Oct. 19th, 2017 07:53 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Sarajevo is quite unlike any city to which I have ever been, largely because the old Ottoman part simply stops and the Austro-Hungarian part takes over. There's even a line on the pavement demarking the two zones, although it's pretty obvious where the deliniation is, as the Turkish area has buildings made of wood thrown along cobbled streets while the Austro-Hungarian side has wider boulevards with architecture that wouldn't look out of place in Vienna. The contrast is striking and a source of great fascination. We saw the change quite frequently as our hotel was literally on the street behind the main drag, meaning the city centre was a mere 200 yard walk away. In terms of location, I have rarely stayed anywhere better and the hotel served us incredibly well during our three-day time here.

On the Wednesday evening, we were looking for food, deciding to walk to the far edge of the centre some twenty minutes away. The plan was to go to a bar called The Brew Pub, the first independent craft brewery to open in Sarajevo. As we made our way down there, we saw a number of interesting sights, including the logo from the 1984 Winter Olympics which had been embossed on one of the paving slabs near the main square. It was incredible to think that less than eight years after this glorious event - one that had put the former Yugoslavia on the map - the city would be subject to a siege which would last over three years, destroying the vast majority of buildings and killing 13,952 people, including 5,434 civilians. Further down the street, in the Austro-Hungarian part of the city, we saw the poignant Eternal Flame, which was dedicated on 6 April 1946, the year anniversary of the liberation of Sarajevo from Nazi Germany. There is a dedication to this effect written in the colours of the Yugoslav flag in the stone behind the flame, which added further gravitas to the scene. The flickering flame in the still dark night gave the place an atmosphere that it certainly lacked during the day, and it was a pleasure to see this memorial in the hours of darkness.

Contrary to this, further down the main street there was a memorial which was far better in the sunshine. The Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed during the Siege commemorates 521 children who died between 1992 and 1996 as a direct result of the military action in the city. Their names are engraved on the monument, which represents two dolphin fins made out of green glass shooting out of the water of a fountain. More names are expected to be added, but the way the sun glinted off the glass as it moved through the sky made this memorial a particularly touching one. None of this was seen in the dark of course, but we still had a quick look as we made our way further west.

Passing a former Red Cross hospital whose frontage had yet to be repaired (there was a picture of what the building looked like before the Bosnian War), we took a right up Kranjceviceva, where The Brew Pub was situated. We were concerned as the area was becoming increasingly residential, with high rise blocks of flats to our left. However, we needn't have worried as the road soon opened out and there was a small block of bars and restaurants on the right-hand side, one of which was our destination. The original idea had been to go to a restaurant called Bon Appetit, which the guidebook had told us was on the same street. Combining European cuisine and Bosnian hospitality, we thought it would be a good place to try, but alas when we got to where the place ought to have been, we couldn't find it (upon closer inspection, I realise it was behind the block of flats we had been staring straight at). This was a disappointment but we did spy an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Due right next door to The Brew Pub so for the want of a better option, this is where we ended up. It was worryingly quiet, with us being the only customers there, which made us feel we were intruding somewhat on a family gathering. A few more of the family turned up while we were eating but my quatro formaggi pizza was exceptional and the beer was fine, setting us up nicely for a trip to The Brew Pub. As we approached the darkened building, black against the night, we heard the sound of a singer inside. Fearing it would be uncomfortably loud, we resolved just to have a single beer, but once inside we managed to find a table and realised that the entertainment was very good. A single female acoustic guitarist, she was singing paired down versions of popular hits, and she was doing it very well. She was only two banks of tables away from us, but we really enjoyed the ambience of the place and ended up drinking the full range of beer they had. This turned out to be seven I think, all brewed on the premises. You can tell that craft brewing came a little late to this part of the world as the flavours are not as refined, but these were amongst the better brews we had on our trip and it was a pleasure sampling them. Furthermore, the staff were incredibly friendly and so we left two hours later feeling very happy indeed.

We decided to have a lie-in on Thursday morning, surfacing just before noon. The shower in the hotel was particularly good and soon we were back in the city centre, wandering around the Ottoman area. We decided to follow a walk detailed by the guidebook which promised to take in the main sights. This saw us head to the main square of Sebilj, known as Pigeon Square on account of the number of pigeons there (there were also vendors selling cups of corn for 1KM with which you could feed the birds), which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel. This square was the centre of life in the Ottoman city, from its foundation in the 1440s until its collapse in 1878. It was known as an area for craftsmen and indeed many of the old wooden shops remain, although the majority have now been converted into eateries and coffee shops (indeed Bosnia bases much of its national life around coffee). The square is dominated by the main public fountain, an octagonal wooden structure that perhaps should be grander than it actually is. To the east of Sebilj lies Mali Daire, a smaller square which is not too dissimilar to the gay area of Leeds with its lanterns hanging above coffee shops. This is a favourite place for young Sarajevans to congregate and its tranquility belies the fact its in the heart of a national capital.

The Ottoman part of Sarajevo is a great place to walk around as there are so many sights and smells to see. Just off Sebilj we saw coppersmiths working on Kazandziluk Street, with many tourist trinckets made from discarded shell cartridges left over at the War. In a way it makes sense as over one million projectiles pounded the city during the near four year siege, so reworking and recycling them to sell to tourists is a profitable venture. Sadly, although some of the coppersmithery does still happen in Sarajevo, a lot of the intricate designs are actually crafted in Turkey. Next to the marketplace was also Bascarsijska Dzamija, a huge mosque outside which there was a large sign advertising the multicultural nature of the city.

This was one of the mosques that dominated the skyline but it is not as important as the Gazi Husrev Begova Mosque, which is the most significant Islamic building in the country. We tried to look inside on three occasions but each time it was closed, with the sign detailing the opening hours clearly being wrong. Indeed, the sign outside the ticket office and the one outside the museum across the road advertised different times for the same things, which merely added to the confusion. Seriously, we tried to enter on the Thursday, Friday and even going down on the Saturday morning before our departure from the city but it was not open at any time. Originally built in 1530, the mosque is crafted in the Istanbul style, but has been through a history of ressurection and destruction throughout its life, namely in 1697, 1879 and 1993. The damage in the Bosnian War was not as extensive as it could have been and much of the oriental design survived. To one side of the Mosque there are two mausoleums, for Gazi Husrev-Bey and Murat Bey Tardi, with Husrev-Bey's being the bigger as it contains two stories. We only got to peer into the buildings but could see the tombs draped with a flag upon which Islamic text was written.

Opposite the Mosque is the longest continually functioning public toilet, having first been constructed in 1530 too. This whole area was a caravanserai, where traders and travellers could stay for up to three days free of charge. Most of the old caravanserai no longer survives and it took us having to explore around the back of one of the hotels for us to discover its ruins. Much of it has been excavated now and signs detail the orientation and how it looked in the past. This was something we discovered on the Friday evening in the pouring rain, again as we were just aimlessly wandering up and down the streets in the hope of seeing more sights. That's the delight of capital cities I guess. Near this was the six-domed museum known as the Brusa Bezistan which unfortunately we did not get the opportunity to see. However, we did get to see the part that was initially an oriental department store through which silks were traded. These days the shops are rather chintzy, selling tourist tat and little of interest, but just to be inside a beautiful stone building with so much history was an absolute privilege.

Our next stop was the newly reconstructed Gazi Husrev-beg Library, which had been initially founded by Gazi Husrev-beg in 1537. The building contains over 100,000 volumes of books and manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and Bosnian covering a vast range of topics. Just beyond this was the small passageway leading to the Jewish Quarter, which contained an interesting museum detailing the story of the Jews in the city. This was in the old Synagogue which they are slowly turning back into its original religious purpose, but right now it still acts as a museum. Many of the Jews in Sarajevo were expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century and they quickly became established as tradesmen in the Ottoman Empire. The museum details this history, passing through the two world wars and up to the present day, where the number of Jews has declined. There were only three of us in this small museum, with the other man seemingly following us around, which was somewhat unnerving. Still, we did manage to spend longer than intended in here, about an hour, as it was so fascinating.

We traversed into the Austro-Hungarian part of the city from here and were soon outside the grand Catholic Cathedral, which was completed in 1889. Outside this twin spired building there is a huge silver statue of Pope John Paul II, who led Mass here when he visited in 1997. The interior is dominated by pointed arches painted in yellow and dark red stripes, with a number of impressive stained glass windows. In all honesy though, I found the New Orthodox Serbian Church on the other side of the main square more to my taste. Completed in 1872 and thus slightly earlier than its Catholic contemporary, there is a breathtaking icon on the north wall painted by Paja Jovanovic. We were the only people in the Cathedral aside from the lady on the kiosk overseeing payment, which made the experience far more spiritual in a weird way. As is common with Orthodox cathedrals, there was gold everywhere and it provided a nice cool break from the pulsating heat of the lunchtime sun. The gold stars painted on a blue roof background were perhaps the highlight of the interior for me, but of course the icon itself was truly stunning.

The Church is sat on Trg Oslobodenja, one of the main squares of the city. Here we saw a group of older men playing street chess, with a crowd of about twenty watching on. From a kiosk, we also bought a drink of Sky Cola's equivalent of Fanta, which indeed was very similar to Coca Cola's equivalent. It was quite nice, but a bit drying and perhaps not worth the wait it took due to the person in front of us fannying about and not having their money ready before then just walking off without buying anything. The National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also on this square, along with a metal globe-like statue containing a man surrounded by some birds. It was here that we had also seen the Sarajevo '84 embossment on the pavement.
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The morning of Wednesday 4 October was another sunny one in the city of Mostar, and I started to have concerns about our lack of skin protection. Having to check out of the apartment at the ridiculously early time of 10am, we were up and about earlier than I would have liked, giving us time to see a little more of the city before exploring the surrounding countryside. We packed the bags into the car and examined the Hotel Neretva once again, a building with which I had become somewhat fascinated during our stay in the city. On the search for burek, we also saw a concrete building which I suspect was some sort of conference facility with shrapnel holes gouged out of it, while we also tried for a third time (and again unsuccessfully) to look around the Karadozbegova Mosque but noticed that this was still closed to visitors. The graveyard here, with graves dating from 1993, was particularly poignant and we spent a sombre few moments in reflection.

Finding suncream proved to be incredibly difficult, with supermarkets and pharmacies seeming to stock anything but. We did find a place eventually, but the range was poor and the prices extortionate, but alas we had no other option. Consequently, we grudgingly paid around £15 for a small bottle and doused it on. We then headed back to the car, trying to find the infamous Sniper's Tower on the way. This was an eight-story former bank building which was used by Croat forces to pick off Bosniacks as they went about their daily business. Being such a tall concrete ediface, you would have thought that spotting it would be easy, but alas the map we had was incorrect and we were looking at completely the wrong part of the city. Pictures suggest that there was some interesting graffiti there, and it is still in ruins some twenty-five years later, but aside from glimpsing it as we headed south out of Mostar, we didn't get the opportunity to view it.

I had persuaded Wolfie to visit a few places in the local area ahead of our two and a half hour drive to Sarajevo. We had largely exhausted Mostar, as fascinating as it was, and I had read that the town of Blagaj some twenty minutes' drive was definitely worth the detour. The source of the River Buna is here, underneath a picturesque cave. The water runs through a stunning little valley, with a few wooden huts and restaurants on either side. We parked up in the main town with one other car, with the clearly bored attendant coming to us early to ask for money (which turned out to be double the advertised price but we did not know it at that time). He was friendly though and gave us directions on how to get to the source of the river, which was a short walk down a winding country road along which there were a number of wooden stalls selling all kinds of tourist chinz (although many of them were actually closed as there were so few people here). The main sight here is actually the tekija, which was built in the sixteenth century for the dervish cults. It is at the base of a 200m cliff wall, with the aforementioned cave off to one side. It's incredibly authentic, with the woodwork being a particular delight. Again, there was a strong theme of red carpets and hexagonal Ottoman-style furniture, particularly in the prayer room which was quite austere, although had a number of interesting artefacts such as Arabic tapestries on the wall and a grandfather clock in the corner. The mosque with the coloured stained glass stars in the roof was a particular highlight. We were two of only four people in the house, so we largely had the place to ourselves, although we did get lucky as a bus load of Turkish tourists were arriving as we were leaving. The tejika has a wonderful little garden overlooking the cave and river, while we also walked across one of the wooden bridges over the river to get a better look at the house. It was certainly a worthwhile detour but, as was common in Bosnia, it didn't take an awful lot of time to see, giving us more opportunity to see things in the local area. I started plotting.

Our initial plan had been to see the fort at the top of the hill. This imposed itself over the town and looked rather complete, so we drove to its base. It was here that we discovered it would be a forty-five minute to an hour walk, in the midday heat, just to get up there with the same length of time coming back. Balancing this up, we decided there was probably better use of the time and started to double back. As we did, a trio of French travellers asked us about the route up there, to which we pointed, although the trail wasn't particularly well-marked. We told them that we didn't think it was overly worth it before heading off, whether they heeded our advice I'm not overly sure.

At this stage we were running out of petrol, and I was getting a little concerned that the country routes down which we were travelling would not reveal a petrol station in due course. Fortunately, we did manage to rejoin the main highway from Mostar to the coast eventually and filled up, before pressing on to the charming town of Počitelj, which is on the left bank of the River Neretva. Considering we had turned down the chance to climb up to the fort in Blagaj, there was a huge irony here as we ended up climbing up steep paths to the fort here. After a little confusion regarding where to park, we ended up outside a restaurant, from which we got explore this quaint settlement. Built in a natural karst ampitheatre around the bank of the Neretva River, the walled city developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries although the first mention of the settlement dates back to 1444. It was significantly destroyed during the Bosnian War and was reopened in 2003. It has a distinctly Ottoman feel and is dominated by the Dadzi-Alija Mosque at the base of the town, which was built in 1563. As we walked past at around 1pm, the distinct call to prayer was eminating and it was a real privilege to experience this six hundred year old tradition in such a special place. There are two major buildings perched on top of the hill, both dating from the Medieval fortifications. The Kula on the southern side was silo in shape and afforded stunning views of the river valley in every direction. Of course, it was primarily a military defence and stationed by watchmen. Within the small fort, there has been some modern stairwells and glass panelled walkways constructed. There was tape demarking that these were yet to be safety tested but as it had come loose, we weren't sure as to how secure the steps were. We opted to risk it anyway and didn't die, so that was something. As with Jajce earlier in the week, this town was labyrinthine, with narrow pedestrian streets guiding you between residences and historical structures. It must be like living in a museum but the fact it was still a home for many people did add a continuum and a sense of authenticity to the place. Climbing up to the top of the hill in the scorching heat was quite a challenge, and Wolfie's rash was causing him a few issues as we progressed, but the views were ultimately worth it, even if he did grumble at my insistence that we follow every sign, deviating from wherever we had intended to go initially. At the top though we followed the wall from the Fort around to the hexagonal defence structure at the northern edge of the town before dropping back down to the river valley and roadside. Noticing that we hadn't seen the Sahat Kula, the tall bell tower tucked behind the Mosque, we paid this a quick look before heading back to the car through one of the town's original gates. We were parched however and decided to buy a bottle of homemade pomegranate juice made by one of the old crones selling it by the roadside. I didn't have any Bosnian money but they were happy with Euros (you could have paid in Croatian kuna too as the border was a mere twenty minutes later) and we were glad for the drink, which we guzzled thirstily. It was quite pleasant, slightly sweet with a definite pomegranate taste. It was exactly what we needed. As we headed back to the car, we spied the old Turkish baths before trying to find a toilet as we were desperate for a pee. There was a restaurant right next to where we had parked and a sign pointing to the toilets but alas we could not find them and we had to give up. We were contemplating going to the Burek store across the road for some food but Wolfie wasn't particularly hungry so we decided to push on.

It was now about 2:30pm and thus we had a couple of hours before we needed to head to Sarajevo to ensure we got there before nightfall. We had been told by the nice lady we had met in the Black Dog Pub on the Monday night about the Kravice Falls and seeing they were only a short distance away, we decided to drive out there. As we went, we saw the new A1 motorway they were building, which will severely reduce the travelling times across the country. We went under a huge concrete bridge spanning a river valley, highlighting just how major a construction project this is. It was odd seeing such a motorway with no cars on though. You could still see the bridge at the Kravice Falls car park, where we paid a nominal fee to park before descending into the valley to see them. Fortunately, there was a toilet here, so we got to use this before walking about ten minutes to the river course. You could hear the falls before you could see them, along with the small collection of cafes and watersports stands offering services to the handful of people who were swimming in the crystal clear waters. The height of the waterfall was not as high as that in Jacje but it was certainly wider, with six or seven separate falls in an 180 degree alignment. Indeed, before reaching the base of the Falls, we had stood at the source of one of them, where Wolfie through a twig into the stream to watch it cascade over the edge. The Falls were very nice but there was little else here, so with further things to see, we left after about five minutes. Unfortunately, we left a little too swiftly and I slipped going up the steep pathway, grazing my elbow and denting my pride in front of a troupe of Italian tourists. Still, I was largely fine, just a bit limpy for the short journey back up to the car park.

We were now at the furthest point of our day from Sarajevo, so we started to head towards the Bosnian capital. I noticed that the interesting town of Medjugorje was on the way and persuaded Wolfie to take a look. This is a major Catholic pilgrimage site as on 24 and 25 June 1981 six teenagers reported they had seen an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the hills nearby. Since then, the small town has become the second largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world and there's a huge tourist industry selling chintzy Catholic souvenirs to the vast number of people who come here. The yellow coloured Saint James Church with its dual spires containing clocks, situated on the main square, was perhaps the only sight of interest although we did try and find the stations of the cross on Križevac Hill. Unfortunately the sign posts weren't overly clear and we ended up going to some Catholic conference centre which I suspect was not the right place. The drivers in this town were particularly poor, the narrow streets meaning they were not suitable for the number of vehicles using them, and Wolfie just wanted to get out. As a consequence, we made our departure and continued our journey.

