Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Sorry it’s been quite a while since I updated, thanks to the usual routine of just too busy to do anything. I’ve finally found a corner of sort-of-free time to write the last in my current cycle tourism series. We got up for the last morning of riding, fortified ourselves with a hefty hotel breakfast (giant omelette filled with strange assorted canned vegetables), then consulted the maps to decide on the best route back to Krakow. There was a small problem, though: only one of us had a map with sufficient detail to show all the roads on our desired route: taking roads as small as possible to avoid the main highways wherever we could (Not to say we were traveling without maps. Everyone had a map that showed highways both major and minor). The owner of the detailed map was, of course, your narrator (the Dunce is not above over-planning his activities, perhaps to a fault). Anyway, our plan was to stick together fairly closely, so that we’d all manage to make the correct turns at the correct moments. Not a problem; the previous day’s ride gave us a pretty good idea that we’d overestimated the amount of climbing we’d have to do (therefore making it easier to stick together: climbing sections are where groups separate quite quickly).
After the previous evening’s ride into Nowy Sacz (along a very busy highway) it was incredibly gratifying that getting out of town was much easier: immediately after crossing a bridge at the edge of the old town, we suddenly found ourselves on a quiet suburban two-lane road which quickly became quite rural (I guess Nowy Sacz style urban sprawl only happens in certain directions). And then the first climb commenced. Contrary to our expectations there were a number of climbs, the first of which led almost immediately to a separation of the group into three or four subgroups (each containing one or two riders). I, holder of the map, was unfortunately not in the lead group, and a combination of this with some badly lacking (i.e. absent) road signage led us to miss our first turn and continue for some distance on a more major road than any of us would have preferred. It was still only a minor highway but had quite a bit of traffic. This caused a bit of upheaval among the more athletically-inclined members (member) of our group who preferred to be in charge of both leading and route planning rather than leaving it to someone somewhere behind him on the road. A transfer of the map was effected about this time. We continued onward, the group splitting once again, and foolishly some of the rearguard decided to take a brief(?) stop to check out another wooden church. Unfortunately this did not bode well for the newly-appointed map-holder who had suddenly become very concerned about the possibility of reaching Krakow before dark, and issued a command that none of us should stop at churches, and further that we should follow the most direct route to Krakow. This may have been an entirely reasonable fear given the unexpected amount of climbing, and the inaccurate measure of distance on our first day riding. However, it may also have been related to the newly-appointed map-holder’s failure to realize the extent of the change in map scale (going from 1:500,000 to 1:200,000) and thus overestimating the distance remaining by 100% or more. Or something; in any event any sensible reader should find it quite obvious that I'm exaggerating the degree of conflict for narrative effect (perhaps highly ineffectively).
I might mention here that despite some degree of mental anguish (on the part of the newly appointed map holder, that we might not make it to Krakow before dark, and that some of us were lollygagging to an unacceptable degree. On the part of others, that the newly appointed map holder had gone power-mad for no apparent reason, and that we should lollygag more just out of spite), the scenery was still quite nice. Well-off farming communities for the most part along pretty river valleys, and on up into the hills.
I might be giving a sort of grumbling tone, but it was actually quite fine as we were making good time (especially for those whose scale of the map was somewhat distorted). However, the quality of the road surface was gradually deteriorating, and suddenly we found ourselves at the junction of a major highway leading to Krakow (and the only road that appeared on my map that went anywhere near where we wanted to go). Not only a major highway but a narrow, two lane highway with no shoulder and loads of fast-moving traffic. Mere moments (not even minutes!) after joining this road, three out of four of us were run off the road by a passing bus which not only failed to give us any room whatsoever, but would have run us over had we not taken to the (highly undesirable) ditch. As we had no other choice (and only 4km or so before we reached the next town), we tightened the straps on our helmets and took off at the highest pace we could manage, keeping an eye on the shoulder and intentionally ducking off instead of being hit or crushed. As soon as we hit the outskirts of town we took to the sidewalks, then flopped down in a small park by the intersection of the two busiest, most dangerous small highways any of us had ever seen. None of us wanted to ride on such a road ever again, yet the only slightly direct route to Krakow was on that nasty road we'd just left (which no doubt only got worse as Krakow approached). Fortunately we figured out that we were quite close to Krakow: maybe 20km. So a much less direct route would still get us there in plenty of time (as it was still the very early hours of afternoon. Just seemed like evening. We planned to take the two long sides of a right triangle instead of its hypotenuse, and given that the two sides were approximately equal in length we could have had a pretty good estimate of distance, had any of us been capable of rational thought at that point. The riding was a little less interesting: terrain had flattened out and just about everything reminded me of northern Indiana (guess that's why a lot of Poles ended up there).
At least there weren't any buses or big trucks trying to wipe us out, but this last part of the ride was becoming a bit tedious. Flat and fairly dull, and without promise of much more (from the hills we had seen that everything flattened out most of the way to Krakow). So instead we headed straight north, planning to intersect a railway line with a general plan to take a train west to Krakow central station (thus avoiding the very undesirable concept of riding west into the major built-up and industrial areas of Krakow, right about rush hour and with the sun right in our eyes (and in the eyes of the assassins behind the wheels of buses and trucks). Before long, there it was, a train station (or at least two platforms with people idly waiting for the next train). Some 45 minutes later (30 minutes late) the train for Krakow arrived, signaling the end of our bike ride. The journey was not complete, however, as we, our bicycles and our filth crowded into two entry/exit compartments for the ride. Scheming looking young men soon joined us in the compartments, looking very suspiciously at us and our bikes. I thought surely we were about to be robbed or something, and I wasn't pleased at all when one of them forced one of the doors open while the train was still moving (his companion watching down the train for authorities). I held onto the bike (as if using it for balance) and made mental plans about what I would do if (a) I were thrown off the train, (b) my bike was thrown off the train, (c) I and my bike were thrown off the train, (d) various other criminal activities upon my person and/or belongings. Turns out they were just sneaking into the entry/exit compartment to smoke. Reality 1, paranoia 0. (Or so "They" would like you to think. Anyway, we made it to the station, and to the hotel without further incident.
Distance ridden for the day: a not-so pleasant 52.9 miles
Time on the bikes for the day: 5:00 (moving time)
Moving average: 10.6mph
Maximum speed: 35.0mph.
Today's altitude profile was unexpectedly peaky though nowhere near as nasty as that first day:
Total distance for the trip came out at 266 miles, total riding time 23 hours and 36 minutes.
The last night in Krakow was uneventful; we were too tired to do much of anything. Dismantling and packing the bicycles, then showers and an ordinary meal at a fast-foodish Georgian restaurant, then straight to bed with no shenanigans of any kind. And the trip back home was entirely ordinary (and home was a very very good place to be).
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
With four snoring gentlemen in one small room, it's no real surprise that we were up quite early. Our quality accommodation offered no breakfast (although it did have a somewhat rundown kitchen, which might have been useful if we'd have bothered to buy any foodstuffs besides Snickers bars and beer). No problem, we'd just find a restaurant in the town centre. Well, after walking into several different establishments, we were sorely disappointed: we were looking for something a little more substantial than coffee or beer (half of the customers were having coffee for breakfast, the other half pints of beer). Eventually we found ourselves at a sandwich shop, very much a Slovakian equivalent of Subway (I might note here that in our entire time in Slovakia we didn't see any of the ubiquitous American chains: no Subway, KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, nor any of your familiar large retailers). I had a big-ol sandwich with an odd mix of the non-meaty things on offer: boiled egg, mushrooms, cheese, pickled peppers, cabbage/slaw, onions, tomato, mustard. We sat there, gobbling our sandwiches and wondering what happened to the concept of breakfast in Bardejov.
