worth visiting again when next we are in the city. After our meal, we opted to go to the Thomas Street Brewhouse to grab some more ales, with our number decreasing as the evening wore on. In the end, there were only four of us - Patter and Fen along with Wolfie and myself - and so we decided to go to the Port Street Beer House for a nightcap. Well, I say nightcap but it was only 8pm yet Fen and Patter wanted to head home so we decided to go for one final drink before returning to the hotel to pick up our bags ahead of getting the 9:26pm service to Pudsey. It was quite difficult getting a table in PSBH but a troupe of ladies were just leaving, meaning a booth became available. They were really nice and chatty, with them expressing sympathy over Patter's broken metatarsal, which was the reason for his limping and being on a crutch. It was a nice final drink overlooking an M&S home sense store, but the atmosphere was convivial and we were amongst good friends, friends that we really should see more often. We made a mental note to visit Manchester more often, not least because of its kink scene, which is far far superior to that in Leeds, much to my frustration.
We just caught the train to Pudsey, which was in an absolute state as we departed, with bottles and rubbish littered everywhere. This wasn't the worst aspect of the journey though, as about fifteen minutes in, a group of five entered our carriage, with one of them complaining they had been assaulted further down the train. The guard was very apologetic but this resulted in an hour dissection of the incident, followed by police statements being taken at Halifax, where the train was delayed for about ten minutes. The alleged perpetrators came bundling down the carriage at this station, offering to shake the victim's hand, before they had their date with PC Plod. In the meantime, we just drank beer and watched it all unfold, before resolving to get out at Bradford for one final drink. There were two reasons for this - the early nature of the night (it was still only 10:45pm) and the opening of a new underground complex of bars called Sunbridge Wells. Based in the catacombs under the city, this is a marvellous new addition to Bradford, with five bars of varying types along with a number of small stalls and concessions. I was a little worried about getting our two bottles of beer we had bought from BrewDog in Manchester the night before past the bouncers, which is why we drank them on the train, but they were very friendly and let us in. The first thing we saw as we walked up the long corridor leading towards the main atrium was a nice lady selling pork pies, and she told us about all the varieties she had, including the open top ones she was selling. I went for a regular pork pie, which was absolutely delicious, as Wolfie showed me around the various things inside as he had visited while I had been in SE Asia in December. The main bar was quite loud, but we did have a quick drink there, deciding to avoid the nightclub as that was even louder. The range of beer there wasn't great, while we couldn't get a seat in the 1920s speakeasy either. However, after exploring the warren of stairwells and rooms inside the catacombs, we did notice there was space at the gin bar so we parked ourselves by the door and I went up to order. The guy behind the bar sounded exactly like Luna, but was very knowledgeable about his gins. Wolfie ordered a cocktail called a French 75, not realising there were gins and tonics too, while I opted for a rather dry gin as my first. Later in the evening, we both got a second gin and tonic - Wolfie with a gingery one and me a pink gin with strawberries and blueberries. Both of these were delicious and for £7 each, quite good value. We stayed in the venue until 1am, with the atmsophere comforting yet electric, but the door constantly being left open by people was a bit annoying. The guys behind the bar were all really attentive though and were genuinely interested in our experience, so it will definitely be worth going back. Wolfie and I had a good chat, although a small argument did ruin things slightly, before we grabbed a taxi shortly after 1am to go home.
The last few days we have been in Madrid for Furrnion, a new Spanish convention held in the outskirts of the city. We arrived on Wednesday evening, with a protracted route from the airport seeing us walk from terminal one to terminal three, pay an extortionate amount to get the metro to terminal four before we could get a C-1 train to Atocha and a C-5 train out of there to La Serna, where the convention was taking place. All in all, it took us nearly three hours and by the time we arrived, the bar was quite desolate. Indeed, after surprising myself by being able to do the entire check in procedure in Spanish, we were told we only had ten minutes left until the bar closed, meaning we had to dump our bags and run there, generating a load of static electricity on the Perspex stairs as we did (this was a serious problem, so much so that someone drew a picture of a fursuiter being electrocuted by the static on his way to the lift). Upon arrival at the bar, we grabbed a drink and saw three obvious-looking furries sat at a table. This trio turned out to be Teal, Pyro and Mipsi from Sheffield, Mansfield and Cambridge respectively, so we had travelled all the way to Spain to see three English people. Apparently they had arrived on the Monday and had made this more of a vacation than we did, while during our ninety minute discussion we also got to see some of Teal's excellent etched artwork he was selling in the Dealers Den. Mipsi had travelled with her mother, who wasn't around that evening, but spoke to us regularly throughout the event. By the time 1am rolled around, we were all needing sleep and so we all went to bed to prepare for the festivities ahead.
Thursday was scheduled to be our touring around Madrid day, with nothing scheduled at the con until the evening. I had intended to get up early but I awoke feeling the most lethargic I have ever felt in my life and I simply couldn't get out of bed. Whether it had something to do with the cold that Wolfie had picked up a few days earlier I don't know, but this tiredness seeped into the other days of the con, affecting my enjoyment of it. In the end I only ended up doing an hour and a half of fursuiting throughout the whole event, even though I desperately wanted to do more. This wasn't aided by my notoriously poor stomach, which was struggling with the rich food and gassy beer, resulting in chronic burping and flatulence. I tried to limit the alcohol intake but at a con with scant few events and a load of friends around a bar, many of whom were Irish living up to the stereotype, it was incredibly tough.
Anyway, we managed to surface around lunchtime on the Thursday and made it into the city centre, getting off at Atocha after a half hour journey on the efficient Renfe suburban rail network. From Atocha, we walked amongst the grandiose buildings up to the Plaza del Sol, the main hub of Madrid and where many congregate. There were quite a number of people in fancy dress here - Mario and Luigi (who kept waving at me and beckoning me to come over), the Simpsons, the exact same Pikachu suit I had seen in Vietnam and a purple dog who mysteriously vanished as we walked around the main sights of the square). Speaking of the sites, there was an impressive statue of King Carlos III on horseback pointing towards the old red post office building, a wonderful architectural triumph that used to be the head of secret police in Franco's time. On the pavement outside there's a bronze plaque marking the zero point of reference from which the nation's road system is based. On the other side of the street there is also a statue of a bear shaking a tree, the symbol of Madrid, while the Tio Pepe neon sign is as famous here as Piccadilly Circus is in Britain.
Our next stop was just a short hop away, Plaza Mayor, where we saw an obese Spider-Man shouting at passers by before beguiling an elderly Chinese tourist. There were a few more of these street performers here in this beautiful palazzo type square with an undercover walkway around its perimeter with a number of small shops and cafes. There were four policemen on horseback in the centre of the cobbled square which some kids took an interest in, while we also took in another man on horseback statue in front of the stunningly painted exterior of the old bank I believe which formed the centre point of the northern part of the square.
As we departed from the entrance opposite to that through which we had arrived, we noticed that the obese Spider-Man had moved and was now near us. I tried to sneak a picture but to no avail. Just outside the square, we stumbled across the Mercado de San XXX, built in wrought iron in 1913 and now an incredibly popular place for local workers to have lunch. The range of fresh local produce here was quite remarkable while there were some tastes from around the world too such as from Italy and Japan. With fresh fish, charcuterie, and other produce on display, we had to walk around a good four to five times just to decide what we wanted. As we did, we narrowly gatecrashed the recording of a Spanish TV show doing a feature about the place while we were also accosted by a nice lady offering some good value wine, which she allowed us to sample before we bought a glass. Alas, with just €50 notes on us, we couldn't really buy too much (we got the wine on credit card), but the salmon and cream cheese bruschetta was particularly tasty and it was great perching by the window (it was the only free space, all the tables were full and we got moved on once by the wine lady who said we were blocking us) and looking out on the world with glass of wine in hand.
The unfortunate thing is that due to the lack of food, the glass of wine went straight to our heads, so we decided to stop off at a tapas place opposite the Cathedral, which was going to be our next stop. Here we got a nice platter of meats and cheeses on bread, 12 different ones to share and two beers all for €17. There were some the same so we could have one of these each, but we did have to rearrange some of the others so we both got to try everything. It was here that I learned about the pathetically small Article 50 notification bill and Jeremy Corbyn's three-line whip on it, none of which surprised me as it was all so sadly predictable.