This region of Herzegovina is famed for its vineyards, with experts predicting that Bosnian wines are set to become big in the coming years. There were a number of wine trails highlighted in the guidebook but as Wolfie was driving, we couldn't really drop in for a tasting. However, one thing we could do was see if we could buy any as we would be passing a number of vineyards on our way north. The region of Čitluk is the epicentre of the Bosnian wine industry and it didn't take long to find a wine seller, although we initially eyed it with suspicion as it was a brown octagonal hut in the car park of an industrial plant. We since discovered that the plant was where the wines were bottled and although the shop looked long since closed, it was actually open. The cracked window pane in the door was misleading. Inside there was a lovely woman who spoke little English but through broken Russian we managed to make ourselves understood. There was no tasting on offer but she did stock four 250ml bottles of local wine, which I thought would be perfect in order to get a taste of the region's production. I bought these for an insanely cheap price - the bill coming to something like £8 - before we drove through the town of Čitluk after which the region is named. This was a pretty non-descript place but as we drove through it, I noticed the Brkić vineyard was just off the main road. The first modern cellar in Bosnia and Herzegovina was founded by the Brkić family in 1979 and their natural organic wines are amongst the best the country has to offer. It took a while for me to process this but I did ask Wolfie to stop further up the road, enabling me to walk back down the hill and towards the winery. Their wines were understandably expensive but after a brief chat with one of the two brothers who now own the place, I opted to pick up a deep red, which was wrapped up for me. It cost about £15 and it being a 750ml bottle, we would have to drink it before we left the country, but I was happy with my purchase.

The journey to Sarajevo was about two hours from here, but we did stop off halfway in the town of Jablanica (which we had actually passed through two days earlier as we had made our way from Banja Luka to Mostar) when I realised there was a major piece of World War II history just off the main road. The associated museum was closed but we did get to see the bridge that the Partisans destroyed during the Battle of the Neretva in 1943, one of two major victories that Tito's men enjoyed over the Axis powers. I cannot do the battle justice in this journal, so please enjoy this Wikipedia link detailing what happened. It was a daring military strategy and one that proved to be ultimately successful, which is why the remnants of the bridge have been left there, just clinging to the hillside before plunging into the water. On the other bank there sits a stream train of the day, highlighting its use as a rail bridge I suppose, while a pedestrian walkway has since been constructed near the downed bridge, from which you can take excellent photos. The mountainous setting merely adds to the military achievement, not to mention the drama of such a place, and it is easy to see why the bridge was left as a testament to the fledging Yugoslavia's strength.

This stop ultimately meant we were late arriving in Sarajevo, having to navigate its streets in the dark. Fortunately, the hotel was pretty easy to find and we only had to travel down the main thoroughfare before turning left onto a narrow back road. Alas, this road was also a tramway and one of the busiest streets in the city, but Wolfie drove expertly, eventually parking up on the small driveway of our accommodation. We were met by one of the porters, who told us he would move our car to the secure car park down the road if we give him our car keys. Initially I was reticent to do this, but not knowing where the car park was, I guess we had little choice. It was literally two doors down behind a huge wooden door, and at least the porter driving the car there meant we didn't have to navigate the busy road or tramway. And with the car secure, we didn't need to worry about it, which was a huge bonus considering our close proximity to the city centre. We couldn't wait to explore, so after checking in to our room, we did exactly that, heading out to find some food and a craft beer bar for the night.


Oct. 16th, 2017 11:03 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
We arrived in Mostar just as it was getting dark, complicating our task of reaching the guesthouse. We had booked an apartment rather than a hotel this time and finding it proved to be tricky. This wasn't aided by the number of one way roads and one of the main bridges being closed for repairs, which ultimately forced us to park on a back street and hope no parking attendants were around as we looked for our accommodation. As it turned out, it proved harder to find than initially anticipated, with the room actually being in a non-descript and largely disused shopping centre. Indeed, I had to ring the guesthouse manager (initially getting the wrong number) before we managed to find the place, but at least the lady came outside to meet us. We were also aided by a friendly bar owner who ran a basement hostillery so after parking our car outside, we were led up the stairs to the first floor flat where we checked in. Our hopes weren't overly high but once the non-descript white door was opened, we were shown a rather palatial double room affair with cooker and sink thrown in. There was a stunning 180 degree panorama of the river and once we had paid for the room, we settled down for a few minutes before going out for food.

Our guesthouse was on Trg Musala, which was the main square of the Austro-Hungarian part of the city. There was quite an impressive mosque across the road from us, along with some elegant government buildings, but the place of real interest was the ruin situated immediately next to our shopping mall. Painted in alternate orange and yellow stripes, one half of the building had been completely destroyed and the other half belied its former grandeur. This was the Neretva Hotel, built in the late nineteenth century, it came under heavy artillery fire during the Bosnian War and now stands as an example of the destruction that ravaged this country in the mid 1990s. Indeed, it is a rather sombre testament to a grandeur that once existed here, a palatial state that hasn't really been recovered. We could see right into the shell of the building from our room, while you could walk around most sides of it and see the full extent of the devestation. It was quite humbling to think that this had been destroyed in my lifetime and had been left like this for the best part of twenty-five years. As we were to discover, there were many buildings in a similar state in Mostar, many very close to the newly done up city centre, which created quite a jarring clash between the modern dynamic tourist friendly Bosnia and the very recent past from which it has risen.

We left the hotel at around 8pm with the need for food high on our agenda. Looking at the guidebook, we decided to walk into the old town, as this was where the majority of the restaurants were. It only took us about ten minutes to get to the heart of the action and soon we were walking along the narrow shiny cobbled streets with the exquisite Stari Most (Old Bridge) in front of us. Seeing this was the primary motivation for my visit to Bosnia and viewing it in real life was a very emotional experience. I remember that day in November 1993, just before my eleventh birthday, when I saw this historical wonder so cynically destroyed by Bosnian Croat shelling. It was an image that has stuck with me and I vowed one day to see it, particularly once the bridge had been reconstructed in 2004. The view from the cobbled street descending into the Old Town was a marvel, with the bridge lit up beautifully in the night, and I must admit I shed a tear upon seeing it. This was only enhanced as we walked towards it and then over it, marvelling at just how steep the walkway was, along with the mathematical principles involved to make the bridge stand. The original bridge was constructed in the sixteenth century by Hajrudin, a student of the Turkish architect Sinan. There is a tower on either side of the span - the Halebija and Tara towers - in which there were a couple of museums, which I will detail later. The current bridge is an exact replica of the early modern one, and was reconstructed in order to mesh a torn city back together. It hasn't quite worked, with the Muslims on one bank and the Croats on the other, but the bridge always was the symbol of the city and to have that resurrected was like restoring the soul of the place.

There are a number of restaurants in and around Stari Most, and we opted for one just beyond the Turkish Baths called Food House. This specialised in Bosnian home cooking, and we opted for the Bosnian meat platter containing a whole range of delights such as veal and cevapi. The bread here was a particular winner, while the cevapi were moist and tender, just as they should be. In all honesty, there was perhaps a little too much meat but as it was a sharing tray, Wolfie and I managed. Worryingly, we seemed to be the only people in the restaurant - and we noted the next day that no-one was there either. Perhaps it was because it was a tiny bit out of the way, but I do hope they survive as the food was rather delicious.

After this, we headed to the Black Dog Pub, one of two craft beer bars known to us in Mostar. This was in the Old Town too, over another beautiful albeit smaller bridge from the sixteenth century called The Crooked Bridge (Kriva Cuprija). This was built at a similar time to the Old Bridge and it too was severely damaged in the War, with a flood a couple of years later washing it away. It has since been rebuilt and was a great gateway to the Black Dog, which had a nice range of local craft beers. We ended up trying about eight of them, sitting at the bar talking to a really nice lady from Bristol who was travelling around the Balkans on her own. We had a good time chatting for about three hours, before we all headed off to bed just before the bar closed at midnight. The bar itself was a really good place to be, away from the loud music in the main section but unfortunately not away from the smokers, who were incredibly prevailent throughout the country. Anyway, I gave our new friend my phone number and asked her to call should she want to meet up and tour the city with us the next day, but no phone call was forthcoming. We did end up seeing her with some random bloke about twenty minutes later though, wandering near our guesthouse for some reason. We had walked the other way back and had even picked up a black doggo friend, who had escorted us home for a good ten minutes. Upon seeing her though, our canine chum turned around and followed the lady, leaving us in peace to go back to our room. We had fears that the mall would be closed, but the doors opened for us as normal, allowing us entry up the stairs towards our apartment. After watching another silly paranormal TV show whose name sadly escapes me, we then headed off to bed.

We decided to have a lie-in on Tuesday, having not really rested properly since arriving in Bosnia. This saw us rise at about lunchtime and leave our digs at around 1pm. The weather was incredibly sunny and as we made our way back towards the Old Town, we decided to follow the walking route helpfully highlighted by our guidebook. Our first port of call was the main nightclub street, which was between our accommodatio and the Old Town, and it was here that we could pick up some food. We opted for a hot dog and some burek, the latter being similar to a Cornish pasty - basically flaky pastry stuffed with meat. It was quite satisfying and definitely good walking street food. We had to eat it quickly though as our first port of call turned out to be the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque. Built in 1617 but heavily damaged when this part of Mostar was heavily shelled in 1993, this exquisite building has since been restored and is open to tourists. We were allowed to have a look around and climb up the minaret, which afforded the best view over the city. We had to wait our turn to climb up the tower, allowing us to observe the rather minimal but no less beautiful geometric designs on the walls of the building. Flowers were a strong theme. We ended up going up the minaret with a bunch of Japanese tourists, all of whom refused to move around once they had got to the top, assumedly because the key view was looking at Stari Most. Wolfie has a fear of heights and this blockage did not help, and he quickly wanted to get back down, largely because there wasn't a particularly high railing protecting you from a heavy fall. Once the Japanese tourists had decided to move, we managed to get a full panorama of the city, including the bridge of course, although I was shoved in the back by some guy's camera, which on such a narrow ledge with minimal protection, was somewhat scary. If these views were good, then back at ground level, you could see the Old Bridge perfectly, with an unobstructed vista towards the structure some 300m in front of us. In front of this, there was a bar whose roof said "Don't Forget But Do Forgive Forever", but always forgiving, which tied in with the two stone plaques, one either side of the bridge, bearing the phrase "Don't Forget '93".

The Mosque was one of our highlights of Mostar, and afterwards we headed closer to the Bridge, taking in the Tepa Market, which had been the main site of the market since Ottoman Times. This afforded yet more glorious views of Stari Most and we even managed to jump in on a German tour, during which I got to learn a lot more than I had intended about this part of the city. It was naughty though. We then headed further down Kujundziluk, the major trading street before reacquainting ourselves with the bridge. Inside the Tara Tower there is the Stari Most Museum, which details the construction, destruction and reconstruction of the bridge. The whole thing was rather moving, particularly the rather lengthy film showing the very same footage I had seen twenty-four years ago as the stone plunged into water. Its renaissance as the most fascinating though, with the chief engineer detailing how the bridge was rebuilt, using most of the stone which had been blasted onto the river bed. It was a real story of rebirth and an enlightening one at that. As we were watching the video, we could hear a number of people diving off the bridge and into the water, something which had been a popular passtime for years. From the stairs of the museum, you could also view the oldest mosque in Mostar, the Cejvan-cehaj Mosque, which was built in 1552. On the other bank, there was a small photography exhibit entitled 'War Photo Exhibition' detailing scenes from the Bosnian War, many of the around fifty stills being incredibly moving. The fact the room was largely whitewashed, with the mainly monochrome images interlaid only added to the sheer power of the exhibit. The photos were taken by a freelance journalist in 1993 and captured the full horror and desperation of the siege of the city.

We had spent about three hours on our feet by this point, so after having a more detailed look at the Turkish Baths with their five silver domes, we headed back to the Black Dog Pub which was pretty close by. We had sampled a fair number of their range of beers the night before, but there was still a good half of their fridge to go through, but in the end we only opted to sample two. One of the waitresses who had been serving the night before recognized us, which was nice, while this time we decided to sit on the terrace and look at the narrow tributary of the Neretva River as it cascaded down gentle waterfalls on its way to the main water course. There were a few small wooden bridges here, and it was unfortunate the Crooked Bridge was situated behind us, but the higgledy-piggledy nature of the stone buildings made for a rather confused yet picturesque setting.

We had seen most of the city centre by this point but with the time touching 5pm, I noticed that there were a few things that we could still go and see. This saw us retrace our steps back over Stari Most and towards our accommodation, veering slightly to the left after the Tepa Market. This mismatched cobbled street was something of a construction site but tucked within one of the narrow streets there was Bišćevića House, an authentic Turkish style property from the seventeenth century. It was still being used as a dwelling and rests on 5m long pillars on the east bank of the Neretva. It was one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city and, after taking off our shoes, we were allowed to explore the upstairs section which was like a wooden balcony exposed to the elements. The large reception room where Turkish men gathered to talk business was at least, as there were a number of rooms leading off it while there was a fine collection of traditional objects across the house. The courtyard too was a fine example of Ottoman design and although we were only here for about ten minutes, it was definitely worth the visit. The dark red hues of the carpets, both on the floor and the walls, particularly sticks in my mind, along with the traditional wooden hexagonal tables which were a common feature of this period. Upon leaving the house, we noticed there was a tour group of about ten who were going to take a look, and they were offered tea by the owner. It was a shame that we weren't offered tea.

After this, we decided to climb up the hill overlooking the east side of the city, where the guidebook suggested there was an Old Orthodox Church. Upon climbing up there, navigating the main M-17 motorway as we did, the main sight was the construction of a new Orthodox Cathedral which was surrounded in scaffolding. It's clearly going to be an impressive building, but as yet is nowhere near its prospective grandeur. As we climbed higher, we were unsure as to whether we were entering a building site and indeed whether we were allowed to be there, but we kept climbing as the gates were open and no-one was stopping us. Further up, we saw a rather neat and quaint church with three bells above the main door. I highly doubt whether this is the Old Orthodox Church as it's set to be completely dwarfed by the new one, but as there was nothing else up there, I have to assume it is. Adding to the confusion was that there was a graveyard slightly above us but a far more extensive one on the other side of a rather deep ravine which suggested the main church was in a southerly direction. We couldn't see anything apart from the Hotel Eden though so we opted not to worry about it too much and just enjoy the fantastic cityscape that we could see before us, with the golden sun of a shimmering sunset adding to its mystercism.

Climbing back down, we walked along a narrow street next to a small river, a pathway that would have been pretty before 1993. Unfortunately, it was quite eerie due to the sheer number of shelled buildings that we walked past, telling dark stories of the recent history of the city. Our final tourist stop for the night was back across Stari Most on the other side of town - the old Catholic Church which dominated the skyline. Its steeple, a separate tower next to the main building, was over 30m in height and constructed in 2000 after the Church had received extensive damage in the war. The Church itself had originally built in the nineteenth century and there was a neat little stepped courtyard outside, which was quite busy with people. Due to the time, we didn't opt to climb the tower, which we could have done had we got tickets from a nearby ice cream parlour and instead headed back into the city to get some food. As we did, we were struck once again by the proximity of derelict buildings so close to the main tourist sites. We were told that the city can only repair a handful every year and have an annual vote to decide which buildings to rescue. Apparently most on the Bosniak side are institutionally neglected, which explained the sheer number of abandoned buildings on the eastern side of the river.

We decided to follow the guidebook and go to the Hindin Han restaurant, which was very near the Black Dog Pub as it turned out. We weren't feeling particularly hungry but foolishly ordered a cheese platter to share as we wanted to try the full range of Bosnian cheeses, which is one of the specialities of the region. The Travnički Sir from the town of Travnic was perhaps the highlight and was actually quite ubiquitous. It's a white feta-like cheese which is quite salty. Livanjski was another cheese we got to try - a dry yellow cheese which tasted quite nutty - while I think Kajmak, formed from the toplayer of skimmed milk, was another of the four we got to try (either that or it was Iz Mjeha, a Parmsan-type cheese that is made from sheep's milk poured into a specially sewn sheepskin bag). To be honest, this meal was big enough for us, so when the main course arrived (yet more veal) groaning off the plate then it was rather difficult. It was worse for Wolfie though, who had got a chef's speciality that came with cheese sauce and a fried egg, and he really did struggle with eating it. It was all a bit embarrassing really but the food was exceptionally tasty. I had intended to try some of the local wine, with Herzegovinan wine being particularly highly regarded, but we planned to go to the other craft beer bar so I thought mixing wine and beer would not be a good idea.

We left the restaurant shortly after 7:30pm and walked back to our guesthouse, where we decided to take a shower before heading further away from the Old Town into the suburbs. As we walked, we noticed the American flag projected onto the side of Stari Most for some reason, with us checking out the bridge for the final time before us having to leave in the morning. Saying goodbye was rather emotional. We then walked the non-tourist route back along Buca Street and Santica Street, which was the frontline between Croatian and Bosnian forces during the war. As a result, it saw heavy fighting and here the difference between newly restored modern buildings and delapidated ruins was most pronounced as they were literally next door to each other along these streets. It was fascinating to observe, before we took a right across Musala Most, the bridge currently being renovated, where we saw the fresh Hotel Bristol opposite the ruined Neretva Hotel, which guided us back to our own digs. The Neretva Hotel was particularly haunting in the evening, and indeed it was that evening that I realised we were sleeping right next to the shell of the place with an excellent view of its former glories.

