Monthly Archives: July 2009

Europe 2009, Day 7

Today was the big highlight of the trip, the visit to the Goodwood Festival of Speed.  As the story goes, Lord March wanted to organize motor racing but could not get permission to from the local authorities.  He then proceeded to host his own event on his own property.  In the years since, Goodwood has become the place to visit to see new cars, watch demonstrations and enjoy motor sport.  Equal parts car show by manufacturers, motorsports demo circuit, and show and shine for the rich and famous.

The primary event at the show is the hill climb.  Hill climbing events are races, but instead of a circuit, they go up a path.  In the case of Goodwood, batches of cars in various categories run up the hill.  Some of them seem to be competitive, but others are clearly just for fun to show off the car.  Each category has a set of cars similar in age, performance or importance.  One of the categories I really enjoyed included future cars featuring new technology– everything from the little Think! electric car to a battery powered Porsche by German tuning house Ruf.  Supercars from Lambourghini, grand tourers from Maserati and Alfa Romeo, old classics like a Jaguar D-Type, all went up the hill.

Whoever puts together the collections of cars pays a lot of attention:  In the technology pavilion, the green cars are kept with a 1961 battery powered Renault Dauphine.  Another section is sponsored by Cartier and is referred to as Style et Luxe, specifically classic or uniquely designed cars, which are later judged like on a concours show.   Even with a bit of light rain, this display was quite beautiful, as the graceful shapes of old cars were accented by the small droplets of rain glistening on their shells.

While the hill climb cars were loud, undoubtedly the most impressive display was a RAF Eurofighter Typhoon interceptor which did several low speed passes, performing loops and Immelmans across the Goodwood site.  Most of them were done at full burner, especially pulling out dives, deafening the crowd even from thousands of feet above.

Manufacturers themselves have pavilions, though this is pretty similar to a regular car show.  It’s interesting to see European offerings like the Mazda 2, or specialized vendors like Alfa Romeo.  A tent city of smaller vendors selling model cars and motor car history books surrounds the outsides, but neither of these segments are the main show.  There’s also demonstration areas.  Porsche, Audi and Land Rover SUVs drove around the country side, while in another, specifically built Bowler offroaders took passengers on a wild spill around a specially dug up and raised course, replete with Paris-Dakar Rally style terrain and jumps.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of Goodwood is visiting the paddocks where the cars are kept.  Unlike car shows where displays are roped off, they’ve allowed visitors to walk around the work bays where the hill climb cars are kept between runs, where you can see the cars up close and meet the owners and maintainers.  I spoke with Tesla Motors reps about the upcoming Tesla S chassis, and a guy from the PR department at Ford Europe about Top Gear’s Fiesta review, looking at everything from Formula SAE student entries to gaggle of McLaren/Mercedes SLRs.  Lexus had two IS F’s, race tuned, along with LF-A concept prototypes.  You can see them up close, even as they pull out of the paddock, as vintage F1 and Rally cars pull in and their maintainers work their engines in front of you.

A real highlight for me at Goodwood was the Rally Stage, where you got to stand on the sides of a course set up for WRC-type racing.  Visitors have to ride a small tractor-pulled wagon ride to get up there, and it appears the tractor driver himself was auditioning for a rally team as all the passengers got the bumpiest ride possible.

I’ve seen videos of rally before, but never appreciated how insane these drivers are.  Imagine driving at highway speeds in a four wheel drive Citroen C4 or Ford Focus.  Then imagine it without a proper road underneath, through a forest of trees.  Then imagine you standing by the side of the road, literally a few feet away.  A cloud of dust is kicked up as a the car rushes by, sliding around and lofting into the air.  I was really happy I brought something beyond 200mm.  I think I would have either had pictures of forest or would have been killed by now getting a good shot.

The event set up almost like the pub sampler.  It’s great for people who don’t want a whole plate of nachos, but a few, maybe a chicken wing and one of those deep fried peppers with cheese in them.  For some, like John, watching every car on the hill climb is their main attraction.  But for me, the chance to see rally driving, look at old Minis decorated with strange paint schemes, talk to Ford GT40 owners, watch a flyby by a frontline fighter plane, enjoy old classic cars while listening a jazz ensemble and meet an F1 driver (admittedly later in a hotel reception lobby), was a fantastic combination.

We drove to Brighton, by the sea, and I took a lot of pictures as the sun set.  The beach is not like Sitges or the French southern coast at all, perhaps because it was now cool and the sun was receding into the horizon, casting a warm glow over everything.  Made of large smooth rocks, as the sun set, groups of people sat on the beach having barbecues and listening to music.

