Monday, July 31

Gastronomic Prague

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It is 6.45am on Monday morning in Prague. Moments ago a large orange sun rose silently over the Vltava river. It seemed a fitting end to four wonderful days exploring one of the world's most beautiful cities.

We arrived on Thursday afternoon as an unbelieveably hot sun blazed overhead. After checking into our hotel, we spend the remaining afternoon enjoying refreshing ales at a nearby bar. It was far too hot for anything more active. However, once the sun began to set we made our way into the Old Town of Prague. It's been also a decade to the day since I last set foot here. Everything was as I recall. The old town remains a joyous maze of cobblestone laneways, spectacular stone buildings and red tile roofs.

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Our group of nine chose a restaurant on the edge of the main square for dinner. Here we sat in the shadow of Prague's famous astronomical clock tower watching the evening unfold before us. The square is magic. It's filled with churches whose ornate roofs give each the appearance of fairy-tale castles. The sort made made popular by Walt Disney. At night each is lit with warm, colourful lights.

Later that evening we wandered through the cobbled streets to the Charles Bridge. This landmark is perhaps the most enduring symbol of Prague itself. It's a stone arch bridge, grimed with age, its entire length festooned with statues of saints. From here we enjoyed a truly spectacular view of Prague castle, stunningly lit, situated atop the opposing hillside. It's hard to capture the atomsphere with words. Honeymoon couples strolled, watching fire-dancers and musicans performing on the bridge, under the watchful eye of black, silohetted saints. Definitely a magic moment.

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Friday was spent wandering the Old Town, shopping and sightseeing. Prague is currently hosting an exhibition of large outdoor artworks sited along the city's cobblestone malls. One piece really caught our eye. Known simply as Aerial Water Closets, it consists of dozens of loos, bathtubs and vanity sinks bolted to the end of long, curving rods. We quickly renamed it Bogs on Sticks.

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After several hours we settled in for a long, lesuirely lunch at Pravda, a truly world-class restaurant on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The food was devine, the wine exquisite and the service immecable. We highly recommend it!

From here we wandered down to the riverfront for our first daytime view of Prague Castle. After a short stroll along the waterfront it was time to head back to the hotel to freshen up for an evening on the town. We had a particular club in mind when we set out after dark. However, Prague street addresses seem to have a logic of their own. After jumping on and off several trams, walking city block after city block, we finally found our chosen venue. Probably not the most memorable club I've visited and barely worth the effort it took to find it.


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Saturday was spent wandering the grounds of Pargue castle. The castle itself is huge, covering an entire hilltop. It's so large that it completely surrounds an enormous gothic cathedral sitting in its central courtyard. You reach the castle via a winding roadway, or a steep series of broad steps from the township below. The climb is worth every breath. The views across the city and the river were stunning, consisting largely of a sea of red tiled roofs.

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In a moment of madness I made Garry climb the cathedral's clock tower with me. 361 spiralling stone steps later, heart failure almost upon us, we found ourselves at the top, affording a view even more stunning than that at ground level. We then wandered the Golden Mile, a narrow laneway of old houses set against the castle wall. The houses have been converted to craft shops selling all manner of artwork, including complete suits of armour (a bargin at only US$500).

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Dinner on Saturday evening was at another world-class restaurant in the Old Town. This meal also marked the formal birthday celebrations for two of our party, one from England, the other from Florida. It was then on to more clubs and bars, hidden in the cellars of old stone buildings.

Sunday was spent in the Jewish Quarter, cruising the river and bar-hopping from shaded courtyard to shaded courtyard. Garry and I also found time for a spot of shopping, picking up sets of crystal wine glasses and champange flutes. For dinner we decided to try out, Ristorante Pasta Fresca, a fresh pasta restaurant that I'd spotted earlier in the day.

What a find! The entrance was rather unassuming, so much so that two of us decided to take a look before commiting ourselves to the venue. The restaurant was set deep in the cellar of a old shop, down two full flights of stairs. The cellar itself was hewn from solid stone, the roof vaulted by a series of intersecting archs. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of fresh pasta.

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Earlier the same day we'd had lunch at a another "personally discovered" restaurant. We'd found Escape Cafe down a quiet lane the previous afternoon. It sits in a quiet square and had caught our eye thanks to large, wooden shutters framing its windows, which turn revealed small stone walled rooms furnished with large wooden benches. The restaurant also had a special "300-year old" menu, offering meals typical of the early city. Garry ordered the suckling piglet, while I tried the traditional beef golash and dumplings. Both meals were delicious.

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On our final night we also went mad in a local crystal shop, purchasing some much needed wine glasses. Garry's been breaking our existing glassware with wild abandon since arriving in London. Of course, to get the jolly things home, we had to bribe friends to carry them in their hand luggage the following day. We'll repay the debt with a wine tasting evening soon!

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Thursday, July 27

Blame the Victorians

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In London, half of the water mains are more than 100 years old, and around a third are over 150. Fortunately, the ageing pipes don't seem to affect water quality, but they do leak. Thames Water estimates that it loses at least 200 million gallons of water every day through leakage. With water restrictions currently in place one can't help wondering how much of the drought is real, and how much of it is caused by an aging infrastructure.

In 2002, Thames Water started a major works program designed to replace almost 1000 miles of Victorian water mains by 2010. The replacement program hit the news a few weeks ago when Thames Water was fined more than £140 million for failing to meet its latest leak reduction targets. Last year it lost 72 billion gallons of water despite replacing more than 130 miles of pipe in the first three years of its leak reduction program. To avoid paying the fine, Thames Water agreed to accelerate the pace of pipe replacement, incuring an additional capital cost equal to the impending fine.

