Category Archives: Food

The Royal Garden Party

Buckingham Palace Garden Party Invitation

This is my story of the day that I went to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen.  I first posted it in June 2009 and since then it has become my second most visited blog with almost 21,000 visits.

I have got a different following circle now so I thought it worth posting a link to the story just in case any one is interested…

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Hotel Don Juan, Benidorm 1977

Hotel Don Juan

We could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there.  Forty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Diplomatic Hotel.  It has a bigger swimming pool area and is dwarfed now by giant skyscrapers but it certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location.

The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity.  The hotel was a six storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea.  In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, TVs, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.

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Hotel Don Juan Multipic

Entrance Tickets, The Budapest Parliament Building

Budapest parliament (1)

The five of us debated entrance to the Parliament building.  Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.

The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.

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The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

Blackbird

With its status as Britain’s favourite bird secure, the Robin cannot possibly be challenged for top spot (rather like Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton) but coming second I would suggest is the sociable and friendly Blackbird.

Although the Robin is our favourite bird it has always been denied official National Bird status. Not so the Blackbird which, after a newspaper poll of readers in 1962 is honoured as the national bird of Sweden.  Although many World countries have national birds this is the only one that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.

Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel, Australia has the Emu, New Zealand the Kiwi and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Sweden Blackbird Postage Stamp

In the Middle Ages the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ousel and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in Medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

In Scotland where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian, all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

Merle is a traditional French name although not so popular now it seems and it certainly doesn’t feature in a current list of top one hundred (the most common French names are Marie for a girl and Thomas for a boy).  Famous Merles have been the actress Merle Oberon and the US country singer Merle Haggard.  One interesting piece of trivia is that there was a character in the film Godfather Part II, a lover of Connie Corleone, called Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue played the part).

Merle Johnson

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My Truelove sent to me… “Four Colly Birds etc. etc.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Colly birds, not calling birds.  So maybe we have been singing the song all wrong!  It would seem that nobody knows for sure how we got from colly bird to calling bird, but some people think it is likely to be an Americanisation of the traditional verse; Colly is an Old English term for ‘black’ from the word ‘colliery’ meaning coal mine and colly birds refer to the common blackbird.

A common view is that ‘colly bird’ was a term specific to England and that England’s former colonies dropped the word in favour of ‘blackbirds.’ In fact, ‘colly birds’ have pretty much dropped out of the English language altogether today and, in this Christmas song, it has been completely replaced by the ‘calling bird’ in the US Australia, Canada and many other former English colonies.

Postage Stamp designers seem to know about this…

Four Colly Birds

Which leaves the obvious question – why would someone send their lover four blackbirds?  Perhaps this is the answer…

“Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.”

800px-SingSong6dcaldecott

An interesting nursery ryme based on fact as it happens.  From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century blackbirds were sometimes used as a substitute meat to make a poor man’s pie. Rich people liked blackbird pie as well but with a bit of a twist. For amusement, after a pie was baked the live birds were placed under the pie crust and served at the table and when the pie was ‘opened’ the birds would escape and fly about the room for the entertainment of the guests.

To be honest I can’t help thinking that four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party!

blackbirdpie

The concept of a Blackbird in a pie remains with us even now and I can remember my Mum having one of these pie funnels when I was a boy living at home…

Berry_Pie-535x356

These days all wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 so catching them to eat is against the law. It is however permissible to eat them if they have died and fallen into the back garden but as you are likely to need a lot of Blackbirds to make a reasonably sized pie it might take a very long time to collect enough of them unless there were to be a catastrophic incident that you could get enough in one go but then I would advise caution in considering eating them if ever such a grisly event happened!

I have saved my favourite and most unlikely blackbird story until the end.

St Kevin

St Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland) is the Patron Saint of the Blackbird and according to legend this came about because one day he was praying with outstretched arms and a Blackbird landed in his hand, built a nest, laid eggs and St Glendalough sat there all the time in the same position until the eggs hatched and the birds were fledged and flew safely away.