After our shower, we walked ten minutes up the road towards a newer bit of town. Our destination was Beer ti&ja, just around the back of the Mepas Shopping Mall. This was difficult to find as the place they had put it on the guidebook was incorrect, with a new concrete erection being in the place where we expected the bar to be. After a bit of searching though, we heard the sound of chatter and discovered the bar on a raised concourse underneath a block of modern looking shops. There was a number of bars and restaurants here, probably about seven or eight, with a burek at the end. Conveniently this closed at 10pm, which made it excellent for drinking snacks, although we actually stuck to beer. They had a range of local Bosnian craft beers here too, including five which were brewed in town, so we started to work our way down the list. We sat in in the rather pleasant outside area underneath some bamboo fencing, with the October evening being still warm enough to be pleasant with a coat on. There was an outside bar, but we decided to get the drinks from the main place indoors, striking up a conversation with the waitresses as we did. It was a lovely way to spend an evening and as we had only arrived at 9:30pm, we didn't get particularly drunk. Indeed, two hours later, we headed back to the hotel, taking in the five star hotel and the McDonald's in the shopping centre, comparing it with the juxtaposition of bombed out buildings just down the road. It was a strange city, but then it had suffered so much and it would be sad to leave. But leave we must, as we had a journey to Sarajevo in the morning and a lot of Herzegovina still to see.
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This weekend we have been over in north Wales as part of Taneli's 30th birthday celebrations. There were eight of us there in total - Wolfie, me, Taneli, Ottercon, Arcais, Draken, Luna and Douveux, the latter of whom I have been calling Duvet for most of the weekend. We went in three separate cars, leaving work at various times and convening at the Premier Inn on the Menai Park Industrial Estate whenever we all arrived. I am not sure why this hotel was chosen as it was in the middle of nowhere, with no real easy access to anywhere without a car, but I suppose it was cheap and to the usual adequate standard of a Premier Inn. We took Douveux over, with him driving to our house from Newcastle and us taking him the rest of the way. He arrived at 6pm, and we set off shortly after 7pm, with me having to finish some pressing work before we left. The journey itself was pretty event-free, although Douveux did get overly excited upon crossing the Welsh border for the first time in his life and discovering they still have Morrisons there.

As it turned out, we all arrived largely at the same time as Arc and Luna were checking in just as we arrived. This was about 10:15pm and upon being warned that the pub next door called last orders at 11pm, even on a Friday, we dumped our bags in the rooms and then darted off for a drink. The fact the place shut so early, along with there being no other options nearby, was incredibly frustrating and it meant that we could only really have a single drink before retiring to bed. The Brains SA that we had was nice and quite sweet, while the conversation became pretty awkward pretty quickly, descending to extreme sexual stuff which I found a little uncomfortable in a public setting. I was told the next day that politics wasn't appropriate discourse, which made little sense to me. After this, we all headed to bed, which made the evening something of a damp squib, but at least we had a lot of fun in store the next day.

The main reason for going to Wales was to visit Bounce Below at Blaenau Ffestiniog. This was about an hour's drive from Bangor and had been on our collective bucket list for a good number of years. This is a trampoline park set in a disused mine, with trampolines set at various levels, all connected by spiralling metal slides. Our one hour session was booked for noon so after a reasonable breakfast in the Table Table bar next to the Premier Inn - the same bar that had shut so early the night before - we all boarded our cars and headed into the mountains. The scenery on the way was stunning, with the close October mist adding an air of menace to the dark slate-coloured hills. We saw a large number of hikers bedecked in cagools wandering around the area and the sheer number of stores catering to them suggested there is good walking here. As we headed towards Blaenau Ffestiniog, the weather got even closer and at one point we could only see about 10m in front of us. This didn't bode well for the five of them (sans me, Wolfie and Draken) who wanted to do the Titan zipline over the gorge, but the fog did burn back later in the day and I was told it was a breathtaking experience. Not for me though, I'm not built for such speed and Wolfie's fear of heights precluded him from doing it. This meant we went elsewhere.

We had to be at Bounce Below a half hour before our session for the safety demonstration, but really we could have turned up with ten minutes to go. We piled all our stuff into a locker, with Taneli upset that he hadn't realised that it swallows your pound coin, unlike similar set-ups at leisure centres. Still, with a replacement coin found, we were then given a disposable hairnet and a helmet, the latter of which had the strong stench of other people's sweat on it. We were to find out why as, after the short safety demonstration in a cave, we were let loose on the huge trampolines. It was quite strenuous exercise just to stay upright, let alone bounce, and the sheer numbers on the nets meant you ended up going in various directions. If a heavier person was bouncing near to you, you could go flying and indeed this is what happened at one point when I accidentally stood on Wolfie's hand. It took Wolfie about twenty minutes to feel fully comfortable due to his fear of heights, by which time we had gone off exploring the other levels, but at least he enjoyed himself in the end. I spent most of my time with Arc and Luna, exploring the twisty turny net obstacle course that was so slippy it was hard to get up, or sliding down the incredibly disappointing slides with Luna. The slides were quite slow, even with the bag they insisted we climbed into to ride down them, but aside from this, it was a great place. An hour was enough though due to the sheer strenuous nature of the activity, with me struggling even on the private trampoline that I had discovered towards the end.

Once our time was up, we left the cave network, which was expertly lit, and headed back to the entrance, where the aforementioned quintet got ready for their zipline. At this point, we bid them adieu and told them we would meet them back at the hotel, with Wolfie and I having plans to see a few sights while we were in the area. With the mist clearing and the sun starting to break through, we drove the fifteen miles or so to Porthmadog, home of the Purple Moose Brewery. We didn't really go just for this reason, but we had sampled some of their excellent real ales at the Pudsey CAMRA beer festival and we thought it would be worth dropping in as we were in the area. What we werent expecting to see though was a delightful steam engine sat in Porthmadog railway station, part of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. It was a South African locomotive, built in 1953, and was coupled to about seven old fashioned carriages backwards. The loco had a very interesting axle design and could clearly operate facing forwards and back, which it was about to do as it was heading towards Caernarfon further up the coast. We walked up and down the platform for a bit, checking out the views of the harbour and marina as we did, before seeing the train depart almost fully laden with passengers. It was a very friendly old scene and indeed a number of elderly people had turned out just to stand on the platform and wave the people off as if they were going to war or something. The train then pulled out of the station and made its way down the high street before turning off near a petrol station and heading north.

We headed down the high street too, taking a closer look at the marina before dipping into the modest Maritime Museum on the Quayside. We didn't have an awful lot of time as we wanted to see Caernarfon too, plus our parking ticket was about to expire, but we did have a whistlestop ten minutes learning all about the slate trade and how it boosted Porthmadog's fortunes, even contributing to having a shipbuilding industry in the town. There was a little focus on the town's role in the two world wars too, while the couple who were on the front desk were incredibly friendly and urged us to come back when we had more time, saying we could get in for free. To be honest, I think we gave the museum a decent enough shot considering, and after this we had a little stroll down the high street proper. It was good to see that for a town with the word 'dog' in its name, there were a large number of dogs here, including my two favourites who were big dogs whose owners were speaking to the nice people in the Maritime Museum. Anywho, we were heading for the Purple Moose Brewery Shop, which the Maritime Museum volunteers also told us about. On our way, we walked past their official tap room but alas we couldn't have a tipple due to Wolfie driving. However, we did find their shop easily enough and got chatting to the friendly lady running it. We decided to buy one bottle of each of the eight beers on offer by Purple Moose, along with some other local Welsh craft beers and real ales we had never seen before. As you can anticipate, we ended up with rather a lot of beer.

Caernarfon was our next stop, with us following the railway line up the coast. It proved to be quite a nice loop back towards Bangor, with Caernarfon being about ten minutes' drive from our hotel. As we approached the town centre, we could see the thick walls of the famous castle looming in front of us. We parked right in front of it, next to the marina, and had a leisurely walk through the town itself, spying the statue of David Lloyd George, who was MP for the area before becoming Prime Minister. The square itself is rather pleasant and there were some very imposing Presbetyrean type Victorian churches down some of its side streets. However, the highlight of course was the Medieval part of the settlement, contained within the city walls. One of the streets right next to the perimeter was the bar area, and we spied a nice craft beer shop selling yet more Welsh craft beer. We stuck our noses in and came out with a few more beers, like in Purple Moose taking advantage of some dated stock to get some bargains. We then took these back to the car before exploring the castle itself, after trying to get some lunch and only ending up with Jammie Dodger ice cream, which was rather delcious (the wide range of ice cream flavours in Wales is absolutely mindboggling - there were so many types I had never seen before). We only had an hour and it proved not to be enough time, but we did give it a good lick in the time we had. Dragons were a dominant theme, with a sculpture of three of them at one end of the complex, along with a Dragon AR game you could play on our phone not dissimilar to Pokemon Go. In seven castles in the area, there were ten dragons to catch if you logged into the CADW app so of course I had to start playing. I collected five in the end as we went around exploring.

There was a lot for history buffs inside the castle, as you would expect. Edward I built many of the castles in this area following the end of the second Welsh War and this one was no exception, having been constructed in 1283. The future Edward II was to be born here a year later, and was pronounced Prince of Wales, a tradition which extends to this day. Indeed, the current Prince of Wales was made so in a ceremony in Caernarfon Castle in 1969, of which they had video in one of the downstairs rooms. There were a number of other exhibits too, many related to Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile, who were both closely linked to the Castle. Indeed at one point there was a detailed exposition about the kings and queens of Wales from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, with their power highlighted through chess pieces of differing sizes (the taller the chess piece and nearer it was to the middle, the more powerful the monarch). Much of the Castle is still standing and you could go up and down its corridors and ramparts, which was quite fun from an exploratory standpoint. The Museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is also contained in the castle, along with a medal room containing a vast array of military honours, all colour coded and dating from the last 180 years. Unfortunately, we didn't have an awful lot of time to see everything and with the tardy bell sounding in the courtyard, we had to leave having not quite seen everything. We then had a little walk around the harbour area here before heading back to the hotel for a shower (what with Bounce Below being incredibly sweaty).

We had booked a meal for 7pm, with me phoning an Italian place called Bocca in Menai Bridge earlier that afternoon. I had to leave a message on the answer phone, but they did ring back later on (indeed when we were in the Caernarfon craft beer shop at the time) to tell me that they had a table for seven but they could possibly squeeze eight of us on. Without any other options, I opted to agree, and this turned out to be a rather good choice as the food was exceptional. Yep, it was a bit of a squeeze getting us all on the table, but the service and food more than made up for it. I shared a bottle of rich white wine with Taneli along with some foccacia crispbread with Wolfie to start. My pizza of bresaeola - a salt beef from Italy - was great although they perhaps overdid the rocket, while Wolfie and I shared a fantastic cheeseboard for dessert. Perhaps it was a little glutinous but it was Taneli's birthday and many of us were pushing the boat out. And at only £25 each, it was exceptional value too. Considering it was pretty much a last minute arrangement - with Taneli having Googled local places just that morning - then there are no complaints from me.

We took two cars, with Wolfie and Draken driving, and at around 9pm we headed back to the hotel. To do so, we went over the stunning Menai Bridge, a triumph of Victorian architecture and a very unique structure. We couldn't see too much of it in the darkness, which was unfortunate, but we did get to see it properly and again on Sunday so all was not lost. Upon getting back to the hotel, some of us wanted to go into Bangor proper but the consensus was to stay where we were as a number of people had already brought drinks for the room. Not fancying an evening in a Premier Inn, I at least persuaded people to go to the Table Table pub, where we had a few drinks before it closed ridiculously early once more. Perhaps it was the volume of food we had had, but a number of people were feeling quite sleepy and went to bed shortly afterwards - with Arc, Draken and Taneli retiring. Douveux was still desperate for a drink and with Luna still awake too, we headed back to our room for a few. About ten minutes later, Ottercon joined us, saying he wasn't feeling sleepy either and so the five of us spent the next three hours chatting about various things. For some reason we sang Coldplay's 'Yellow' to Tanuki down the phone while we also played the pass the parcels that Angelo had brought to one of the Leeds Meets before Christmas last year. This was quite fun and although the prizes were quite shit, at least we got rid of the damn things, although I must note the two stuffed toys (an emoji thing blowing a kiss and a hedgehog in desperate need of a chiropracter) have ended up back at our house. Anywho, we had a number of drinks and a good chat before everyone headed to bed at around 2am. Wolfie followed, and I stayed up a short while watching The Last Leg before falling asleep about half an hour later.

After a rather acrimonious situation regarding whether or not to get breakfast (we didn't in the end), the eight of us checked out and met in the car park at around 11:30am. It was here that I gave both Draken and Taneli their birthday presents, including the special bottom flannel I had bought for the cheetah. There was only one thing on the agenda today - go to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which was about ten minutes' drive. Upon arriving at the famous railway station, we were shocked to see seven buses all parked up, with an eighth reversing. We had to wait for the bus to do this before finding our space in the car park. It was odd, but nearly all of the buses were filled with elderly people more interested in going to the outlet shop next door to the station rather than the station itself. With no trains for at least three hours, the two platforms were quite deserted, giving us ample opportunity to take pictures of ourselves outside the signs. The station house has been done up but is closed, making us wonder what the point of doing it up was, while we got pictures of both the old fashioned and modern signs (which needed five poles just to keep it up). The occasional Virgin train sped through the station assumedly on its way to Holyhead but aside from that it was all rather quiet.

Indeed, there is little at llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, it's only real claim to fame being its rather long name. Once this had been sampled, there wasn't much else there, but we did have a look at the chintzy outlet mall where we saw a Christmas tree bedecked with ties, forcing Taneli into talking about Christmas being the most wonderful tie-me of the year. Luna got some rock while I got excited by the farm store offering cheese tastings, but when I went inside, I noticed there were no tastings today. I actually got a bit embarrassed as the two shopkeeps had noticed my excitement before I walked into the store, making it all somewhat awkward. Not having had any breakfast meant that a number of us were hungry so we decided to go to a little cafe over the road for lunch. This was a greasy spoon type place but it was lovely, with a really nice lady behind the counter (who did patronise me a little when I asked what the soups were and she pointed them out on the menu in a condescending way). I did have the soup and toastie special though - leek and cheese & ham respectively - and it was certainly good value for money. We were sat with Luna and Arcais, and ended up talking an awful lot about or school days, with their school sounding an awful lot better than mine. Towards the end of the meal, we noticed a small cocker spaniel puppy was staring at us through the back doorway, and needing the toilet, we decided to go out and pet her. She was called Mitsy and was ever so cute, sitting on Arc's lap and letting me boop her booper. She seemed quite taken aback by all of us, but then soon lost interest once her owners had come out with a plate of scampi for their lunch. Suddenly, food seemed an awful lot more interesting. The only other thing to note here was the scary full-size statue of an elderly woman with arms outstretched who was hiding behind the door to the toilets, scaring the living Jeebus out of anyone who walked in. We didn't tell our friends she was there, just so they got the same experience we did.

We scattered after that, with Douveux opting to go back home with Draken as we were tempted to hang around. Indeed, it was only 1:30pm and it seemed a shame to head home so we decided to have a quick Google in the station carpark at Llanfairpwll to see what other sights we could see on Angelsey. We noticed that Beaumaris Castle was on top at TripAdvisor and considering we were only fifteen minutes' drive from there, it seemed like a good choice. It turned out to be inspired, as Beaumaris is a beautiful little harbour town while the Castle is a breathtakingly elegant example of a late thireenth century fort. It was destined to be a textbook model of a castle but the funding soon ran out once construction began in 1295 and unfortunately it was never completed. Driving up towards it was a jaw-dropping experience in itself and after finding a car park next to the local leisure centre, we strolled towards it. We noticed that there was a modest craft fair on the green outside the Town Hall, with six concessions staffed by bored looking people. One of them was selling oils and vinegars, and on our way back to the car, we did sample a few, which were exceptionally tasty. The beetroot vinegar, along with the raspberry one, was particularly divine but we did struggle to conceive how we would use them. Feeling a little sorry for the lady on the stall, we did buy a small jar of zingy horseradish vinegar, particularly once she said it would work well on cheese on toast. This is definitely something to try.

Anyway, I digress. Beaumaris Castle was heavily fortified and was the first castle I think I have ever visited with a moat containing water still in situ. There was a small dock near the South Gate highlighting that the sea was a good deal further inland than its current place, while its symmetrical form with a keep at its centre only enhanced its perfect beauty. We spent a good amount of time going up and down the ramparts, exploring both the top of the Castle and its dark winding corridors. We saw a brief documentary detailing the history of the Castle, which was fascinating in itself, while there was also a beautifully formed small whitewashed chapel with five understated stained glass windows on the Eastern side. As is often the case with castles, it was good to observe the ruins and work out what was used for what, with evidence of fireplaces and portcullus grooves at various points in the masonry. The murder passage as a line of defence was interesting, while in the bowels of the Castle there was a hands-on workshop where kids could learn how to form an arch or build a spiral staircase. Alas, someone had stolen one of the bridge stones so we could not complete the arch. The Castle itself had a large grassy courtyard, with walls along which you could walk from South to North. The views from these - over the fields to the North or the harbour to the South - were stunning in the autumn sunshine while I also got to play a similar dragon catching game in the grounds of this castle too. I would say it was the moat and symmetry that made it most magical and I really got mired in the story of the place and how it wasn't completed due to unpaid labourers and spiralling costs.

After our visit, we decided to walk around the picturesque harbour for a while, heading out along the pier where we saw a father teaching his kid how to fish and a motorboat doing donuts in the Menai Strait. On the other side of the water was the mainland proper, but it was incredibly windy so not overly comfortable. We then decided to have a quick walk around the town, where we bought some ice cream (I had creme fresche and forest fruits) before poking our heads into the small castle gardens which were really more of a garden centre than anything. After this, we headed back to the car and to the mainland.