The next stop was the Cathedral, quite a modern affair, having been consecrated n 1993 by the Pope John Paul II, whose statue stands outside. It has a Neo-Gothic interior albeit one with a modern twist, with chapels in a contemporary style. The stained glass windows were particularly striking, and some were in a modernist more jagged design not too dissimilar to the pop art movement. Aside from this, it does look and feel like an older church, with the only giveaway amongst the towering columns and arches being the shininess of the stone used in the construction. The roof and friezes are particularly striking, in resplendant bright colours again showing their youth, but it is the impressive vault with its 16th-century image of the Virgen de la Almudena which is the definite highlight. To reach this, we had to go around the corner of the church and underneath, which was different to the usual staircase inside affair that has been the case for the churches we have visited in the past.
The Almudena Cathedral is right next door to the grand Royal Palace, which was unfortunately closed for five days, four of which coinciding with our trip. There was a line of people waiting outside the ticket office for some reason but it never opened, meaning that we only got to look at this marvelous building through the wraught iron gates. Started in 1734 and opened in 1755, the Palace is not too dissimilar to Buckingham Palace, although it is not used by the King as a residence, just as a place for state ceremonies. The golden clock was probably the most striking aspect of the building while behind us we got to see the wonderous view of the dual bell towers of the Cathedral towering above us. This view was far better than that through the wooden fence which bordered the edge of the square separating the Palace and the Cathedral, which threatened a breathtaking view but only really gave us a tree poking out of a grey patio. There were a few slit-like holes cut into the wood and we thought we would get a fabulous vista, but in the end it was only concrete slabs.
The good view came later on, when we went to the park surrouding the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egptian temple that looks a little bit like a 1960s housing estate sculpture. Sounded by a rather antiseptic pool, this temple was rebuilt in Madrid after being dismantled near Aswan in 1968 when the Aswan Dam threatened its preservation. Indeed, at the time, a plea was issued to save the monument and the Egyptian government donated the monument to the Spanish after their help in saving the Abu Simbel temples. The reassembled gateways have been placed in a different order than when originally erected and it was opened to the public in 1972. The initial construction was started in the 2nd century BC, with later kings adding to the complex. The park itself is high on a hill overlooking the Palace, thus affording a very good view of it, along with the valley below. This is a good place to go traffic watching, particularly as the park was quite quiet due to it being a rather bitterly and surprisingly cold January day. While we walked over here, we saw a street performer dressed as a llama or something. She beckoned me over and when I put a euro in her hat, she started moving her neck wildly and snapping her jaws in a delighted way. It was quite a pleasure to watch, and definitely worth the donation. On our way to the Temple of Debod, we also had a brief walk around the modest English country garden style gardens of the Palace, which were set deep below the actual building itself.
Another park we visited was across the road - the Plaza de Espana, which sits in front of two of the tallest buildings in Madrid. Here stands a rather impressive statue of Cervantes, which was built between 1925 and 1930. The main tower part of the monument largely consists of a stone sculpture of Cervantes overlooking bronze sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horseback, with two representations of his true loves next to it, Aldonza Lorenzo and Dulcinea del Toboso. The fountain also acts as a water feature meaning once you climb on to it, you cannot get all the way around, which was a little irritating. Aside from this, the park is rather modest, with little else to recommend it.
By this time our feet were aching and Wolfie needed a drink so we stopped at a McDonald's due to the lack of anywhere else quick. With a Coke slurped and a rather peppery Quarter Pounder with Cheese nommed, we headed back down Grand Via, the city's main theatre district, admiring the grandiose architecture as we went before heading to the Fabrica Maravillas, one of the local microbreweries and one of the most highly rated. Alas it wasn't slated to open until 6pm and it was only 5:35pm so we had to wait a while. Not fancying just hanging around, we headed towards Irreale, the other craft beer bar recommended to us in a blog post I had discovered. On our way, we noticed a traditional Spanish pub with a Brewdog and Kernal Brewing sign outside but we opted not to go in as we can try these beers anywhere in the U.K. Literally next door to this establishment there was an off license, and the beers near the front door grabbed my attention so I dragged Wolfie in. The lady behind the till was very accommodating and even showed us the secret beer den downstairs where there was one gentlemen sat drawing on paper, with laptop open, enjoying a bottle. The lady was alone in the shop so couldn't accompany us, while it turned out the gentleman was from Gothenburg and had an extensive beer knowledge. We chatted about booze for a while, telling him of our great trip to his home city in late 2015. Indeed, we told him about a range of bars he hadn't heard of before, largely due to not living there for over ten years. He also recommended another bar to us - The Stoych Cafe - along with some beer bottles to take home, which we did when we called back later in the evening. All of this meant we had three bars to try and we started with Irreale, the one furthest away, and also because Stoych wasn't open when we went past.
There were fourteen beers in Irreale, five from Spain, and with a tasting tray of four each, we asked the nice lady behind the bar to choose the best ones. In the end, she gave us the fifth one on the house, while it was interesting to note the number of British beers on offer, including Yorkshire's own Magic Rock. The bar lady was clearly American and it turned out she knew Castleford as she once had a former boyfriend from the region. She was delighted to hear we were from the region and talked with us extensively, before serving the numerous other people who had started arriving, turning the bar from a quiet place (we were the first customers) to a packed establishment by the time we left. Our next stop was Stoych, where we were in luck as there was a tap takeover of exclusively Spanish beers on. With sixteen to choose from, we randomly got guidance from a Slovak man sat near the bar, who had popped in himself to get the handful of beers he hadn't yet tried. His recommendations were excellent, particularly the chocolate vanilla one, and we did enjoy our time in this airy yet traditional with rather long bar with wooden fittings and a red tiled floor. The final stop, Fabrica Maravillas happened after our return to the off license, where the nice lady had been replaced by a hairy man. We bought four beers for the room before going to FM, with the visit largely necessary due to my weak girl bladder and my bathroom needs. It was a good stop though, with the beer freshly brewed on site and we had a nice surprise as Slovak man who we had spoken to earlier was serving behind the bar. I didn't place him initially, meaning some awkward backtracking when he asked what I thought of the beer, but he didn't seem to mind and told us a lot about the beers in his bar. They had six, and we sampled just one, concluding that we should head back to the hotel to try and catch some furs before the bar there closed at 11:30pm. It was already 9:15pm and we were a good hour away so we downed our drinks before heading out. We were going to get some more bottles but the barman had gone and we didn't want to wait, which turned out to be a blessing as we struggled in the end to drink the ones we already had. So we headed back to the hotel having had a nice amount of beer, opting to use the metro instead for convenience. We got back with an hour to spare ahead of the bar closing but there weren't many people there - just the trio from the previous night plus Ferret and Nall, who we spoke to extensively during our stay. We had missed the group trip to the supermarket earlier in the evening and in hindsight this was a mistake but at least we got to have a nice conversation with some cool people. Wolfie went to bed just before midnight while I stayed up, facilitated by bumping into a few others in the corridor of the fourth floor of the hotel as the lights had gone off. We got this sorted but through the adversity we met two Galician furs, with whom Mipsi shared an impressive basket of strawberries. Sat in the corridor, I was a little scared we were disturbing people but no one seemed to mind, so we kept chatting for a while, going to bed shortly after 2am.
Upon our arrival, the hotel had been transformed into more of a con space, with signs up indicating the directions of things and some huge vinyl images on the glass panels of the revolving door. This gave a sense of excitement as I awoke on Friday morning, missing the opening ceremony due to chronic tiredness and only registering at 1pm. As we were sponsors (and the sponsors olé exclusivity had already passed) this meant we could go straight to the Dealers Den, which was its usual collection of artists and Fursuit makers. Teal, who had been misnamed Teaf throughout the conbook, was there so I said hi, saying I would buy stuff on my return to the U.K. Mipsi's mother was desperately trying to sell me a green tail, saying it was definitely my colour, even though I'm a pink pup and have five tails already. We also popped into the rather modest Art Auction adjacent to the Dealers' Den, where there were only three pornographic entries and about thirty overall. There was a mix of good stuff and less good stuff, and there was no surprise what sold well and what didn't in the auction itself. Aside from this, with the con schedule pretty light, it was a largely chilled day although we did go to Koltas's "Your First Furry Convention" panel for a laugh, which just turned out to be exaggerated stories about WUFF and a huge drinking session as he bought beers for everybody. We walked in halfway through and he noticed Wolfie immediately, giving him a hug but not seeming to notice me, with my presence registering about thirty seconds later. We both got a free beer and we contributed by talking about WUFF, meaning that it turned into a wonderful way to meet the Irish furs, with whom we were going to spend most of the con.