A bit far-fetched do you think? I should say so. It takes a pair of Blackbirds about a week to build a nest, then they have to do the mating stuff, the eggs take on average fourteen days to hatch and it is then another fourteen days or so before the chicks are ready to leave. Call me a sceptic if you like but I find the story hard to believe because surely poor old St. Glendalogh would have had to have wriggled about a little bit and after six weeks or so that arm is going to be completely dead and useless. I can only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes before having to put it down!

I told you before about my Dad’s scrapbook of birds.  This was his blackbird page…

Dads Blackbird page

My Holidays in Malta, Ferry to Gozo

Gozo Ferry

In 1997 I visited Gozo for the first time.  It is a short crossing and there had hardly been time to settle down in our seats on board when the ferry began to approach the port of Mgarr and began to slide into position ready at the quay side for disembarkation.

Mgarr was thankfully a lot more attractive than Ċirkewwa and in the shelter of the walls the iconic multi-coloured fishing boats of Malta were swaying idly in the limpid water of the harbour.

We wanted to go to the capital Victoria but the bus looked crowded and so, because I knew it wasn’t very far, I foolishly allowed myself to be talked into a taxi by a persuasive cabbie.

It was immediately obvious that a short ride to Victoria was the last thing he wanted and he was looking for a much more profitable fare.  He told us an improbable tale that the capital was mostly closed today so we would be disappointed and he suggested an escorted island tour instead.  He ignored our repeated instructions and set off instead on his preferred itinerary and towards the east coast village of Xaghra where he promised windmills and Megalithic temples.

The last thing my teenage children wanted were windmills and Megalithic temples but once there he made the mistake of stopping and letting us out for a closer inspection and it was now that we took our opportunity to be rid of him and we told him that we no longer required his services, paid, what I am certain was an inflated fare, and the with a collective sigh of relief looked for a bus stop.

It didn’t take long for a grey and red bus (grey and red to distinguish Gozo buses from the Orange of Malta) with the sun glinting off of its immaculate chrome bumpers to come along and we climbed on board past the heavily decorated driver’s seat which he shared with pictures of his favourite Saints and swinging rosary beads hanging from the window blinds, paid our fare and found some vacant seats.

Gozo Malta Cannons

The centre of Victoria turned out to be rather too busy for me but the quiet backstreets were shady and quiet and we wandered around the maze of alleyways until we re-emerged back in the centre, visited the cathedral and walked the walls and ramparts of the old Citadel with its fortifications and old cannons and explored tiny side-streets until it was time to make our way back to the bus station and return to the ferry port at Mgarr for a late afternoon ferry back to Malta.

I returned to the island in 2015 and for our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped tourist buses.  I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service.  We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave for the first stop Victoria.

Victoria is the capital of Gozo.  It used to be called Rabat but in 1887 the British renamed it to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way.  A lot of people on Gozo still call the place Rabat – Good For Them!

The bus dropped us off and we made our way to the centre of the city, to St George’s Square and the Basilica of the same Saint.  As it was 23rd April there was a lot of bell ringing and celebration but the disappointment was that the square resembled a construction site as it was in the process of restoration and improvement.

We moved on from St George’s building site and made our way to the Citadel at the very top of the city which as the name suggests is a medieval fortress city in the most defensible position on the island.  This also turned out to be rather a disappointment because this was another construction site.

The Citadella is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list and it looked as though the Gozians are putting in a bit of extra effort (courtesy of EU heritage funding) to give the application a boost.

This is the Cathedral, no cannon anymore, replaced now by statues and the decoration on the facade of the building is gone which personally I thought was rather a shame.

In 2017 we took the ferry to Gozo again but when we got there we did nothing more than wander around the port town of Mgarr which is most likely something that not many people do as they clamber aboard buses and taxis and leave the place as soon as they can.  It was rather nice, we strolled around the port, explored some dusty back streets, found a friendly bar and then after only an hour or so made our way back to the ferry terminal and returned to Malta.