Our original misconception was that today's ride might be the most difficult of them all, but our more informed reinspection of the maps gave a much more pleasant impression: hilly but not mountainous. We set off north from Bardejov toward the Polish border. Or we would have, except that P. discovered one of the bolts on his rack had worked itself loose and disappeared. Fortunately there was a bike shop on the main square, and they gave him a suitable replacement bolt (for free!). And then we actually did set off. Once again the weather was perfect for riding; slightly chilly, sunny, with a light breeze. Hazy/misty off in the distance but which had dissipated by the time we reached it. Roads were quite empty, apart from the occasional Mercedes (unusual compared to the rest of the traffic we'd seen in Slovakia). The last Slovakian town we passed was Becherov, the only place that had a Cyrillic sign:
The early part of the ride was a 6-mile climb (250m) up to the border crossing; here's a shot of a couple of us getting ready to attack the steepest part of it:
Although both countries are part of the EU the crossing is quite a serious one. High fences, gates, numerous guards with guns, motorbikes, jeeps and so on. And very quiet in terms of traffic: only a couple of cars passed through while we loitered on the Slovakian side (spending our SKK at the border shop, which unfortunately offered only chocolate and alcohol). Our passports were closely inspected, but none of us did anything rash or silly and we were permitted to pass. The road surface was very nice and we cruised downhill for the next 12 miles or so (passed several times by border patrol people on the aforementioned motorbikes and jeeps). The countryside was quite scenic: nice rolling hills and fairly prosperous-looking farms.
We climbed another long uphill section, and discovered to our general displeasure that its downhill counterpart contained some of the worst road surfaces we'd faced so far: not so many large potholes but innumerable small holes, broken surfaces and all the other properties that make a speedy descent a truly bone-jarring process. Not only bone-jarring but bicycle-jarring as well: all of MJ's chainring bolts had become slightly loose (fortunately these are easily tightened). Far worse, we discovered that P's rear cassette had jiggled itself extremely loose. As we didn't have the exact tool designed to tighten it, we would be stopping every five miles or so to tighten it back down as best we could. One more climb and then it was downhill the rest of the way to Nowy Sacz. It's fairly big (pop. ~80,000) and we found ourselves riding along a quite busy highway to the city centre. There we stumbled across a very nice hotel just off the main square, the Panorama (overlooking the river valley):
The rooms were good, the staff were very helpful, and there was even a quite secure sort of cellar area where we could stash the bicycles. MJ and P set off to find a cycle shop where P's cassette could be properly tightened (after a small wild goose chase they did find a workshop, where all it took was a good turn with a long-handled cassette wrench), and HH and I went on a less difficult mission (finding a nice outdoor cafe where we could have a coffee and a beer and some snacks). Nowy Sacz seems to have some interesting sights but we were much more inclined to sit and relax. Once the "cassette mission" had been completed, we took a bit of a wander, stopping for a couple of Zywiec Porters at a very lovely art deco jazz bar.
Dinner was at a very nice (although deserted) basement restaurant ("Restauracja Kupiecka") specializing in traditional Polish food. The cassette-mission boys went for the "most traditional/typical" option, pork in a prune sauce with buckwheat grits. They weren't a fan of this dish at all. However both HH and I had extremely delicious food: mine was trout in a creamy sauce, HH's was a venison dish, rated as perhaps the best food on the trip. And then it was time for a short wander round the square before returning to the hotel. Some of us had to stop and pose for a picture with the Pope sculpture:
MJ (front), Pope (rear)
Distance ridden for the day: a very pleasant 50.9 miles
Time on the bikes for the day: 4:15 (moving time)
Moving average: 11.9mph
Maximum speed: 37.7mph.
It was a gradual-up-and-down day:
Total distance for the ride so far: 212.8 miles, and only one more day of riding left.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
After the previous evenings' carnage, getting up in the morning was quite difficult. Fortunately there was a nice breakfast (with great coffee), and a reasonably short and easy ride ahead of us. Having figured out that our reading of the area's topography was dead wrong (except knowing for certain that there was one substantial climb, of unknown height, noted as 12% grade on the map), we were fairly pleased to note that the day's ride to Bardejov would be relatively short and easy. Our original plan was to do the entire distance from Stary Smokovec to Bardejov in one day, but we decided that Bardejov (preserved medieval city, UNESCO World Heritage site, etc.) should remain the day's destination. Here's a view from just out of Stara Lubovna, looking east towards Bardejov:
And another of the many roadside shrines along the way:
Although we were on a fairly major road, there was very little traffic in general, except for the occasional bus or loaded lumber truck. Quite a few people seemed to be getting around on foot instead:
There was only one real climb on this ride (a mere 160m or so), so we made much better time than we had even expected. As a result three of us (HH was riding ahead) decided we could afford to take a short uphill detour to check out one of eastern Slovakia's noted wooden churches (here is a general historical note, and here is a quite extensive site about them). Here's a picture of the church at Krive:
(More info and interior photos can be found here). We were fortunate that a carload of well-organized German tourists happened to be visiting at the time; they had arranged for the caretaker to let them in. So we too were able to inspect the interior (most notably 17th century icons). Now I should note here that I was the first of our group to arrive at the church, and being anxious to get inside and see it, I locked my bike rather than leaving it unattended. Imagine my dismay upon leaving the church when I realized that the padlock key was nowhere to be found. I had to admit this to my traveling companions who began helping me look around the grass to find it. The Germans hadn't left yet; although they were lightly sympathetic and highly amused, they had no suitable tools to chop a cable with (I still contend that attacking the lock mechanism itself would have been more productive). Very fortunately the key was found, right beside the bicycle. So we were able to unlock the bike, although I was no longer permitted to be custodian of the key.
The remaining distance to Bardejov was a pleasant downhill along a fairly busy (for Slovakia, anyway) highway. We arrived in the gorgeous town square to find HH semi-snoozing on a park bench. Here are a few pictures of the square:
Although it should be quite a tourist draw, Bardejov seems to lack slightly important tourist facilities like accommodation. Or at least that's how it seemed to us. We did find a very cheap, very damp pension where all four of us (and our associated filth) got to share a room. Hot water only sufficient for two or three showers, vaguely musty aromas, etc., but at least we could store our bikes indoors, take showers, and sleep on beds. Then we headed back into town; some of us went into St Egidius' church to see the impressively preserved 15th century wooden altarpieces (some visible here; I tried taking pictures but it was just too dark). Bardejov is very much worth visiting despite the possible issues related to accommodation. Otherwise we just wandered around the old town, stopping occasionally at one of the many outdoor cafes for a cold drink and a small snack. When it came to dinnertime, well, there wasn't a whole lot of choice. For some reason just about every restaurant in town was a pizza place. We selected one of them and ate our fill of (surprisingly reasonably decent) pizza, slightly less than enjoying the accompanying music (an unholy blend of traditional southern German and Slovakian folk music with a lively techno beat). And then it was off to bed; after the previous night none of us were remotely interested in even thinking about anything considering nightlife.
