Countries, Food & Wine, UK

Islay – isle of whisky

If I have to be locked up for the next month then just give me the keys to a distillery in Scotland’s whisky isle.

Scotland’s islands are in a lower tier than the rest of us and all eight distilleries on the 25-mile long distillery are closed to us

But not I should imagine the janitor who has all that golden peaty whisky at his disposal.

For peat’s sake

You, of course, can have whisky on tap and a distillery at your disposal if you rent out a function room.

And that’s social distancing for you

For, say, a humanist/Buddhist!/Scottish wedding reception.

The kimonos and kilties were waving in the wind and the sake and whisky were flowing at Ardbeg’s for Stewart and Hisayo’s big day.

Cornering the market

Islay is a haven in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.

Served by tbe Caley Mac ferry, Caledonian MacBrayne and Logan Air.

Not out of place in Islay

With only 3,228 guid folk inhabiting the island you’ll see more animals and sea life than human and ain’t that sweet?

Bowmore https://www.bowmore.com/

is the capital and, of course, it has a distillery too.

And that other staple of island life, the church.

Bowmore’s is distinctive because it is cylindrical with no corners for the de’il, or devil, to hide.

Capital stuff: Bowmore

While there is also one of the best public swimming pools anywhere with a window out onto the Atlantic Ocean.

Now that’s an infinity pool for you!

Wash all over you

Everyone will have their favourite distillery but for sheer location Laphroaig in the harbour is the one for me.

The barrels are kept in the cellar where the sea laps up and seeps through the walls.

To give the whisky its distinctive salty, smoky, seaweedy taste.

Do you want water with that? Laphroaig

For a comprehensive tour of the island’s distilleries until we can get back out there and do it yourself then here’s a Swedish videographer

Or dig into your favourite whiskoiseur’s ramble around the drinking tours of the world.

And back to Islay, just be careful when you’re in the whisky and you have to ride your bike back to your rented house.

I have the scars to prove that it’s best to walk home.

Asia, Countries, Europe, Food & Wine, Ireland, UK

Jimuary, Ginuary, Veganuary, Japanuary

And whatever you’re having yourself… January is after all what we make it.

Jimuary in Scotland

Jim O’ Shanter

And for me and all of us of a Scottish disposition then January is Robert Burns’ Month.

Burns is Scotland’s National Poet and January 25 is his birthday… he would be 252 this year.

Wherever they are in the world Scots put on kilts and start eulogising little mice and the like… ‘wee sleekit timrous beastie, oh what a panic’s in thy breastie.’

It’s all the whisky we drink you see!

Alloway Bridge

Burns’ Village is a magical place with Burns’ Cottage, Alloway Kirk and Brig o’ Doon.

Where you can let your imagination run wild.

Three Scots mice

January is also the month when Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday is commemorated.. he was born on January 15 but Martin Luther King Day is actually January 18..

I was fortunate enough to attend the 50th commemoration of his assassination and followed the MLK Trail from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi.

Ginuary in Ireland

G&T O’Clock

And you could do worse than Co. Monaghan, the border county where a ginoisseur will guide you through each gin and tonic.

The Scary One turned her nose up at the juniper when presented with a tray of samples only to then dig in and minesweep them all.

Veganuary

And if it’s good enough for Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Barry White (and he had a healthy appetite, and for food).

Veganuary has really taken off in recent years and I’ve visited the oul’ plant-based food before on this site.

But seeing that the calendar has come around again and that you’ll be performing a public service by not visiting the shops.

Here’s to all those things in your flower beds which also includes the majestic tulip.

And Japanuary

Thanks here to our friends in The Land of the Rising Sun for always keeping it fun and funky.

So Japanuary?

Well, we’re all being encouraged to get on our bikes and in Japan you can do worse than following the Tanesashi Coastline and bike hire is just £10 per day.

They advise stopping off at fish restaurants and temples while ensuring that through the cycling your body remains a temple.

