Sunday, October 30, 2016

#36 - Touring a Distillery

Glengoyne Distillery from the parking lot
Though I have visited several wineries (you can read about my first visit here), I've never gone to a distillery.    And, I only vaguely understood how spirits were made until I took my trip to Scotland; I now have a lot more knowledge about how whisky at least is made.

I'm sure that every distillery in Scotland has their own story.  I was told that Glengoyne calls itself the "prettiest" distillery in Scotland.  However, I found it more interesting that it is in two different whisky regions.  The actual distillery is located in the highlands district - this is where the spirit is actually made.  BUT, the storage facilities (where the aging takes place) are located across the road that marks the boundary between regions, so they are in the lowland region.  This is important more for labeling and marketing purposes (plus tariffs) than for any other reason.  In case you are wondering, the site of the production trumps other buildings, so they are a "highland" whisky producer.
The location was beautiful, a small waterfall is behind the buildings.

Since this tour was included in the daytrip that I took, we had a special small group tour through the facility that included "a wee dram" or two.  I opted for the one taste since I am such a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.  We started with the taste - which I found generous in size - of a 12 year old whisky.  This was accompanied by a short video explaining the history of this distillery.  Moving out to the back deck of the building, our guide explained how the waterfall used to be the source of water for production; however, it would not now give enough water to keep up with demand, so this water source is used as a cooling agent in the production and returned to the waterfall's pool now instead. 

We were not allowed to take photos within the production facility (due to fire risks).  We did get to see inside of each stage of the process and feel or taste if appropriate.  The tanks were huge - much larger than I expected.  At one stop, the guide suggested that we cup our hands to pull out some of the air over the product - smelling this air made it feel like there were bubbles inside of your nose.  The stills were running as we were there, so it was very hot inside.  It was cool to see through the box where the un-aged product was freely running out (a good sized stream) on its way to be put into barrels.

Looking in at two stills from outside the building
After we made it through the production stage, we crossed to an older building which had previously been used for malting (this is now done off-site).  In this area, the guide explained how the aging is affected by the type of barrel that the whisky is stored in.  There was a very interesting display that showed how the color (and amount) of whisky will change in the bottle over a 30 year time span depending on what wood the barrel was made from and what type of alcohol had previously been stored in it.  There was also a small number of casks stored in this area for display purposes (although they do contain whisky that is currently going through the aging process).  Some individuals had a second taste of whisky to end the tour to see the differences that aging brings to the final product.

This was a very interesting learning experience.  I don't generally drink hard alcohol straight, but I like to know what steps go into making a product.  Since this distillery does not use peat as part of their process, I would be interested to directly compare it to a peated product from the same region. I did buy some to bring back with me, so this may be an experiment that I try at a future date.
Each bottle is progressively one year older

Barrels of aging whisky waiting to be opened

Sunday, October 23, 2016

#43 - Museums

Peace Garden on the grounds of the Imperial War Museum
This trip found my museum focus to be primarily historical; I usually mix it up a little more.  I also seemed to spend a lot of time looking at exhibits that focused on war in one way or another - although a variety of time periods.  I was surprised to add up the number of places that I visited when I returned from vacation and realized that I had achieved this goal in one trip.

I must note that I have adopted the habit when visiting larger museums of choosing one or two galleries to focus on.  This lets me linger on all the details in those areas, but still not feel burned out by the experience of visiting that particular museum.
15" Naval guns outside of Imperial War Museum

While in London, I visited the Imperial War Museum.  I had heard that the World War I section was not to be missed and wanted to take a look.  The British experience of the first World War seems like it would be very different than the American one.  Though the Channel separates the United Kingdom from mainland Europe, the closer distances involved (compared to the U.S.) must have made the transitions between home life and the trenches abrupt indeed.  Overall, the parts of the exhibits that focused on the beginnings of the war and life on the home front seemed to reflect a disbelief (even to this day) that the war was beginning.  The walk through the reconstructed trenches (towards the end of the exhibits) gave a very good feel for how exposed (overhead) and confined (in the narrow twisting walls) the soldiers must have simultaneously felt.  A good, but sobering look at this conflict.
I felt a little uneasy about falling objects in the Imperial War Museum lobby

I left the Imperial War Museum and headed forwards in time about 25 years to the Churchill War Rooms.  I thought one of the best parts of these displays were the video monitors that gave comments of people who had worked in these areas ... some of these people - particularly the women who worked as secretaries - had not told even their families about their war work until years later.  There were some interesting anecdotes about what it was like working with Churchill who had some interesting quirks.  I actually found the rooms less interesting than the exhibits about Churchill himself.  I've seen other underground WWII installations, so I did have some ideas going in on what it would look like.  I did not, however, know how devoted Churchill was to his wife or that he had a favorite cat that would lounge on the bed with him as he did morning paperwork.  And, as a purely personal amusement ... one of the war room desks looked EXACTLY the same as the metal one that I had for many years when I started my current job.