Distance ridden for the day: 37.2 miles
Time on the bikes for the day: 3:09 (moving time)
Moving average: 11.8mph
Maximum speed: 33mph.
The altitude profile shows that this was a pretty easy day (note the compressed vertical scale compared to previous days):
Total distance for the trip so far: 161.9 miles
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
After the previous day's hard ride, it was a little difficult getting started. My knees were quite sore after their abuse on the climbs, but I was buoyed by the promise that a significant part of this ride would be downhill. This was originally planned to be a rest day in Stary Smokovec (possibly including a loop ride to Poprad and the Low Tatras) but we thought it was probably best to press on a little further, thus distributing the next day's ride across two days (a misguided reading of the map suggested that the terrain offered some significant climbs). Once again the weather was beautiful: sunny but rather chilly, so we all started out in long sleeves. Here we are getting ready to set off:
I was quite surprised to note that the promise of "all downhill" was actually true; the next 7-8 miles I didn't need to pedal at all, except to stretch my legs. The main highway was the only way down, but the road surface was quite nice and traffic was light. It was no effort at all getting into Stary Smokovec, which is apparently the Slovakian version of Zakopane. Here's a shot of the Grand Hotel which was our goal the previous night (if it hadn't been dark, we definitely could have reached it):
At this point my knees were still suffering quite a lot, and I felt like it could be quite problematic trying to keep up with the other guys, so an alternative plan was hatched. I would let them ride on to Stara Lubovna (taking a slightly circuitous route to avoid highway traffic which had increased somewhat once we reached Stary Smokovec), and I would continue down the river valley to the town of Spisska Bela where I could catch a train to Stara Lubovna. Here's the last I ever saw of the other guys:
OK, maybe I'd see them a lot sooner than I even expected.
The road to Spisska Bela was still a gradual downhill, with the mountains behind me. I passed quite a few people sitting on the side of the road trying to sell wild mushrooms or heaps of potatoes; quite a sad sight given the tiny amount of traffic along this road. Not long after that I reached a very nice pond/lake where I stopped to soak my legs (and take another picture):
The park adjoining the lake also had a substantial collection of tourist-friendly signage about the local area (including English!), but most importantly for my purposes, a very nicely detailed topographic map of the area, apparently showing that our calculations about the serious hills between Stary Smokovec and Stara Lubovna were entirely incorrect. It seems that we had mistaken shaded areas (depicting forest or park, I believe) for indications of topography, and thus guessed wrong about the direction of flow of the rivers indicated on the map. In fact, it appeared that the route from Strbske Pleso to Stara Lubovna was entirely downhill. Nonetheless, since I was on the outskirts of Spisska Bela, I thought I may as well visit the train station and check out the timetable. As it turns out, Spisska Bela is quite pretty -- a well-off medieval guild town in its day (some history here). Off the main highway there were hardly any cars at all:
There was a tiny train station there, or at least a house where a couple of rail employees were waiting. A train was arriving right as I got there, but going in the wrong direction. I tried asking the employees about the next train towards Stara Lubovna, but neither English or German were useful at all. Fortunately gesturing is always a possibility (point towards Stara Lubovna, point towards my watch with a questioning expression, and offer a pen and piece of paper). She obligingly wrote down the times for the next trains: the very next train would be arriving in a mere three hours' time. Since a number of schoolchildren had started to gather around and were taking quite a bit of interest in me and my bike, I decided I may as well hit the road instead. As it mostly ran parallel to the train tracks, I could always stop and wait for a train if the riding became too difficult. Turns out it didn't, and I continued mostly downward along the river valley (quite scenic all the way)
In this part of Slovakia there are numerous shrines along the way. Some of them large enough that you can probably go inside them for a quick prayer or nap (although I certainly didn't try).
As I cruised along the highway, I passed through a couple more small towns like this one:
and suddenly caught up with the other guys who had stopped for a snack and a drink. As I pulled up on my bike I was handed the remains of an ice-cream bar and an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Seems my pace was a little better than I had anticipated. From there it was a straight shot to Stara Lubovna. We rode around the main square and checked into a nice hotel (apparently the best hotel and the best restaurant in town). After a much needed shower and a spot of shopping (trying to find me a knee support for the remaining rides. Turns out the shop we needed was right next to the hotel, and would reopen at 8am), it was dinner time. We had balcony seats so we could watch the comings and goings of the locals (especially the local teenagers who were busy with the usual sorts of activities involving skateboards, rollerblades and irritated adults). My Slovakian vegetarian specialties (pierogi/haluska/potato pancakes) were tasty but not all that exciting. Once dinner was finished, we decided to check out the nightlife (at least around the town square). A dimly-lit bar offering billiards seemed like a good choice; shooting some pool would be a good diversion. Or so we thought, until the barman obviously misunderstood us, instead turning on the lights for ... THE BOWLING LANE!
It's a version of ninepin bowling: pins laid out in a diamond shape with substantial space between them. Pins were reset after every roll (they had strings attached to their tops for easy resetting). The balls were relatively small and didn't have holes, and the lane didn't have gutters (only rails). As we didn't know the rules, we tried various approaches to knock down the pins, mainly focusing upon the richochet technique off the rails. Only later did the barman explain to us that this is a foul: you score no points if the ball touches a rail. Scoring: apparently if you knock down all nine, you get another go (none of us ever did better than 7). We had a few rounds of incredibly inexpensive beers, and gradually a few of the locals came by to chatter. Mostly in broken German although a couple of them had a bit of English. Of course this kind of socializing has its risks, and soon enough the barman brought us some shots of the local drink (high-octane peach schnapps I believe, clocking in above 50% alcohol). Well, it's a bit difficult to refuse, so we asked him to join us and have one himself as well. Ouch! One of the most unpleasant things that's ever touched my throat. A few more rounds of beers and some more rambling conversations with the locals, and we were ready to go. Or so we thought... we had to face another tray of deadly peach schnapps. We so badly wanted to refuse, and even tried it on. Unthinkable! At least the barman had one himself (again), but I think we were all struggling to keep it down. We rushed to pay our bill (something like £4 or £5 each for loads and loads of drink + an hour of bowling) and get out of there before the dreaded schnapps made another appearance. A quick round of beers at the local hostel and we were definitely ready to return to the hotel and crash.
Distance ridden for the day: 43.8 miles
Time on the bikes for the day: 3:42 (moving time)
Moving average: 11.8mph
Maximum speed: 31mph.
The ride really was downhill all the way:
Total distance for the trip: 124.7 miles
Friday, September 22, 2006
And here it was, the first day we were actually going to do some real riding. Rather than rushing right off at a suitably early hour, however, we decided to have a relatively leisurely breakfast (including some tall tales from P. and I about our supposed experiences with Zakopane's nightlife) and check out one last cycle shop to see about finding the crucial replacement chain ring. A bit more wild-goose-chasery as MJ went from rental shop #1 to rental shop #2 before finding a real-live supply/repair/workshop type shop. Which didn't open until 10am. So we idled about, hoping an employee would turn up even a little bit early (let me tell you, as a former retail employee myself, we absolutely love it when customers are waiting when we arrive, and demand to have their urgent needs met immediately, ie before the normal pre-opening responsibilities have been completed). It turned out that they didn't have the exact chain ring required, but the mechanic offered to fix an entirely new set of chain rings for approx £30, and do so in an hour. However, as our ride was going to be long, and much of it mountainous, we thought that would be too much of a risk (we weren't reallly equipped with lights, nor prepared to ride unfamiliar mountain roads in the dark even if we had lights). So we hit the road, leaving my bike un-repaired (the plan was to ride on the large front chainring on flats and downhills, the small ring on uphills, and try to keep the switching to a minimum. Switching was at least possible although not smooth. It turned out to be a reasonably-manageable annoyance once I got used to manic shifting when I needed to drop down to low gears).
