Bubbly

Call it poor planning, but it wasn’t until we arrived for our weekend in the Champagne region that it occurred to me that I wasn’t really all that interested in champagne. I can happily drink a glass or two on special occasions, but I can think of things I’d rather do than spend a day tasting glass after glass of acidic fizz and listening to someone explain the difference between ‘disgorgement’ and ‘dosage’. In the town where we were staying, Épernay, there’s a street called Avenue de Champagne, and many tourists go on a sort of posh pub crawl, working their way down the avenue, stopping at every champagne producer located there for a sample or two.

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Having said that, it was interesting to visit one of the largest producers (we ended up choosing Moët & Chandon). After watching a brief video we were taken downstairs to have a look at a very small section of the largest cellars in the whole champagne region. These chilly, chalk-lined caves extend for 28 kilometres under the town and surrounding region. They contain, in total, millions of bottles; the tour guide was unable to tell me exactly how many, as bottles are constantly being added and removed, but one of these alcoves (of which you can only see the front row in these photos) contains 30-40,000 bottles. Which is pretty mind-bottling.

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The bottles in the picture above are being stored in A-frames as part of a process whereby sediment gradually collects in the neck of the bottle. The neck (only) is then frozen to -28°C so that the small amount of wine containing the sediment freezes solid and can be easily removed. But during the time the bottles are in these frames they need to be regularly turned a little and slightly shaken, to encourage the sediment to fall towards the neck. These days this is done by machine, but in order to preserve the traditional methods some of them are still shaken and turned by hand, and this process is called ‘riddling‘. This means that the job title of the person performing this function is…The Riddler. We never saw one so I don’t know if they get to wear the costume.
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We exited through the gift shop, politely declining the opportunity to spend €50 on a Dom Perignon-branded USB key (and disappointed that they had no Riddler accessories).

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It’s definitely worth going to have a look around one of these places if you’re in the area, even if you’re not that partial to the bubbly, and there are some great restaurants nearby too (that’ll be my next post).

The Twisted Beech

Below is a favourite tree of mine from Hyde Park in London. The wide, knobbly, twisted trunk reaches a certain height and then the branches all droop down towards the ground, forming a canopy. It’s great for hiding underneath.

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Last weekend we were driving through the Champagne region of France and I noticed in a tourism brochure that there was a forest of “dwarf beech” trees called “Les Faux de Verzy” just outside the town of Reims. We made a short detour on our way to Reims and spent half an hour wandering there, glad of the leafy shade on this hot, sunny day. It was possibly not the best time of year to really appreciate the structure of these trees, as illustrated by this sign:

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Barriers prevent you from getting too close, as the forest management understandably don’t want people climbing on them. But as they’re covered with foliage it’s often difficult to see much more than a leafy mound in the clearings between other, taller species.

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Fortunately some of them are close enough to the barriers and have some gaps in their branches where you can slide a small camera through to take a closer look under the canopy at the elaborate twistednesses.

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I’ve been unable to find any explanations online as to why the branches form in this way.

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Afterwards we stopped briefly in Reims cathedral. The famous rose window was covered for renovations, and the Marc Chagall window at the other end didn’t do much for me, but I was rather taken by these two pieces located over the baptismal fonts by local artist Brigitte Simon. According to the official cathedral website “Entitled L’Eau Vive, The Water of Life, the window’s blue-grey tones evoke light reflecting on a river”.

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Coral Castle

On the morning of the penultimate day of our Florida holiday I thought we might briefly drive past Coral Castle, which our guidebook noted was a quirky, kitsch little sculpture garden; the kind of curious roadside attraction to be filed alongside Carhenge. They were seriously under-selling it, as it was one of the most memorable things I saw on this trip.

It was built by a Latvian immigrant called Ed Leedskalnin in the 1920s, supposedly as a tribute to his 16 year old fiancé who’d jilted him at the altar. There are three interesting aspects to this place: what Ed built, how exactly he built it, and Ed’s personal story.

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The entire construction is made from massive blocks of oolitic limestone, which Ed quarried single-handedly out of the ground surrounding the property. Many of the pieces are not only very large, weighing several tonnes, but bear no obvious cut marks, and fit perfectly together. A couple of “gate” stones are so perfectly balanced as to be able to spin easily with the slightest push (you can see some video footage here).

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In fact it was originally built in another location, and Ed moved the whole thing, again single-handed, in order to be near a newly-constructed highway which he hoped would bring more visitors. No one ever saw Ed at work, and in fact he worked only at night so as to avoid scrutiny. When quizzed about his methods he usually gave one of two answers: “It’s easy when you know how” or “I know the secrets of the pyramids”. He used only simple tools made from scrap metal found at a nearby garage. Here’s the view of the main garden.

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Many of the pieces are of astronomical significance. There’s a sundial and a “telescope” lined up to allow viewing of the pole star.

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There are various chairs angled so as to receive maximum sunlight at different times of the day. Ed spent a lot of time sunbathing as he’d been told that it would help cure his tuberculosis.