If that’s too sedentary for you then why not canyon through the Sarugajo Gorge.

Talking of temples you shouldn’t go to Japan and not visit a Zen Buddhist temple.

Oh, and in the year when the Olympics are coming to Tokyo then they’re challenging us all to get our adrenaline vibe on.

And ski a volcanic crater in Niseko.

Countries, Culture, Food & Wine, UK

Brew’s up – the perfect Covid beer cure

The Blood Service give you a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive but maybe they’ll now follow Brewdog’s lead of giving beer after a Covid vaccine shot.

The Aberdeenshire beer chain have come up with an inventive and public-spirited way of getting us all to get our shots.

I’ll take all four

They plan to throw open their closed bars as vaccination centres.

And they have asked the public for help in naming the new vaccine-themed beer.

Only here for the beer

As a steer they have mocked up a Vaccine Canteen, Little Prick, Community Immunity and Jab Lab.

All good, but why in the 13 years I was away from Scotland did we start saying jab instead of jag?

Breweries are a staple on tour itineraries and it is always welcome to sample a region’s or a brand’s beer.

I’ve sent many a Wish You Were Beer message from my travels around the world.

Interior decorations

And listened through the spiel from the Master Brewer about the mashing process and the like.

And prayed silently that nobody would ask a question which would require an answer that would eat into the drinking time.

The same goes for any vaccinations.

I mean, do you really want to be left waiting for your complimentary beer because somebody is firing off questions.

That would be a little prick.

Serve it uo

BrewDog Dog Tap in Ellon, near Aberdeenis one if your more accessible brewery tours.

And you get an insight into what must be one of the better places to work.

You can bring your per to work… and, oh, all that beer!

America, Countries, Cruising, Deals, Europe, Flying, Ireland, UK

New Year’s Holiday Snaps – Happy New Aer

And because America is at a turning point don’t we all want to get on board.

Especially when on board is with our friends at Aer Lingus who early last year had me all booked up for the Florida Keys when…!

Ireland’s national airline carrier has a January €148 sale for this summer to North America which is Toronto.

Waving the flag for DC and Aer Lingus

While my old favourites Boston, New York and Washington is pitched at €164.

And you know the deal it’s each way as part of a return trip.

Cruise into ’21

Yea, they’ve got forks too!

Or a Happy Blue Year, the kind of blue you only find on the sea

Or the blue of Greece. So let’s put them together.

Royal Caribbean have on the Eastern Mediterranean sailings we’ve zeroed in on in 2021.

Oh, how I would have loved to have spent the last year on a wee Greek island.

My pals at Royal Caribbean only have a range of Eastern Med packages as we plan to cruise again in 2021.

An old relic and the Acropolis

A six-night Greece and Croatia cruise, leaving from Venice (Ravenna) on Rhapsody of the Seas from €569pp taking in Split, Olympia and Athens.

And you know what I always say… there’s no party like a Royal party.

United in tribute to The Doc

Me and ‘Baby Doc’ Peter

And it might be apt that former Scotland manager Tommy Docherty, an old friend of the Murtys, should die on Hogmanay.

The Doc’s son Peter was one of my earliest pals in Glasgow before his Dad took the family off to Manchester.

Of course being a football man and someone who joked that he’d had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus there’s no single destination to point you too.

But perhaps Manchester United is the club he’s most associated with.

So let’s point you in the direction of a football match day package.

If you’re an Irish United fan, and there are many, you’ll no doubt know about Celtic Horizons and Abbey Travel.

And the important thing is that we will all be together again soon in a football ground.

Countries, Culture, UK

Oxford is always the cure

The City of Dreaming Spires has granted our wishes again with a game-changing vaccine and in truth Oxford always delivers.

The ancient university city on the Thames was a favourite destination of mine.

In my years living in the Thames Valley.

A well-worn day trip for foreign visitors from London here’s why…

Give it a punt

We’ll try them all

Punting: It’s an enduring image of Oxford, to stand up on a boat and steer your way with an oar.