Our original plan was to take the shorter (east) route from Zakopane to Stary Smokovec, figuring that the ride into Zakopane might have taken too much out of us, so we should keep the most mountainous ride the shortest. But since we took the bus to Zakopane, we figured we may as well take the longer western route around the highest of the High Tatras (basically the shortest way you can get to Stary Smokovec on roads, heading west from Zakopane). Leaving Zakopane the road surfaces were impressively good quality (and had plenty of shoulder space), and the traffic was relatively light once we got out of town. It was a chilly, sunny morning with fresh mountain air and the smell of pine everywhere, and we kept up a nice pace through gently rolling (largely downhill) terrain. We saw numerous cyclists coming the other way; every few minutes you'd hear another "ahoy" despite being well out of Talk Like A Pirate season. Here's what the area looked like:
P. with his Poprad. We would eventually have to negotiate the hills you see in the background...
After not very long at all (surprisingly soon, actually) we reached the Slovakian border, a proper border crossing despite both nations' EU status. The quality of the road surfaces dipped noticeably, and we noticed there was a lot less road traffic. People walking everywhere, quite a few working bicyclists, just the occasional bus or massive truck. We'd already ridden up what I thought were a couple of fairly decent climbs (the first going from about 830m to 950m; the second from about 700m to 950m without any real breaks), but then I saw my first gradient warning sign:
Warning of 12% grade. P. up ahead.
This was a major uphill (at least in my world), the most I've ever climbed at once. Starting about 780m we went right on up to 1120m with only one relatively flat bit about halfway up.
The boys taking pictures and a much needed rest at the scenic overlook.
The scenic overlook itself.
HH getting in the mood to tackle the downhill.
The downhill section that followed was quite an intense experience itself. Just as I haven't climbed many mountains before on the bike, neither have I descended them. And this descent was significantly more than the climb, going from 1120m right down to about 580m including a bunch of hairpin turns and big sweeping downhills. Only a few vehicles, and good road surface (thank goodness) but I sure used up a lot of brake rubber just controlling my speed. Once the road levelled out (and my slight case of the shakes subsided), I stopped and took a picture looking back up the hill:
We were in dire need of nourishment at this point, since we'd gone about 85 kilometers (53 miles) and still had some distance to go. Especially because our various map-based estimates of the total distance seemed to be some 15% under the actual distances as measured on the road. Fortunately we were at the last big town before the High Tatras began in earnest, Liptovsky Mikulas. I can't say too much about Liptovsky Mikulas except that it had a large grocery store in the center of town, which we pillaged for sugary beverages, candy bars, trail mix and water (our first money spent in Slovakia, things seemed to be much cheaper than they were in Poland). We sat in the shade for only a few minutes, gobbling down our fuel for the last little section of the ride.
Liptovsky Mikulas is just full of bicycles; we were quite surprised to see all the bike lanes and people on bikes, even on the highway out of town. But I suddenly realized I was having quite a difficult time: my knees were really suffering (despite gobbling some ibuprofen) as my unfamiliarity with extended uphill rides had led me to use a riding style (pushing rather than spinning) that caused undue stress to the knees. This was quite a problem as we had some significant distance still to go, and sunset fairly quickly approaching. Therefore a change in plan was necessary: MJ gave me his wheel and instructed me to follow as close as possible, thereby giving me a substantial reduction of wind resistance. Quite important since I was the only one riding a mountain bike and thus using a much more upright posture. This went on for a while until we reached the steeper sections of the climb. Through some combination of extreme granny gears and drafting in the aforementioned manner we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. All the time the sun was getting lower and lower:
We switched into our most reflective (and long sleeve) clothing, because it was really starting to get dark, and eventually MJ and I crept into Strbske Pleso, the highest settlement in the High Tatras, having climbed continuously from Liptovsky Mikulas's 580m right on up to 1350m. Although Stary Smokovec was not far at all (and all downhill), we decided it was too dark to continue safely, so we checked into a hotel. All of us, that is, except for P. who had taken the bull by the horns and pressed on ahead into Stary Smokovec (fortunately there was a taxi available, only twenty of your English pounds). The rest of the evening was somewhat of a blur: the hotel was quite nice; MJ bought some really inexpensive bottled beers from a shop (I doubt he spent more than a pound on 8 bottles), and then we went to a restaurant just across the way (seemed like the only place open in the September off-season).
A couple of the guys had a big-heap-o-meat plate (disappointing, I understand) while this time the vegetarian (or vegetarian-ish; just about everything had flavor bits that may have come from living creatures) options were the standouts. Top of the table was a Slovakian garlic soup, very much like French onion soup (croutons, cheese, hearty broth) but with garlic replacing the onions. Just what we needed after such a major ride. I also had halusky, a Slovakian dish much like gnocchi, and some excellent fried potatoes. And I couldn't resist ordering the dish described in the English section of the menu as "Salad with cabbage, onion, tomato, vegetable, mildew and moldy cheese". Turned out to be a very serviceable blue cheese salad. Mmmmmmm good. And that was about it.
Distance ridden for the day: 80.4 miles
Time on the bikes for the day: 7.5 hours (moving time)
Moving average: 10.7mph
Maximum speed: a hair-raising 33.2mph
Total distance for the trip: 80.9 miles
I brought along my GPS (Garmin Etrex Legend) so I also have some interesting data about the contour of the ride:
As you can see we saved the best climb for last.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
The next morning we got up, assembled our cycles and then lazed around town until we got word on HH's missing bag. Fortunately we were able to leave all non-necessary items (e.g. bags to take the bikes on the airplane, floor pump, extra set of clean clothes) at the hotel for the duration of our cycle trip. It had been suggested to us that the first section of the Krakow to Zakopane ride would be the least pleasant of our entire trip, mainly due to busy roads getting out of the Krakow sprawl. So we took our cycles to the main square, checked out St. Mary's Basilica (linky. I took a few pictures but my hand wasn't sufficiently steady to post them here), and had a bit of lunch. About 12:30 we got the word: the bag had landed, and would be delivered to our hotel within a couple of hours. We could have spent that time in a fruitless search for a cycle shop that was open on Sunday, but instead we lazed around in the park a while longer. By the time the bag arrived, we had decided it was too late in the day to make a possibly-unpleasant, entirely-uphill ride to an unfamiliar town where we had not yet secured accommodation. Fortunately, we had been told that it wouldn't be a problem to take the bikes on one of the quite-frequent buses to Zakopane. So we rode on over to the bus station, where we found a Zakopane-bound bus ready to depart.
There was quite a crowd of people already starting to board, many of them with heaps of luggage. But we opened up the luggage doors and found that there was possibly enough room for the bikes, if we were really clever and stacked them in pairs. As we started doing this, the surly driver came out and began berating us in Polish. The only words we understood were "stop" and "no". So we started pulling the bikes back out, only to find that he was actually ok with the bikes, as long as we didn't damage or dirty other passengers' luggage. But he was in an extreme hurry to leave, so we'd better get moving if we wanted to be on the bus (or at least, this is how we interpreted the situation). It was an absolutely frantic scramble as we removed wheels and bags, and carefully/quickly jammed them into the small spaces available (as MJ put it, good thing none of us are precious about our bikes). And the bus was rather raggedy but we took up seats at the back and cruised to Zakopane in style (and only about two hours).