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There are several outdoor “rooms” obviously intended for his erstwhile fiancé and their hypothetical future children, including a bedroom with baby cot (at top). He also built a “repentance corner” where naughty children (or his wife) would be made to stand with their heads through a hole in the rock while he lectured them on their failings.

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A well.

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Ed himself lived on the top floor of a small two storey tower, sleeping on a wooden board suspended by chains from the ceiling.

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The room below shows some of his work tools such as simple pulleys and metal levers.

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Over the years many theories have been elaborated as to how Ed managed all this by himself. People talk of anti-gravity, harmonic resonance and, of course:

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Others maintain that for all the seeming impossibility of the task Ed, an experienced stone mason, was simply applying well known principles of leverage. Many videos on youtube and self-published books offer detailed arguments to support their theories.

There’s a brief overview of the site and its history on wikipedia, but I also recommend the book I bought in the gift shop, which gives a fairly comprehensive account of Ed’s strange, solitary life and his unconventional ideas. In the end for me the man is as interesting as his work, which is best seen not just as an engineering puzzle but as an expression of his view of the world.

Make time to visit if you’re ever anywhere nearby.

4 things to do in Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.

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Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.

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When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.

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This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.

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Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.

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Mexico:

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Ecuador:

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Japan:

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And of course there are related movie posters.

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A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.

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Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.

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You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.

And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.

The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.

Outside the farm you can visit the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.

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In this form it almost looks appetising.

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In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:

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Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, or chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.

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You can buy small portions to take home with you. I didn’t.

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The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.

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They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:

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One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:

But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).

Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?

Water in Iceland

There’s a lot of water in Iceland and it comes in many shapes and forms. Not just the cold, hard kind implied by the country’s name.

For example, if you’re into waterfalls, you’ve come to the right place. Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle series of natural attractions just east of Reykjavik, is a pretty spectacular double waterfall.

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There’s a very flimsy rope barrier keeping those people from plummeting to their doom.

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Sometimes it’s hard to decide which are more hypnotically compelling: the gushing torrents or the veils of drifting mist.

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Along the south coast you’ll find another couple of beauties. First, Skogafoss.

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And then Seljalandsfoss, which treated us to a rainbow. And you’ve probably worked out by now that “foss” means “falls”.

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Seljalandsfoss’ USP is that you can walk around and behind the falling water.

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Well that’s all very pretty and delicate, I hear you say, but I want a big, thunderous, Monster Truck style of waterfall. Where do I go for that? You go north, I reply. You go to Dettifoss.

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Dettimoss.

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You may remember this particular cascade from the opening scene of the movie Prometheus. It’s the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of “volume discharge”.

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So that’s the falling water, but what about water that shoots up into the air? Iceland’s got that covered too. Another stop in the Golden Circle tour is Geysir, home of the original geyser. Unfortunately the original geyser no longer works, allegedly because too many tourists threw stones into it over the years, blocking it up. But fear not, because just alongside it is Strokkur, which provides a satisfyingly big, loud, hot spurt every ten minutes or so.

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But of course, it’s called Iceland for a reason. So here’s some ice.

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These are fragments of glacier which have broken off and are floating in a lagoon called Jökulsárlón. Eventually they drift out to sea to be consumed by the waves.
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Black striations are caused by volcanic ash.

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Speaking of waves, we saw some dramatic ones on the Snaefellsnes peninsula over on the west coast.

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Loads more photos here.

Life in the future

Recently I read a collection of articles by Arthur C. Clarke called The View From Serendip. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads:

I finally picked this off the shelf because some of it is about Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for me, not very much of it. It’s a random collection of articles, most of which have Clarke speculating on where technology, and specifically space exploration, will go during the last few decades of the 20th century. But his prose style is quite irritating: by turns dry and smug, with the occasional stilted attempt at humour.
Having said that, some of the predictions are remarkable. While he misses the mark on some things (he couldn’t have imagined the stalling of the space programme) he also basically predicts – in the early 1970s – the Internet, email, RSS feeds, social media and smartphones. For that alone it’s a valuable piece of history. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more about his life in and around the Indian Ocean (apart from a couple of snorkelling trips).

Yesterday I was driving the 10yo to an appointment and she put on the car radio. Some 60s-style jazz full of Hammond organ noodling came on and we listened to it for a bit. We had a conversation about how old-fashioned it was; how music has changed; whether old people (i.e. me) can like modern music too. Then she asked me what I had thought the future was going to be like when I was a child. I was stumped for a moment so I told her that I’d read and watched a lot of science fiction and that I was probably expecting things like a colony on the moon within my lifetime.

She said that she imagines flying cars will happen in the not too distant future. Then I explained about all the unexpected ways in which life has changed since I was young, and what things were like before mobile phones and the Internet.

Her final comment before we arrived at our destination was that she thought technology made people lazy, whether it be because they feel they can duck out of appointments at the last minute by sending a text, or because they don’t feel they need to learn facts or arithmetic because devices can provide the answer with a quick click or swipe.

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Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).