Which is how they came up with the term ‘punter’ probably… or probably not.

Order your Champagne and smoked salmon.

And get down to the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse on the River Cherwell, another of Oxford’s waterways.

Potter about

Hall of fame: Oxford University

Harry Potter: Yes, the world’s most famous university inspired the world’s most famous school, Hogwarts.

Right, so you’ll be wanting to go to the Bodleian Library.

And you’ll feel right back in Philosopher’s Stone where Harry is hospitalised after confronting Voldemort.

Or the New College Cloisters where Malfoy was sitting in a tree in Goblet of Fire.

And where you can see the very same gigantic oak.

To get the full experience and to enjoy another icon in Alice in Wonderland then get on the Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland Official Walking Tour.

And don’t be late for this very important date.

While if you can’t get enough of Harry…

Then you’ll want to visit The Making of Harry Potter in Watford and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando,

Seat of learning

Give us a clue: Morse and Lewis in Oxford

Oxford University: The UK’s oldest and most famous uni is really 38 different colleges.

And for the dreamiest view from the dreamiest spire.

Then you’ll want to climb the University’s tallest tower, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

We’re sure Oxford’s most famous Inspector, Morse was here. And you can retrace his footsteps on the Morse, Lewis and Endeavour Tour.

 

America, Countries, Culture, Deals, Europe, Flying, Ireland, UK

Holiday Snaps – Repose en paix Pierre Cardin

French Riviera: The invitation to Pierre Cardin’s Bubble house must have got lost in the post.

Seeing it from the outside would have to suffice.

But seeing it from a speed boat on the French Riviera is a pretty good vantage point.

The Palais Bullas,, or Bubbles Palace, was put back on the market a few years ago – well, fashion god Pierre was well into his 90s by then.

For £300m the specs for the 12,000sqm complex, the haunt of many a celeb, included.

Ten space-aged rooms, three swimming pools, a 500-seater amphitheatre and lush gardens.

Chic: On the French Riviera

Now Cannes is not cheap but Mimoza’s in neighbouring Mandelieiu-La-Napouke is within your budget.

And it has A golf course nearby, Continental Europe’s first, The Old Course, which Pierre’s gaffe doesn’t.

Still, repose en paix, Pierre.

Our thoughts with Croatia

Check out Croatia

Croatia: And our prayers go out to our friends in Zagreb and Croatia where they are recovering from the effects of a second earthquake in two days.

I am always drawn to a city which boasts a daily ritual…

View of Washington from Arlington

I’m thinking a Changing of the Guard, in Arlington the Beefeaters in London or the One O’Clock Gun in Edinburgh.

And Zagreb has a cannon which fires out paper.

My old friends Croatia Tours are the people to go with from Ireland.

From the UK…? I’m open to offers.

And a Happy New Air

Ryanair, flyin’ air

Flying: And we will be which is what Ireland’s national airline carrier Aer Lingus and Ryanair

Low-fare Ryanair are offering sizzling summer deals from €19.99.

And they’ve dropped their flight change fees for all new bookings made for travel before January 31.

And I’m noticing my faves Amsterdam, Hamburg and Lourdes in among the €19.99 tranche.

Lady Liberty is calling

Just because the shops are closed won’t stop us checking out the January Sales… and Aer Lingus.

They’ve got 30% off flights and checked bags to Europe, and Barcelona catches the eye.

While they’re all over North America with €149 sale deals which means I can swop Zoom for my cousins’ front rooms in New York and Washington DC

Countries, Culture, Sport, UK

The City of Jute, Jim and Journalism

My old colleague ‘The Gadge’ (Scottish dialect for working man) would often say that he’d never met a good boss yet.

I’d mostly share his opinion, and the best advice is that when you get one hold on to them for dear life.

Boss of bosses

My old Sports Editor Donald from Edinburgh days was one such, and this genius headline was all his.

Oor Wullie and Oor Jimmy in Dundee

As it is a play on the moniker given to the City of Dundee.