With time pressing, we decided to forgo Conwy Castle and instead called briefly in Bangor proper, as we hadn't yet had chance to visit it. Arcais had told us it was 'a town full of charity shops' and this wasn't wide of the mark, with a certain run-down air to the place. This was quite surprising as it is a university town, but it was quite dead, nowhere more so than the Cathedral. We walked into the rather squat building, not too dissimilar from many parish churches I have seen in my time, at around 4pm when the choir was singing. I assumed they were practising for the evening sermon until a few minutes later when I realised this WAS the evening sermon. It threw me as there was only two people in the congregation - a man and a woman sat independently, both in their early Sixties. When the tannoy said 'let us pray', that was time for us to leave, not before us looking at the huge range of religious children's books, many anthropomorphic, they had at the far end of the building. Anyway, the Cathedral was pretty pleasant and certain better than the town. We walked up and down the high street, noticing a number of closed down shops but yet some interesting colourful murals too. There was a Belgian craft beer cafe/coffee shop on the main drag, which at least would have been more interesting than the place we had stayed, albeit not by much. At the heart of the city, there was a walk you could do, following the pavement which highlighted the main events that had befallen the city in history. This led to the Victorian clock tower, built in 1887, which was the main point of interest in the city. A lady was parked outside it, making photography difficult, but I did manage to get a shot, after which we walked the twenty minutes to the pier at the top end of town.

What I didn't know until we arrived was that this pier was one that we had spied as we had driven off Angelsey. It's notable as it spans about two thirds of the Menai Strait, almost reaching the island from the mainland. It took five hundred steps to walk from its base to the end, at which their sits a little octagonal tea shop. There was some repair work being done so there was a fair bit of metal fencing up, but the stroll was pleasant and the view over the water, particularly towards the Menai Bridge, warmed the soul on a windy afternoon. The seagulls, who spent most of their time squawking their displeasure, struggled with the wind while we marvelled at the Victorian engineering of the longest pier we had ever walked down.

After this we walked back into the city centre, taking in the gothic universirty building perched high above the city. There were some good views from up here, making the rather steep climb worth it, and coming back down we spied the university gatehouse which was paid for by subscription after World War One to commemorate the fallen. At this point, it was getting quite late and we wanted to leave Wales in daylight, if only to see the wonderfully rugged terrain through which we had driven in the dark on Friday evening. The fact there was three tunnels was of particular interest, and it was easy to see why they were necessary, with huge mountains plunging straight into the sea. Interestingly, on the eastbound carriageway, there was only one tunnel as we were following the old road which used to be single lane until it went double carriageway. This road clung close to the cliffs and was quite twisty to navigate, necessitating slow speeds. It was obvious as to why the tunnels were built. Aside from this, the drive was uneventful apart from some dickhead who pulled into the fast lane without checking his mirrors, thus almost crashing into us. He then called us a wanker as if it was OUR fault he merged, before driving off down a sliproad. He was the definite wanker.

So all in all quite a busy weekend, spent with good friends and seeing some sights too. We are becoming more ambitious in these getaways so it will be interesting to find out what the next one will be.


Oct. 12th, 2017 11:19 pm
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On the way down from Banja Luka to Mostar, we opted to stop off at the town of Bocac, which was about 45 minutes away from our starting point. I had thought it would be just off the main road, but the sat nav took us over a rickety wooden bridge spanning the Vrbas before making us drive through some very isolated country roads. The advantage of this, of course, was that we saw a fair bit of rural life, with cute little hamlets bathed in the early Autumn sunshine. The terrain was very hilly, with golden trees as far as the eye could see, and it was quite a pleasure getting off the beaten track and seeing a real slice of Bosnian life.

The guidebook had described Bocac as a fifteenth century medieval town, but we saw very little evidence of this, it being really just a small hamlet by the river. Looking down onto the place from the pretty white church, which was perched atop one of the hills, was a marvellous site though, with green rolling meadows punctuated by more modern structures. At the church there is a small memorial to local people who were killed in the Bosnian conflict, while the family who live in the house adjacent to the grounds had two kids who watched us intently as we went around the perimeter of the church admiring both the view and the architecture. They weren't watching us as intently as the cow however, who gave us a jolly good stare while chewing some cud. He seemed friendly enough. Anyway, descending into the town, we did wonder whether we were in the right place and indeed we were, but we couldn't find anything medieval at all. Research I have conducted literally just now suggests that there is the ruin of a fortress there, but we certainly couldn't see it, opting to turn disappointedly back onto the main road once we had left the village. It was odd that the sat nav had taken us the scenic countryside route when the place was literally just off the main road, but who was I to argue?

The town of Jajce was another forty-five minutes away and provided a good stopping off point for lunch. We found one of the main car parks at the foot of the hill upon which the town stands and once we had worked out the parking meter, we popped into the tourist information centre for a map before heading to the waterfall, which runs right through the middle of the place. The Pliva Waterfall - where the rivers Pliva and Vrbas meet - cascades 21ft into the Vrbas River and there were a number of vantage points from which to view this natural wonder. We saw it atop one of the bridges and from a viewing gantry but to really appreciate its awesomeness, we had to meet it at eye level, which involved a walk downhill and having to pay a modest fee for access. Once down there though, you could really sense its power, with the spray hitting your face constantly due to the sheer force involved. There was a little viewing gantry which had been constructed which gave another perspective on the falls, and with the sun shining, you could see a number of pretty rainbows reflected in the water. Sadly, there were a number of beer bottles floating at the foot of the falls as well as a wooden pontoon which took the magic away slightly, but all in all this was the main site that we had come to see and we certainly weren't disappointed.

Jajce has been a highly fought prize over the years, being the last fortress town to fall to the Turks in 1528. It also oscillated back and forth between varying armies in the Bosnian War and in the heart of the city, there is a marble memorial bearing the Croatian flag commemorating a large number of men who must have been killed in the fighting. It's hard to think that such a beautiful place would have seen such bloodshed so recently but then you could say that about a lot of Bosnia. It was captured by the Bosnian Croat Army in 1995 and has remained largely Catholic since then, and this is certainly reflected in the town. The centre is largely a collection of restaurants but it is the labrynthine old town perched high above it that was of real interest. The Fortress is situated right at the top, largely just a collection of walls guarding fallen masonry in the middle, although you were free to clamber to your heart's content. Wolfie largely hung back and I noticed that it was possible to climb the main watchtower, but decided against it due to the unstable nature of a number of structures here. The view from the top looking over the newer parts of town was great though, along with the vista along the river valley along which the main road runs.

Much of the Old Town remains standing and on our way up to the Fortress, we did get to see a number of smaller buildings of varying historical importance. At the base of the Old Town, next to the newer bit, is the Esma Sultana Mosque, which was completely destroyed in the fighting in 1993. Only the exterior has been restored, so consequently we weren't allowed to visit, but it was good to see the regeneration of such an importnat building. Further up the hill there was St Mary's Church, situated on what was the main street of the Old Town. The Church was converted into a mosque in 1528, but this was destroyed by fire in the mid-nineteenth century, with only a shell of the building and the impressive belltower remaining, which is the only one left standing on the Balkan peninsula. It was quite eerie seeing something so grand reduced to a mere skeleton but we were to see many more examples of this, most of them created fairly recently.

Near the Church were the Catacombs, which contained an underground alter carved into the rock. Believed to have been built in the early part of the fifteenth century, these are the only catacombs as yet discovered in Bosnia. They were quite small and not particularly impressive compared to some of the others we have visited, but for their sheer historical significance, they were certainly worth observing. As we hiked around the Old Town, we were taken aback by the way people were living in the midst of such history, with little houses dotted around the narrow pedestrian pathways. There were some abandoned homes too, assumedly as a result of war, and this mix of history, modern houses and abandonment created a rather odd mix. The fact there was a small mosque, or a little clock tower, littered right in the middle of twentieth century homes and twenty-first century lives was all rather fascinating. Add to the mix that there were so few tourists here and it was a beautiful day and I must admit it was all rather magical.

By the time we had finished exploring - which also included the two main gates leading into the city (the Travnik Gate and the Banja Luka Gate) - it was time for lunch. One of the places the guidebook recommended, Restoran Una, was literally right opposite where we had parked our car but alas it was closed, meaning we had to go next door instead. The waiter spoke little English but he did serve us Cevapi, the local delicacy. These are small meat sausages of lamb or beef, with fresh onions and crisp warm pitta bread. They were absolutely gorgeous and although we only got the mini versions, they were more than enough for us. You could easily see the Turkish influence in here and although the meal was slightly ruined by an irksome persistent wasp who was after our Coca Cola, I am glad we ate outside in the sunshine (overlooking the car park and tourist information centre) and we had chosen to go to this particular cafe.

We needed to head off soon after this as we wanted to get to Mostar before nightfall, but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to visit the Avnoj Museum, which was where in 1943 Tito and his anti-fascist Partisan allies from six states - Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Macedonia - declared Yugoslavia to be a socialist federal people's state. This was their second conference, and took place after some military successes against the occupying Italian and German forces, and was arguably the most integral in the formation of the new country. The stage is set up as it was back then, with explanations on the wall about how each of the six regions came to this point. There was also some memorabilia in glass cases down the sides of the hall, but much of this was poorly labelled, with the English explanations being erratic. We headed upstairs after visiting this one room, mis-interpreting a sign for the 'Gallery' which turned out to be along a corridor adjacent to the staircase. The upstairs was a learning centre that was still under construction, but soon we did find the collection of artworks before needing to head back to the car and start our long drive south.

On the way out of Jajce though, we didn't want to pass up the opportunity to visit the Pliva Mills, which are situated on the stunningly picturesque Pliva Lakes some five kilometers out of town. We made a quick detour down there, as these small wooden structures straddling over a rather modest waterfall were huge symbols of wealth and power in medieval times. Wheat was milled into flour here for many centuries, and we even got to see a man explain to a rather mardy looking woman how the process worked. There must have been about fifteen mills in total, with turbines descending down from the flooring, touching the water which powered them. They did seem a little rudimentary but they were effective, and usage of the mills was never paid for with money, just with 10% of the product you were making being left behind for the owner. It seemed like quite a neat system. A number of these mills have recently been restored, while the whole area has been declared a national monument. We didn't watch the guy operating them for long as we weren't sure whether this was an official demonstration or something to do with mardy lady, but we had other things to concern us as we had made a doggo puppy friend. We think he was a stray, albeit a well-fed one, and he spent a lot of our time at the Mills just following us around, walking on the slippery wooden beams which connected mill to mill and just wanting to be with us. He was very inquisitive and I would have taken him home had I could, he was just so sweet. Sometimes he struggled to work out how to get from bank to bank due to the water obstructing his path while leaving was tough as he had found the road and we didn't want to run him over, but the little fella definitely made our day and gave us another boost as we headed south towards Mostar.

Banja Luka

Oct. 11th, 2017 11:15 pm
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We left Tuzla Airport at around 12:30pm on the Sunday (1 October), with our destination Banja Luka some two and a half hours away. The drive was quite pleasurable although the winding roads didn't present many overtaking opportunities, thus became frustrating whenever we got stuck behind a slow road user. There were a number of these, but Wolfie's driving was good. On the way, we either takled, listened to Bosnian radio or heard songs I had downloaded through Spotify, creating a nice eclectic backdrop as we drove through some truly wonderful scenery. Most of the country is mountainous and the roads often snake through river valleys, hugging cliff edges. This presented some really epic rock formations, while the water in the streams was as crystal as I have ever seen. There were quite a few tunnels too, which was always an exciting experience and even though the drives were long, they didn't really feel it. We grabbed some snacks and drinks along the way - trying the local Sky Cola which was probably the best non-brand name drink I have ever had. Indeed, it was so close to Coca-Cola that it would be hard to tell the difference so I was suitably impressed. One thing we noticed was the huge number of petrol stations meaning there were quite a few places to stock up, while we also occasionally stopped at the frequent parking places just so we could take some photographs of the view. Alas, what with it being early Autumn, in many places the vista was obscured by foliage but we did manage to take some pictures as we travelled.

We were on something of a deadline, only because we were scheduled to stop for just a night in Bosnia's second city, meaning we wanted to see as much of it in daylight as possible. It was a toss-up of spending one night here and two in Mostar or vice versa and in the end we definitely chose wisely. We arrived in Banja Luka at around 4pm and conveniently found a parking place right outside the hotel. We feared we may be ticketed but the receptionist reassured us that parking there was fine and soon we were settled in our rather massive room. There were two beds, one double and one single, so I snaffled the single and Wolfie had the double. We then pretty much headed straight into the city as we knew we only had about two and a half hours of sunshine remaining.

As it turned out, we didn't really need that amount of time as there isn't an awful lot to do in the city. Considering it is the de facto capital of the Republika Srpska (whose flag we saw in place of the Bosnian national flag on many lampposts as we drove across), I would have expected a lot more but there is only really two main streets and most of the sights are in close proximity to one another. The first thing we saw was literally on the end of the street where our hotel was - the Ferhat Pasha Mosque. Whenever I saw a mosque, I couldn't get Deputy Director Bullock from American Dad! out of my head, when he said 'instead we are raiding a mosque', which was somewhat unfortunate, particularly as many of the buildings we saw in Bosnia were architecutral marvels. The Ferhat Pasha Mosque was one of the grandest, and had been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status before it was destroyed in the Bosnian conflict. It has since been reconstructed on top of the ruins, with it being reconsecrated in May 2016. It is a huge symbol of the progression this country has made over the last twenty years and remains faithful to its traditional sixteenth century Ottoman architecture. We didn't get chance to view its interior, which I believe is stunning, but it is one of those buildings that dominates the skyline and the pegoda in particular with its blue and burgendy patterning was breathtaking enough.

We got a better view of the Mosque over at the Kastel, the castle which has sat on this site since Roman times. Most of the remnants though are Turkish and again from the sixteenth century. There is a little stage area with seating tucked in one corner of the fortress but unfortunately it was closed off to us. However, we were able to walk along the ramparts, which afforded excellent views of the river on one side. A couple of couples were canoodling up here, which was somewhat offputting, but I didn't let them deter me as I hiked my way around the perimeter. There was a couple of small buildings inside the fortress from memory, including a rather good restuarant with particularly good riverside frontage, but we opted to head into town once we had export the castle as we wanted to catch all of the main sights before dusk.

As I said before, we needn't have worried as there aren't too many of them. The main church in the city is the Christ The Saviour Orthodox Church, an orange and dark red striped building that sits on the main square. It's gold dome and particularly large standalone bell tower makes this rather hard to miss and is a good example of the Austro-Hungarian influence in the city, with the Church having been constructed in 1929. It was destroyed in the Second World War and outside there are some remains of the original pillars and stone masonary which had been damaged. Again, I believe the interior was lovely but it was closed and we couldn't get down into the crypt either, largely because a beggar lady had started stalking us and we were feeling somewhat unnerved.

After this, we headed further up the main drag, taking in the rather utilitarian National Theatre. This street reflected the Austro-Hungarian feel of the place, which was the time the city grew to prominence, while the bar area is what this street became, with about ten standard type hostelries down either side. We then doubled back down the parallel street and noticed some busts of national heroes dating from the times of Yugoslavia, about twenty of them arranged in a semi-circle. We had no idea who these people were, but we stopped to take a picture before realising we were near the one and only craft beer bar in the city - Pause. A rather hipster type place, they did serve beers from the Serbian craft brewery Kabinet. There were about eight in the fridge, along with a Mikkeller brew which had been brewed in collaboration with them. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity of sampling some difficult to get beers in the UK, we ended up sampling four of them, with the barman, who spoke little English, quickly cottoning on to exactly what we were doing. We would have stayed for longer, but we hadn't eaten anything and were starting to feel the effects of the high strength beers somewhat. We had drunk in this bar as the sun had set, with a rather intimate feel becoming a slightly more effervesent one and it was a genuinely pleasureable place to be - busy but not rammed.

There were a couple of places recommended to us in the guidebook, with one being where the old railway station used to be. Housed in the ticket office, this was another nice slice of Austro-Hungarian architecture but instead we headed to a back street restaurant called Monogram, which specialises in Serbian food. When we arrived, it was quite loud and I suspect there was a rather large party booking, with local music being played by a live quartet. We had to go through their performance just to go to the toilet, but we sat ourselves in the conservatory area and had soon ordered - a plate of Serbian cheese to start, followed by veal, which is an incredibly popular meat here. Indeed, I don't think I have ever eaten so much veal in my life as I did in Bosnia and its richness may have been partially responsible for the tummy trouble I experienced later in the week, but in the meantime the food was tender and rather well done, leaving us quite satisfied.

After this, we had a quick nightcap in Pause again before heading back to the hotel, knowing we needed to get up early as Monday was scheduled to be the biggest driving day of them all. We reached the hotel at 10pm and grabbed a bottle of Jelen, a local fizzy pilsner, to share in the room. We then watched crappy TV for a couple of hours, with a trashy American show called 'Paranormal Lockdown' being a particular delight. In this show, two ghost hunters armed with a geobox (whatever that is) spend 72 hours isolated in a haunted house to see if they can contact any spirits. It's as terrible as it sounds but strangely compelling and we did find it quite enjoyable. However, it was the last thing we watched before we went to bed, so we were feeling rather wired, which is why when I heard three errant knocks coming from the bedside table and Wolfie claimed it had not been him, I almost shit myself. Alas, after that I did manage to sleep uneventfully.

Our sleep was good and after a modest breakfast in the dining room, which was pretty much a small space underneath the main staircase, we packed our bags, loaded the car and set off on the long journey south to Mostar. We noticed that we had received a ticket overnight but were delighted to discover upon check out that the hotel had put it on there to prevent us getting a real ticket. After this scare, we left the city behind on what was a glorious day and headed towards our first stop of the day, the town of Jajce, which was an hour and a half away.