The Brighton Pier features snack bars, an arcade and a selection of amusement rides–described by a local as the place as kids you went out to hang out and was uniquely British.   The above photo was actually set up by a mother of two using her camera phone, I just re shot it myself with my 5D.  I’m assuming her goal was to get the iron work detail with the background of the shoreline/beachfront building lights blurred out with nice bokeh.

This posting comes a day late where I’m stuck in London after missing a flight.  Sigh.  But back to Toronto tomorrow, hopefully.

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Europe 2009, Day 6

As John had a business appointment, I was dropped off into the town of Wellingborough, just outside of Daventry.  I spent most of the morning investigating the various shop in town.  One small store had old video games, including Amiga ones.  In the center of the retail district a large truck had pulled up right onto the square, with the side open.  Inside was a man auctioning off meat, culled from the local farms.  Each Friday, the truck comes to Wellingborough and on other days, it appears in other towns and villages.  Over time, the residents have come to know to show up their given day for their cuts of meat.

In the local mall was a store called Argos.  This is a catalog shopping store very similar to the Consumers’ Distributing shop from my childhood.  For fun, I looked up some random products with their admittedly old fashioned paper catalog and push button terminal system.  As a kid, we would go to Consumers’ and buy Lego sets.  Filling out the carbon slip for an order and the subsequent waiting and anticipation for the box to appear at the pickup window would be endless but rewarding.  I think the concept of catalog stores is prime for a revival–I hate waiting for packages to arrive and to pay all the cross border duty involved in buying from the US.  Why not a low cost online service with a physical location you can pick the product up for after you’ve selected and paid online?  Boy, that sounds like…

We headed back along south and noticed a sign for Silverstone, a race circuit.  Driving in, a bunch of helpful guys working the security booth suggested we go up to see the Renault World Series cars practicing along the race track.  However, given security further in, we couldn’t see very much.

We did however get to see the Lotus dealership, which featured Exiges and Elises in the showroom.  Comparing prices to a Vauxhaul dealership earlier in the day, these diminutive sports cars are actually quite affordable, though after inspecting up one close, they are very spartan in their construction and design.  A certain design ethos pervades the Lotus cars, one of simplicity and lightness.  For example, the dashboard has a single piece of aluminum extrusion with a curve to hold your sunglasses or wallet.  The same piece of extrusion also ties across the sides of the car, strengthening it as a structural member.  I bet the curved C cross section probably adds to the strength of the bar too in comparison to a flat plate.  Due to the low volume nature of the cars, a lot of the parts seem to be sourced from vendors similar to the parts John looked at yesterday at the spares shop–the start button for the Elise is the same button we opted against for being too plasticky.

The other day on the way to Stonehenge, I saw a roadside restaurant that looked very familiar.  About a year ago, Food Network ran a series called In Search of Perfection, hosted by a chef named Heston Blumenthal.  Blumenthal runs one of the world’s top restaurants, the Fat Duck, and on this show took a very methodical approach to cooking famous British dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala and Fish Pie.  Including the catchy intro tune, I really enjoyed watching the show.  About six months ago, Blumenthal did a new show where he took on the challenge of updating the menu of British roadside diner, Little Chef.

Little Chef is perhaps best described like a Waffle House or Dennys and was in significant state of disrepair.  On this short television documentary, Blumenthal redesigned their menu to be more updated beyond fried and microwaved food.  They still would reheat food, but this time in water baths similar to the immersion circulators he uses at his restaurant for molecular gastronomy.  It was an iffy proposition if Little Chef would keep the menu or not, but the single restaurant modified for this menu experiment would be kept for a few months to see if the response was positive.

As we drove past Popham, the Little Chef by the side of the road was the restaurant modified for the show.  Today we pulled in and had dinner there–I had the braised ox cheeks that Heston Blumenthal had created for the menu and they were, honestly, really good.  Soft, tender and quite flavourful.  Hard to believe this was being served at a roadside chain restaurant.

Europe 2009, Day 5

Last night I got into Gatwick around midnight and I met my friend John there.  Our plan is to visit the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the next stage of the big trip.  Today we started by driving to Stonehenge, which is about an hour away from London.  I’ve been to London a few times before, so I am eager to try driving around the countryside to see what the rest of the United Kingdom has to offer over the big city.