Jute is for linoleum for which the city on the River Tay in the East of Scotland was known.

Jim is a twist on jam for which Dundee is famous.

But in this case refers to the legendary manager of Dundee United Jim McLean.

The Great Man: Jim McLean at Dundee United

And journalism after DC Thomson, the city’s newspaper company.

Among being one of the world’s oldest spawned its most famous boy, and family.

On a pedestal

Oor Wullie and The Broons.

Tay to go: The Tay Bridge

Wee Jim, which was how Mr McLean was known, but never among his players had to manage his players like scamps,.

Like they were Oor Wullie or his pals Soapy Soutar, Fat Boab and Wee Eck.

One such was Duncan Ferguson who went on to fetch the then biggest transfer in Scottish football history, from Rangers.

I’m a Broon: Grandpaw, The Bairn and the Big Bairn

And then went on to become a fans’ favourite at Everton where he is now Assistant Manager.

But who while at Tannadice paid the price literally in club fines for not following Wee Jim’s rules.

Jim’s rules

While in a more old school form of punishment Wee Jim, who would maybe smile once a year and never in public, had Big Dunc washing his car.

Dan the Man in Dundee

Wonder how that would go down with Neymar, Pogba and Ozil.

Wee Jim may very well be laying down the law to St Peter and the Apostles by now.

But they will be better for it.

Like his players whom he led to a league title, two League Cups, a European final and famous wins such as against Barcelona in the Nou Camp.

Scotland’s National poet Robert Burns

Richer and funnier anecdotes will be told today about Wee Jim,

Funtime and Glumtime Jimmy

But this Jim will always remember him as taking my calls when I was a cub reporter in Aberdeen.

And even getting an apology from him after he cut our call short because of a fire drill.

Minnie and Me

Wee Jim had probably been lighting a fire under Big Dunc.

Now we’ve all agreed that Wee Jim deserves to be put on a pedestal along with Desperate Dan, Oor Wullie and Robert Burns,.

It’s been in the planning and is slated for next year… and it will surely be among these favourites of mine.

Countries, Culture, Europe, Food, Food & Wine, Ireland, UK

Bergamo, mola mia – stay strong!

Visitors have not always been kind to Bergamo.

Most of us still place it as Milan-Bergamo after its airport (actually it’s Il Caravaggio Orio al Serio International Airport), and this year we saw it as the Covid-19 gateway to Europe.

The pandemic hit Lombardy hard and early; the world watching in horror as its grip fastened last February and March – a preview of things to come.

Stay strong

It was a surreal light to shine on Bergamo, a medieval city in the Alpine foothills.

Suddenly portrayed not as a bustling cultural and historical hub, but through rolling television coverage.

Of empty cobbled streets, eerie churches and boarded shutters.

Medieval Bergamo

A sweeping landscape

Bergamo boasts rich galleries with works by Titian, Botticelli and Canaletto.

We know its Champions League football team, Atalanta.

It celebrates composer Gaetano Donizetti in its annual international opera festival.

And it has architectural dedications to revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The cobbled stones of the old city

Bergamo is known as the Citta dei Mille after 1,000 of its citizens marched on Rome and helped unify Italy in the 19th century.

This year, tourists vanished and a different type of visitor descended.

International news teams flocking to the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, named for another famous son.

Snapshot of Bergamo in the pandemic

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as many of those who travelled to report on distress, only to find success, have discovered.

As Christophe Sanchez, CEO of Visit Bergamo, said: “Because of the situation we have been through, Bergamo is now the safest town in Europe.”

Visitors it is true, have not always been kind to Bergamo.

But Bergamo is kind to its visitors, particularly those who stay a while.

Owed to Autumn

The Autumn poplar trees

Visiting this autumn, I found the streets, which were desolate in March when everyone was locked away behind their shutters, alive again six months later.

Citizens mingled, talking at breakneck speed behind their masks and, of course, con le mani (with their hands).