Oct. 10th, 2017 11:20 pm
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Over the last week, Wolfie and I have been travelling around Bosnia. This was my birthday trip, brought forward due to a lack of flights in November, coupled with the promise of better weather earlier in the autumn. This certainly didn't disappoint as on all days barring the Friday, the weather was bright sunshine and hitting 25C whilst the leaves across the country were turning a wonderful shade of yellow and brown.

We were flying from Luton on the Saturday (30 September), with the flight scheduled at 7:15pm, giving us most of the day to get down there. We opted to go through London, with us buying the Luton leg of the journey on the day just in case our main train was delayed. In the end it wasn't, and we were early for pretty much all aspects of the journey. We arrived into Leeds with plenty of time to spare, so we headed to Friends of Ham to sample some brews from the previous night tap takeover from a French brewery of which we hadn't heard, and we grabbed a few more for the train down. Furthermore, once we had arrived in London, we realized we had about an hour to kill so we decided to go for a quick drink in The Euston Tap, a place we had always wanted to check out but which was far too small to visit on an evening. Mid-afternoon though, we did manage to get a seat upstairs in one of the two small buildings that make up this unique hostlery. The beer on offer was good, as was the decor (I particularly enjoyed the London Electric Railways map on the wall) but the tables were quite dated. While we were drinking, we noticed a group of three men stood on the pavement beneath our window and found it difficult to work out whether two of them were PCSOs or just on a stag party. Their mannerisms suggested the former but after some deducing, we realised that these were genuine officers, just the least intimidating cops we had ever seen.

We grabbed a panani for the Luton train then headed to get our tickets, arriving at the terminal with a good two hours to spare. With online check-in having already been secured, we sailed through security and found ourselves with yet more time to kill. We decided to get some food at one of the bars, which was reasonable enough, as we waited for our aircraft to board. This was on time and soon enough we were in the air, bound for the city of Tuzla, the third biggest in Bosnia. Tuzla is an industrial city and, in all honesty, there was little much there but it was the only place in the country to which you could get a cheap flight from the UK so in the end this is where we ended up. The terminal itself was incredibly small, with just one small arrival area, but being in row six meant that we got to disembark particularly swiftly and the customs procedures were painless. I had booked ahead with the hotel to get a taxi from the airport to our accommodation - with us slated to pick up a hire car from the airport the next day (they had closed by the time our flight had arrived just after 11pm) - and as soon as we entered the Arrivals Hall, there was a rugged gentleman in his Sixties holding my name on a piece of paper. He spoke no English, meaning I couldn't really explain to him that we needed local currency from an ATM, so soon we were headed for his car, which was parked at the other end of the modest car park.

The ride to the city centre was about 20 minutes along narrow winding country roads. At one point I started to get somewhat suspicious but it turned out that we were going in the right direction and that nearly all roads in the country were twisty turny, something that Wolfie had great fun driving down during our stay. As we entered a steep valley, we noticed the lights of the city below us and, at the bottom, we turned right onto the main drag, spying a brightly illuminated shopping mall in front of us. On the other side of the road to this was our hotel, the Hotel Dorrah, and soon we had checked in and were settled in our modest room. The curtain here wasn't particularly thick, allowing the glaring lights from the mall to shine through, but the place was nice enough, although I did suspect that we were one of only two pairs of guests in the whole building.

There was no bar in the hotel, so we decided to go and look for one, along with a cash machine to get some currency. The problem was it was approaching midnight by now and I knew that the local bars tended to close around about then. Furthermore, the hotel was slightly out of the city and we weren't 100% sure where the centre was, beyond being told to walk a partiuclar direction down the main road. For some reason we didn't have the foresight to load a map of Tuzla onto our phones or indeed take the free copy in our room, so we just set off aimlessly wandering. We did this for about twenty minutes, finding little aside from an old locomotive sat outside a building facing a memorial to those who died in the Bosnian War. I don't know the significance of the memorial or indeed the loco - and Google is not helping me - but it may relate to people who were transported and subsequently killed by the Bosnian Serbs. I'm speculating however, but one creepy thing was that as I was taking a picture of the train, it's front left light flashed on as if it was sentient. This scared the living shit out of me, and it promptly did it again, which made me fret whether I was in the wrong or whether it was some sort of prank. It was quite disconcerting. This was only enhanced by the thick smog which hung over the city that evening, adding a misty and indeed spooky air to proceedings.

We turned around once we had reached the indoor sports centre, not realising that, at that point, the city centre was just over the river. This was hemmed in by concrete and had a few modest bridges going across it, so it wasn't overly obvious, but alas we were starting to get tired and somewhat bored. On the way back, we did notice some ATMs outside of a closed shopping centre, with the creaking of the tarpaulin advertising banners affixed to some metal poles being most disconcerting, so at least we got money. Frustratingly, we also saw a bar across the street but with the time at exactly midnight, we had just hit on their closing time, much to the amusement of the lazy dog who was lying on the front steps of the place, who looked up at us mockingly as we departed. We walked down the other side of the road and as well as noticing the train and bus stations on this side, we also saw a small park where a trio of ladies were drinking on the base of a huge Soviet-era statue dedicated to the Husino rebellion of 1921. Entitled 'After The End Of History' by Asim Rafiqui, the face looked quite similar to that on Queen's 'News of the World' album cover, while aloft he is holding a rifle in fighting pose. In the dark, we couldn't see many of these features and we didn't want to get too close in case we weirded out the women, but this was far more noticeable in the daylight the next morning, at which time we did get chance to have a good look.

Having got back to the hotel, we watched some football on TV and then headed to bed, with the intention of walking back into Tuzla in the morning, thinking we may have better luck finding the centre when it was light. After a rather modest continental breakfast, where I felt a little sorry for the single cook who asked us whether we wanted cooked products and we declined due to time reasons, we set off to retrace the steps we had made the night before. With the sun shining, we did manage to find the rather pretty city centre this time, with the main square (Trg Slobode/Freedom Square) in particular being a delight. There was a rally forming here, with a large number of people in red T-shirts congregating outside a small children's playpark at one end of the plaza, so we decided to avoid this, instead focusing on the beautiful and exquisite fountains and Austro-Hungarian architecture. The Kapija was probably the most striking feature in the city, and this was slightly further away from the square down the old winding streets. This was right in the middle of the residential street Korzo and was a lime-green building of Austro-Hungarian style. Outside here, on 25 May 1995, an artillery shell exploded killing 70 young people on National Youth Day. Their names are enscribed on the wall in memorial, and it was to be our first glimpse of many of the war that resulted in so many deaths in the mid-Nineties.

Like many cities in Bosnia, there are a wide range of religious buildings, particularly churches and mosques due to the history of the country. The Ottomans were here for the best part of 400 years before the Austro-Hungarians came in 1878. The Gazi Turali Beg Mosque, a national monument, is probably the most striking building in the city although the green-domed Orthodox Church was also particularly nice. This sits very near Pannonica Lake, a rather tacky outdoor swimming area which I imagine is a necessity on hot summer days. It looked like great fun but alas it was closed, perhaps due to the early hour or perhaps due to the time of year. I wasn't overly sure. Aside from this, it was just pleasant wandering around the winding old streets lined with coffee shops, with many of them surprisingly busy considering the rather early hour.

There were a number of parks to see too, but it only took us about an hour to see pretty much everything so we decided to head back to the hotel and then to the airport to pick up our rental car. On the way, we stopped at the same shopping mall where we had got our money from the previous night as we needed to get a local SIM card for Wolfie's phone. We figured that this would be cheaper than hiring a sat nav, which really bumped up the price of the rental car, but we were concerned that on a Sunday, finding a SIM would be difficult. We needn't have worried as we found a small mobile phone shop with a guy who understood perfect English, and was able to install the new card for us.

With this in place we headed back, checked out and asked the hotel to call us a taxi to the airport. We had to wait for a short while, during which we got talking to one of the managers in the breakfast area. Like so many people in Bosnia, she was very friendly and really boosted the quality of our trip. Soon it was time to go however, and we were delighted to see our old friend the taxi driver from the night before. He seemed delighted to see us too again and soon we were heading back to the airport, where our rental car awaited. Acquiring this was relatively straightforward, although Wolfie was a little down that we got a better car than advertised (he opted for a Chevrolet for shitness factor and we got a Skoda Felicia). After an inventory check where we noticed that nearly all angles of the car had been bumped or scratched, we sorted out insurance and were given the keys. And this was when the adventure really began.
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Eight years ago I got involved with Tom Broadbent's 'At Home With The Furries' project, which has since been turned into an art exhibition and a pull out for the Sunday Times. For 2018, he is hoping to take the project further, and rang me up last month requesting my assistance. Back in 2009, we took a photo in fursuit under my Dad's car, and he wanted to turn this into video. Unfortunately, that car is now long gone, and I have a better suit these days - more fursuit than mascot suit - so I offered to do the shoot again and get some fresh pictures. This is what we did this weekend.

I went up to my Dad's on Friday evening, with Tom scheduled to swing by on Saturday lunchtime. This gave me an evening with my Dad, which we spent at a rather nice pub in Appleton Whiske, where I had a glorious steak and a rather average pint of English real ale. We then headed back to the local pub in my village, which hasn't really left 1983, with the same decor from the Sixties and all the beers you would expect to see in a North-East pub from thirty years ago. The views were from then too, with the local paper and the Daily Mail the only real reading options. It was very much a local pub for local people, frequented by people who had never left the village, so it was all rather unsettling really. We only had one pint, largely due to the bloatedness induced by the meal, although we did crack open a few craft beers when we got home, including a couple I had brought specially for my father. It was good catching up, both here and on the walk we did the following morning, taking advantage of the warm autumnal sunshine to go around the field where we used to walk our dog when she was alive. The narrow track which used to be frequented by cocaine users has since become overgrown - a sign of council cuts I guess - but aside from this it was largely the same as it was twenty years ago, which, along with the pub, sums up the general dullness of where I grew up.

We picked Tom up at the station at around 1pm and headed back home for a lunch of bread and soup, before I donned my suit and headed back under the car. It had far less open space than the 2009 equivalent, and I ended up spending an hour and a half under there, with my Fitbit even registering I had slept for 55 minutes of it (which was untrue). We took some shots and then filmed a video, advertising the project on Kickstarter, which is where it will be come the New Year. We had to do thirteen takes for a variety of reasons, but we managed to nail it in the end, after which we headed outside to film the interview section for the Kickstarter entry. As I don't speak in suit, I had to do a lot of miming, and it was rather weird performing with my father watching, but it was also great fun and we soon got the takes we needed. My Dad was incredibly helpful and really got into it, while afterwards we had just enough time to show Tom the town where I grew up before we headed back to the station.

Saturday evening consisted of meeting up with Wolfie before heading to the supermarket to get some suited. We then went to Bradford, where a lot of nutters seemed to be out and about, far more than usual. Leeds Station had been particularly ripe, but Bradford was something else, with people trying to start fights and randomly high-fiving us in the street. We went to the International for a curry, with Tom's parents having taken him to the Karachi in the past, as this was where they had had their first date. Tom wanted somewhere different though, so we headed to the International, surprised by the fact that the last time we had been must have been something like three years ago. The curry was just as good as it has always been, and the same older guy served us, which was like being reintroduced to a familiar friend. Alas there was no strawberry lassi and the place was quite quiet - at least until a group of the nutters headed in around the time we were finishing - but the meal was rather fantastic. We also showed Tom the new fountain development in the city as he had not seen that before, before heading back home to discuss all of the weird photoshoots he had done when working at Bizarre magazine, even reintroducing him to some of his former work as I still have a few copies of them.

Tom's train was scheduled to leave at 2:05pm which gave us a little time for some more photoshoots. We had thought of doing a guitar one but we didn't have time in the end as the main one was us doing a BBQ. As it was all rather last minute, we didn't get an awful lot of time to arrange it, but I did manage to call upon Cosmo to come and join the shoot with his Syruss fox outfit. This went down very well and soon we were in place, shooting more photos and videos as the neighbours watched on. They were quite supportive in general, but didn't really know what to make of it, while it was great to get a number of good takes. I must admit I wasn't aware of quite how much work goes into professional photography and videography and we had to do a lot of takes, but the end result was definitely worth it.

After this, we dropped Cosmo and Tom back at the station then headed for a canal side walk, taking advantage of one of the last warm days of the year. Aside from this, it was just gym and guitar, before finally watching the hilarious furry episode of The Crystal Maze, which we had missed the other week due to being in Buxton. This, along with our photo weekend, did highlight to me just how accepted furry has now become and that most people are completely fine with it. Indeed, 'The Cosplay Team' demonstrated just how familiar many now are with such subcultures and even our elderly neighbours were enthused about what we were up to. It's a far cry from back in 2009.
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Last night, my sister came to visit from Manchester, where she is now living. She was pleased to discover just how easy it is to travel between Leeds and where she lives, and we are hoping to do more meet-ups in future.

We hadn't met since July so it was good to catch up, which was the primary purpose of the evening. Earlier in the day, she said she fancied curry so having given her a list of restaurants to try, she decided to go for Hansa's on North Street. This vegetarian place is somewhere we had been meaning to try for a while, so we were happy to oblige, with us always discounting it largely because we often eat with meat-eating friends.

I met her at the station at 18:40 after wandering around Leeds discovering a couple of new drinking establishments, including an eSports bar underneath one of the railway arches. We then walked up to Hansa's where Wolfie was due to meet us. We grabbed a table and Wolfie arrived soon afterwards. We ordered mango lassi, which was a little watery, while the pickle tray was disappointing, with caustic unblended mango chutney one of the three on offer. Not liking lime pickle either, we over-ordered poppadoms as a result and while my main course (chickpeas and potato) was nice enough, it was a little watery and bland. This place apparently has won many awards, but I would certainly put it in the average bracket of curry houses in the city. Still, the staff were really friendly and although we were only one of two occupied tables, I did think the evening was a success.

After this, we popped to the New Brunswick for a scooner, with me introducing my sister to Mikkeller's fantastic Spontan range. She spent quite a while talking about her recent business trip to Milan, which I think she quite enjoyed, with her showing us the exquisite stand that her company had provided for a client. She also told us tales of drunken karaoke. Wolfie had driven in so was drinking lightly, and he soon had to head off as he was on call and needed to get home to deal with something. This left my sister and I alone so we decided to traipse all the way to the other side of the city to go to Northern Monk, knowing that this was one of the main craft beer places that my sister had yet to visit. She really liked it, although she was surprised I was taking her into the Victorian industrial depths of Holbeck Urban Village. One thing we didn't realise was that it was pub quiz night so the place was packed, but we still got a seat and enjoyed listening to the remaining questions. I learned I knew a lot about Calfornia but bugger all about song lyrics, while the two of us enjoyed the range of beers on offer here. Sadly, the evening's happiness was shattered by the news of the Mexico City earthquake, which made me worry about friends there (who still haven't been in touch), but despite this it had been good catching up with my sister.

I walked her back to the station for her 21:40 train and as we were about fifteen minutes early, we chatted in the upstairs part of the new concourse entrance as I couldn't get through to the platform itself. We then said goodbye and resolved to do this again, perhaps on a monthly basis, what with it being so easy.


Sep. 18th, 2017 11:27 pm
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I've been learning to play guitar now for seven weeks, finally realising a lifelong dream after being inspired by Ash from the movie 'Sing'. During that time, I have been surprisingly disciplined, with me using the hour after I get back from the gym when I am drying off after my shower to practice. This has seen me practice at least three times a week, and in actual fact I have managed to squeeze a few extra sessions in too.

It's going quite well so far. I've started to memorise where the frets and strings are, and can change between a handful of chords pretty seemlessly, which is a significant improvement on where I was. I can play a handful of songs too, with Rocksmith helping me, and my target of being reasonably competent by Christmas is still looking realistic. The best thing about it though is that I am enjoying it, and have a target of playing on the stage at EF next year with some friends. That would be awesome.

I do struggle to stick with things, but the fact I've done this for nearly two months bodes well. I just hope I can keep improving.


Sep. 10th, 2017 10:01 pm
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The Leeds International Beer Festival is always one of the highlights of the year and this time around proved the same, with us tasting 30 beers over the course of two highly charged evenings.

I got to the queue very early on Friday, and thus found myself very near the front. In a shock, Wolfie was already on his way in, and joined me some twenty minutes later. Granted, he pushed in line, but there was a bloke in front of us who had pushed in too. Anyway, this meant we were amongst the first to be served and we got a prime spot on one of the scaffolding balconies underneath the main entrance of the Town Hall. Sadly, they had taken all the tables away this year and replaced them with deckchairs, but the weather was warm and it was pleasant sitting outside.

Our first beers were six of the seven from this year's International Rainbow Project, with some definitely being stronger than the others. They were all rare one-time only brews though so it was worth having a sample. After this, we opted to go international, with us trying Sweet Water, the only American brewery of which we hadn't heard there. It was around this time that I noticed the Sierra Nevada guys were doing a tasting of Narwahl, a rare beer we had not had at the brewery, so we popped along for a guzzle. Only a handful knew what this was, and it wasn't that well-advertised, so as Wolfie was playing on one of the retro arcade machines, the chappie came over again to top up our glasses.

We sampled some excellent food across the two days - Piggy Smalls hot dogs and poutine living in the memory - but the burger we had at the end of Friday wasn't the greatest. Wolfie was feeling a little ill by this point and so for the first time ever, we left the Festival early. It was about an hour early but I was pretty pissed off about it, wanting to try a few more brews. In hindsight it was for the best though as Wolfie really was quite sick when we got home. I don't think it was the beer though, rather the lack of food as his work meant he hadn't had chance to eat much before coming out.

