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January 29, 2016
CANALS AND COSTUMES - IT MUST BE CARNIVAL TIME!
I visited Venice many years ago, despite warnings that it would be chock full of tourists and that the canals would be rather smelly. I immediately fell in love with the city and promised myself that, one day, I would return. Not in the summer, though, but in the final days of January, when the Venice Carnival comes to town, breaking through the gloom of winter and brightening the darkest of days.
This year's carnival began last weekend and will continue into the week leading up to Lent. During the festivities, the city bursts into life as throngs of masked party-goers in costume fill the streets and boatlots of revellers jostle for place on Venice's famous canals. This year, there was one fly in the ointment. Attempts were made to do away with mask-wearing on the grounds of security concerns. Such is the strength of feeling for this much-loved tradition, however, an outcry ensued and the masks were allowed to stay.
Venice Carnival is reputed to be one of the oldest in the world. Dating back to the 11th century, festivities often lasted for a couple of months. Time took its toll, however, and during the 18th century, the event nearly faded into obscurity. Thankfully, in the late 1970s the decision was made to revive the tradition, leaving us today with an eighteen-day event that dusts the city of Venice with more than a sprinkling of magical party dust.
Over the course of the carnival there are parades, fireworks, masked balls, music concerts, parades and gala dinners in abundance. Many activities are centred on Piazza San Marco, although the drama is by no means confined to this one venue.
Venice Carnival is about partying hard and having fun. But mainly it is about dressing up in the most elaborate outfit and mask, and being seen. It seems fitting, then, that one of the most popular events involves the annual search for the best costume. Heats run throughout the Carnival. This year's grand finale will be held on 9th February when the final decision is made about who is sporting the best costume. Originality and creative skill feature heavily in the X-Factor style judging. As ever, it is sure to be hotly contested.
Posted by Sue at 11:06:58 on 29/1/2016
January 22, 2016
A SUPERSONIC SIGHT IN THE SKY
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the first commercial flight on Concorde. As a teenager living near Manchester, the unmistakeable rumble of this iconic plane could be heard on many a car journey as it soared overhead. Concorde captured our imagination because it looked so beautiful and so distinctive, quite unlike anything we'd seen before. It also offered the tantalising possibility of flying to New York for breakfast and getting back home in time for tea. Needless to say, taking a trip on Concorde was an unfulfilled dream of mine.
Over the years, though, Concorde came under criticism. There were complaints about noise; it could only go supersonic over the ocean to avoid annoying people with its supersonic boom. Then its safety record was brought into question. It was a sad day when, in 2003, Concorde was finally sent into retirement.
I can clearly remember Concorde's final flight as it appeared on TV. It occurred to me then that, no matter how much money I saved up, I would no longer have the chance to travel on a plane that changed the world of aviation. Concorde flew faster than any other plane around; it also flew higher, reaching altitudes of up to 55,500 feet. What is more, passengers could look out of the plane's windows and see the curvature of the Earth. It was as if you were travelling at the very edge of space.
Now it looks like I may finally get my wish. It appears that there is the possibility of at least one Corcorde gracing our skies once again. Concorde's chances of revival rest very much in the hands of Club Concorde, a group of enthusiasts who, in July last year, announced the 'Return to Flight' project. The project's plan is to purchase one of the planes currently kept in France, and operate her as a private, heritage aircraft for use at air shows and the like.
Even if they don't succeed, supersonic air travel on a commercial basis may still happen at some point in the future. Aerospace organisations, including NASA, are working to develop the technology to create a new breed of aircraft - with reduced levels of sonic boom - as early as the 2020s. Air travel of the future may yet be supersonic - and a whole lot quieter.
Posted by Sue at 11:06:17 on 22/1/2016
January 15, 2016
STEPPING INTO A MUSICAL TIME MACHINE
There are some songs that take us right back to a particular time and, more importantly, to a particular place. You only have to hear the first few bars and you are there, along with the emotions and experiences that you thought were long forgotten. Over the years, I've come to realise that songs have an uncanny knack for capturing a moment in time. When they come on the radio, it is like stepping into a musical time machine.
For me, the ultimate time machine song has to be David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'. The lyrics resonate so clearly with a motorbike tour of Africa taken over twenty-five years ago. Hear them and I'm instantly reminded of riding through the Sahara Desert. We were heading for a small town in Algeria. A sandstorm had just blown through and it was getting late. The light was starting to fade, and the road was growing ever thinner; a thin ribbon of tarmac bordered by drifting sand. At that moment, I felt truly isolated from the rest of the world and, I have to admit, a little bit frightened. I found myself singing Bowie's lyrics over and over in my helmet to take my mind off things. Now, I only have to hear one refrain from the song featuring astronaut Major Tom and I'm back there, peering through my helmet visor into the empty desert ahead.
Funnily enough, that same tune wound its way through my head again on my cycle ride from Lands End to John O'Groats last year. This time, it was on a particularly challenging stretch of Scottish moorland on the way to Thurso. Battling with a gruelling side wind, the lyrics once again seemed to fit somehow.
Then there was the motorbike trip I took in North America in the early 1990s. One of the songs I couldn't get out of my head was that 1960s' country classic, 'King of the Road', sung by Roger Miller. It was a catchy little number, popular on the radio when I was growing up, that told the story of a hobo travelling around the country. Although he lacked the creature comforts of life, nonetheless he appreciated having the freedom of being a 'king' in his own 'kingdom'. I hummed it to myself on the back of the bike as I rode across America, staring at the frequently empty stretch of straight open road in front of me. With no real agenda other than a return flight date booked six months ahead, the song captured the moment perfectly.
Posted by Sue at 11:04:56 on 15/1/2016
January 8, 2016
A RECORD-BREAKING NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION
We all make New Year's resolutions. For most people, it is usually a promise to lose weight over the coming year or join a gym. Generally, they have a rather short shelf life - a couple of weeks at the most. One cyclist from Nottingham, though, has set herself the ultimate resolution - one that will last the whole year through and, at the end, hopefully earn herself a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
On 1st January, Kajsa Tylen, a Swedish-born cyclist who has lived in the UK for most of her life, set out on an epic journey. She aims to break a record set some 77 years ago by Billie Dovey, a female cyclist who rode every day during 1938 and set the record for the Furthest Distance Cycled in a Year. Billie rode an astonishing 29,603.7 miles and used her achievement to promote the health benefits of cycling to those she met along the way. Billie, incidentally, lived to be a 100 years old, maintaining her interest in cycling until her death in 2014.
Kajsa's challenge begs no half measures. She will have to don Lycra and head out on the bike whatever the weather. She'll be riding anywhere between eight and ten hours a day. There'll be no recovery days, no opportunity to hit the snooze button and slide back under the duvet.
Already, she's had to battle strong headwinds, hills and knee pain. She's also had a few punctures. In any endurance challenge like this, she'll need all the technical stuff to do with the bike, including a healthy supply of spare parts. But she'll also need stamina in bucket lots and, as she admits, an ability to 'go to another place' and 'never give up'.
Kajsa has invited other cyclists to keep her company throughout the year. Her daily ride schedule and regular updates on her progressed are published on her website www.ayearinthesaddle.com. I hope that, on one of those days, I'll be fortunate enough to be able to join her.
Posted by Sue at 11:03:37 on 8/1/2016