The other event we did on the Friday was the snack exchange, with us bringing sherbet, licorice, Haribo and Marmite. Teal had brought some stuff too but fortunately different things so we set up a British table while the Irish brought TayTo crisps and a range of other goodies which were clearly British and not Irish such as Cadbury's chocolate. They had quite a lesaiz-faire attitude to proceedings while we laid ours out quite delicately, even sampling some stuff as we did. Meanwhile some of the other goodies were great, particularly the Spanish ones as the hotel supplied a large amount of tapas. This made me regret not bringing haggis, which I feared would be difficult to heat up, particularly when I got to try the goat stomach stuff which had exactly the grey appearance, undulating texture and strong offal taste you would expect. The most popular thing on our table was probably the Marmite, watching people's faces as they say they hate it while reaching out for more was brilliant. Trying to explain this to inquisitive Spaniards was tricky as it's such a unique thing, while at one point the only Chilean in attendance stole it and spent a good half hour walking around with it. It was good with the local breadsticks and at least he did give us some local chili dips to try. Meanwhile the food kept on coming - flan and cake from Spain along with a range of other food such as marshmallow while there was also a wide range of meats and cheese on crunchy bread. It was here that we got to speak to the Irish furs and learn more about the community there, done over a packet of cheese and onion TayTo crisps. I remarked that the mascot on the front looked like Mr Benn, tweeting this later only to get a response from the real Mr Benn talking about letting himself go. It was very well-played and caused great hilarity as we sat around one of the large tables drinking and chatting. Wolfie had gone to bed and the karaoke was in full swing, with a number of furs doing their best to murder good songs with Uncle Tom by David Bowie particularly bad. As everything was running late for some reason (the lack of events overrunning surely made this impossible), the disco didn't really happen and in the end I ended up in Alexander's room drinking blue vodka stuff and chilling with the Irish furs. It was a great way to end a great evening but the lethargy soon caught up with me and with an early Fursuit walk the next day, I felt 4am was late enough for me. Apparently the party went on until after six.
Our tiredness meant we didn't get up for breakfast, like we didn't throughout our entire trip, but we had bought some bread, cheese and meat (and more beer) at a local supermarket the day before so it didn't really matter. I managed to grab a sandwich before groggily clambering into my fursuit, getting downstairs just before noon and in time for the walk. It was a rather short affair, going around the hotel largely, including two flights of stairs so we could walk through the desolate tent that was later to become the gaming area. At least when we walked up the perspex stairs in fursuit, we didn't get static shocks, while the walk around the Dealers' Den was particularly good. The fursuiter guiding the parade largely spoke in Spanish though, which made it a little difficult for us non-native speakers. Saturday was also Open House Day, where members of the public could officially come along and join in the fun, so there were a number of children around along with some anime cosplayers. They quite enjoyed the parade of around fifty fursuiters or so, and in the end we wandered outside around the hotel, congregating in a concrete area out back where the group photo was to take place. It was here, then later inside the fursuit lounge, where I hooked up with the six Irish fursuiters, who wanted a group photo of their community at Furrnion. I was also invited to take individual pictures of my own, which was rather fun, while in the interim we just talked, with Shirodragon, a blue female dragon fursuiter the one I spoke to most, along with GerMANShep, who seemed to be the lead organiser of the group. After this, I wandered around the hotel for a bit before desuiting around two hours later, culminating what was to be my only time in fursuit due to my chroncally bad stomach which was like evisceration throughout the entirety of the con. I do regret the lack of suiting, particularly because my fursuit got a lot of positive feedback, but I simply struggled with the pain.
After showering and chilling, we wanted to grab some food, but were accosted on our way down by GerMANShep who was about to conduct a panel on the Irish language. This started quite late due to technical issues but soon there were about twenty of us in the main panel room learning about the three key words in Irish (man, water and dog) along with other gems such as 'please may I go to the bathroom'. GerMANShep insisted that after his not particularly intensive course we would be able to speak more Irish than 80% of Irish people, while the Irish themselves in the crowd were just chipping in and generally taking the piss. It descended into something farcical quite early on, and in the end saw us introducing Father Ted and Balamory to the handful of bemused Spaniards who had also wanted to learn Irish. While all this was going on, Swifty was buying jug after jug of sangria largely to appease the two greedy fursuiters up front, one being Talon and the other being a lady I only know as Daddy's Cummies girl as she kept talking about Daddy's Cummies throughout the con (whatever that means). After about 45 minutes of fun and general pointlessness, we disgorged, smiling at the farcical nature of the talk and at this point we headed to get food. We walked towards the McDonald's, in the opposite direction to the supermarket we had visited the day before, hoping for something better than fast food but the tapas bar didn't serve substantial meals and the pub next door had no bugger in it. So McDonald's it was, but it was quite a find as we had the Signature Menu range which was basically a posh burger served on a thin wooden tray, with the fries in a little bucket. We had to use the touchpad self service machines to order, which was confusing as once you had paid, a little card was deposited and it wasn't clear what you had to do with it until we were told it was a little GPS tracker and we should sit down. We both got the Smokehouse burger, which was pretty nice, but nowhere near as good as the perfection that is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Still, food was food and at least we had eaten.
The rest of the evening was a mixture of chilling in the room and drinking in the bar, although I struggled to get into it due to my stomach and lethargy. I was trying to limit drinking so I opted to go into the art auction, where I ended up bidding on a small €10 piece, largely out of sympathy as no-one else was putting their hand up. To be fair, it was quite a nice souvenir piece, and it certainly didn't deserve to go unclaimed. Quite a large number of items did, with Swifty, who had had a lot of sangria by this point, feeling really sad that some of the items weren't selling at all, urging me to place more bids (while interestingly not putting any bids in of his own). He, along with GerMANShep and a few others, was waiting for a Little Red Riding Wolf image to come up, which had been labelled as not for sale in the art auction but figured it may be as it actually was there. In the end it wasn't, with many of the final items going unclaimed as they were the rather fantastic door decorations and signage and the like, which was far too bulky for the majority of us to take back. The auction lasted about an hour, with the dual language situation making it a rather disjointed experience, before tipped back into the bar for some more drink. Alas, by this stage I just wanted to head to bed, which was upsetting as I had tried to remain reasonably sober so I could fursuit at the disco. In the end, it wasn't to be, as Wolfie and I shared the final few craft beers alone in our room with the thump of the disco music tantilisingly playing down below. It was frustrating not being there, but I simply couldn't hack it, which meant it was a rather disappointing end to the convention for me.
I had arranged to meet my work colleagues on the Thursday, but as it turned out, one of them had flu meaning we had to rearrange our meeting to the Sunday. This meant that I had to get up quite early, not only to meet them for lunch but also to pick up the artwork I had bought at 11am. This I did before joining the Irish furs for a brief five minute discussion about Donald Trump's immigration policy, with the need to pack and check out of the room meaning I had to cut this conversation short. At 12 noon, we headed down to the lobby, with us dropping our bags behind the reception as our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 9:35pm. We then rejoined the Irish furs for a few minutes before I had to catch the train into town, leaving Wolfie to spend some time in the hotel before meeting me in the city centre later that afternoon. I was in luck as there was a train pulling into the station as soon as I arrived, meaning I got to Atocha with half an hour to spare, enabling me to see the beautiful architecture of the Prado Museum, the Plaza Canovas del Castillo fountain and the stunning white neo-classical building on Plaza de Cibeles upon which there hung a 'Refugees Welcome' banner. This is the Cybele Palace (City Hall). Walking through the January drizzle to see this was far more preferable than taking the Metro, so I am glad I did it, and it was just as well as I arrived at my destination, the closed down market on Fuencarral bang on time. One of my colleagues was there to meet me and he took me to a nearby tapas restaurant, Lateral, where we bought a drink and waited for the other two to arrive. This didn't take long and soon we had an enjoyable meal over which we talked about a range of things. The food was delicious, with the lentil soup, the bacon croquettes, the brie and chicken bruschetta and the cream cheese wrapped in salmon being particular highlights. For dessert we grabbed a melon compote with four spoons before heading over to a cafe-cum-burger bar where we had a gin and tonic to round off the afternoon.
