Wednesday, 23 January 2013

In the shadow of Mont Blanc

Bonjour from the small French village of Les Carroz, within sight of the Grand Massif of Mont Blanc. Though it’s usually covered in cloud, there’s no mistaking the mighty peak at 4,810m. But we’re reaching some heady heights too with the highest lift in the ski area getting up to an impressive 2480m.

I’ve been here almost a week now in what can only be described as idyllic ski conditions. Late afternoon and early evening the clouds come down and it usually snows, but the days are clear with unbroken blue sky horizon to horizon and not a breath of wind. Generally it’s around –15˚C but it’s a dry cold and when the sun is out it can feel quite warm.

The week started off with the slopes quite busy, mainly because it was the weekend of course, but as the week has progressed it’s almost like having the entire area to ourselves, all 265km of runs.

I say our, as I’m here with a couple of friends, Louise and Jock, and on day two another couple of friends of Louise, Gordon and Viv, appeared in the apartment next door, so there’s quite a group of us in all. Gordon is a more experienced skier and owns an apartment in Les Carroz and so knows the area well.

As ski holidays go I’m very impressed with Les Carroz, the oldest ski resort in France. There are no nightclubs as such and the village itself has a life all of it’s own and is quite pretty compared to a lot of “ski resorts” around the world. The ski area itself has enough runs of every grade to keep everyone happy, and the lower towns of Samoens and Morillon also boast extensive cross country skiing.

The Grand Massif ski area does have a claim to fame; it has the 2nd longest ski run in the world, the Cascades, at 14km. It takes over an hour to get to the highest point in the Flaine ski area, from where it starts, but from there it’s one continuous run all the way to the bottom of the valley. It was good fun but there are a lot of sections that are almost flat so a lot of pushing on the poles is required. The end of the run zigs zags down a steep side of a mountain and is only 15 feet wide and very icy in places. I’ve done it, but most likely wont again.

It’s been many years since I’ve been away skiing on runs that are longer than just a few hundred metres, and day one was a real struggle. Nursing a couple of injuries didn’t help either but suddenly, around mid afternoon, coming down a difficult blue run, something clicked, and it wasn’t my arthritic toe joint. From then on it has been a complete joy, carving wide sweeping turns, usually at speed, as is my desire, turning gracefully on the top of small mounds and being naughty using beginners as slalom markers!

All that said, today was difficult. Overnight 15cm of fresh snow fell. The piste-bashers that smooth out the slopes stop around 2am, so by this morning there was three to four centimetres of powder on top. This is fine for those with fat skis or boards, but for my racing carvers it’s a nightmare.

So, I took the plunge and hired a different type of ski, called an all-mountain ski. You can see in the photo that they wouldn't be out of place in a circus on the feet of a clown and I was more than a little apprehensive on them. But wow! I used them all day and found myself skiing near vertical red runs which I’ve never been able to do before. I was having so much fun hurtling down one in particular, that I managed to lose the group I was with!

So a couple of days left, with more snow on the way tomorrow. Maybe I wont go home.

Au revoir de Les Carroz.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


 I'm a bit of a fan of Starbucks coffee. Not sure why really as in terms of flavour it's not the best I've ever had. Back in the days when I owned my own coffee shop I would quite confidentially say that I served better coffee.

When Pauline and I cycled across the United States in 2011, early morning coffee was the start to every day, mostly a weak watery concoction at a local gas station. Occasionally, in larger towns, we would find a Starbucks and be very excited at finding this treat. They were few and far between in the midwest, but of course when we hit Seattle, the home of Starbucks, they were quite literally on every corner. Because of our mutual like of Starbucks we chose their very first store in Pike Place Market, downtown Seattle, as our finish line.

Maybe it's the consistency, that you can rely on getting the same thing every time, But whatever the reason  I think we could be taken for loyal customers.

Well, (do you sense a rant coming here?!), just a couple of days ago I visited a Starbucks store in Edinburgh, my home city. I have a Starbucks card which I've had for going on 10 years, and though I don't use it all the time, on occasion I'll put money on it and pay for my coffee because in doing so I get a free extra shot and flavouring syrup.

Not anymore.

Apparently, and this came as news to me, between the beginning of January 2012 and the beginning of January 2013, you had to gain "50 points" on your card, one point for every coffee bought using the card. But I don't use the card all the time, so that wasn't going to happen. Anyway, I knew nothing about this scheme. Once you reach the 50 points your card is upgraded to Gold Star standard. What does this mean? Well, quite simply it continues just as before with the same discounts.

But of course, I haven't used the card enough. So I wrote to Starbucks. Bottom line is because I hadn't gained the 50 points on the card in the year I was not considered a loyal customer and so unworthy of their Gold Star.