As we sped past the rolling hills of the English countryside, we headed towards southern Wiltshire.  Outside the town of Amesbury is the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, a collection of huge stones, carved and set at the top of a hill in the middle of the land.  The stones were transported from hundreds of miles away in Wales and placed there thousands of years ago.  What’s more unusual is that other structures made of wood were there even earlier, as were reconfigurations of the land to form platforms.  No one really knows what it was for, although the careful placement of he stones suggests some form of function in relation to the solstice and time keeping.

It was fun to drive along the English roads pointing out all the cars the bunch of us had seen on Top Gear.  Every Sunday when Top Gear is on, a bunch of us guys download the episode and get together to watch it.  Being in the UK and going to see these cars will be a real treat.

Our next stop was to get to a small shop named Europa Spares in the town of Tutbury about three hours further north.  Europa Spares features a collection of British automotive parts for home builders to construct their own sports cars.  Need a set of gauges for your AC Cobra?  A Jaguar V12 badge?  Wire wheels for your Sprite?  This is apparently the place for it.  Parts of John’s Lotus Seven replica, a Canadian built Deman SR7, have been gradually congregating in Toronto over the past year.  Two aluminum side panels live in my garage, waiting to be riveted into the car once the rest of the body is fabricated.  John started quizzing the owner on which parts to buy, and occasionally requesting my comment.  Locking gas cap?  Non locking gas cap?  This start button?  That start button?

Hundreds of dollars in parts later, we drove into Tutbury for dinner to a local pub, the Dog and Partridge, recommended by the shop owner.  I had a pot pie of beef stewed in ale, covered in pastry.  It was nice.

Tutbury is not very large, but seems to be a quaint small village, consisting of a few pubs, a Chinese take out joint, a chip shop called the Tutbury Fryer, and a small corner store. We later ventured across Tutbury, around the block, literally, to the Tutbury Castle.  As we ventured up the hill, I noticed a sign which said the castle was closed to visitors, yet a steady stream of cars were driving up the hillside.

As I stood on the side of the hill trying to swap lenses, a young man wearing a natty suit appeared, tie undone, trudging up the dusty road.  I asked him what the big shindig was, and found out the local high school was having a prom, in the castle ruins.  Soon, teenagers appeared in their prom outfits, some in the only stretch American limousine in the country navigating the tiny streets of Tutbury, another in their dad’s delivery van, sandwiched in their dress suits between  dad and brother making their rounds.  A car full of girls in their prom dresses appeared with dad in a tux on driver duty.  One mom demanded her daughter call at midnight, promising not to drink.  Yeah, sure.  High school prom?  Don’t think so.  Either way, my prom wasn’t in a cool ancient castle ruin.  This was pretty awesome for high school formal.  I congratulated the well dressed fellow and wished him a good evening.

Europe 2009, Day 4

Yesterday, I met a woman on the bus who was traveling around the world.  I guess she is retired.  She’s been to Iceland, Russia and France in this trip already and it’ll finish at a total of twelve weeks on the road.  I can only wish to be so adventurous.

Barcelona, perhaps all of Europe, still has a commitment to small retailers.  As I walk through the city streets, I’ve found many a small store, including an unusual number of hardware stores.  Some stores specialize in American power tools, another in parquet flooring.  It’s unusual to see the rationalization of an entire category of items broken into individual stores, unlike the category-killer big boxes we see in Canada.  That said, most people don’t buy meat from butchers anymore either.

I thought I would be clever and visit the Boqueria later in the day today, and instead try some of the other locations this morning.  I ended up waking up late and by the time I got out into the streets, it was warm.  I headed up towards Parc Guell, the park built as a resort for the privileged by Antoni Gaudi’s greatest patron.  Built on the side of a hill, the park features terraced views of the city with monument and statues.  Strains of Pride covered on acoustic flamenco guitar wafted through the hot summer air, perhaps a busker aiming to amuse the hordes of U2 fans descending on Barcelona for their first tour date.  You can tell them by their tour shirts, perhaps judging them on their fandom by how old their shirt is–I think the Pop Mart guy I saw in the airport earlier in the week wins that one.  I’m not sure what shirt contest I’d win–perhaps failed technology product shirts–I have an SGI one, an Artisoft Lantastic shirt, a Caldera Linux one too.

As I walked to the park, I decided to look into the shops.  One store I wandered into was nothing but ham–hundreds of legs of dried, salted ham.  I so desperately wanted to buy a leg of ham to bring with me home.  Parc Guell swelled with visitors in the Barcelona heat, and I decided to head to my next destination to stave off the heat.