Upon arriving we unloaded our bikes, put them back together and leisurely cruised into town. Zakopane is the highest town in Poland, and as the gateway to the Tatras it's a serious tourist town. We checked into a nice, inexpensive hotel at the top of the main pedestrian drag where we could lock up our bikes, and got ready to check out the town.
The view from our hotel balcony: Looking south toward the High Tatras
Another view in the direction we'd be heading in the morning (actually this was taken in the morning; apologies to you continuity pedants).
Wooden houses just off the main street
Tourist action on the main drag. We did wander up and down the main street a couple of times looking for bike shops (recall that my broken chainring had still not been replaced). Zakopane is a very sporty town and quite well equipped with bike shops, as it turns out, but nothing was still open at that time of the evening. No worries, we decided to check it out in the morning. We passed quite a few dodgy vendors (selling cheap binoculars, smoked sheep cheese, single roses, and all the typical cheap tat you find people selling on the main drags of tourist towns) and then we saw it:
When we walked by this crowded restaurant with rows of open-flame grills and mountains of meat everywhere you looked, our dinner venue was decided. I'm a bit of a pescetarian but was egged on into trying just a little something:
(Photo sent by one of my traveling companions to Mrs. Dunce with the title "Busted!"). Well, I can definitely say that the horseradish sauce, mustard, and barbecue sauces were quite nice. Not so sure about the kielbasa, though. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel. Upon getting there, P. and I realized the night was young, so bidding our traveling companions good night, we decided to sneak right back out to the main drag. Things had quieted down substantially but we found a nice bar where some musicians were playing a sort of fiddle-and-accordion-based distant cousin to bluegrass. As we hadn't tasted much variety in beer, we ordered a couple of the different choices from the menu. P chose the Okocim Karmi, and I the Okocim Mocne. Little did we know that the former was a non-alcoholic beverage, and the latter a super-strong (7.1%). Oops. Anyway, no harm done and a couple rounds later, the lights went up and we headed back up the hill to the hotel. Except that just around the corner, we were drawn into a huge, empty nightclub, full of attendants and staff but with no more than 15 customers. I'm sure it's busier in the high season, or on a weekend, but on a September Sunday night it was a strange and eerie place. Here's a picture of me out on the dance floor (I should note this was as busy as the dance floor ever became):
And then it was off to bed, ready to ride in the morning.
Total distance ridden for the day: 0.5 miles (slow ride into Zakopane)
Total time on the bikes: approx 5 minutes.
Total distance for the trip: 0.5 miles
Maximum speed: 12 mph.
But tomorrow would be different.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Our journey started at the ungodly hours between 3 and 4am as we had to be on a 3:55 train to reach the airport the designated 2.5 hours before departure to Krakow. For future reference it's no problem to fit two loaded cycle bags and various other assorted gear in a black cab. The 2.5 hour flight to Krakow was uneventful, except that when we arrived, one of the bags hadn't made it onto the plane (all the bikes had arrived, but HH's bag containing everything else had been left behind). We were told to expect the bag on the next flight (same time the next day), so we crossed our fingers and made the requisite comments of sympathy and solidarity whilst secretly being pleased that our own bags had arrived. We stayed at the Hotel Polonia, right in the old town and very close to the train/bus station.
But we couldn't sit around and enjoy the town just yet; we had a mission. You see, I experienced various difficulties related to preparing my bicycle for the journey. The touring bike I planned to take was not suitably geared for mountainous terrain, and it seemed to have a fairly obscure rear freehub for which replacement cassettes with very low gears are not readily available. After some various attempts to solve the problem (Replace the cassette? Not readily available. Get a new wheel? 27" wheels aren't readily available around here either, and I'd have to replace both front and back, plus tires and possibly brakes. Get a new front chainring of a "granny gear" variety? Still wouldn't suffice, would necessitate replacing the whole front setup. And so on) it was decided that instead I would borrow MJ's mountain bike, geared quite low, with a rack and reasonably well suited to touring. However, a few days before departure MJ opined that the rear rim was very close to failure (after having a similar rim failure on his own bike) so he had a new wheel built, with a new rear cluster and a fresh chain. This was only ready the day before departure, and as I took it out for a test ride, I discovered that the middle chainring on the front was so worn as to be unridable (this will often happen when a fresh new chain is put onto a worn ring: the old chain will be cruddy enough that it doesn't slip). The large and small chainrings were ok, but this causes some problems in the area of seamless gear-shifting. Anyway, after some panicked attempts to disassemble other bikes to scavenge an appropriate part (which didn't work out, due to differences in sizing and so on), we ended up in Krakow with the bike still un-repaired. Surely there will be a cycle shop in Krakow, we thought (after all, there were loads of cyclists around). Armed with the Polish word for cycle ("rower") we set off on a wild goose chase to a few cycle rental shops near the old town (no parts/service departments), one of which actually appeared to be a wheelchair/prosthetics shop, before finally piling into a taxi to get a "real" bike shop. Being Saturday, of course it had closed by the time we got there. And of course would not re-open until Monday. So we decided I should make do with the gears on the bike for now, and gave up the quest for the day.
After a very much needed nap, we headed back out for a cold one, some coffee and some snacks (assorted pierogis, herring, + strange smoked cheese curd, "oscypki"), hanging out in one of the zillions of outdoor cafes, doing some people-watching and (for three of us) still secretly being glad we had a change of clothes. For dinner we headed over to Pod Aniolami (recommended by a local!). Located in an ancient building, they focus especially upon very traditional dishes taken from centuries-old cookbooks. The carnivores in our group couldn't help but go for the hardwood-smoked grilled meat dishes ("Nobleman's shashlik, pork roasted in wine with prunes" or "King's shashlik, pork with bacon"); I had a hickory-grilled mackerel with a very tasty horseradish sauce, dill potatoes and baked apple. Plus the most amazing fried pierogi (of the Russian variety, ie cheese and potatoes). Such a heap of food, but we figured it would be a good base for the next day's riding (assuming the bag showed up soon enough). Perhaps the best meal we had on the whole trip.
Total distance ridden for the day: 0.0 miles
Total time on the bikes: 0:00
Total distance for the trip: 0.0 miles
Maximum speed: 0.
Oh yeah, don't worry that there are no photos on this post. This will be remedied in the next entries.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Well, I'm back at work now after the major cycling holiday in Poland and Slovakia. As I expected, I'm swamped so I don't have the time to write complete entries just yet. But here are a few of the main details:
5 days riding: we took a bus to Zakopane, then rode the next day to Strbske Pleso (highest settlement in the High Tatras, ~1350m above sea level); Strbske Pleso to Stara Lubovna (downhill all the way); Stara Lubovna to Bardejov; Bardejov to Nowy Sacz; Nowy Sacz to a train station east of Krakow. A total of 260 miles in just under 24 hours moving time.