Ice cream heaven

They spoke, of course, of the second wave that has now come to pass, and the closure of restaurants, cafes, shops and museums. But also calcio e cibo… football and food.

And whatever it is that a gathering of young Bergamaschi always chat about in loud decibels outside your hotel bedroom window at midnight.

My visit gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of the Bergamaschi – not as victims, although there have been far too many of them, but survivors.

A picture of our times

The testing centre

An exhibition of photographs in the piazza captured the past year.

A masked priest administered Mass; doctors and nurses cared for the sick and dying, and a father cradled his new-born son.

But the Bergamaschi, queuing at the open-air testing centre, knew that the worst had passed and what they were now having to endure is temporary.

They had been here before and prevailed – with a little help from God.

Bergamo is split into old and new towns, Citta Alta (high town) and Citta Bassa (low town).

The best way to reach the walled and cobbled Citta Alta is by funicular.

It takes you into the centre of things, Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (market of the shoes), and to that staple of any old Italian town, an Irish pub, Tucans.

Take me to Church

Stories for the Masses

For the real beating heart of Bergamo, though, I went to Piazza del Duomo – which houses Bergamo Cathedral and the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Here, the Bergamaschi congregation of old could follow redemptive tales of the parting of the Red Sea, David and Goliath and Noah and the Deluge on wooden engravings.

Forza Atalanta

Deliverance was as much a part of Medieval life as it had been in Biblical times.

And when Our Lady finally spared the Bergamaschi any more suffering from the Plague in the 12th century they built this basilica to her.

Of course, all of this speaks to us in 2020 louder than ever.

Good neighbours

They’ll make a statue of me

Matteo, my Visit Bergamo guide, recalled the only sounds back in March when the city was in quarantine – the sirens of ambulances and the whirring of helicopters.

He told me of a citizen stuck in his house with his Covid-hit ageing father, unable to get help.

When he saw a report of a man who had died in the nearby town of Brescia, leaving behind a half-tank of unused oxygen.

He made his way to Brescia, found the house, asked and was given the tank, although, alas, he could not save his father.

Everything in the garden is getting rosier again

Every Bergamasque has a story of loss and suffering but for Matteo, the best response is a return to the life they know and love.

For Italians that means their famous five-course meals.

Food for thought

And there are lots more courses to come

The centrepiece of which at the Trattoria Sant’Ambroeus in Citta Alta is their special ravioli, casoncelli dei sant ambroeus.

Stuffed pasta with sausage, breadcrumbs, parsley, eggs and garlic and cheese…

All washed down with the best Valcalepio rosso Riserva doc Tenuta Castello di Grumello del Monte.

I sauntered to the city walls and La Marianna for their signature milky scoop of ice cream heaven, stracciatella.

Plenty polenta

And, of course, for Lombardy that was only lunch. Dinner in the roof garden of the plush Excelsior San Marco Hotel in Citta Bassa brought five more courses.

In future, those bustling crowds will return.

But that night, the restaurant was an encouraging two-thirds occupancy with social distancing in place.

And even a puppy at the next table enjoyed himself and heeded the rules.

He was a Bergamasque, after all.

Trip notes

Putting the fun into funicular

I was a guest of Visit Bergamo, booking platform Omio and Ryanair. He stayed at the Hotel Excelsior San Marco 

Need to know

Bergamo currently sits in the yellow zone, the lowest of the three tiers Italy has been applying since early November.

This means restaurants and bars open till 6pm, shops are open, ski resorts / pools / gym / museums closed, people can move freely. The other zones are red (strictest) and orange (medium).

Travel into Bergamo

involves providing the results of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

Or you can get an airport test on arrival and quarantine for 48 hours while waiting for the results.

Any travellers will currently need to self-isolate on return..