With time to kill during the day on Saturday, I managed to get a quick trip to the gym in. We also headed into town slightly early as we needed to pick up an International Driving Permit for a forthcoming holiday. Only Leeds City Centre Post Office issues them apparently, so we had to get it sorted. Here I decided to weight a number of things on their scales - Wolfie's credit card was heavier than their pen - which amused the staff somewhat. Then, with a little time to kill, we headed to BrewDog North Street for a beer. It was a shame that BrewDog weren't at the beer festival and I noted they were at Beavertown's Expo in London, which makes me wonder how committed they now are to local craft beer. It's been a year of disappointments with them really, what with them selling out too, and my love for them has definitely waned.

Back in the queue for the beer festival, we bumped into three charming beer drinkers, all of whom looked like teenagers. They were very knowledgeable though and we had a good half hour of beery discussion as we waited. Towards the end, an old chap walked up saying he was filming a documentary on his phone, and said he had asked all the ladies what real ale is, and he couldn't get an answer from them. Our new friend put him in his place, but he was a bit strange. Anyway, we were soon let in, and decided to focus on UK breweries - although we did have a cheeky Spontan or two from the excellent Mikkeller. We had aimed to have low strengths but every brewery I went to, when I asked them to recommend the rarer beers they had on, always pointed to the higher value ABV ones. There were a number of breweries I had not tried before there - Left Handed Giant, Legitimate Industries, Mondo, Tempest, Elusive and Odyssey - to name them, and it was good experiencing their excellent work. It was quite a chatty affair and I got speaking to a number of their staff, who all claimed how delighted they were to have come. I also got chatting to two gentlemen in the toilets who were talking about Middlesbrough and its environs while having a pee, while our friends at Raynville were there again too and it was great catching up with them. Indeed, the whole evening was rather friendly and it was sad to leave at the end, although probably for the best due to the state of inebriation I was in. It didn't hit me until I got home, but then it was particularly bad. Not good at all.

Today was largely a recovery day, although we did go into Leeds to meet Tonks and Cosmo. They wanted taking through the fursuit walk for next week's meet, while we also took the opportunity to search for new venues too. They were very receptive and we have come up with some very interesting ideas for the future of the meet, so I'm looking forward to what these may hold. We also grabbed a couple of drinks too, ending in Head of Steam as Tonks wanted some Kwak. After this, they headed up to Trinity while we went to new restaurant Georges on the Headrow. Self-styled British cuisine with a twist, this is one of the most exquisite restaurants in the city. We had a cod dog - a battered fish hot dog with mushy pea filling - with stilton chips and by God were they delicious. Heavenly even, and at just £9.99, fantastic value. Their range of balsamic vinegars were to die for too and the whole set-up was first rate. Definitely one to come back to.
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My hopes weren't particularly high this week as MPs returned to Parliament after the Summer recess, but even I didn't expect the last 48 hours to be so disheartening. It is clear that any humility that the General Election result last June had on the Tories has since dissipated, with the hardest of hard Brexits back on the agenda. Their sheer arrogance regarding their lack of accommodation for the 48% is bitter enough, but with every poll I have seen suggesting the British public prefers maintaining membership of the Single Market over immigration controls, I am not convinced this 'will of the people' shtick holds water any more. Not that this would bother them of course, their mendacity has been evident since the vote took place, but the sheer flagrancy of their duplicity has dissolved any trust I have in the British political system and I no longer believe that my own Government has my interests in mind. Indeed I think precisely the opposite and riseable language such as 'betrayal' and 'Remoaners', which was used in Parliament on Tuesday despite the knowledge that so many livelihoods will be affected by this, only adds to the sense that they just don't give a fuck. Their lack of empathy is disgusting and if my country doesn't give a fuck about me, then I don't see why I should give a fuck about my country. I am genuinely surprised by my depth of feeling on this, but then this whole sorry mess is totally self-inflicted. Blaming the EU butters no parsnips with me.

This strength of feeling was only enhanced yesterday evening with the leaked document on the potential post-Brexit immigration system in the Guardian. While this has yet to be signed off by ministers, this document was far worse than I had dared imagine and would pretty much put us out of business. Working in translation - with a strong need to have UK-based staff using specialist audio and video equipment - we have taken advantage of EU free movement rules to build a strong international team. They have worked symbiotically with our UK staff, with our ability to fulfil foreign language requirements almost invariably securing work in English too. This has enabled us to build our company, particularly over the last five years, boosting employment for both British nationals and Europeans.

All of this has now been threatened. Having dealt with the Home Office when trying to recruit non-EU staff on a permanent basis two years ago, the thought of having to go through this time-consuming and torturous procedure for every non-British employee would involve such huge levels of bureaucracy that it almost wouldn't be worth doing. It would certainly make things a lot more costly for us, reducing our competitiveness, yet we would have no option but to do it (and probably pay for the privilege too). The fact is that British nationals do not have the skills we need and never will - translation needs to be done by native speakers and even if it wasn't, how many Brits speak fluent Romanian or Bulgarian? - yet will our needs be considered above more profitable 'highly skilled' industries such as finance or tech? I highly doubt it. We'd likely slip through the cracks.

The EU nationals we currently employ are concerned about their rights and daren't plan their futures (thus affecting our own) while it is looking increasingly likely we won't be able to recruit the staff we need post-2019 based on the aforementioned system. The fact that it has been explicitly stated that the Government, rather than the employer, will decide on business need is a gross intrusion on our freedoms in itself but the inability to have a flexible workforce will invariably mean we will lose out on contracts to European competitors. This would reduce investment in the UK. We employ a number of freelance staff, and as self-employed workers it's highly likely they won't be allowed into the country at all, while I don't see any highly skilled worker coming to the UK for only 3-5 years when they can go to any other European company indefinitely. Why would they? As a result, where would we get the staff we need?

The second kicking came today, this time through the Labour Party. Their proposal to ban gambling sponsorship in football, combined with the triennial review of the industry due next month, will result in significant new restrictions on betting companies, which form the majority of our clients. As we provide value added services to them, it is possible that these may be cut, thus adversely affecting the company. Gambling seems to be the latest boogieman, with sustained media campaigns against the industry distorting the truth behind the statistics. Granted there are issues, particularly regarding FOBTs, but they have been somewhat exaggerated and the number of jobs under threat by these new laws is not something which should be considered lightly. Still, as we have seen with Brexit, if the media are on a crusade then they will continue to battle until they get what they want, which again results in a feeling of powerlessness over the politics of your own country.

All of this combined suggests that both major parties are not interested in the future of our business and are adopting policies which would actually harm us. We employ around 400 people, contribute a huge chunk to the local economy and have strong links with the local universities, offering placements and work experience to those who approach us. However, it is clear that our concerns are of no interest to those in power.

Consequently, having spoken to Wolfie, we have decided we will leave the UK in 2018 unless something drastic changes. I see this as being unlikely. I am still hoping to open a branch office for my company within the EU, which would enable me to live and work in a member state. My bosses have been lukewarm about the proposal thus far, but at least have been willing to listen, and I feel the immigration document has highlighted the need to consider this further. I really would like to do this - particularly as it would represent the next step regarding career progression - but I understand if my employers decide against it. However, I do think it would be advantageous for them too. Either way, I will be leaving the UK next year and although I do hope it will be with my current company, if it isn't then so be it. I haven't been happy here for some time and I am sick of feeling like this. It has always been my dream to live in Europe and with the door closing, it's time to act. It's earlier than I would have liked, but it is what it is. I just hope I'm not too late.
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Friday was Wolfie's birthday and he opted for a more quiet affair than usual, going out for a meal with me on the evening. He had had a pretty difficult day at work and it was good to spend some time together, with us sampling a few tasty Pannepot and Six Degrees North beers at North Bar first. This was part of Leeds Beer Week, which we hadn't had chance to sample yet, so it was good to catch up on some of the events during the week. The staff at North were particularly fantastic and it was a good way to start the evening.

Afterwards, we headed over to new restaurant Cau over in the Victoria Gate, an Argentinian steak place which was exquisite. The empanada starters were grand but it was the steak where they really excelled, along with the brilliantly pink coleslaw. We got two free beers because it was Wolfie's birthday and the gentleman with whom I had made the booking on Wednesday even remembered me, which was nice. I remembered him too on account of the raccoon tattoo on his forearm. The restaurant, and indeed town itself, was surprisingly quiet considering it was the first Friday of the month and this continued at Headrow House where we imbibed five beers in the Lervig tap takeover, again catching up on the Leeds Beer Week festivities. Having had a number of beers we opted for the last bus, having swung by North Street BrewDog too for Wolfie's free birthday pint.

The rest of the weekend was quite sedate really. We went for a walk around Esholt on Saturday, spotting the pub that stands in for the Woolpack on Emmerdale, along with fittingly watching a lorry deliver two field-loads of sheep to a farmer. We tried to get to Esholt Hall but a water treatment works was now in the way and Google Maps didn't like it. After this, we headed back and chilled.

Sunday was a mix of sex, chores, gym and going out in the evening, again catching up on some of the Leeds Beer Week brews. In this case it was some more Six Degrees North in North Bar and Bundobust's Belgian tap takeover, along with a final trip to BrewDog to cap the night off. Here we were told of the unfortunate news that they won't be appearing at this weekend's Leeds Beer Festival, which makes me wonder how committed they are to local beer events. They certainly have appeared in the past. My love for BrewDog is diminishing slightly but the staff there are still excellent, even if Lou has sadly now moved on from the North Street bar.

Today was our second monthly Leeds Coffee Meet at Laynes, with nine in attendance as opposed to the four we had last time. I am glad to see it's having traction, although we ended up staying a lot less time this time around. As we were leaving at 6pm, Adia popped in, so we prolonged our stay for another half hour. I like Laynes, a good independent with excellent cakes, and going there has allowed me to sample a range of innovative loose leaf teas. Today I had a black one and a green one. It was good catching up with people like Avon and Shiro, with whom I so rarely meet these days, and it's just a nice thing to do after work. Having finished the gathering, we headed to Bar Soba with Cosmo to make preparations for the September meet before we parted, with Wolfie and I heading to MOD to get some pizza before going home. They have changed their restaurant a little since we have last been, but the food was still great, capping a nice end to the day.
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It's really weird seeing the city where I used to live feature so heavily on TV. The news has been dominated by Hurricane Harvey over the last week or so, which has caused devastation to SE Texas including the cities of Houston and Beaumont. Earlier on Wednesday, the storm made landfall again off the coast of Louisiana, very near to where I spent part of my childhood, Lake Charles. By mid-morning, the city was pretty much right in the centre of the storm.

While the flooding in SW Louisiana hasn't been anywhere near as bad as that in Texas, it has still been quite dramatic, with a number of areas to the east of the city underwater. Seeing roads I know so well now deluged triggered a number of memories, which only became more vivid when I noticed my former school was shut for the day due to the storm. Seeing the same principal still there 23 years after I left brought a real sense of immediacy to the tragedy, as well as a strong desire to revisit the place again.

I haven't been back since 1995 yet quick Google searches suggest that many things have stayed the same. However, there are a number of craft breweries I have noticed, and it would be exhilarating to relive the memories I have from my childhood. Living in Louisiana for that year changed my outlook on life, making me more outward looking and liberal in the process. It was a huge privilege and today I realised that part of my heart still remains there. I know the cities affected so well - including Houston and Beaumont - which makes this tragedy all the more personal. I hope the casualties are kept to a minimum and that the clean-up is swift because this part of the world will always be special to me.
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It's been a very busy Bank Holiday weekend, particularly as I was working on Monday. This didn't stop me from enjoying the sunshine by going on a nice canal walk with Wolfie, completing the section between Farsley and Apperley Bridge, having met the route we had taken on a previous walk. The route did start to look familiar and it was a very pleasant stroll, although having to move out of the way of cyclists on the towpath did start to become annoying. Aside from this, we had some fun upstairs with mummification, something I had been meaning to do for a while, before settling down to watch an interesting documentary on the Pakistan/India border while sharing a Mexican box meal from ASDA. Oh the glamour!

We were torn as to which furmeet to attend on Saturday - York or Sheffield - with us eventually opting for the Steel City. There were a few reasons for this, but the main one was to bring closure to an unfortunate incident which had happened at the Leeds Meet the previous weekend. We got to speak to all those affected, along with Raven, who had been running the meet and with a new plan in place, we are hopeful that such things will never happen again. While in Sheffield, Raven also gave us our new Leeds Furs lanyards designed by Lapres and they were absolutely stunning, a real fantastic addition to the meets. We may be getting more knocked up in the near future. The meet itself went very well - we got to speak to Oracle again, which was great, while we also won the pub quiz by three points, securing a huge bar of Galaxy choclate and some Nerds as our prizes. Being the legal geek that I am, comparing the US ingredients with those on the EU approved sticker was interesting - something we may have to get used to going forward - while we also spent time with Cosmo's parents who were into rugby and really digging the furry fandom. Cosmo is 16 and they were delighted with the creative confidence building nature of our group, and it was good to hear first hand just how positive the meets can be perceived. While in the bar, we also got to try a large number of the new American beers BrewDog had in, which was good too.

The walk was quite a good one, although I did have to push Grem into going into the Sheffield-by-the-Sea exhibit. I tried to get a few of the fursuiters onto the rides but alas this was a non-starter. Still, it was an enjoyable day and we left the meet around 5pm feeling rather happy, with our destination back in Leeds to see Entei-rah, who had been to York. I got the feeling that this may have been his stag do, but I am not too sure, either way we hooked up at the station and ended up in Pieminister for dinner. This was surprisingly quiet considering previous times we have been, but the pies were as exquisite as always, making for a very satisfying dinner. We then took Ent down Wellington Street to a new bar we were thinking of approaching to host the meets, before we had a final glass of wine in nearby Veeno before Ent had to take his train to Durham. We were tempted to stay out for Leeds Beer Week but having had a full day of drinking, my financial situation not being particularly great and me needing to be up early in the morning, we wisely decided against it.

I was headed to Manchester on Sunday, to a friend's house on the outskirts of the city. The plan for the day was to get gunged, with me feeling a little guilty for bailing on a party two weeks ago due to last-minute work pressures. I arrived around midday and soon we were in his kitchen, mixing up poster paint, hot water, a cellulose-style compound and J-Lube to create four huge buckets of different colour gloop. We had pink, green, blue and orange. It took us about three hours to make it, with us needing to mix it every 15 minutes to ensure it thickened. As we did - using a drill and a cement mixer - the fluid shot everywhere, necessitating a lot of clean up before we even got started. As we waited, we covered the bathroom in cut up bin liners for easy clean up and once everything was ready, it was time to be covered in 40kg of slime. I had never been gunged so much before - I previous record being about 10kg at SLOSH in June - and it was very exhilarating, particularly as a ladder was used to get greater height. The consistency was perfect and just sloshing about in a bath of it was incredibly exciting. Less so was the cleaning up, which took a good hour and a half of vigorous brushing, which I had to do naked having just washed all of the gunge away. Indeed to get it out of the bath I first had to scoop it up with a jug and then my hands, which took quite a while.

After we were done, we headed into Glossop, a market town in rural Derbyshire where we went to Pico Bar. They had an outdoor area here by a stream and there were a number of doggo friends here. They were all great fun and although service was slow due to undermanning, the food itself was fantastic, but then a fish finger sandwich always is. I bought my friend a meal to thank him for the gunging, and we opted for a dessert too, which was a nice red velvet cake with a kids' portion of ice cream. It was a nice way to end the day and indeed it was nice to see another part of the country I had not yet visited, making for a very pleasurable day all round.
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Last week we made the now annual pilgrimage to Berlin for Eurofurence. Post-Brexit I always feel a little sad arriving in a city that really feels like home, and so it proved once again, with me only returning more determined to move there before the sands of time drain away. Regardless of the contrasting emotions, however, both Wolfie and I had an excellent time at the Estrel and we are undoubtedly going to return next year, even if the con has become increasingly pricey due to the lamentable poor exchange rate.

We shared a room with four others - Arc, Draken and Taneli from the local area and a New Zealander called Cheetor whom we had never met before. He was really lovely and although I had a few reservations going into the con about the sharing arrangement, it all worked out rather well. I did find it a little restrictive regarding kink-related things, but it wasn't too bad, and we were able to have a very successful beer tasting party on the Wednesday night. Indeed, this was pretty much the first room party I had ever organized at a con and with around twenty people in attendance, it was quite the success. I had asked people to bring two bottles of a local brew, which was a little misunderstood as many just brought one bottle of a number of different beers. This meant there wasn't an awful lot to go around, but we did get to try 31 tipples of varying styles, with British, Dutch, German and Polish beers all in attendance. Indeed it was a good way to sample a large range of beers from places not overly accessable to us, and while a good 50% of our contingent were from the Yorkshire and Lancashire areas, it was great showcasing some local brews to our international friends. It was definitely a success, with the event lasting four hours in the end, and we are definitely going to repeat it next year.

By my own admission, I probably focused more on sex and kink at this con than any other I have attended. I have found a rather nice fetish group on Telegram and since JFTW I have become far more open to new experiences. This has broadened my horizons and has enabled me to introduce other people into our play. I won't name names, but we arranged a number of events beforehand while we even got a few people back to our room interested in experiencing a range of the implements we had brought. This turned out to be quite advantageous, not to mention fun, meaning that I got to experience an awful lot. In addition to this was our usual trip to the fetish club Qualgeist. We went for the main Animal Farm event on the Friday and this time a number of our friends joined us. This resulted in Wolfie demonstrating a range of equipment to them, meaning there was little time for myself, which was somewhat frustrating. Still, I did get to experience an isolation box and I also got the opportunity to meet some new people in the nice bar area, so it wasn't all bad. Still, I would have liked a little more I guess. Compounded by this was our fetish shop tour the day before - where we spent six hours trailing around Berlin shopping for a variety of gear. I kinda went a bit mad and splurged €750 on fetish stuff, although some of it I had been wanting for quite a while. The guys at Blackstyle now know me by sight, while it was great popping into McHurt once again. Mr B I had never visited before, while Sling King, where we had got our sling, was a nice place to see too. After the shopping, we headed down to the main Turkish area of the city for food, with us having delicious donner kebabs in the traditional style. Due to the Gastarbeiter, Berlin has the greatest concentration of Turks outside of Turkey, so this was definitely worth experiencing.