The meeting lasted three and a half hours before the trio needed to head off, leaving me with not enough time to get back to La Serna. Wolfie thought I was meeting him back at the hotel so he was not happy, although I did take my rucksack in case of this eventuality so I am not sure why he was so surprised. Anyway, apparently most of the furs had taken a siesta and he was sat on his own, which is why he was a little down, so I told him to get to Atocha station early so we could head to the airport promptly. This is what he did, with me meeting him at the station about forty-five minutes later (once he had rang me to confirm the Spanish on the ticket machine for him). It was just as well really as getting to the airport required a change at Atocha and with no Metro Line 8 running, it being closed for renovation for three months from Thursday (so it was fine the day we arrived), we had to get the bus service from Terminal 4 where the train dropped us off, to Terminal 1 where we needed to be, which ended up being a good ten minutes' drive away. We chekced in smoothly and ended up having a lot of time in the terminal, so we grabbed a steak from the Urban Grill concession and followed the news, watching in interest as the number signing a UK Parliament petition on Trump's state visit kept going up and up and up quite swiftly. This gave me some hope about the future of the UK, meaning boarding our plane and heading back wasn't quite the chore it usually is, although the ridiculous customs queue did dent my hope, particularly as we saw a war of words between two sets of dickheads started because one guy was wearing his sunglasses in the terminal building. With the persistent drizzle that so symbolises Britain descending over Manchester, along with a very late trip back to Leeds which didn't see us get home until 1am, it's fair to say I have had better homecomings but at least we had some good memories of the con, even if it wasn't everything I had hoped it would be.
Wednesday 14 December
Defago had to work on the Wednesday, but told me that we could meet late afternoon. This meant I had most of the morning free to explore the rest of Vientiane, deciding to start the day at around 10am with a trip to Patouxai, a rather triumphant arch at the northern end of Lane Xang Avenue. Looking a little like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Lane Xang is very much the Champs-Elyssees of Vientiane, dating back to a time when the French colonials were here, building the city. Indeed walking north along this street as I did, you can see a number of old colonial style buildings, while on the eastern side of the road there are a few temples and markets, which I will come back to later. Having not had any breakfast, I stopped off at the local convenience store M Mart, only to discover that the only sandwich of interest they had was pulled pork that looked quite like cavity wall insulation. Consequently, I just grabbed some crisps and went on my way, with the large brown concrete arch coming closer and closer into view. It definitely looks a little like the Arc de Triomphe although the masonry at the top is definitely more of an Asian style with its trio of turrets. In the base of the arch, there are four columns inside which vendors sell a range of goods, from tat to food and drink. The ceiling is adorned with reliefs of Hindu deities - Rahu eating the Sun, Indra, Brahma and Vishnu, adorned in gold on a rather pleasant sky blue hue. Up close, the structure does have an element of being unfinished, but the climb to the top for a nominal fee does afford excellent panoramic views of the city and so was definitely worth doing. One of the reasons why it appears unfinished may be because the Communists chipped away at some of the Hindu iconography that was symbolic to the former royal family, with the name changed to Patouxai (VIctory Gate) at this time. The original monument was built in the late 1950s and is quite a good use of space. You climb up a dingy spiral staircase, the only light coming from ciruclar portals with images of gods carved into them, which usefully block most of the light from coming through. Halfway up, there is a huge hall dedicated to market stalls, with vendors selling a baffling array of tourist tat before you get to the top, with its 360-degree views of the city. There are four small stupas up here and a central complex, which again contains more tourist stalls and a final spiral staircase right to the top. There was a small school party of children up here when I went, making conditions somewhat cramped, and to take a photograph I had to put my bottle of water down. Due to the lack of space, I accidentally knocked it off the staircase and onto the floor below. It landed with a heavy thud, with a shocked security guard somewhat unhappy by the disturbance of the solitude. Fortunately, I wasn't in trouble but I did fear it for a while. This allowed me to take in the views with greater ease, and it was fascinating looking out at this rather compact city from all angles, seeing it sprawl a little to the north but stop dead at the river to the south, beyond which there lies Thailand. I also got to see the Presidential Palace, which is on the soutern side of Lane Xang Avenue. This was the best view I could get really as the palace is closed to visitors, while there is a huge gray metal barrier erected across the front gate, assumedly because they are repairing it. This meant that this vista was probably the best I was going to get of the building, built in the French Beaux Arts-style by the former colonial power. Today it's used for government ceremonies.
After this, I headed back down Lane Xang Avenue on its eastern flank, darting further east when I saw an interesting golden portal adorned with naga dragons with a Buddha sat atop with a striking red background that took my fancy. There is much gold in Vientiane due to the Buddhist temples and it glistens profoundly in the tropical sun. It turned out I was heading towards Wat That Foun near the UN compound, with the diplomats using the temple grounds as a car park. There was a range of impressive structures here, largely whitewashed walls with stunning golden roofs with intricate carved detail. I also saw two temples being built here, with the concrete shells before they were painted on display. This was fascinating as it was a glimpse at how these wonderful buildings are constructed. Furthermore, outside one of the more impressive temples, there was a frieze on either side of the entrance, one detailing the benefactors who had contributed to the construction of the temple and the other detailing the temple itself. It looked old, but it had actually been built between 2010 and 2013 at a cost of just over £200,000. This altered my perception somewhat, as many of the temple constructs look like they had been there for centuries, but clearly the vast majority of them had been relatively recent. It was a testament to just how important religion is in Laos, like we had seen in Georgia the month previously with the number of churches they were building. I ambled my way around here for half an hour, enjoying the solitude of the grounds as there were very few people about, before leaving out of another entrance, turning right and rejoining Lane Xang Avenue further down. My next stop was just a short walk away, the indoor morning market of Talat Sao, which was set back behind the main road, slightly shrouded by more modern developments. The market had a strong 1960s concrete feel about it, and there were many vendors there selling a wide range of things, from pens (one of the brands had a logo which was a horse's head coverted into a pen, which was freaky) to flat screen TVs and everything in between. The market was on two levels, but very few shops were open on the top floor, with rows upon rows of jewelry sellers in particular shuttered down. It was a good market though from the point of view that I was never pestered, meaning I could bimble along at my own pace taking in the sights and sounds. It was moderately busy, but not overly so, although I didn't stay too long as I didn't want to get lost in the labrynthine nooks and crannies of the place. Interestingly, to get out, I had to duck under a large metal pipe which was placed near the entrance, but duck I did, emerging into the bright sunlight which took some getting used to, due to the lack of windows or anything inside.
The next stop was the charmingly neat Wat Sisaket, built in 1818 and completed ten years later. Destroyed by "the foreigner" as the entrance signed proclaimed and rebuilt in 1935, it's a charming square containing a small temple on its southern side. Around the periphery of the square there is a covered walkway in which there are many identical stone statues of Buddha. In the walls themselves, there are little arched nooks within which contain more statues, while there were also a few other wooden items on display such as the hang hod, which was used for water blessings, it being a long trough carved in the shape of nagas. There was also a stele there, which details the construction of Wat Sisaket (which was then called Wat Satasahatsarama) while there was also a stone carving of a horoscope on the date construction began, Thursday 4 March 1819. While I was walking around, I noticed a couple getting some professional photographs taken. They were both dressed in seemingly traditional garb, with the gentleman having a sword and the lady in a dark blue and gold kimono-type dress. I am not sure whether they had just got married, or whether they were starring in a show or something, but I thought the courteous thing to do would be to get out of their way. I think it was here where I popped into the temple and noticed one of the monks teaching a couple of students, so I bobbed out pretty quietly and headed over to the aforementioned Presidential Palace, sneaking a view of the pastel green building as I best I could before heading to the museum of Haw Pha Kaew next door. Haw Pha Kaew used to be the king's personal Buddhist temple, dating from the mid-sixteenth century. However, it was destroyed by the sacking of Vientiane in 1828 and rebuilt by the French. It now houses the modest museum of art and antiquities, an ragtag collection of largely Buddhist artefacts which have no labels in any language other than Lao, making it all rather confusing. With no guide either, it was very much a case of looking at some random objects with very little context. The exterior of the building is arguably its strongest feature, with the gold leaf on red background particularly striking. The wooden doors and windows were ornately carved and the level of craftsmanship was exemplary. It was quite peaceful walking around the pagoda, shoes off of course, but the splendour of the exterior wasn't really matched by the inside which was rather drab. The temple is named after the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew), which was one of the most scaared icons in the country. Pilfered by the Siamese in 1779, it currently resides in Bangkok and I am not sure whether or not I have seen it there. The bronze Buddhas are probably the most impressive sight in the museum even if some of the inlay decorating their eyes and navals has been removed while the Buddha in the beckoning rain position with its jewel-encrusted naval was one of the most priceless arefacts there. Dominating the room was the wooden naga throne, which was highly decorated and once was a pedestal for an image of the Buddha while an elaborate candleholder was also present and dominating this rather small box-like space. To be honest, I got around it in twenty minutes and so left pretty swiftly, stopping to catch the bronze statues of a kowtowing boy and girl on the lawn outside.