Here's one picture to give you an idea: descending from Strbske Pleso with the High Tatras in the background:
(photo by MJ, his ride reports can be found on the roadbikereview.com forums HERE, registration required)
Friday, September 08, 2006
Last weekend we made a visit to Leiden, another very pleasant stop in the Lowlands (I have to mention the fabulous restaurant Mrs. Dunce took me to for my birthday, Restaurant Wessels. We arrived at 8pm and were the last party seated, and the food was just fantastic. I wish I had a little more time to write about it). A few discreetly placed signs indicate to the especially observant visitor that Rembrandt may have some connection to Leiden (alternatively, the whole town shouts REMBRANDT! REMBRANDT! REMBRANDT! until it's blue in the face). We did stop by a few locations on the Rembrandt trail, but spent a lot of our time wondering "Just who is the nameless singer?". You see, the entrance to our hotel room was decorated with a sort of shrine to the Zangeres Zonder Naam made up of assorted album covers and a few baubles:
(Google Images also gives a good impression of the album covers on display, minus the baubles, here). I was quite curious about the Zangeres, who'd obviously been highly prolific over many years, but who was totally unfamiliar to me. No surprise that a search turned up zillions of sites, almost all of them in Dutch.
Perhaps the curious visitor's first stop should be the Zangeres's official website She might have departed this earth but her songs live on. Prepare to be dazzled (and see if you recognize the song). Some additional clips are linked from a (Dutch) article about "twelve great stories from Leiden" (article HERE): Vaderlief, Kinderogen, Costa del Sol, Mexico. The Zangeres specialized in over-the-top sentimentality, songs of a type known as smartlap, "a simple, sentimental song, sang in Dutch, where melancholy, homesickness and deeply-rooted sorrow are the central themes. The term originates from 'stoplap', a cliché which lost its strength., and 'smart' which means 'grief' (quotes taken from this informative article), and also levenslied (literally "life songs", which are like the smartlappen but not necessarily sad).
A bit more biographical information (in Dutch) is available back at her official website HERE. Here's a summary: born in 1919 (named Maria "Rietje" Bey), spent years of her childhood abed in hospital before going to work in the wool factory at 14. She was discovered by "talentscout" Johnny Hoes (who wrote many of the songs she performed) in 1957 and took on her stage name. Her first hit (reaching the Dutch top ten) was in 1959, "Ach Vaderlief, Toe Drink Niet Meer" ("Oh dear father, don't drink any more", or something like that). And she kept cranking them out, (all song titles are attempted English translations by me; maybe I do better than Babelfish) The Beggar of Paris (staying in the charts for 7 months in 1961, The Blind Soldier, The Girl from the Street, The Rag-picker of Paris, you get the idea. And she just kept going, occasional doldrums but on through the 1970s. In 1980 there was one of those typical record company situations (I'm glossing over it in this manner so I don't have to decipher the Dutch) which seems to have resulted in the Zangeres no longer receiving any royalties from her previous recordings. She kept on going, until a farewell concert in 1987 (although "best-of" albums continued to be released after that). Coaxed out of retirement she recorded an album in 1993 (proceeds going to charity), and she died in 1998 (a commemorative box set was released; it's unclear from the biographical article whether it actually contained all 550! songs she recorded). Sadly we missed the 2000 exhibition in Leiden's Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal "Van Rembrandt tot de Zangeres zonder Naam" (From Rembrandt to the Singer Without A Name).
So there you have it, she was a local star!
Monday, September 04, 2006
It's been a busy time here in Dunce-land, perhaps no surprise what with the extended silence on this page. Or whatever the printed-form analog of silence is (definitely not "darkness"; "blankness" isn't right either because the last old entry just sits there gathering dust [e-dust?]; perhaps "stasis"?). I spent most of last week re-haunting some old haunts, presenting some of my work at a conference in the Netherlands (Nijmegen to be precise). Mrs. Dunce joined me on Thursday for a few intensive days of Dutch tourism (Thursday night/Friday morning: Nijmegen; Friday afternoon: 's Hertogenbosch; Saturday/Sunday: Leiden). It was a great trip (we both really enjoy the Lowlands), but quite exhausting, especially considering the conference itself which went from 9am-7pm on Wed, Thu and Fri (and worse, the bus to the conference left my hotel at 8am sharp). I did sneak away for a few sessions including the aforementioned Friday afternoon. One thing about visiting the Netherlands (at least the parts we visited): if you'd like to have your dinner in a sit-down restaurant, you'd better be quick. Mrs. Dunce and I missed out the first night, wandering around after the witching hour (9pm) looking for food. We ended up at a fast food stand where we had a perfectly good falafel (and of course, friets; no Dutch meal is complete without french fries and mayonnaise). Our planning was better the next two evenings, getting to the restaurants at 8pm (and as it turned out, still just about the last people to arrive). Both meals were fantastic, although I don't have time to write about them today (or anything else about the trip for that matter). Here's where I make an idle promise to write about them in the next couple of days.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Earlier this week Mrs. Dunce and I went for a birthday meal (hers) to Konstam at the Prince Albert, a London restaurant with an interesting gimmick: food served there is sourced from London (within the M25, and/or within the area covered by the Tube Map; I'm not exactly sure where the line is drawn). I'd have to say I thought this was quite a gimmick, overly gimmicky perhaps and surely the food would suffer (especially after seeing a number of uneven reviews). After all, most people don't think of London as an especially productive region for restaurant-quality food. Sure, years ago it was all fields, full of livestock and crops of various sorts. And plenty of eels; all you had to do was drop a horse's head in your local river/canal. Not to mention other river/canal dwellers not requiring decapitated bait. But these days, hmmm. Most people probably think of "London-sourced food" as food you get from London restaurants. Perhaps fried chicken from the popular London restaurant "KFC" or any of the numerous knock-offs (Dixie? Dixy? Hentucky? Kennedy? Kent's Tuck Inn? Kansas? Mississippi? Tennessee? All real chicken places documented HERE). Or perhaps from a more upscale restaurant (I don't know any of these as all my meals come from chicken places). Or maybe something made from rat or a cannibalistic treat of London-sourced human flesh, both of which are quite readily available London ingredients. OK, perhaps I'm being a bit excessive; after all we did see some episodes of the BBC2 documentary which followed the man behind Konstam as he traveled around London trying to source products that were truly produced in London (here's a BBC link). But it still seemed very gimmicky.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Dunce's particular interest in Konstam at the Prince Albert (higher than any other London restaurant, which is saying something) became quite clear as her birthday approached. So she was quite happy that it was our destination for the evening (I kept it secret until earlier in the evening, even resorting to telling an outright lie). The place doesn't look like anything special from the outside; it's a converted pub on a very busy street (I ride right past it when I cycle to work, and hadn't noticed it at all). The interior is a very aggressive green color, but the most noticeable aspect of the decoration is the light fixtures. I can't really do them justice with a verbal description, so check out this Flickr photo. The string-looking bits on the light fittings are tiny chains, of the sort that are most readily associated with dog tags. "But what about the food?" I can almost hear you asking. I was sort of dreading that part, because I didn't pay close enough attention to remember the exact details (and we did not take our menu along with us, as apparently you are meant to do if you're of the "foodie" persuasion [it's not stealing; it was that day's menu, with the date on it and everything]). We decided to go headlong into the "locally sourced" aspects of the menu, choosing an English red wine (not from London, but close). A bit on the "cheeky" side but unexpectedly tasty. To start I had some sort of very nice smoked fish with blinis and sour cream, Mrs. Dunce had a salad of some kind featuring a soft-boiled duck's egg (exact provenance of the main ingredients unknown). For the main courses we swapped sides of the non-meat menu: Mrs. Dunce had the fish (sea bass, presumably from the Sea of London, with some kind of sauce possibly including some rather unusual tarragon leaves), and I had the veggie choice, pierogis with chard, cheese and some other something-or other (see what I mean about not keeping track well enough?), with a green salad (mint, parsley, and a few other flavorful, small-leaf greens). Everything was prepared extremely well, and both the starters and main dishes were quite nicely designed to be eaten with their accompanying vegetables/etc. in the British manner: a little bit of everything on the plate stacked onto each forkful (I am usually a strong "separatist" in matters concerning the diverse contents of plates of food). And they left us with enough room for dessert: I chose a very tasty plum-and-something tart (which was quite tart indeed, but I'm a fan of tart tarts), while Mrs. Dunce went for the cheese (a blue cheese and a very fresh goat's cheese). It was a fantastic meal, right up there with the best meals either of us could remember.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Yesterday after work Mrs Dunce and I went to Brompton Cemetery (Here's a really nice site with loads of photos of the cemetery: LINK.) to see an interestingly-titled talk: "Indignities Suffered by the Famous Dead". The advert on the London Free List (link) made it irresistible: Attendees will be ushered in by black-robed figures bearing scythes. The talk will describe the sometimes bizarre and humorous happenings that have occurred to corpses of famous people in recent times and in the past...."