Considering the recent bad press they have been having over the supposed non payment of British taxes etc, you'd think they would be going all out to improve their image.

In reality, last year I did reach and surpass the required 50 points, but of course in Starbucks eyes I cannot prove this.

This is not the sort of customer service one would expect from an American company, and quite frankly I'll be looking for a different regular coffee provider from now on.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Stars and Stripes

It was still dark as I left the house on my bicycle at quarter past eight on Sunday morning, to meet my friend Pauline. The reason for the early start? We'd set ourselves the challenge of cycling to each of the seven hills that our home city of Edinburgh is built on and climbing to the top of every one!

The first hill of our challenge was Arthurs Seat, an extinct volcano rising from the very heart of the city to a height of 820 feet. It was to be the hardest hill of the day. We made a steep cycle to the half way point and then continued on foot as the sun started to rise, casting an orange glow over the landscape, though the city itself stayed in shadow below the volcano. From the top we could see across Edinburgh, over the Forth Estuary . . . to the rest of the six hills we had to climb.

We easily polished off the next two city-centre hills. The 337-foot Calton Hill hosts an observatory dating back to 1776 but, as the sun was fully up now, there was no chance for stargazing.
We then became two of the 1.3million people who each year visit Scotland's most popular and iconic tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle, sitting at 420 feet on its rock. There's been a castle on this site since the 12th century but today it's best known as the backdrop for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the spectacular New Year fireworks show.

Fortified by coffee and cake, we made a three-mile dash across the busy city centre and through the chaos of the tram works to the west side to climb the 530 feet of Corstorphine Hill. We had chained up our bikes and were picking our way up the maze of paths when suddenly we saw a vision of black and white stripes. Zebras!
Yes, you read correctly. Zebras! You see, Corstorphine Hill overlooks Edinburgh Zoo. The zoo is celebrating its centenary this year and the recent arrival of two other black and white guests, the giant pandas from China, Yang Guang and Tian Tian.
On top of the hill there's a tower, built in 1872 and dedicated to Sir Walter Scott and from here we looked south to the distant remaining three hills of our challenge.

The Water of Leith Walkway took us towards out fifth hill, Craiglockhart. We climbed the higher west top at 574 feet having chained up our bikes in the campus of Napier University at its base. The way up was steep and narrow but we rewarded our efforts with a picnic lunch, hunkered down out of the wind in a depression that in prehistoric times was a vitrified fort. Past excavations revealed that the Romans also probably took lunch here!

To the south of Edinburgh is a small mountain range called the Pentlands and the last two of our "seven hills" are the northern most extent of that range. The 700-foot summit of Braid Hills sits in the middle of a very challenging golf course - lucky we had our cycle helmets on! A steep-sided valley on its north side called the Hermitage of Braid provides a leafy corridor for dog-walkers, joggers and for us to cycle to our seventh and final hill, Blackford. We were elated as we made the stiff climb up its 540 feet and gazed over what I believe is the absolute iconic view of the Edinburgh skyline.

Blackford Hill also has an observatory on top and a huge telescope for spotting stars in the night sky or, if you point it westward, for spotting Zebras on Corstrophine Hill.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Life of Pi

I should say up front this is not a film review as such, more a reflection influenced by the film.

A couple of days ago I went with my friend Andrew to see Life Of Pi by Ang Lee. It’s hard to categorise it as it is so unique but it could be said to be a coming of age film. Unlike myself, Andrew had read the book, written by Yann Martel and published in 2001, but said at the end that he was envious of me hearing the story for the first time, not knowing where it would go.

A number of years back I had accompanied Andrew to the Tate Modern gallery in London. At one point we found ourselves on the top floor, at the time home to their modern art exhibits. As we wandered round the various installations and canvasses I became increasingly impatient to leave, modern art not “floating my boat,” as a late friend used to say about scripts he didn’t understand. Andrew asked what it was I didn’t like about the art. That was easy, I said, pointing to an obscure large canvass with merely a brush swirl of colour upon its surface. I could do that! Maybe, he replied, but you had to have thought of it first.

That changed my entire view, and appreciation, of all art, not just modern. However, one view hadn’t changed. I would gaze upon a piece, deciding for myself what it meant. Then I would read the explanation by the artist. Almost every time I differed with the artist’s explanation, preferring to believe my own, at times more spiritual version, as, in my opinion, it was a better story. An allegory in effect.

Well, Life Of Pi has had the same effect on me as that moment back in the Tate. In essence it is the story of one boy surviving against all odds. Not until you reach the end do you realise that the story is an allegory of a certain subject, and it takes you by surprise.

I’m being purposely vague because I want you to see the film as I did, not knowing the end or the overall arch. It certainly was thought provoking.  I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t have the same effect on you.

Happy New Year to you all.