This is a two person costume - at the V & A Museum
Having had enough of war for the moment, my next museum was the Victoria and Albert in London.  I chose the jewelry rooms and the temporary theater display to visit.  The jewelry was fascinating; I wish that photography would have been allowed in that area.  The time periods ranged from very early in human civilization to present.  One particular piece was a bodice ornament from about 1850 made of diamonds in the shape of a spray of flowers; the individual blossoms were on tiny springs so that they would bounce as the wearer moved.  I couldn't help but wonder how that affected their dance partner's concentration level.  Even jeweled presentation swords were included among the rings, necklaces, and other bits of jewelry.  The last display was a huge spiral of gemstones showing off color ranges of each.

Costume hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House - V & A Museum
 I had time to visit the theater exhibit as well.  I have a keen interest in costumes, and there were some fabulous ones on display.  The life-size rhino was so realistic that I actually wondered at first glance if it was a stuffed specimen that had been used as a prop.  Other interesting cases included scale models of famous theaters ... it was fun to notice that I had been in several ... and models of London theaters with the mock-ups for set or lighting design for particular performances.  Unfortunately, these did not photograph well through the cases.
The little white jar held kohl in an Egyptian pyramid

The day that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I had time for a brief stop at the British Museum in the morning.  One of the things that I love about this museum is that every time I have been there I have been allowed to touch real historical artifacts.  If you go, ask at the information desk if there is a specialist located in a particular area or go to the Hall of Enlightenment and look for the docent with a tray of items from different time periods.  Items on the tray this visit ranged from a hand ax that is millions of years old - perhaps even made by Neanderthals rather than early humans - to 14th century Persian tile.  Some of the items were ones that I had seen on my last visit to the British Museum; however, new to me was a tiny white stone jar that was found with Egyptian grave goods in a pyramid and held kohl (cosmetics for use in the afterlife) and a brass instruments used in the Arab deserts for navigating by the stars.  It certainly gives a personal connection to hold something that has lasted for many years and wonder about the people who made and used it.
In the British Museum

One of the museums that I had most anticipated visiting was the Fan Museum in Greenwich.  I learned during my visit that the collection (and the museum itself) was primarily the work of one woman who had donated her collection to start the museum.  Unfortunately, I felt that this meant that there was less variety in the fan styles than I had hoped.  I really love the brise style of fans (where the folding fan is made only of the support sticks) which are generally carved, but there were only a few examples on display.  The majority of the collection seemed to consist of folding fans with a painted panel (made from paper, kidskin, etc.) attached to support sticks.  There were a bare minimum of other styles (like non-folding fans) included.  The time period represented by the collection also seemed fairly focused in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  So, not quite what I had hoped for, but I still did learn a fair amount about fans - terminology and how they are made.

The Cutty Sark
As a counter-balance, my next stop in Greenwich - the Cutty Sark - was much more interesting than I had expected.  This ship had been a working tea clipper and has now been refurbished and placed into permanent dry dock.  After touring through the ship, I have a great respect for the men who spent several months in the tight quarters as it made its way from port to port.  Seeing the tiny area where 20 or more seamen slept and kept their belongings and realizing that it was about the same size as a handicapped bathroom stall made me very grateful for my own home.  Even the master's cabin had a bed much smaller than I would even want to nap on.  It must have been an advantage to be a small person if you were a seaman.  Below the hull of the ship was a collection of figureheads from ships; the variety was amazing.  I had not realized how small some of the carvings were; I always pictured a rather large figurehead or just a plain spar at the front of these vessels.