Due to all the kink, I didn't get an awful lot of time to fursuit, regrettably only doing it on the final day just as we were about to leave. This was a shame but I was so busy that I barely had time. A fair number of furs only really know me by my suit so it was heartwarming to get so many hugs, pictures and social time with people in suit. It was great meeting one of my friends from the Philippines again after so many years, along with putting various names to twitter avatars. In the end, I only got to suit for about three hours at the con - a similar amount to the US cons in all honesty - which is making me question why I go to all the hassle of bringing the suit.

Aside from this, we just chilled around the con really, chatting to people, reacquainting ourselves with old friends and making new ones. I skipped the main rubber gear party in favour of chatting with Ralesk for a few hours, not having spoken to him properly for years. Meanwhile, I also bid successfully for a nice fetish piece of artwork from EosFoxx, which is now hanging pride of place in our dungeon. The line to claim this was impenetrably long, but it was certainly worth it. I didn't make any of the panels or events outside of Motorfurs, which was good to wander around but far too crowded and loud for my liking. The cars on display were awesome though and I imagine it would have been a huge joy for petrolheads.

Tropical Islands on the Wednesday was its usual mirth, being around a group of friends at a waterpark always is. We took the piss out of a few of the more clingy fet people, while enjyoing the rapids and the pool, where we had a number of inflatables. It was a very chill day and although it perhaps went on an hour longer than it needed to, it was enjoyable. Whether I go back next year or not I don't know - I've kinda done it now and there are still things I have yet to see in Berlin. One of those things we did get to see though - Bernauer Straße - which is the street bisected by the Berlin Wall. There is a row of rusted metal poles detailing the lineage of the wall along with huge photographs on the sides of buildings highlighting what the place looked like between 1961 and 1989. One of the main churches here was destroyed in the mid-Eighties and has since been replaced by a sweeping curved wooden structure, which looks really nice, while there were a number of signs highlighting life on the wall as well as some of the buildings that were reacquistioned as the wall literally went through them. The details of the people whose lives were affected - residents on this very street - added a personal touch to things while the closing of the U-Bahn station was very interesting too. We were down here as the Berlin BrewDog was just around the corner, and it was great seeing this part of history before enjoying a nice beer.

So all in all an excellent con, meeting loads of friends and making new ones. It's always the highlight of the year and next year it doesn't clash with the Leeds Meet, which is very useful. There were a few problems in our absence last weekend from which we have learned lessons, but it's always handy that we can attend. Fortunately, there are no such worries for 2018 and hopefully we'll be back, if not living there by then.
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Although this weekend was also that of Leeds Pride, Wolfie and I took off on Friday evening to drive the five hours down to Brighton to attend their event. There were a few reasons why we did this, the main one being that we had been invited down there by my university friend Jenny, who was looking for an excuse to go to all of the afterparties. She has a husband and a young family now, but she saw it as an opportunity to go out, while we had actually been invited last year but the notice was too short to be able to do it.

The journey down was uneventful, although we did stop off in Wakefield for Wolfie to finish a job before completing the trip to the South Coast. This fifteen minute job turned more into an hour, leaving me wandering aimlessly around the small pit villages which littered this salubrious area. Fortunately, we had set off from home at 3:30pm meaning we arrived in Brighton shortly after 10pm, with us easily finding car park space on the road where my friend lived. Unfortunately all of the roads in Brighton seemed to be wonky, so parking straight proved difficult, not aided by Wolfie's tiredness after a full day of work and a long drive. Jenny met us on the street and took us to her house, where we discovered that she was the only one still awake. This didn't stop us opening the bottle of white wine we had brought though and catching up in the front room, having an enjoyable two hours or so before heading to bed.

Breakfast was a vegetarian feast of sausages, fried egg from our mutual friends' chickens, toast and beans. We needed sustinance as we had a long day ahead, but it did take quite a while for us all to get ready. This wasn't aided by the fact that I had to do my make-up, with my eyeliner pencil breaking en route and me not having sharpener with which to sharpen it. During this period, we played with Jenny's five-year-old daughter Lena, who called Wolfie 'Moron' throughout, encouraged by me. This was thrown back at me though with Wolfie asking Lena to call me 'Mushroom', which persisted throughout the day. It was the four of us (Wolfie, me, Jenny and Lena) going out to Pride on what was a wonderously sunny Saturday. We decided to board the bus as the journey was a little too far to walk, and soon we had descended onto London Road, the main street that runs towards the seafront. It was along here that the parade was due to be run, and we caught it just in time, finding a spot outside a local bar. The carnival atmosphere was electric and very enticing, and we were soon caught in the moment, watching all of the floats and people on the march go by. I started taking a number of pictures and posting them to Twitter, where the digital editor of the local newspaper requested whether he could use them. I agreed with credit and this only encouraged me to take more.

There were so many highlights of the Parade it is hard to detail all of them. 'The Oldest Gay In The Village' at the age of 94 rode by on his buggie to the sound of huge cheers while those marching in solidarity of gays in Chechnya and Uganda were certainly the most poignant. The same was the case for the various mental health charities, all highlighting the importance of events like these. Of course, interspersed between all of this were the usual floats with dancers and corporate sponsors, with the huge yellow dog from the Dogs Trust being a particular highlight. Of course, the best thing for me was all of the costumes, with so much gorgeous and glamorous attire. The people dressed as ice creams were perhaps my favourite, although the cards from Alice In Wonderland were also worthy of a mention, as was the burlesque troupe towards the end. Ultimately though it was one huge party and everyone really did play their part.

As the Parade ended, the heavens opened, and we sought shelter in the BrewDog bar, which was just further down the road. Understandably it was rammed, but this was the other reason why we had come to the city, so it was good to get it in early. We did manage to find a seat (well three of us did, I had the job of ordering the beer and standing) and as Jenny was curious about the different styles of beer, I opted to buy a number of different ones (Cloudwater IPA, Weihstephaner blond and Salty Kiss Gose from Magic Rock). We had only really intended in staying in the bar for one, but the rain was exceptionally heavy and we didn't want to get drenched, so we wisely stayed behind for another. As the rain subsided though, the numbers thinned out, and we got to see the wonderful arrangement of the bar. Very similar in style to the others, I particularly liked the booths which were like cages from which you could order table service for your beer.

After this, we decided to have a walk around Brighton, with me having only visited the place once before in 2008. We stuck to the centre, going up and down some of the narrow side streets which formed the old town. This was after we had looked at the unique Indian-style architecture of the Pavilion, with a number of revellers sat on the grass enjoying Pride Weekend. The shambles were particularly interesting due to the older architecture they contained, with some of the courtyards opening out into very pleasant drinking spaces. The highlight down here though was the chocolate shop Choccywoccydoodah, which had a huge number of animals crafted out of chocolate in the shop window. There was a tiger, dogs, cats and rabbits, the latter of which were campaigning for trans rights. Meanwhile, inside there was a cornicopia of chocolate to buy along with a small restaurant on the top floor. We gave Lena the choice of which chocolate she wanted to get and she opted for chocolate buttons, which we gratefully shared as we walked around the little independent stalls which make up this area. We popped in a few of them - an interesting t-shirt shop, a Native American store - but with the skies darkening yet again, we thought it best to grab some dinner, with the time approaching 5pm. Jenny suggested Pho, a Vietnamese chain which she thought was just a South-East thing until I said we had one in Leeds, where I had some excellent noodle soup with beef brisket and meatballs. It was so full of flavour and a definite winner, certainly something to fill us up as we headed into the evening's festivities.

We walked along the seafront a little bit after this - and after the rain had stopped again - but didn't really have time to go onto the beach, much to Lena's dissatisfaction. To be fair, she had just done about five hours of walking but she was becoming a little grumpy so Jenny thought it best she take her home, arranging to meet us at the main Pride party in Preston Park a little later. This saw us get separate buses at Old Steine, us the 5A and Jenny the 5B, as we were heading to different places. We followed our progress on Google Maps as the bus drove north towards the Park, but it turned out that the trio of women sat behind us were doing exactly the same, which resulted in a conversation. We all got off at the same place and chatted as we walked along the perimeter of the park towards our respective entrance gates - with two of them going through Gate D, one through Gate C and us at Gate AM. Our gate was surprisingly easy to miss and we walked past it the first time, before we asked security, who directed us the way. It was different to the other gates and there was talk about getting escorted into the event, which made me wonder about the tickets I had bought. I had gone on Jenny's advice and I can only assume on reflection later that we had inadvertently picked up disabled access tickets rather than the general ones, as we were given wristbands that got us a lot closer to the stage. It was a genuine error, but at least we did get our own toilets, which turned out to be somewhat useful due to the horror show that was there.

The event itself was very much like a music festival, with a number of ancillary music tents and a main stage in one corner. There were a number of fairground rides along with the usual eating and drinking concessions, although it was a little annoying that the only beer there was Carlsberg and the only music on show was dance. I do think it's ironic that for all the talk about diversity in the LGBT community, that diversity doesn't seem to extend to music and drink, which is one of the reasons I rarely visit gay bars. Still, there were a number of interesting stalls, including one where we picked up a Pansexual Pride bracelet. At the one and only sex stall in there, we signed up to their newsletter and got a free gift of a chocolate condom, which was nice. Meanwhile, we spent the rest of the time just wandering around the complex, grabbing a few beers, looking at the amazing array of clothing on offer (I loved all the people dressed as unicorns) and generally soaking up the party atmosphere. While we were getting our second drink, Wolfie started speaking to some people from Amsterdam (who were massively anti-Brexit) and I did think it was amazing to see so many different nationalities in attendance here. It truly was a global event.

I tried to get into some of the dance music but it really isn't my thing, and I was more concerned with my lack of reception as I didn't know where and when we were going to meet Jenny. Indeed it wasn't until we were in the toilets at the top of the hill that I got enough signal to get her message, some forty minutes after she had sent it. Still, she guided us to the ice cream van in front of which she was standing and we were soon moving closer to the stage as the Pet Shop Boys were due to start. They were the main headliners and although they started a little late, they went on a full half hour after the curfew, playing a near two hour set overall. I only really know their main hits if I was being honest, and for me the opening half of the show was a little lacklustre (not aided by a woman wearing a red feathery fascinator who kept buffeting me), but the final half an hour in particular was amogst the best live shows I have ever seen. Wheeling out the classics such as 'West End Girls', 'Go West' and 'Always On My Mind', they combined this with a spectacular laser show which was just gorgeous to observe. Wolfie was perhaps a little patronising by inquiring whether I knew their main songs, but soon I was dancing and really enjoying the music, with the crowd incredibly receptive. It was a good way to end the show and I am glad I had seen them live - it wouldn't have been a band I would have seen normally.

The party disgorged just after 10:30pm with the vast majority of people heading down the closed London Road back towards the city centre. We followed them, taking about half an hour to reach the point where we had seen the Parade earlier. The crowd had barely thinned out and having been on our feet since Pho, we decided we needed a sit down. Jenny knew a vegan-friendly pub down one of the side streets, the Prince George, and upon arrival we noticed there were seats, so we nabbed them. I ordered three VPAs (Vegan Pale Ale, a buttery toffee ale) for everyone and we chatted for a while, delighted to be off our feet. In the toilets, a camp gentleman dressed as a sailor noticed my pink tail and urged me to do full dog at the street party on Sunday, but alas I didn't bring him down, which was a shame. He was a friendly guy though and we left the bar half an hour later with nothing but happy memories. We decided to try and catch an afterparty but it would seem most were closing at midnight, including the main one in the Pleasure Gardens. This seemed an odd question of timing considering the time of conclusion of the main event, but alas it was what it was.

This meant we headed up to Kempton, Brighton's gay district, with the bars on the seafront having huge queues outside. It wasn't really my thing, but it would have taken just over an hour to have gotten into these typical generic nightclubs, so we forged our way deeper into the district. I had read of a bar called Brighton Rocks on the appropriately named Rock Street so after viewing four generic dance bars all exceptionally busy, we opted to go there. The road itself was cordoned off and there were a fair number of people on the sidestreet and in the bar itself, but service was swift and the atmosphere good so it here where we ended the night. There was an Australian lady sweeping up all of the rubbish on the street - there was a lot of it - who told me she was quite drunk while we got chatting to one of the security guards who was interesting. However, with time ticking on and Jenny promising her husband she would be back by 1am, we sadly had to leave after just one drink. Still, the view of the shimmering English Channel with the full moon reflected in it, which we could see through the railing which had closed off the street, made our final drink of the night all the more memorable.

Wolfie and Jenny both had hunger pangs and so on the way back we called off at a place which specialised solely in the Belgian style of chips. They were chipped with fluffy mashed potato and with any choice of toppings, they were one of the best takeaways I had ever had. I had the typical mayonnaise and ketchup and it was absolutely divine, so much so it makes me want to move to the city. The queue was quite long though and they must have lost a small amount of money as they could no longer offer the large portion having run out of the appropriate size bags. While in the queue, two guys wearing gold T-shirts wanted to pull my tail, to which I consented. We then ended up talking about furry, BDSM and the meaning of my collar, which was quite fun. They told me that they were staying at one of the campsites at the top end of town and that it was freezing. Rather them than me, I thought as we headed for the nightbus, we had a nice house in which to stay. The nightbus was understandably rammed, with a drunk prick swigging a bottle of Buckfast ruining the journey, but we were soon home, albeit an hour later than we had intended to be after a really fantastic day. It was particularly heartening to see so many young people really getting into it and it does give you hope for the future, despite the many negatives about this country.

Sunday was a far more sedate day, particularly as we had a long drive ahead of us and we didn't get up until approaching 11am such was the nature of the day preceding it. We did manage to arise and pack though (with Lena more interested in chewing my bracelet, which she called 'chewy'), deciding to go for lunch at The Plough in Pyecombe, a village just outside of Brighton proper. We drove there, missing the turnoff initially and encouraging the deathly stare of an elderly gentleman who was not happy we were turning around on his driveway. The pub was rather odd - a village setting but with staff who were largely immigrants serving an eclectic menu that went from pasta and pizza to Sunday roasts and a huge range of curries. During the summer months they have a BBQ on site and I opted for the minted lamb steak, which was gorgeous. Wolfie had the BBQ burger, which was equally exceptional. We grabbed a couple of local ales and chatted about artificial intelligence, robotics and the ethics and science surrounding this. It was all rather interesting, before we headed up to Devil's Dyke, which was once described by the painter John Constable as the best view in England. It overlooks the Wolds and is not too dissimilar to the views across Teesside from the North York Moors. It was incredibly windy up here though, bitterly so, although this did aid the three people who were flying kites. You could hear the plastic whoosh against the wind in a very satisfying manner, while the view was stunning over the countryside. It was a nice way to end our stay in Brighton, as we had to leave shortly after that, dropping Jenny and Lena off at the house and having a cup of tea before setting off.

Brighton is a fantastic city and we really enjoyed our visit. Next time, we hope we can stay longer, although we don't know whether we want to miss Leeds Pride next year. I guess there's quite a while to decide.
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It's been a very busy few days, starting on Thursday when we joined Adia, Soma and Taneli at the former's house to watch 'Sing'. We had been meaning to do this for a while, with our first attempt aborted due to Wolfie's trip to Chester overrunning. We were more disciplined this time though and after munching our usual assortment of junk food for dinner, we did get round to seeing the film. It certainly wasn't the greatest film I had ever seen, but it was very enjoyable, and I did like the weaving narratives of all the characters throughout the film, which culiminated with the giant concert at the end. It was only throughout Friday, upon reflecting on the film, that I started to develop a really strong crush on Ash, the punk rock porcupine in the movie. This has only intensified over the course of the weekend and has a number of different roots, closely aligned with my own ambitions. After getting my first guitar on my 18th birthday, I still haven't got around to learning it, while her punk rock look and attitude is something to which I strongly relate. As this crush has developed, I have bought a range of Ash merchandise already but primarily, I am going to use my love of her to motivate me to do the one thing I have been unable to do in sixteen years - learn to play the guitar. On Thursday night I reinistalled RockSmith and have devised a schedule to learn, largely tied into evenings after I go to the gym. Keeping this routine should help me while I am also thinking of having singing lessons too. I hope I can stick at it.

Friday we went around to Stray and Luna's for a Jackbox games evening, which proved to be a very enjoyable affair. Upon walking up to their house, in the pouring rain, I witnessed a road traffic accident involving one car pulling into another without indicating. It was really weird to see this up close although it became entertaining when the two sets of chavs from each car started to berate each other in the middle of the street. The woman in the passenger seat of the rammed car was particularly amusing with all of her effing and Jeffing. The accident wasn't serious and everyone was fine, so that was something. The evening itself went well, with Arc and Taneli also there. We had brought three growlers of beer from Shuffledog as they had had a Prancing Pony tap takeover - a brewery from Adelaide - and we had drank most of these before the pizza had arrived at about 10:30pm. I struggled early on with my mood, having been somewhat down for a few months now, but once the games began I managed to shake it off. It was an excellent evening all-told, with us leaving at around 1:30am by taxi. As soon as we got home, Wolfie went straight to bed while I spent the next four hours sat at my computer watching Ash over and over, along with listening to some Linkin Park, a band I have increasingly gotten into since the sad suicide of frontman Chester Bennington a week last Thursday. It was past dawn by the time I went to bed.