With the time approaching 1:30pm and thus around the time Defago said he would be free, I had just enough time to walk along the river to Chao Anouvong Park. It was quite desolate, with only a couple of people skating, meaning I got the perfect view of a rather impressive fountain containing a number of naga dragons around a central larger dragon. The dragons around the exterior were all staring at the narly dragon in the middle, who had quite a gob on and looked somewhat scary. Behind this, looking out towards the river and Thailand beyond was the statue of Chao Anouvong who led the Laotian Rebellion against the Siamese and was the last king of the country from 1805 to 1829. With sword in one hand, his arm points out towards the Thais in a symbol of defiance while it is also interesting to note that he was the king who completed the construction of the previously mentioned Wat Sisakat. Along the base of the statue there were rows of donkey and elephant statuettes, placed there by various devotees one presumes although I am not sure of the purpose. There was also a man sleeping by the base of the statue and he looked up at me, nodded and thenwent back to his slumber. There was little else in the park aside from a trio of attractive Spanish tourists, who spent a little time at the statue before heading into the city centre. I followed them, walking back to my hotel via Nam Thou Place, with the fountain now switched on and looking quite resplendent. I grabbed a small sandwich from M-Point Mart along the way before heading back to the hotel to have a flop on the bed.
It turned out Defago was somewhat delayed, meaning I managed to have a quick snooze before heading back out into the city and around the corner to the Lao National Museum. I only had about an hour, which wasn't really enough to get around it, resulting in me having to rush the last four rooms only to discover I had been locked in and I had to find the nice attendant to let me out. It is rather dusty, with a drab Victorian feel to it, along with the feel of it being obviously state sponsored. Set in the former maison of the French resident superieur, the museum details the history of Laos from the neolithic period to the present day. There is quite a teleological feel to it, with everything culminating in the "inevitable victory" of 1975, with the final rooms dedicated to the perfect state and the perfect national character, which was fascinating in itself. The language used to describe foreigners, particularly the French, was quite strong while the Thais and Burmese were labelled "fedualists". The Japanese and Americans were also given a thrashing, with black and white photographs detailing the horrors of World War II and the overspill from the Vietnam War. Many of these incidents were depicted in paintings on tapestry, with the scenes clearly embellished for political purpose. In one section there were black and white photographs of "National Heroes" but there were no explanations so I couldn't find out what they did. The bronze frog-drum was the definite highlight of the museum, dating from ancient times and being one of the first things you come to, while the Khmer sculpture of Ganesh was another exhibit which stuck in the memory. The transcription on wood of a traditional Lao folk song was also of interest, particularly due to my love of language, while the collection of golden Buddhas locked in a wrought iron cage were not dissimilar to those I had seen earlier in the day. Anyway, I had to skate through this quite quickly and another fifteen minutes or so would have been preferable, but it was worth the trip and I was glad I had made the call.
I went back to the hotel again at this point, to discovere that Defago would soon be on his way. We met at around 5pm, just before sunset, and headed out to the west of the city where some riverside restaurants were. It was quite busy down here and in the fading light, we opted to grab a beer and go down to the beach to try and catch the sun falling. Unfortunately, it was already quite dark by this point so there wasn't an awful lot we could see, although seeing the lights of the restaurant terraces above us and those in the distance of another nightlife area was certainly fascinating. There were only a handful of people on the beach so it was rather quiet, although it was interesting that as we were going down, the vast majority of people were coming the other way. Once it had got fully dark, it was quite disorientating and we thought it best to get back onto the shoreline and have a wander. We stumbled across one of the night markets along the promenade, with a number of identical red tents snaking their way along the pavement, with the vendors inside selling a range of goods. The market was quite popular and we had to push through the crowds on occasion, although usually there was enough space for a gentle stroll. The market sold a range of things but primarily clothing, although I did manage to pick up a number of souvenirs including a little pink squirrel keychain for about £3 and some delicately created paper pop-up cards of some of Laos's key tourist sights. While walking, we also stumbled across a little fairground game, where you had to throw three darts at a wall of yellow balloons. The aim of the game was to pop three balloons with three darts, which sounded easy but it was easier said than done, even from a nominal distance of about 3m away. More often than not I burst two balloons rather than three, meaning I didn't get a prize, although it was great fun participating for a while.
The rest of the evening was made up of eating and drinking. Our first bar was Chokdee Cafe, the only Belgian beer bar in Viantiane and very popular with the small ex-pat community in the city. Indeed, the vast majority of people there were not local, but I was surprised by the sheer range of beers they had available, both on tap and particularly in bottle. Many of these bottles were displayed in the entrance where ghekos were crawling all over them, looking all sweet like ghekos usually do. We grabbed a meat platter here along with the beer and chatted a while, just drinking in the charming atmosphere and the warm night air. We then headed back to the car, stopping off at a little sweet stall that Defago knew well. Here they served a range of fruit-flavoured jellies in bowls of coconut milk. The jellies were made from a range of different fruits and were displayed similar to an ice cream trough you would get in an ice cream parlour in Europe. Most of the fruits were unidentifiable to me, so I asked Defago to pick out three for me to sample. Served with ice, which added a crunchiness to the creaminess of the milk and the smoothness of the jelly, the dish surprisingly worked and I would be lying if I said I didn't fancy more.
After this, we got back to the truck and headed to a burger bar that Defago knew. Burgers aren't particularly popular in Laos, and we occupied only one of the two occupied tables here, but the burger was exemplary. It was here that I got to meet one of Defago's colleagues, a Danish guy who had lived in the country off-and-on for about fifteen years. He was really nice and soon we were headed over to the last stop of the evening, Wind West, where there was drinks aplenty and live music from some very talented musicians. You could request any song you wanted and they would play it for you as part of their mammoth two-hour set, and there was a range of Laotian and English songs. The ambience was fantastic and the acoustics really amplified the music, although the price of the beer was rather steep. I made something of a faux-pas as I accidentally spat my beer out at the Danish guy when Defago made me laugh, resulting in embarrassed apologies from me. He left soon after and I hope I didn't offend him, while Defago and I stayed for another beer before slipping out shortly before 11pm. He drove me back to the hotel, where I grabbed a final beer from the hotel bar before heading back to the room after another long but wonderful day.
Tuesday 13 December
I flew into the capital of Laos, Vientiane, with Defago, a local fur I had met at FURUM and with whom I had arranged to travel during my five-day stay in his country. Unfortunately, the only cheap flight meant having to get up at 3:15am, a time not aided by the fact that Kuala Lumpur Airport is so far away from the city. Defago had booked a taxi for me the night before, which was just as well as everywhere was desolate, with the only life coming from the hotel reception staff. I checked out and fortunately didn't have to wait too long until my ride showed up. The rain was pretty heavy but the traffic on the motorway was light as we rushed towards the airport. In all honesty, I probably should have booked the taxi half an hour earlier as we were cutting it fine, but fortunately we got there with some time to spare, and after a rather pleasant conversation too. Defago was quite easy to spot at the airport and once we had done the customs and check-in thing, we had a quick bite to eat at Burger King before boarding our plane.