We arrived at the chapel (perhaps most famous as the outside of the "Russian church" in Goldeneye [link]) and sure enough, black-robed figured bearing scythes did indeed appear at the doorway. We checked out the choice of drinks and snacks (including some nice coffin-shaped cookies with icing skeletons), then took our seats right up front. It's a very small chapel, and by the time the lecture started it was completely full.
The lecture (accompanied by appropriate slides) was given by Robert Stephenson, and was quite entertaining. It featured corpse tales of all sorts of historical figures (particularly royalty). The main themes? Well, there was the old classic: disinterring of the recently-interred (and various related indignities). And uninterred corpses left gathering dust in various places. And any number of traveling heads: chopping of the head of the recently dead seemed to be extremely common, and what gentleman's collection is complete without a famous head as a conversation piece? It gradually moved toward the present, although clearly there were plenty more famous dead whose indignities had to be cut for lack of time. Highly, highly entertaining and very much worth the £3 (suggested donation).
There are a couple of audio snippets of Robert Stephenson talking about other death-related topics on this BBC article about Kensal Green Cemetery.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Yesterday Mrs. Dunce and I took another step towards indoctrination into the cult of Circulus, following their charismatic leader into a "rather quaint old slaughterhouse at the top of Brick Lane" (his words, not ours) yet somehow escaping with our lives (although perhaps not our free will; the combination of Moog and sackbut is dangerously hypnotic). Our first stop on our way there was the revered Wenlock Arms where Mrs. Dunce made a beeline for the Mild (makes sense, as she'd spent a long, hard day at the factory and needed a combination of low-alcohol drink and sustenance). But this entry is really about the interval between our stop at the Wenlock and our arrival at the Cult Member Processing Centre. You see, it involved a visit to yet another well-regarded Mexican restaurant in London. And lest I be accused of being obsessive about this topic, erm, well, I suppose those accusations should stand.
This time it was a visit to Green & Red (just around the corner from aforementioned slaughterhouse), a place that's been receiving quite a few good reviews, both for its focus on drink (Time Out), and its food (london-eating). The food reviews in particular gave us some encouraging signs: frequent references to authenticity and regional focus (Jaliscan in particular), and contrast to the standard "London Tex-Mex" which has been so rightly scorned by so many for so long. We arrived and managed to get one of the few remaining tables (all had "reserved" cards, but we were seated anyway, thanks to some combination of charisma, persuasion, and maybe a sense that we would go berserk and run amok if denied a table) in the dining area (there was also a very nice-looking downstairs bar area). We started off with a selection of tasty cocktails mostly along the tequila dimension (Margarita, Diablo, and a pomegranate something-or-other). My Diablo was nice, although perhaps nothing to write home about (yet here I am doing exactly that). But we were really just biding our time until the food arrived.
After not very long at all, it happened. The highlight of the meal was one of the starters: excellent guacamole with totopos. Not a very large portion at all, but then again it was a starter. We also had a relatively spicy (and also not very large) chile relleno, and some fairly ordinary (perhaps a bit citrusy/spicy) corn-on-the-cob. Those all disappeared rapidly (think heads down, spray of saliva, blur of forks, etc. Or at least that's what my side of the table was like). And then it was time for the mains. I ought to mention that the menu is quite limited (it does seem more like a bar than a restaurant; the drinks menu is far more extensive than the food menu): six choices of mains: four meat, one fish, one vegetable. So it wasn't too difficult to decide what to order. I had the fish, a very nice sea bream cooked in a banana leaf + tomato/ancho salsa; we generally thought this was the best of our main dishes. Mrs. Dunce had a pumpkin thingy ("Roast ironbark pumpkin with lentils, sweet potato and chayote"); and the mysterious third party had the birra, a slow-cooked marinated lamb shank that's featured quite frequently in reviews of the place. Along with the mains came a somewhat paltry serving of refried beans (nice, but small), shredded cabbage, small (freshly made) corn tortillas, and a couple of salsas. We all had the same general reaction to the food: we enjoyed everything, and considered it far, far beyond "traditional London Mexican fare", but (except for the guacamole) we were not truly excited by any of it. Maybe we've become jaded by the sudden boom in good Mexican food in London, but there are still a couple of restaurants I think are better than Green & Red: El Panzon and Mercado (I'll start subtracting points if Mercado's website stays as it is. "Opening May 2006" indeed). As far as Mexican *restaurants* in London are concerned, anyway. Green & Red's strength seems to be as a cocktail bar, moreso than a restaurant. We paid our bill (just under £90 including 12.5% service charge) and made our way to be indoctrinated by the Circulus cultists.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
The following email was forwarded to me (and many of my colleagues), concerning a potential partnership between academia and big business. Somehow I don't see it happening, for any number of reasons. (The name of the well-known company and its main product have been obscured in the vain hope that hired goons won't show up at my door).
"In 2002 a research paper was released which indicated that [a junk food product] may help improve recall and concentration and [LargeCompany] are interested in revisiting this research to see if it's true.
I work for [LargeCompany] and we're in the process of organising a project and wondered if your department might like to be involved. The concept is a consumer-friendly short campaign that is built around 'Boosting Britain's Brain Power'. To underpin the campaign we'd like a refresh of the initial research which indicated that [aforementioned junk food] might help improve recall and concentration - is this something your department might be interested in getting involved with? We'd also be looking for someone to act as a professional spokesperson for a few media interviews to discuss the research which would help further raise the profile of your department.
Spinning out from this research, we will then look to further prove the findings by approaching failing pub quiz teams across the UK and equipping them with [junk food product] over a period of time to explore if it improves their performance. We're hoping for some guidance on a simple test that could be performed before testing begins and then after testing is completed.
The key though is a refresh of the initial research. I'd be happy to discuss this further with you, and would value an indication of your interest as soon as possible. We're hoping to go live with this campaign by the end of August so we need to move relatively quickly."