Gozo Victoria Rabat

My Holidays in Malta, Chocolate Cake and Carriages in Mdina

Mdina 1997 & 2017

I am fairly certain that in 1997 there was a direct bus service from Mellieha to Mdina but this is not so today so we had to compete for space on a bus to Buggiba and then wait for a transfer to our destination.

In 1997 the bus dropped us off at the main gate where there was a flotilla of horse drawn carriages called Karrozzins with pushy drivers waiting to ambush people as they stepped into the terminus and I am not sure how this happened but almost immediately we were sitting in the carriage and taking an unnecessary tour of the city and my wallet was a few Maltese Pounds lighter.  Unnecessary because it is only a small place and it is much nicer to investigate it on foot anyway which is what we did as soon as the trip was over.

Twenty years later in 2017 after a couple of tedious waits and changes and a long and circuitous route we eventually arrived and the first thing that struck me was that in twenty years there has been a lot of restoration in Mdina.  The once crumbling walls have been repaired and the untidy concrete streets of hasty post war repairs have all been repaved.  I preferred it the old way because it seems to me that the Maltese have managed to transform this wonderful place into a sort of Disney World EPCOT interpretation.

Mdina pre restoration.Mdina Malta

Most of the guide books recommend a visit to Fontanella Tea Rooms for a cake and a coffee stop so we found it and made our way to the first floor terrace.  We did this twenty years ago but now we were not surprised to find that this place had also had a very extensive makeover.

I am never very keen on wasting money on things like horse and trap rides but Molly caught me in a weak moment and having convinced myself that a 10% reduction on an advertised rate was a bargain I was persuaded to agree to reprise a ride in a Karrozzin and we had an enjoyable twenty minute clip-clop ride through the ancient city.

Mdina

Mdina is quite small and we soon found ourselves going down the same streets as just an hour or so ago so we headed for the main gate exit and returned to the bus stop.  It was ten to three and the bus was scheduled for five past.  Ten past came and went, twenty past, half past, I found an inspector who suggested that it might be stuck in traffic (bus inspector’s first excuse every time I expect) and then when one did turn up it turned its destination light off and replaced it with ‘not in service’. 

Malta now has a seriously bad bus service so we broke a golden holiday rule and took an expensive taxi ride to Mosta.  Don’t ask me how much it was because I will surely start to weep!

Fontanella

The next stop was at Mosta, for no better reason than to visit the Cathedral which was built in the nineteenth century and has a dome that is among the largest in the World – in fact (and you do have to be careful about these sort of facts of course) it is the third largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the World.  You can believe that or believe it not but the most remarkable thing about the Mosta Dome is the miracle of the unexploded bomb.

During the Second-World-War it is claimed that Malta was the most heavily bombed place in the World and on April 9th 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (two others bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than three hundred people attending early evening mass. It did not explode. Apparently it rolled down the aisle and into the street outside so it was a good job that the doors were open!

Mosta The Miracle of the Bomb

I suspect that that part of the story may not be completely accurate and has been embellished and corrupted by the passing of time but this is the way they like to tell it.  I am sceptical if only for the reason that with a bomb crashing through the roof I imagine that there would have been quite a lot of panic and congestion in the aisle as people rushed for the door.  There would have been a mad dash and a tangle of bodies that would make modern day bus stop queues look like a Royal Garden Party and the bomb would be most unlikely to get through.

One version of this event states that when a bomb disposal squad opened the device it was found to be filled with sand instead of explosives and contained a note saying “greetings from Plzeň” from the workers at Škoda Works in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia who had allegedly sabotaged its production.

A nice story but not necessarily true.

Anyway, not much has changed except that the statue outside used to be sandstone and is now graphite and the statue’s halo used to be graphite and now it is sandstone.

Mostar church

A Look Back at 2017

Beer Drinking in WroclawSpain 2017aEast Anglia 2017Ireland 2017France 2017Kim in PortugalMellieha Bay Hotel 4