The flight was largely uneventful, but as we had booked at different times, we were sat in different places. The advantage of this was that I could get some sleep, even if I was wedged into my middle seat by a rather large Chinese gentleman. Upon disembarking at the other end, I had to join the queue for a visa, for which I had to pay the princely sum of $35 in crisp bills. Fortunately I knew this in advance and had some. The visa system was rather efficient, although there was time to speak to a rather charming 50-something American who was doing some teaching in the northern hilly region of the country and a batshit crazy German spiritualist who kept lamenting about how "sorry she was they were losing us" in reference to the Brexit vote. I had travelled halfway around the world partly to get away from this and the number of times it cropped up was amazing, but I managed to express my ire and lament myself, wishing that I had moved to Germany six years ago when I had the opportunity. Anyway, now wasn't the time for regrets.
Defago met me on the other side of customs and we had soon collected our bags. We met his brother, who had brought a rather large pick-up truck, inside the airport terminal and after introductions, we emerged into a wonderfully sunny morning as we made our way to the car. The drive into the city centre was quite short, around fifteen minutes, meaning I was soon outside my hotel, the Day Inn on Pangkham Road. This bright and airy place was quite cheap but unfortunately I arrived at around 9:30am meaning it was far too early for check-in. Defago had headed off, arranging to meet me in the early afternoon and thus giving me a few hours to kill. The hotel were kind enough to let me leave my luggage at the front desk, freeing me to have a wander around this rather compact little city for a couple of hours. It was a nice day after all and I didn't really have much else to do. I could have gone on one of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks or jumbos, but I tend not to trust these things when abroad, and the city was so small that walking it was pretty straightforward. Consequently, I turned right and headed towards the river, ignoring the pleas from the various drivers to hop on board.
My first stop was Nam Phou Place, which is effectively the heart of the city, marked by a large fountain. It wasn't operational the first time I was there, but later in the day when I walked past it again, it had come to life. There was a range of eateries and bars around the fountain, of varying quality in all honesty, as well as the Ibis Hotel which I didn't even realise they had. This wasn't my main interest though as I wanted to walk around some of the wats, remembering some of the fantastic temples I had visited on my trip to Bangkok seven-and-a-half years earlier. I visited a good number that morning - Wat Mixai, Wat Hai Sok, Wat Ong Teu, Wat Chanthabouli and Wat Inpeng from memory - and each one had similarities but also subtle differences. Most of the wats weren't temples but complexes containing a range of buildings, some of which being important religious buildings. The sim is usually the grandest structure, adorned in gold and beautiful paints, although it was interesting to see in some complexes that buildings were being constructed and that they were mostly made out of concrete. You would have thought they would have used a better material, but the bright colours and breathtaking artistry puts our use of concrete (see Coventry as an example) to shame. A number of the complexes contained separate towers, no less ornate, with a bell or gong while there were also more functional buildings which were used for teaching. Inside Wat Mixai there was even a girls' school, with a number of girls of around ten years of age running around playing. It was interesting to observe that each student had their own unique identification number sewn into their uniform (white shirt, blue dress) above the right chest pocket, which I guess is a part of the state-run system they have there. Unfortunately for me, the naga dragon, a long snake-like serpent is a very strong feature of Laotian Buddhism and so there were dragons adorning most of the stairways up into the buildings. In some places, there was rather scary statues of three or five-headed dragons which really freaked me out, while in a couple of complexes I got to see the gravestones of some of the local families, which are golden pillarboxes standing near the walls. As is common, I had to take my shoes off to go inside the temple, but I was often unsure where I could or could not go. Not wanting to offend, I only went into places where there already shoes planted outside and where no teachings were taking place. This didn't work all the time, but the monks I saw were all very kind, just walking around the temples in their orange robes largely oblivious to my presence. The same was the case for the surprisingly large number of European tourists, a good chunk of which were elderly men with younger local women, but there was a healthy backpacker contingent too.
Walking from wat to wat was a pleasant way to spend the morning, and there was a large number of beautiful trees and plants in full bloom. Defago had recommended a cafe, the Cafe Perisian, as a place to get a coffee but I was too interested in the sights to bother with that. The temperature was a relatively comfortable 28C with little humidity, while the city had adopted a pleasant charm which didn't make it feel much like a capital at all. Indeed, the centre is really only centered on around six streets in a largely gridiron system so navigation was straightforward, and by the time I headed back to the hotel just before lunch, I had seen a good chunk of Vientaine already. Upon arriving back at the hotel, my room was ready, so I checked in and headed upstairs, with a porter showing me the way. The room was bright and airy, with a nice view out onto the road and the rather classy looking restaurant beyond it, and upon discovering that Defago was running ever so slightly late, I flopped on my bed and had a quick snooze. I awoke about twenty minutes later, discovering that Defago was on his way, and soon I was back in the pick-up truck and being driven to a popular lunchtime eatery near his work out in the suburbs. Call Pho Zap, it specialises in Laotian cuisine and I had a pleasant local version of pho which was far less spicy than its Vietnamese equivalent. There was a dark paste on the table which accompanied it, rather strong tasting and bit like rotten farts, so I didn't eat much of this concoction. Defago was quite a fan though and lapped it up. With my meal, I got a bottle of the ubiquitous Beerlao, one of the country's main exports and a beer you can get pretty much anywhere. In the UK, you can get the basic variety but in Laos there were a number of other fizzy lagers they produce including the smoother Beerlao Gold, which was largely my beer of choice throughout the trip. It did make a nice accompaniment to the meal and after it, once we had managed to sort out a lack of water in the workings of the pick-up truck, we headed out of town and past the Beerlao factory on our way to the Buddha Park.
The Buddha Park is around 25km out of Vientaine and the further you go from the capital, the worse the road gets. Indeed, it becomes very potholed very quickly, which is quite a surprise as it leads to one of Laos's major tourist attractions. On the way, we called off at a little spa/hotel resort which had clearly seen better days. It was set by the Mekong River which forms the border between Laos and Thailand, and indeed you could see Thailand on the other bank. A major destination itself around fifteen years ago, it has slowly drifted into decay, with the naga dragon fountains and sculptures set in the woodland looking a little forlorn (if not slightly terrifying). Speaking of terrifying, there were two rather aggressive-looking ostriches in a cage behind some Lao writing, assumedly meaning don't feed the bastards, while there was also a charming Mad Max aviary containing peacocks and a paltry selection of other birds. In this small complex, which was just to the side of the hotel area, there were statues commemorating Laotian myths and Buddhist allegorical stories, but Defago's knowledge on this wasn't particularly strong and so he couldn't really tell me much about them. There was also a concrete stage, rather sad and disused now but with masonry which reflected a grander time, before we stumbled across a truly bizarre collection of dinosaur sculptures which were somewhat out of place. There was also a couple of huts, examples of traditional Laotian housing, but as we couldn't get into them, we couldn't really see much.
The weird sculptures kept on coming at Xieng Khuan, the local name for the Buddha Park, as there was a collection of baby dinosaurs set at the front gate. Set in parkland adjacent to the river, the Buddha Park is effectively a collection of ferro-concrete sculptures which have no real business being together. There are a large number of Buddhas, including a reclining one which is 25m in length, while our friend the naga dragon made a number of appearances too along with every conceivable deity in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Created by Luang Pou Bounlena Soulilat in the late 1950s, a man who claimed to be the disciple of a cave-dwelling hermit from Vietnam, it is quite a mess of a place but fun to walk around for an hour. There was no guidebook so I was largely looking at a range of concrete sculptures with no real context, but the madman behind the perimeter fencing who was playing his flute for donations added a nice ambience to everything, although he was quite scary once we started talking to him. It was a shame the Park didn't employ him full-time really as he did add a pleasant feel to the place. Anyway, the highlight of the Park for me was the giant pumpkin/alien spacecraft structure with a dead tree sprouting on top of it, which greets you to the right as you enter the complex. You enter the structure through the gaping mouth of time and you can explore representations of the "three planes of existence", hell in its belly, earth halfway up and heaven at the top, which leads out to a ledge upon which you can see the entire Park and the river beyond. We met a nice American guy here, who was worried about fitting down the spiral staircases contained within, but upon noticing that he and I were "of similar size" he was happier with it. Most of the interior was quite dark as there were only small windows in the structure, and this made the hell section full of sculptures of tortured souls somewhat disturbing. Still, this was probably my favourite bit in this labrynthine turnip largely because it was where the most was happening.