There's a TV ad running currently for a company offering some sort of insurance advice through their website: "confused.com". Most of the ad consists of various satisfied customers (or actors portraying same) extolling the virtues of "confused.com". But this is one of those cases where the spoken-aloud URL sounds totally ambiguous to me: it could be either "confused-dot-com" or "confuse-dot-com". This isn't uncommon at all (think of other cases where a word ending with "d" is followed by a word starting with "d", e.g. "red rum" vs "red drum"), but in this case it's potentially damaging to business -- of course the owners of "confuse.com" have created their own "insurance information portal" which looks suspiciously like a link farm, spam blog, whatever you want to call it. I'm sure this is just a coincidence....
Friday, August 04, 2006
Earlier this week Mrs. Dunce and I made our annual visit to the Great British Beer Festival. This year was a particularly good one, as we had booked advance tickets to a tutored tasting event, "Champion Beers of Britain". All the beers to be tasted were rated as top of their category by a panel of judges, and the champions had only been selected the day before the tasting (so we were tasting the same batches that had been judged). Our guide through these beers was Roger Protz, one of the best-known beer experts out there (I'd say that at least in English-speaking circles, only Michael Jackson [not that one] is a contender, and ). Protz has written all sorts of beer-related books, including 300 Beers To Try Before You Die, Complete Guide to World Beer, and a mess of others. The tasting included six beers, one from each of six categories. For each one we got to hear some interesting information about the category and the style of beer, an exact description of the ingredients, and then Protz's comments on the "cyclops" features of each one (appearance, aroma, flavor). Most importantly, those aspects that (in his opinion, as one of the panelists) led to each beer's selection as champion. Here are our own opinions of each one:
Mild: a traditional sort of dark beer, lower in alcohol (usually in the 3% range), intended for industrial workers (after work!). The winner of this category was Oscar Wilde Mild, by Mighty Oak brewery. This was the first one we drank, and got Mrs. Dunce's vote for her favorite beer of the festival: "smells like chocolate milk; growing chocolate taste". I noted that it had a very light starting flavor, and was an easy drinking mild. We both rated this one as a "full smile".*
Bitter: another traditional style, lighter in color than mild, and with an alcohol content of up to about 4%. The winner was Cambridge Bitter by Elgoods, which included roasted barley in its ingredients (unusual for a bitter). I found it very very bitter indeed, but a nice mix of malty and hoppy flavors (my favorite beers are usually quite hoppy). The finish was quite long; it had a very lingering flavor. Mrs. Dunce (who isn't hop-crazy like me) said "not too hoppy, very sweet finish. Complex malt balances it". Two more "full smile" ratings.
Best Bitter: Higher in alcohol than the Bitters (cut-off point seems to be 4%), the winner here was Sussex Best by Harvey's. This one was the runner-up in the overall championship, and Roger Protz's favorite (also voted as favorite by the tasting audience, but perhaps strongly biased after hearing Protz's effusive praise). "A hymn to the hop" is how he described it. I enjoy the hops, and no surprise I liked this one: very smooth drinking, hoppy but mellow. Not so much malt flavor, particularly in contrast to the previous bitter which had a notable malty taste. Mrs. Dunce thought "Definitely hoppier, but still well balanced. Bitter finish". Yet again we gave two "full smile" ratings to this one.
Strong Bitter: Here we go: this category is even higher in alcohol content. The winner, Centurion's Ghost by York was 5.4%, and had a very strong aroma. Mrs. Dunce said "beautiful aroma; chocolate, coffee, raisin flavors with a very dry finish." I thought there were all sorts of flavors going on, very roasted, maybe coffeeish. Long, long, long finish. This one was my favorite of the festival (by quite some margin), and Mrs. Dunce also gave it yet another full smile.
Specialty Beer: This category includes beers that don't fit into the other classifications. The winner, Tradewinds by Cairngorm, included a substantial amount of wheat (30%) but is considered "specialty" because of an additional ingredient: elderflower (added at the end of the copper boil, ie when secondary hopping is being done). I didn't notice anything elderflowery about it (but might not recognize elderflower if it bit me in the bum). At first I rated it only a half smile as it seemed more aromatic than flavorful. But it grew on me, as a nice light and tasty beer. Mrs. Dunce was not quite as impressed, considering it unsubtle and giving it only a half-smile rating: "hoppy and peppery aroma. Bitter in the mouth but growing sweetness. A little bit one-note".
Golden Ale and Overall Champion: The winner of this year's Golden Ale category was also deemed the overall champion: Brewer's Gold by Crouch Vale. This beer also won last year's overall championship, something that has never happened in the history of the award. It's made from identical ingredients to lagers, but is brewed in an ale style. There was some discussion from the audience about this, especially as golden ales have won more than their fair share of awards recently (according to some), and whether this is bad for "ale in general". And whether one year's champion should be ineligible the next year. Anyway, on to the tasting. Hmmmmmm. It was definitely not a double-champion in our eyes. It had a very, very lemony aroma ("smells like floor cleaner" said Mrs. Dunce); the flavor was very hoppy, and I thought it would be much better if only I could drink it without smelling it. Mrs. Dunce found it just too lemony, and very one-note all the way through with the palate and finish almost exactly the same. "Flat mouth" ratings from both of us.
And that was the end of the tasting. It was a really fun thing to do, and in addition to the details about tasting, there were plenty of interesting comments, discussions, Q&A and asides about brewing, beer history, international styles and so on. But then, the beer festival itself was still going on, so we made our way downstairs where all sorts of choices awaited us. As usual some of our intended targets were not available (or just overlooked), but we still managed to have several additional beverages before running out of energy. Comments on them are noted below (perhaps not in the order in which they were consumed):
Maypole Mild by Oakleaf. Mrs. Dunce gave this a half-smile: sharp start but a good finish.
Malvern Magic blended perry from Herefordshire. I thought this was ok, maybe a half-smile. It was rated as 10 on the 1-12 sweet-to-dry scale, but I thought it was somewhat sweeter than a 10 would warrant. Somewhat bland and not all that complex (this judgment may be affected a lot by following all the champion beers).
Black Gold by Cairngorm (same brewer as Tradewinds, the elderflower Specialty Beer noted above). Mrs. Dunce gave it a half-smile, noting its bitter/malt balance.
Double Hop by Robinson's. I gave this one a flat mouth. Very bland and uninteresting; nothing wrong with it but nothing particularly right, either.
Dunkels Weissbier by Andechs. The only beer from outside the UK either of us tried this time around. Mrs. Dunce gave it a full-smile rating, "Dark and refreshing, like it should be". The only full smile rating from either of us outside the "champion beer" tasting. Which set a high standard indeed.
IPA by Woodlands. I gave this one a rare full frown rating. It was sharp and nasty. Very dry and unpleasant to drink. I even poured it out instead of finishing it.
Midnight Stout by Woodlands: Flat mouth rating by Mrs. Dunce who called it "undignified"; nothing special.
Dragon Smoke Stout by Beowulf. Yes, for some reason we tried an awful lot of dark beers at this festival. I found this one ok, worth a half-smile rating. It had a nice roasted flavor you'd expect from a stout, a lot of bitterness, but not quite top of the heap.
*Our rating system is quite elementary in nature, as it's designed to withstand various potential issues related to beer festivals, particularly the possibility that many different products may be consumed and thus a complex system might fail disastrously. Hence, the smily face rating system:
full smile: liked this beverage unreservedly
half smile: enjoyed it, but it could be improved upon
flat mouth: fine, but nothing special
half frown: not so great, but not terrible
full frown: bad, nasty, maybe even worth pouring out instead of finishing it.