On the deck of the Cutty Sark

Officer's dining room of Cutty Sark - drinks went in the wooden hangers

The master's room on the Cutty Sark

Rigging ropes on the Cutty Sark

Collection of ship figureheads located under the Cutty Sark
 After my visit to the Cutty Sark, I climbed the hill to the Royal Observatory.  It seemed almost obligatory to take a photo standing at the Prime Meridan.  The view from the top was worth the climb, but I disappointed myself by missing the drop of the time ball by about half an hour. I had not realized until I started going through the exhibits that this was actually a residence as well as a workplace for the Royal Astronomers for many years.
View from the Royal Observatory
Standing over the Prime Meridan

Unique sundial - the point between the shadow of the dolphins' tails points to the time

I also visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  However, it was my fourth museum of the day, so I was losing energy at that point.  I was impressed by the number of original paintings that were incorporated into the displays that I visited.  This is unusual in my experience to see a museum with such a mix of paintings and artifacts to tell the story of the past.  I was also pleased to see as I entered the museum that one of the sculptures that I had previously seen on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalger Square has found a permanent - and appropriate - home at this location since it depicts a giant ship in a bottle.

This officer's story was the centerpiece of the Royal Dragoon Guard Museum at Edinburgh Castle
While in Edinburgh Castle, I visited both the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard and the Museum of the Royal Scot and the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  I think these would have been more interesting to me if I had a better knowledge of British history since I recognized only a few of the names.  There were some thrilling stories though.  In particular, the tale of Ensign Ewart capturing the French eagle standard at the battle of Waterloo.  I was amazed at how detailed the description was ... every sword thrust and slash was described.  I was even inspired to look this individual up after I returned home since the exhibit did not say what happened to him in later life.  Sadly, I could not find much other than that he lived to the age of 77 and was sort of a shy fellow.
A favorite art piece at the National Museum of Scotland
The last museum I visited was the National Museum of Scotland.  This is sort of a curious blend of museums - science, children's, natural history, historical, etc. - I went through most of the displays on the lower floors which included stuffed animals, historical fashion exhibits, a huge artistic clock that played music and moved on the hour, stories of famous individuals, and a great hall that had science concepts with hands on displays.  I loved the science part; it was very engaging even for adults and definitely drew the kids.  However, I had really gone hoping to find out more about Scottish history.  I did find this wing and started with the oldest time period at the lowest level.  There were some great objects, but I found the layout of the displays puzzling since there was no clear route to follow either ideas or a chronological progress.  So, some great stuff, but I'm sure that I missed a lot of it since I ran out of energy after three floors (went through prehistory to mid 1700s).
Part of a choir stall at the National Museum of Scotland - I loved the differences in the carvings

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#6 - The second part of my latest vacation - Scotland

Busker on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
As much as I love London, I also wanted my most recent vacation to include a new area to discover as well.  Edinburgh seemed like a perfect addition since it was easy to reach by train and a city with an easily walkable center.  I stayed right on the Royal Mile - the main street in Old Town - so the places I wanted to go were only a short walk.

I very much enjoyed Scotland and hope to go back again.  I spent a fair amount of time wandering about and just enjoying the sites and atmosphere.  Though the main tourist season is during August, there were still street performers out and most attractions had not yet switched to their winter hours.
Steampunk display in a shop window off the Royal Mile

One of my evenings was dedicated to taking a ghost walking tour ... this was interesting.  We went into the vaults below South Bridge and walked about by candlelight as the guide described some of the hauntings reported in each room.  More eerie to me than the ghost stories was thinking of the people who actually LIVED in those spaces two hundred years ago.  I'm not claustrophobic, but the idea of spending most of my day in such a tiny space with no natural light or ventilation or plumbing (aside from the chamberpot in the corner) sounds hellish!  There were several stops above ground as well, and the group ended in the Canongate Kirkyard ... i.e. one of the city's old cemeteries.  Spotting some of the famous graves was interesting - particularly those that had protection of one sort or another against grave robbers.  This was also the location where the guide told us the most gruesome tale of the evening - that of the son of the Earl of Drumlanrig who roasted and ate a kitchen boy.  Ironically, the time in the kirkyard was the only time it really rained during my trips - perhaps the spirits were trying to tell us something?

Lang Stairs - the original way to enter Edinburgh Castle
 One of the places that I truly took my time exploring was Edinburgh Castle.  I was a bit surprised that there were so many people visiting this attraction right away in the morning since it was the off season ... perhaps because every guidebook and website that I saw said to go early in the day to avoid the crowds ... though the number of people seemed to taper off after the 1 pm firing of the gun.

Stained glass in St. Margaret's Chapel
I did get the audio tour which helped me keep the buildings straight as I was making my way through.  I found some of the oldest parts of the castle to be the most charming.  St. Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building still standing (though the stained glass is a more recent addition) and though it looked fairly bleak from the exterior, the inside was quite charming with the small alter area and stained glass brightening the benches where the royal family would have contemplated or listened to the service.   It was also interesting that the origin of some of the names around the castle have been lost ... Foog's Gate for instance.