After the trip, we headed back to town, calling off at a roadside cafe to pick up some delicious sugar cane juice in a green plastic bag with plenty of shaved ice. It's a common way of serving it here. We also picked up a spicy local salad and some grilled meatballs and sausage in an unctuous sweet sauce. Sat by the river, looking over to Thailand and eating street food with a friend was one of those seminal moments in my life, very similar to the Georgian experience I had had a month previously. I felt very lucky to be there and it was an excellent snack, while I even got phone reception from Thailand, making sending text messages three times cheaper (so I sent a message to my mother). The lady serving us the food was very friendly, so we prolonged our stay somewhat, before we headed to the duty free shop at the Friendship Bridge, one of only three border crossings into Thailand from Laos. It was very much a standard duty free place, but we did spot some local rum in handy 75ml bottles, so we bought one traditional and one coconut flavoured one to try later in the week. After this detour, we stopped off further down the road to take in the huge operation that is the Beerlao Brewery. It employs many people and we could see a number of lorries delivering freight to and from the factory, while Defago was telling me that it was quite common for trucks to line up down the road waiting to be filled with beer to be exported all around the country. As I have mentioned previously, the ubiquity of Beerlao was quite surprising as most restaurants stock it, while the company even do standardized yellow signs for the bars which offer the beer, the only difference being the name and details of the bar, which is written in red writing. We stood outside for a few minutes before making our way back to the hotel, calling off at the odd pyramid stupa That Dam which was situated on a roundabout in the middle of the road parallel to where my hotel was. It is an inverted bell shape, like an unopened lotus flower, and is called the Black Stupa, with legend saying it was once covered in gold and guarded by a seven-headed dragon. The tale says the gold was taken in the 1820s during the Siam-Laotian War although others say it went in 1828 during the sacking of Vientiane. Due to this, it's quite a forlorn and unloved structure, sitting unkempt in the middle of the road. This gives it an odd atmosphere as there are a number of good restaurants around it, along with a wine shop. It is still regarded as the city's guardian spirit too.
I was dropped off back at the hotel after this, needing a shower and a rest before our planned evening out. Craft beer isn't a huge thing in Laos but there are one or two places, and knowing I am a fan, Defago drove me slightly out of town (again towards the Beerlao Factory) to Core Beer Brewhouse, a microbrewery specialising in their own brews. They only really had an IPA and a Witbier but both were very pleasant, although I doubted their full commitment to craft due to the huge neon Heineken sign above the bar. And of course Beerlao was there too. We grabbed some food here - a miscellany of sausages, rice and salad - as we sat in the corner and enjoyed the live band and then the rock music which was being played. Unfortunately, they ended up playing a whole album by the same band which was far less diverse than Defago's excellent playlist which had accompanied us in the pick-up truck as we drove around (seriously, he got me into the new Green Day album through this - I bought it when I got home) and after a long day and an early start, we soon left, getting back to the hotel by 10pm. From memory, I think we were going to be joined by one of Defago's friends, but he couldn't make it, which precipitated our early departure, but judging by how tired we were, this was probably for the best. It was good to end it here as we had another long day in the morning, suffice to say that it had been a very good first day in Laos.
It's been quite a busy week of socialising really, with an event on Tuesday and a further one this evening.
Tuesday we headed over to York to see Oracle. He usually heads over to Leeds but we had kept meaning to try the new BrewDog bar in the Minster city so we decided to head over there for a change. We arrived about half an hour earlier than we had expected, meaning we had to spend a bit of time killing time eating pork pies at the railway station but Oracle turned up just before 7pm and we ambled over to Micklegate to get some food. We went to Jinnah, a curry place I had frequented a few times and one with a great diversity of cuisine. I tried a spicy version of a korma along with a luscious garlic naan and while my curry lacked quite a lot of meat and the large vine leaves got in the way somewhat, it was still quite delicious. After this, we headed over to BrewDog, a cosy but rather large bar with a range of 14 beers on tap. The names are hung up on clipboards which was rather a nice touch, and upon arrival we were greeted by two of our barmen friends from Leeds, what with the York crew being off on their belated Christmas party. We grabbed a sample tray - in this case containing three out of four BrewDog beers, a rarity as we had never tried them - and chatted in one of the corners, being put off slightly by a smoochy couple who were snogging every five minutes on the table next to us. This soon started to grate and I kept saying 'Phil Collins' in an annoying voice in an attempt to put them off, but alas to no avail. After Theresa May's devastating Brexit speech on Tuesday, and the turmoil that this now presents for me personally and professionally, it was good getting out for a few hours and it was certainly calming catching up with a good friend.
Today was Adia's birthday so we joined her and Soma, as well as Taneli, at Stockdales steak restaurant in Leeds city centre. The last time we had gone here was my birthday in 2015, 14 months ago, and we had the same waiter again, someone we both recognized upon being shown to our seats. This time I had the wagyu sirloin steak with dripping chips and gravy, along with a shared bottle of excellent Italian red, and it was delectable, if slightly expensive. Still, you get what you pay for, and it was certainly worth it, but the cheeseboard afterwards was the real highlight with a range of seven local cheeses and artisinal crackers. The waiter gave us a free glass of wine once we had finished our bottle and we ordered another one after that such was it's cherry and blackcurrent fruitiness, while it was a fundamentally delicious meal with great company. Last time I went, I was a little drunk so it was great experiencing it in pure sobriety and although it was sad that everyone left early, after three quarters of a bottle of wine, it was probably for the best. We tried to go to Ham and Friends, the new wine bar run by the Friends of Ham people but for some reason it was closed, even though I had seen people in there before and we were told it would be a December opening. Anyway, one for next time, so we just headed home, getting back to the house before 10pm after a great evening. The only other thing to note was my brief trip to Shuffledog beforehand to write Adia's card, which included one of the finest poems I have ever written. Perhaps she will tell you one day.
Thursday saw Funky Fox come around, largely in an attempt to resume our anime nights. I have been woeful at watching anime of late and really should get back into it, which was one motivation for having him around. We saw two in the end - Hunter x Hunter and Poco's Udon World - two animes with very different plots but with a similar style of warm humour that I quite like.
Saturday was largely spent with Arcais Panda, who we picked up just before lunchtime. The plan had been to drive to Yorkshire Sculpture Park but Wolfie's iPhone took us a weird and wonderful way out of Bradford meaning we were pushed for time what with the early dusk. Arc wanted to take us to The Oil Can Cafe in nearby Holmfirth, home of Last of the Summer Wine, and having had nothing to eat, we decided to call in. The place is an old shed and is full of classic cars and motorbikes, while the theme is vintage 1940s with little wooden shops selling habidachery and Union Flag bunting laid everywhere. Attached to the hoists of the ceilings were rows upon rows of bicycles while the popular little cafe at one end served a range of British staples. Arc recommended the hot roast beef sandwich with gravy and chunky chips, and it certainly didn't disappoint, particularly with a splash of mustard. Service was perhaps a little slow but it was a pleasant place to while away an hour, with the range of automotive paraphenalia on the walls of considerable interest.
After our food, we had a wander around the classic cars parked up, spying some interesting black animal sculptures made out of oil drums and the like. We also had a look at the workshop area which was sadly quite bereft of cars, with things coming into full force during the summer months no doubt. After this, we decided to walk into town, which was about fifteen minutes away along the riverbank. It was quite a pleasant walk, with the weather gloomy but not overly cold, although there were some icy and muddy patches in places. As we went, we talked about something and nothing until we reached the town, which had a surprising diversity of bars and restaurants. I really wanted to go to one, but Arc and Wolfie but their feet down, although we did get to go to the Longley Farm ice cream shop, a company whose yoghurts I remember eating as a kid with my school dinners. Here I grabbed a mint choc chip and a white chocolate ice cream, which was incredibly delicious and a nice snack to eat as we walked back to the car. Where we had parked, it was just outside one of Arc's friend's houses so she popped in for a chat, after she had fed some ducks crumbs from her ice cream cone. We weren't outside her friend's house for long though as we needed to head back as the plan was to call at a supermarket to pick up some food before having a vegan feast back at home.