The guidebook suggested that either you wouldn’t care about visiting the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Pavilion or you would center your vacation around it.  I had read about the exhibition building before many years ago, so I chose to be in the latter category, even if it was very small, closed to the public anyways and obscure.  My architect friend Michelle suggested it, and I felt strangely privileged to be in the few who knew what it was when I got there.  Only one other person, a Danish architect dragging his two bored children around it, was standing outside.  I mentioned the last great Mies building was the TD Bank building in Toronto and he replied it was nice to see the building without people.  The reflecting pool mirrored its simple clean lines while an international press conference started inside.  Still doing its job beautifully after 75 years.  Nice.

I went back to La Boqueria in the afternoon and by then, a lot of the stands were cleaning up for the day.  The fresh fruit sellers were still going strong on the tourist trade, so I bought two cups of juice, one kiwi and the other strawberry, and a collection of mixed fruit.  I was thoroughly pleased that the Spanish here have chosen to make their fruit salad out of those I like, instead of melon.  I hate melons like honeydew, so this was awesome.   The stands divide into four categories: Fruit and vegetables; meats, cured and freshly butchered; fish and other seafood; and other.  “Other” seems to be things like nuts, spices and other cooking items.  A few stands venture away from these four core categories into candies, others have a bar for selling tapas and alcohol.  These bars looked like a raucously good time, patrons calling out for more beers and their cooks in open view grilling and frying up plates of fresh food, likely pulled from a nearby grocer.

My desire to try some Serrano ham was cleverly solved by a local purveyor who probably had the following conversation (in Spanish, but translated for you here):

Maria:    Manuel, I told you we should have opened a fruit stand.  All these tourists come in here looking for fruit and juice.  No one is going to take a 13 kilo jambon back to Canada with them.  It’s only locals.

Manuel:    Stop nagging me, woman!  Hey, how about we sell cut up pieces of cured ham and put it into a french fry container?  All those interested tourists infatuated with the Food Network will buy a box to eat, thinking us Spaniards walk around all day eating ham out of a cardboard box!

Maria:    Ah, now we can retire to the good life.

Okay, it wasn’t quite like that, but two euros later, I found myself with more cured ham than I could possibly eat in one sitting.  No matter, I’ll take the box of ham with me.  Why, these Old Navy cargo shorts hold everything–maps, my wallet filled with useless ID cards, the dreaded 75-300mm, and now…extra ham.  More on this later, as it, with many things, can only end in tragedy.

It seems the while the majority of Barcelona’s old quarters follow a traditional style, the city seemed to have flirted with this modern period stuff by Gaudi.  The city is fairly uniform in the core with a grid of square blocks, which are chamfered on the corners to provide parking or patio seating.  My next stop was the Casa Batllo, which was the private home designed on commission by Gaudi, is often referred to as the House of Bones, its exterior decorated by bone-like castings.  Its organic forms single it out of the uniform block of surrounding buildings.

I was standing in line to get my ticket for the Gaudi apartment when I reached into my pocket to grab the guidebook when I found the box of ham a lot lighter.  The bits inside had spilled out and I had a pocket full of cured ham.  Entering the historically significant architectural marvel that is the Batllo home, the only thing on my mind was, how to I get rid of all this ham out of my pants?

The Batllo house is filled with unusual contours in its stairs, arches and ceilings, making it seem like a living creature.  Some of the entrances and stairwells feel like bones or spines.  You can also see the intrinsic beauty of doors, hardware and vents made by craftsmen directed by Gaudi by drawing and sculpture, not plans or diagrams.  The part I didn’t like was the use of strange colours, unusual mosaics and bric a brac inlaid into the more traditional materials like wood and plaster.  These additions seemed a little tacky, which I think puts the building over the top in a strange way. I also visited the Palau Guell, which is being renovated and refurbished.  This was also done by Gaudi, commissioned again by Guell.  This city home is less tacky with uniform colours, but adorned with iron works and unusual hardware.  While looking at the front door gate, I realized the lock mechanism had been carefully blended into the repeating patterns of curves.

Getting to the airport tonight was very difficult, partially due to me being overly clever.  I took the subway to a station thinking I could get onto the airport line, which I couldn’t from there.  I then took the subway to the same interchange I did four days ago, but found myself waiting for the train, which came at half hour intervals.  Thankfully a helpful train station security guard pointed out which train to take.  Finally, I got to the airport with minutes to spare to check in, when I realized in fact I’d mistakenly read the ticket an hour early.  Which meant my original plan to get there was correct.  I had an hour to sit around the airport.