America, Countries, Culture, Deals, Europe, Ireland, UK

Holiday Snaps – Bring on the Nashville New Year

We Scots like to claim New Year’s Eve as our own but, in truth, it’s freezing and can be samey too which is why I’ll be seeing out 2020 with a Nashville New Year

Better Tennessee than Tillicoutry I say which sounds like a Country song, which I’ll give to my old pal Keith Urban.

Nashville’s finest came to town pre-Covid, Dublin town and treated us all like Country royalty as part of Country To Country.

Country roads: In Dublin

And Keith, who headlined the Nashville New Year big bash, was front and centre of ours, putting a Grafton Street busker on stage.

And giving a random fan one of his guitars.

Nashville meets Dublin

The good old boys in Nashville are not letting this pesky bug stop the music in Music City, or us hearing it.

Jack Daniel’s Music City Midnight New Year’s Eve in Nashville from 4.30pm-5pm on WTVF-NewsChannel 5.

Country boy Jimmy

And see what I’m doing there getting a second shot at the Bells because they’re earlier.

Local favourites Moon Taxi, described as ‘a little indy, a little proggy, a little poppy, will play for 40 minutes just before midnight.

Jazz, soul and R&B combo The Shindelles will play a 20-minute set earlier.

Music to the ears and so will the green light, when it comes, to get back out to Nashville, Music City.

A better Canaries New Year

Saltire In Tenerife

And we’re not letting the latest UK block on the Canaries (they’re back off the exempt list)) spoil our hopes that we will be able to get out there again soon.

And as usual our friends at TUI are ahead of the curve.

With seven nights from December 28 at the 3* Rocamar Puerto Rico, Gran Canaria, self-catering from €579pps (Covid cover included).

While Dublin to Lanzarote from December 31 at the 3* Cincos Plazas, Puerto del Carmen, self-catering from €409pps (Covid Car included.)

MEET YOU IN THE NEW YEAR

America, Countries, Culture, Europe, Ireland, UK

Go! Monopoly around the world

We may never know why Vincent Van Gogh lost his ear, though here is a fine crime fiction on the subject, but who is to say it wasn’t after a row about Monopoly?

Our pals at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are the latest to join the Monopoly club.

With the release of their own Vincent board game for Christmas.

Becoming one of hundreds of Monopolys around the world.

With at the latest count, the game being licensed in 103 countries and printed in more than 37 languages.

The Van Gogh version substitutes the Great Man’s art for the traditional streets.

Just painting

While among the pieces naturally is a paint tube though perhaps tastefully no ear.

Monopoly for most of us is as much part of Christmas as Santa, who often brought it fir our stockings, and Christmas turkey.

But it was also brought out when friends came over, or relatives, from home or abroad.

And this was when it got really exciting to see the names of their streets and public transport.

O’Monopoly

So when my Irish relatives got their Dublin board out it had such names as O’Connell Street, Shrewsbury Street in Ballsbridge where I got to stay, and the Busaras on it.

It was very much a point of honour that your country had its own Monopoly.

It was a sign that you were not under the English yolk.

Although when you did get down to London when you were older you didn’t feel such a tourist as you ambled along the Strand, Pall Mall and Fleet Street.

Big Appley

Most spectacular of all was the New York edition where you could say you owned Broadway.

All us poor Scots had to dream of was buying Mayfair, Park Lane or Old Kent Road.

Until the manufacturers stumbled on the rather obvious idea of giving us all what we wanted.

McNopoly

And so we got Edinburgh, and the Royal Mile, Princes Street, the two football stadiums, Easter Road and Tynecastle Park and the rugby ground, Murrayfield.

Now, of course there are now football clubs, film and TV franchises Monopoly merchandise.

D’Ohpoly

In fact you name it and Monopoly have probably adapted it to your needs.

And so I have in my attic a Royal Caribbean cruise game as well as a Simpsons game.

From my travels in Europe and in Orlando.

Of course Monopoly, while having a deeply suspicious Property speculation message in its origins back in 1935, has really become a vehicle for imagination.

And discovering about foreign destinations…

By plane, ship, car… or my personal favourite, a wee Scottie dog.