Arc is having a vegan month and offered to cook some food for us, which turned out to be fried halloumi wraps with aubergine raita and lettuce, served with lime and coriander cous cous and baked crunchy chickpeas. The raita gave the wraps a little caustic taste which I didn't particular enjoy, while I didn't even realise you could bake chickpeas, which was a new taste sensation for us. The food was lovely, which we had picked up at ASDA, where Draken had met us and while we were eating, we watched a few episodes of Don't Tell The Bride, playing our usual bingo game to see if we could predict what happens in this rather formulaic show. It was great being sat around chilling with friends and a nice relaxant after another week of stress, and once we cracked the gins out, things got better and better. Arc and Draken have started dabbling in mixology and got a gin spice accompaniment for Christmas to go along with their extensive gin selections. We tried three gins in the end, with different spices and tonics added to each depending on the flavours of the gin. I am really getting into gin, so much so that I downloaded the Ginto app to keep a track of all the ones I had tried, and it was definitely a rather sophisticated yet communal way to spend the evening. After this, we chilled upstairs, demonstrating a few bits and pieces in the attic and taking some photo memories of the day.
Sunday was a largely quite day as Arc and Draken hadn't left until about 1:30am. This meant I surfaced quite late and we pottered around the house a little before heading down to the Brew-endell Beer Festival at the Brundell Social Club in LS6. This was the fifth annual edition of this small festival but the first time we had ever been. I knew about it last year, but we were in Preston for Sterling's birthday so we couldn't go. We were in two minds as to whether this would be any good, but free entry meant it was worth a shot and we rocked up at about 6:30pm after being rather unfortunate with buses. It was very much a social club, with a main bar and two additional bars opposite serving the festival. There were about 32 keg beers and a further 20 craft style ones, but the menu suggested an element of rotation as over 100 were listed. As we were there in the final hours, entry was free but it did mean less choice, although there were easily enough beers here that we hadn't had before, particularly from Scotland and the rest of the world. Interestingly, they had a few unique local brews as well as a couple which are rarely seen outside of the United States, so we did enjoy a good five or six over the course of the evening. Usually, they have a good range of craft just behind the bar, making it the best social club I had ever been to, while they also had Pieminister pies, which were excellent with the drinks we were having. It was a very delightful evening, even if Wolfie did spend a lot of it on his phone, and while we had a bit of a weird argument at the end on the subject of what is or is not sexual, it was a good night indeed. It's just a shame the social club is a good twenty minute walk from our bus stop, in one of the suburbs. Still, the beer festival is a very good additon to our schedule and we will aim to come back next year, even if our heads feel a little delicate today.
Taking a brief break from writing about my SE Asia trip to talk about last Friday night, which saw us go down to Sheffield to say goodbye to Ferdy, who is moving to New Zealand for a year.
We headed down to the Iron City after work, opting to book a hotel as we didn't know what time festivities would finish. There was a plan to visit a Turkish restaurant but with proceedings starting at 6:30pm and us having no hope of getting there by then, we realised that if the meal was prolonged, we would have little time to see everyone before having to head back on the train. This turned out to be a very good decision as in the end we were out until 2am, pretty much leaving when the clubs closed. Also, with Wolfie and I being delayed by work, we didn't get down to Sheffield until nearing 8pm so staying overnight was definitely a good option. We drove down for convenience so decided to stay at the Sheffield Metropolitan Hotel, a funky little place that was very cheap, probably owing to the fact it was the first Friday after New Year. We were upgraded to a business suite and it was very pleasurable.
With a little time to kill as everyone was finishing their meal, we headed to Pizza Hut, largely because we don't have one in Leeds anymore. I had forgotten how good their pizzas are, and with unlimited salad too, we certainly packed adequate soakage for the drinking ahead. We also got to try one of those cola dispensing machines that add a dash of fruit to the mix. These are often pretty hideous but my raspberry one was quite nice. I mentioned drinking but in the end we didn't have very much, largely because Wolfie was on call, meaning that we had to limit our intake. This also meant I kept buying low-strength beers, so we were actually pretty sober throughout.
We met everyone in BrewDog at around 9pm, with just Ferdy, Nineleaves and Kunzai being the people we knew. A lot of Ferdy's family were out plus we also got to meet her husband, who is a boisterous football fan so we hit it off quite quickly, particularly as he spent a lot of his time ribbing a Newcastle supporter who was also one of his friends. There were three beers we had yet to try in BrewDog so we sank those, while I snuck away to buy Ferdy the only New Zealand beer they were selling, a ribbed bottled beer from Tuatura. She drank it a few days later and said it was delicious. As we were drinking our final sample, people had headed over the road to The Old Inn, a more traditional beer house that was sadly playing loud boom-boom dance music. We headed over there after we had finished in BrewDog and it was a little too loud for me, with forming a conversation quite difficult. They tended to serve real ale too, which was nice enough but lacking the flavour of craft, while Nineleaves and Kunzai were clearly frustrated about the lack of being able to talk. It was also quite rammed, so after this we headed over to the newly remodelled Devonshire Cat, along the way singing 'Nigel's a cunt' to the tune of Pigbag, which may have been a little immature but somewhat cathartic.
In the Cat, we sampled a few Abbeydale beers in shock with the fact they have trendifyied the place, sticking the bar right in the middle of the room. It does seem to have less of a craft beer and more of a real ale focus, which is a shame, but then the Abbeydale brew master was in and perhaps it was just a tap takeover. With Wolfie not wanting to drink any more, I moved on to the cocktails, trying a bramble one and a creamy one containing egg white, which surprisingly worked. We also had some monkey nuts as they had no other snacks, with us leaving discarded shells all over the tables. Alas the time soon came to say goodbye as Ferdy and her husband still had a lot of packing to do ahead of their flight out on Sunday, so we said a teary farewell before they headed off, with the four of us (Wolfie, Nineleaves, Kunzai and myself) heading back to the hotel shortly afterwards for some sleep, walking as Wolfie's painful foot which had inflicted him on the way up to BrewDog had now cured itself due to the alcohol.
Saturday was largely a day of hanging around before heading back to Leeds in time for EF registration at 7pm. We nearly didn't make it due to a lorry carrying haybales on the M1 catching fire but we did get back which was something of a relief. During the day, we just potted around really, in the first instance waiting for Nineleaves and Kunzai to check out as they had thought you could leave by noon when it was actually 11am. We moved our car around from the hotel carpark to a nearby Q Park before taking a walk by the River Don as this was part of the city I had not yet seen. To be honest, there isn't much down here and we ended up in a little cafe run by a Moroccan family, who served us delicious tea and cakes. The lady behind the counter was really friendly and we noticed the rows of tagine pots on display, so we know where to come when we want a tagine in Sheffield. Nineleaves and Kunzai met us here before we walked towards the city centre to check out the Peace Gardens and the interesting museums it contains. Many of these have a Sheffield theme, with the history of metalwork one being of particular interest. The range of items sculpted out of steel was quite wonderous, from the functional such as cutlery and a dog-shaped knife to more ceremonial pieces such as a punch bowl and commemorative cups to symbolise the millennium. There was a lot of focus on the apprentices they were training in metallurgy while another exhibit detailed all of the high-tech industry that Sheffield now manufacturers, disproving all of those people who complain about Britain's lack of industry these days. High quality bespoke manufacturing is where it's at, and it was good to see this weaved into the narrative of how Sheffield developed off the back of metalworking. Another exhibit was effectively a shrine to the philanthropy of a Victorian gent but I didn't spend too long in here as I needed the toilet, spending quite a lot of time engaged there.
We were waiting for another fur to arrive from Chesterfield, who ended up being about two hours later than advertised, prompting us to get our own lunch. We initially tried Head of Steam but the BBQ meat didn't appeal, while the nearby restaurants were of a similar vein. Kunzai didn't want to walk too far so we ended up in The Graduate, a standard pub with pretty standard food. I had a mac and cheese burger, which didn't quite work as the mac and cheese was a little too bland, while I got a Fuggle Bunny ale that was far too proud to be British for comfort. While here, we had a nice chat while watching Manchester United v Reading in the FA Cup Third Round on television. After this, we met up with the other furs and ended up in Nosh, a little coffee shop where I had a white hot chocolate, which is sadly rarer to find than you would think. It was delicious but conversation was a little stilted as everyone was obsessed with Pokemon Go. Consequently, we didn't stay too long here and we made our excuses, with the remaining quartet heading for sushi and us heading home.
It was a great weekend and it was sad to see Ferdy leave, although we are hoping to visit her and her husband soon. I do hope New Zealand goes well for them and I'm looking forward to hearing about their adventures.