Saturday was a rather quiet day with little planned until the evening, meaning we got to complete a number of odd-jobs around the house. After this, we headed out into Leeds to meet Brett and Jo. We had thought it would be like the opening weekend of July when we all headed out quite late and stopped out, but our friends had hit the city by 5pm and so were already on their way when we met them at Shuffledog nearer 9pm. We sampled the two remaining Prancing Pony beers and a couple of others in a flight taster tray, and chatted with our friends and two of their local friends we had met at their wedding last October. Unfortunately, in the middle of this about half an hour in, one of Jo's contact lenses broke in half in her eye, causing her a lot of discomfort. She did manage to remove it eventually in the mirror but this resulted in her being unable to see, and thus she had to go home. With us having tried all the beers here, we headed off with them, dropping off at Whitelocks/Turk's Head for their American Craft Beer Festival. This was absolutely rammed, but we did manage to get a seat, settling down for a 13% Founders beer as our first. Frustratingly though, it took over fifteen minutes to attempt to order our second beer, and we saw the bar staff were giving preferential treatment to their army of friends, who had arrived at the bar after me. There were a large number of them, perhaps around eight, and after being ignored for a while longer, we decided just to leave. It was the worst bar experience I have ever had in Leeds.

We had intended stopping out, but as the city was busy and it was now only us, we decided to get the last bus back. This meant we dropped in on little Brewdog for one as we just had time, although this was curtailed by our discovery that we had forgotten the artisinal bread that Brett had bought us in Whitelocks. Wolfie went back for it and I ordered the drinks, with us being tucked away in the corner near the Mortal Kombat machine. The story of the artisinal bread gained traction on Twitter, which was odd to see, while once Wolfie had returned we were moved out of the way by a stag party who wanted to play the game. I let them move in, but after two minutes of play, they gave up and adopted the whole space for their friends. It was all very disappointing and so we left the bar and headed home after one of our poorest Leeds bar experiences in memory.

The night did pick up slightly though as once we had got back to Pudsey, we had just enough time to call in at the Manor Inn. Outside there was a lovely whippet puppy called Lily while Pip, the owner's dog, was also snuffling inside. Both dogs wanted to say hello and there was some very good real ale on tap, so we decided to hang around. They even had Neopolitan Pale from Northern Monk, and I do hope this branching into craft beer continues. We were glad we did drop by in the end as the people there were really friendly and the conversation was good, making for a nice ending to the evening at least. We really should go there more often we thought as we headed home, the last to leave the premises, and I am pretty sure we will.
lupestripe: (Default)
I spent last weekend back home with my parents, with the initial plan being to visit my mother on Saturday and my father on Sunday. Unfortunately, my 88-year-old grandparents were involved in a road accident on Wednesday when a joyrider took a corner too fast, collided into them and drove off at speed, leaving my relatives stranded. Fortunately the accident was in a residential area and was witnessed, so people were on hand to help them. The situation was exasberated on Friday when my grandfather, refusing to drive the courtesy car he had been given by the insurance company, decided to walk to the shop to get his cigars and paper. My grandmother went with him and on the way home, one of them tripped and fell, colliding into the other. This saw my grandma break her wrist and having to spend most of Friday and Saturday in hospital, while my grandfather has a nasty bump on his head. My mother, who lives forty-five minutes away from them, spent most of last week running around after them and although I did manage to see them on Sunday and they looked quite well under the circumstances, it did mean all of our plans were changed. This was frustrating as this has happened on four of the last five occasions I have visited - admittedly not to this level - but at least I did get to see everybody.

So my father picked me up from Darlington on Saturday and we decided to ignore the grey dreary weather and go to the coast at Saltburn. It turned out to be the right decision as the clouds broke and it was a really sunny afternoon. We decided to go for a walk along the cliff overlooking the North Sea, all the way to the rusty good luck charm bracelet that has been erected about three miles along the route. There is a small disused railway line here once used to transport iron ore from the hills, and the whole area is rather picturesque, even if it does entail looking at the windfarm in the Tees Esturary near Redcar and the industry of Middlesbrough beyond. It was good to get out though and my father is somewhat committed to boosting my step count, so was happy to push on. After the walk, we ended up calling in at a pub for a pint of disappointing IPA, where I noted that they were selling 'humus' and that well-known Spanish dish of 'potato bravas'. It was good sitting on the terrace though observing the sea, with the area not being overly busy due to it being high tide. We then had a walk around the Victorian gardens, spying the little steam train that connects the coast with the small forest where the gardens are situated, which is run entirely by volunteers. We saw a few dogs gambolling around before we decided we should head back to my dad's place.

We ate food in the village pub, a place that doesn't seem to have changed since we moved to the village in 1992. Indeed, the decor looked quite tired and the range of drinks would have been identical to that you would have been able to buy twenty-five years ago. The other issue was that the only papers you could read apart from the local Gazette was the Mail and the Express, which summed up all you need to know about where I grew up. The food though - in my case a horseshoe gammon steak - was rather excellent and although the smokiness got a little overpowering at the end, it was good value for money. Interspersed between this and afterwards when we shared a beer sat in the back garden, we just chatted and caught up, which was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday evening. I had even brought two beers for my dad from Friends of Ham - pretty last minute, but at least Ted was there to give me some recommendations.

My mother picked me up at 11am on Sunday after I had a bizarre collection of dreams in my childhood bed. First I dreamed that I was walking down a residential street in the middle of the night where there had been fourteen murders in fourteen separate houses. I then woke up and dreamed that I was writing a comedy show with Russell Howard but I was nowhere near funny enough (my present lack of creativity is a real concern for me). Finally, I dreamed that I was at a furcon and was close to winning the Best Fursuiter category, but didn't have a convincing stage show to show the judges. I toyed with poetry recital and rap music, before giving up and going to a private piss party where everyone was coy as to the actual reason for the event. It was all rather strange.

Anyway, my mother took me to my grandparents, where we spent an hour chatting before we went around to her house where my stepdad was waiting for us. He has had a detached retina since May and although it has now reattached, he still has a glutionus oil in his eye and an eyepatch over it. With the weather predicted to be rather stormy, we thought we would go for a walk immediately, what with Wilma the spaniel needing a second trip out. She was delighted to see me and I was happy to discover that I am the favourite of my siblings, with her jumping up at me on numerous occasions on the walk, which was on an old railway track in a village about six miles away from where my mother lives. It was quite a picturesque route, with verdant green countryside and sheep everywhere, and we got very lucky as we just dodged the rain, it starting to whip down as soon as we had got back. It persisted for the rest of the day, but we were inside, chatting about a range of things. My mother has been asked to do some local history research and she was unsure as to what topic to cover, so I helped her with it, while Wilma was always great fun, bounding around and wanting to play. I was delighted to hear that my mother is going to be getting another dog - a male one called Henry - in mid-August and I do hope Wilma takes to him. Two dogs would be fantastic and although my mother has concerns about her parents right now, I don't think it would be much different to having one dog really.

We ate a dinner of roast lamb and vegetables, followed by lemon merangue and double cream to finish. After our walk we had delved into the cheeseboard as we had not had any lunch, so there was an awful lot of food, not to mention beer and wine. It was a shame that my mother couldn't really drink as she had to take me back to my father's - with my Monday morning train too early to make a commute from my mother's place viable - but with concerns about my grandparents, she was intending to stay sober anyway. So it was disruptive weekend all told, albeit a rather good one and I am hoping to see everyone again in the Autumn.
lupestripe: (Default)
It's been a very busy weekend, with events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Things started on Friday evening, when we had been invited to the Polish Catholic Centre for their monthly music jam. Tonks's family run the community centre, which closely resembles a British working man's club but is adjacent to the main Polish Catholic church in Chapel Allerton. I walked up from work, expecting it to take a lot longer than it actually did, resulting in me arriving 55 minutes earlier than opening. This saw me explore the area, and I was interested to note that I had been here before, having gone to Boss Burgers on Harrogate Road about a year and a half ago. As I walked, I listened to the excellent Remainiacs podcast, for all traitors and saboteurs, which provided much needed catharsis in these bleak times. I was surprised to notice that the number 91 bus goes right past here, providing a direct route home, which was convenient. Wolfie had embarked from Pudsey and I had to wait around forty-five minutes for him to arrive, with me buying a sandwich for him as I did. I also just walked around and explored, waiting for him to come.

When he arrived, together we walked down the road to the walled area behind which the community centre lay. I had dropped Tonks a message and he met us outside the front door, pointing out that no-one had actually arrived yet. Apparently the 7pm start was somewhat loose, and it wasn't for another ten minutes that his mother and father turned up. We had met his father before at the Leeds CAMRA real ale festival, anhd had hit it off, but this was the first time we had met his mother, who is Polish herself. We were let in, and soon we were drinking fantastic Polish craft beer, while Mrs Tonks had kindly prepared perogi for us (both Russian and meat) which many of the other regulars sampled too. This part was free and highly appreciated. This was served at around 8pm, with us having spent the opening half hour just talking to Tonks's Dad as no-one else was there. Some of the regulars soon turned up though and music very quickly started to be played, with an impromptu jam session taking place with a miscellany of instruments. If I was being honest, there weren't many Polish people there, with many being locals (as well as one Welsh-English-Canadian guy who was half-Eskimo) but the atmosphere was lively and a good range of genres were played. 'Learn to Fly' by Foo Fighters was possibly my favourite, but the folk songs had particular heart, while we spent a lot of the time sat at the bar chatting about this and that. Tonks and Wolfie had an isolating conversation about Warhammer so Mr Tonks and I ended up talking about Eighties music (he even knew 'Eisbaer' to which we both sang along) while later in the evening there was a rather fun dog who was bounding about saying hi to everyone. All in all it was a good night and it was a shame when we had to catch our last bus, but Saturday was meet day and we needed to go. We had sampled four beers each though and Tonks kindly bought two more, which he delivered at the meet the next day, and we will definitely be going back.

I had been worried about the Leeds Meet for most of the week, particularly fearing a low turnout. These things really shouldn't bother me but I invest so much in the meet that it's hard for it not to feel like a personal rejection. Added to this was the fact we had moved venue to Bar Soba on account of Atlas being sold and turned into a trendy cocktail bar so apprehension was high. There were a number of people at the Londonfurs summer party, and a few couldn't make it for a miscellany of personal reasons. Meanwhile, a few more simply weren't interested. Still, as we packed our hi-vis jackets and long plastic tubing for the fursuit changing screen, I did fear the worst and was not in the best of moods as we left the house. Carting the tubes on the bus proved to be fun but not overly unmanageable and soon we were at the station, where we were greeted to a not unsizeable crowd. This gave me hope and indeed it turned out we had about 50-60 there - down on usual but not bad under the circumstances. A few furs who don't regularly come were there - Lapres and Ellis from Birmingham, Croft from Beverley to name but a few - while the new venue worked out quite well apart from a couple of small issues. I have since spoken to the manager and he assures me that this will be resolved - with the hen party on one of our tables only there due to a computer related booking issue. The loud music quite late on was also a little annoying, but hopefully this will be pushed back in future.

The outside area on Merrion Street proved to be quite popular while the fursuit walk was also a success, with the bar's close proximity to Briggate being a huge boon. We ended up taking fursuit photos inside a large reflective cube placed on the middle of the street advertising the Open University's 2017-18 courses. They let us go inside if we took some flyers, and mirrors on all sides were quite trippy. It was a shame I didn't suit - with the early morning wet weather putting me off - but the day soon turned out dry and the walk was quite the success. On Briggate we also saw a huge tent with Muslims condemning extremism, which was good to see, while my friends Leeds for Europe were there too. At the end of the walk, we headed to the flyover near Shuffledog to take a group photo before retiring back to the bar. When there, I was alerted to a tweet from GeekWolfie, who told me to come to where they were sitting. There I found a fantastic large conbadge drawn by Prince Cirrus, which was an unexpected delight. I was a huge fan indeed.

As is customary, the meet started to fragment around 5pm, while we grabbed some excellent Beef Massaman Curry from the bar itself. This was gorgeous, creamy and a brilliant blend of spices, making it one of the top eateries in the city. We then headed outside, grabbing a couple of beers from Mean Eyed Cat Bar as we noticed they had two exclusives from Northern Monk. As it turned out, only one was available, so I got two halves. On both occasions, they invited me to roll a dice and if I got an even number I got a discount. The first time I threw a five but the second time it was a two, giving me 25% off. On the first occasion, I was asked whether I wanted pizza, which seemed an odd request until I realised you got a free six inch pizza with all drinks. If only I had known beforehand.

We stayed outside for a couple of hours but the rather sparse and genteel daytime crowd started to become a more drunken rowdy bunch, with the space filling up fast. Not liking the ambience, we drank up and left, with most people splitting as it was around 8pm. We headed down to the bus stop with Taneli but with twenty minutes until our next bus, we decided to call off at Friends of Ham. On our way there, the number of people who asked us 'are you doing some plumbing' on the sight of the plastic tubing became annoying, but at least the bar were reasonably good about us stacking it in a corner. Indeed, it became a useful marker for the staff on working out where to deliver our beer and smoked almonds. We grabbed a gose, after which we had a marshmallow stout as Tonks had dropped me a message, asking where we were. Wolfie was quite drunk by this point - and earlier in the day had struggled with splitting the bill evenly as I had paid £12 for his food and was wondering why I kept asking for his card to buy £3 drinks - so we didn't stay overly long, heading back on the 9:20pm bus. Wolfie grabbed a pizza while I headed back, not really feeling hungry after the curry at SOBA. So all in all a successful day and I think most people enjoyed the new venue, so we'll see what happens here.

We had to be up reasonably early on Sunday, which facilitated our rather early night on Saturday. I had arranged to meet my sister in Manchester as she has just moved to the Deansgate/Salford area of the city having started a new job in mid-June. Due to a pre-arranged holiday, this was only her second full weekend in the city and knowing Manchester a little bit, I thought I would show her some of the bars and sights. This saw us board a train at New Pudsey just before noon, with the day being a glorious summer one with a slight cooling breeze. We arrived into Manchester shortly after 13:20 and met her at Victoria station, taking her to Northern Soul Grilled Cheese initially for some lunch. We had only been here once before, in February, but I remember it being execptionally good and so it proved to be again. Alas they were rather busy so we had to take it out, but there was nothing wrong with eating it while sat in the sun on Piccadilly Gardens. My sister didn't realise that this was the centre of Manchester so I showed her the fountain and the statues, before casually walking through an Arabic themed food market on one corner of the square.

We decided to spend the day on a bar crawl albeit one interspersed with various city sights. Along the way I pointed out good restaurants to try, hoping to give her an insight into the diversity of the city. These included Almost Famous, Reds, Buca da Pizza, Bundobust and Solita. Our first bar was Beermoth, one of my favourite bars in the city, before we walked down to the Town Hall area and on to Deansgate. We went for a quick drink in No 1 Watson Street, with its Pawtraits of dogs on the wall, before we headed down to the canal area to see my sister's place of work. The canal area was fantastic and it was great to see that there has been so much regeneration down there since we were last in the area for Confuzzled 2009. The yha is still there of course, albeit slightly tarted up, but there are numerous new houses as well as bars and restaurants that simply weren't there before. The tatty bridges - some of brick and others of steel - add a post-industrial landscape to things which contrasts with the tranquility of the canals and the narrowboats. Meanwhile, at one point we were delighted to feel the vibrations of the railings underneath the viaduct, caused by a parked train on the bridge above. In this part of the city, we spied the Industrial Museum and The Crystal Maze experience before we walked along the canal for a while, surprisingly reaching Canal Street rather quickly. It was here we got off the towpath and walked through the Village, not my favourite place in Manchester but at least the atmosphere was relaxed. There was music blaring out of some of the crappy bars, but at least Sackville Gardens was tranquil, and my sister was particularly intrigued by the Turing statue. While we were here, we told her the time my ex-girlfriend couldn't get into a gay fetish store because it was men only. My sister was quite shocked at the discrimination, and although I tried to explain it to her, she couldn't really understand it.

We pushed on, heading to Richmond Tea Rooms, which my sister particularly enjoyed due to the Alice in Wonderland theme. We opted to get a milkshake and a slice of cake here, with our choice of lemon drizzle sadly not available. We ended up with a Boston Creme, with the biggest slab of cake I had ever seen. It was so big that we struggled to finish it, and indeed it completely scuppered our evening meal plans. Still, it was a nice place for a rest and the staff were really friendly, as they had been at all of the establishments we had visited. I was telling them about my sister having just moved to the city, and they were interested.

We moved on to the Northern Quarter after here, a place my sister had particularly been looking forward to seeing. I pointed out Port Street Beer House but with our stomachs still in full bloated mode, we decided to move on. We walked further up the street, turning left on the road that fringes the northern edge of the Northern Quarter. I had never been down this road before and we found a few surprising bars in this vicinity, including Pie and Ale and one dedicated the Blackjack Brewery. We had a drink in both, with the latter a great find as we had known about Blackjack for a while but we hadn't had chance to sample much of their stuff. This was a little bit of an old man's pub though and there was some folk music going on, so we only stayed for a brief third. Seeing the dog in the corner was a highlight though, but we soon headed off, ending our tour in the fantastic Marble Arch pub on Rochdale Road. Here we tried a gose made from longestines and a Japanese based stout/ale which was far too sweet for both me and Wolfie. The sour beer was excellent though, with even my sister enjoying it. In this bar, there was a doggo friend sat on his owner's lap staring at the salad he was eating and another doggo friend who was just loose in the pub sniffing and a-snuffling. He was after food, being a hungry Jack Russell, and he came for pettings on four separate occasions. He was fun, and it was a great way to end a fantastic day of catching up with my sister.

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