View out of one of Edinburgh Castle's gun holes
Certainly you have to admire the tenacity of the Scots for building on top of an ancient volcano.  The views from the walls are incredible; invaders would have certainly been spotted early.  Also, the stonework of the castle built directly onto the rock outcroppings must have been quite a task.  Of course, being on top of a large, stony hill means that the winds are a bit brisk when walking about the castle.  The day was not particularly poor weather-wise, but I certainly could imagine (and feel pity for) the poor guards who had to be out in snow or driving rains when on duty.

View down from the walls of Edinburgh Castle
Foog's Gate - you can see how the castle is built directly on the volcanic rock
 The day that I visited Edinburgh Castle there were World War I reenactors on the scene as part of the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  They were doing different things throughout the day, so I made my way back several times to see the initial recruitment as well as a basic drill and the piper play.  You could also see what a basic soldier kit looked like and hear an explanation of how each piece was used.
Visions of WWI
Another favorite area of the castle was the Great Hall with its display of arms and armor.  You can barely see in the photo below as it is blocked by the lights, but to the right and above the fireplace on the far wall is a barred window where the king could peek out at his courtiers to see who was attending (and perhaps chatting/plotting with each other) before he entered the hall.
Arms display in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle

I could just imagine courtiers plotting in this little window seat in the Great Hall
The dog cemetery at Edinburgh Castle
Aside from Edinburgh Castle (and museums which I will discuss in a forthcoming post), my Scottish trip included a day tour that gave me a taste of the Scottish countryside and the highlands.  I used the tour company Heart of Scotland with their "wee red bus" and had a great experience.  The day included a visit to Stirling Castle, driving through the Trossachs region, Loch Lomond, lunch in the village of Aberfoyle, and a visit to a distillery (which will also get its own post).  Our group also got a special surprise in the form of a brief stop at Castle Doune - which you may recognize as Winterfell in Game of Thrones OR Castle Leoch in Outlander OR all of the castles in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!  I also feel like I have a better grasp of the timeline of events in Scottish history and how they are connected thanks to our guide - Niall - who provided some great stories about the areas that we visited during the day.
Stirling Castle with highland cattle in the foreground

The Wallace Monument seen from Stirling Castle

Queen Anne's Garden at Stirling Castle

How skilled of an archer would you need to be to shoot THROUGH the tower?

Interior of a guard tower at Stirling Castle

North Gate - this is the oldest section of Stirling Castle

Fascinating gargoyles at Stirling Castle

Recreated unicorn tapestry at Stirling Castle

A secluded garden near the Royal Chapel at Stirling Castle

Looking down at the Nether Bailey from an older section of Stirling Castle

Doune Castle

Meeting a "hairy coo"

Victorian summer home seen across Loch Ard

View of Loch Lomond with the highlands in the distance

Another view from Loch Lomond
On the recommendation of my hotel clerk, I took my breakfast up Calton Hill in Edinburgh one morning.  The views were spectacular - both of the scenery and, as the hilltop started to get a bit more crowded, the lengths that people were taking to get the perfect selfie!  This hill has an odd assortment of architecture - including a partially completed copy of the Parthenon from Greece - and history that made it a great place to contemplate my trip to that point.
A startling site ... which country am I in?

Looking down Princes Street from Calton Hill

The view of Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill

The stone cairn marks the encampment of Robert the Bruce on Calton Hill

Edinburgh Castle seen from Calton Hill
Perhaps the least Scot-centric thing that I did in Edinburgh was to visit a cat cafe.  I was missing my kitty and thought I'd see if I could get a little feline love ... alas, the cats were, understandably, stand-offish and mostly interested in visiting humans as a source of dropped (or stolen) cake.  It was still fun to see some breeds of cats that I hadn't previously seen in real life - particularly to pet the Sphynx (who I didn't get a photo of) after she was finished being a cake stealing ninja.

I had a wonderful time in Scotland.  Here's a few more photos from my rambles there ...
The Balmoral Hotel - the one Harry Potter related thing that I saw

The Scott Memorial

Princes Street Gardens - this was a large stinky lake until a couple hundred years ago

More window shopping ... this time it led me into the store

Edinburgh Castle viewed from Grassmarket

I saw the most beautiful rainbow on the train leaving Scotland ... just barely managed to get out my camera and capture part of it before it disappeared completely behind the train!