At the moment, King Street in Hammersmith is having its mains replaced, just outside my office door. Each morning I pass by a trench more than 100 metres long where bright blue, heavy-duty plastic water pipes are being installed. I can't help wondering if headlines in 100 year years hence will complain about the toxins being released by degrading plastic pipes.

Today, we experienced a dramatic flood in Hammersmith as one of the major mains ruptured sending thousands of gallons of water pouring into the street. The rupture was further complicated by a gas leak. By 6:00pm the police were asking our office to evacuate as a precaution. I get the impression someone hit the wrong pipe and now has some serious explaining to do. I'd try blaming the Victorians.

Wednesday, July 26

36 hours to go

In less than 36 hours Garry and I leave Swiss Cottage for our first return visit to Sydney since departing in October last year. We're in for a hectic few weeks. First, we're off to Prague to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday, then back to Heathrow to catch a connecting flight to Japan via Hong Kong. One of our birthday weekend companions will housesit for us while we're away. The Met Office is predicting another two weeks of record temperatures so I suspect the new air-con unit will be kept in good repair!

In a previous post I summarised the itinerary planned for Japan. I'm really looking forward to seeing many of the sights I last saw more than eight years ago. We're packing a lot into 3.5 days. From Tokyo its then on to Sydney for a whirlwind of family visits, catch-up events with friends, visits to the dentist, skin cancer specialist, the tax accountant and the Text 100 office.

We'll be ready for a holiday by the time we get back.

Monday, July 24

Farnborough Air Show

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The world's largest civil airliner, the Airbus A380, first took to the air in April 2005. Since this maiden flight I've promised myself I'd find an opportunity to actually see the super-jumbo for real. Today Garry and I spent an amazing day at the Farnborough Air Show watching the Airbus 380, Harrier jets, MIG29s and an endless array of other fighter jets in action.

Hundreds of aircraft were on show in static displays, while dozens took to the air in a deafening display of aeronautic agility. Perhaps the most astonishing display was given by the new Airbus 340-600. We watched it take off with the most jaw-dropping, gravity-defyingly steep ascent before proceeding to make the tightest turns I've ever seen. The world's longest commerical aircraft (75 metres) is incredibly agile.

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The Harrier was amazing to watch as it hovered in front of the crowd, before slowing rotating on the spot and briefly flying backwards. Awesome! And incredibly loud. This was in stark contrast to the A380 which flew by almost whisper quiet. It was hard to believe that such a large aircraft could be so quiet.

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Bell/Boeing - V-22 Osprey

The loudest aircraft was definitely Europe's new Tornado fighter plane. When this plane lit its afterburners the ground literally shook beneath us. The most impressive aerial display of the day though had to go to the Red Arrows, the RAF's aerobatic team. They arrived in a perfect v-formation, roaring past the crowd barely 100 feet from the ground. Spectacular!

We had a fantastic day in the sun, watching some of the most incredible flying displays. I told Garry we'd be back next year for sure!


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Friday, July 21

Regular household news brief

I thought I update everyone on minor news and current affairs. Consider this a laundry list of things you'd rarely bother to post separately.

SAAB break-in
While I was away in South Africa, the SAAB was broken into. Well, sort of. Garry forgot to lock it after going to the Supermarket. Someone later got into the car. Fortunately they only stole loose coins from the centre console and the old speedometer sitting in the boot. I'm sure the theif will be disappointed to learn that the speedometer is useless in the UK - its calibrated in kmph. All things considered, we consider ourselves lucky!

Air-conditioning bliss
London's in the grip of a heatwave. We've had days when London has been hotter than Athens, Rio or other traditional holiday destinations. After weeks of of this unrelenting hot weather, Garry's resolve finally faltered. On Tuesday he purchased a portable air-con unit for the house. Our new toy arrived yesterday, the hottest day so far this summer. Last night's sleep was peaceful thanks to our new artic zone in the bedroom. I should mention that Garry secured the unit at half-price off the web. The man loves a bargain!

The Met Office is predicting temperatures in the high 20s for the next ten days. At least three days this week having already hit the low-30s. We reached 36.3 C on Wednesday, the hottest July day since records began. The average temperature in Britain in July is 22 C.

London sights and sounds
A couple of weeks ago, my CEO was in town. She was also celebrating her 40th birthday. To help Aedhmar enjoy the day, myself and one of our external advisors met her for drinks and then whisked her off to Sketch for a late supper. Sketch is one of London's funkiest new venues. The dining area sits in an enormous hall and consists entirely of white furnishings. Every is white; tables, chairs, leather sofas and so on.

The bathroom is something else to behold. Each cubicle is its own self-contained pod. A dozen of these white egg-shaped pods are then randomly scattered around a central dome. The entire space is uni-sex, so any pod will do. The entire concept makes for a most memorable bathroom visit.

The following evening we arranged drinks for senior staff at a pub on the bank of the Thames River in Richmond. The view was a treat with swans in the river and the graceful Richmond bridge sitting in the distance. This was my first trip to Richmond. I must say that I was impressed. I'll definitely be taking Garry back there before Summer is over.

The table looks like new
You'll recall that our new dining table arrived from Australia with a prominent scratch across the surface. Our removalist paid out on our transit insurance and introduced us to a reputable furniture restorer. The table is finally back and looks like new. It's an incredible result. You'd never know that it had ever been damaged. I've looked and looked for the original mark but haven't found it yet.

The Air Show cometh
This weekend we're off to Farnbourgh to experience Europe's largest show. I know I'm excited!

And finally, a week from today, we fly to Prague to celebrate our friend Heath's 40th birthday. Garry and I then fly to Japan and on to Sydney for our first trip home since October last year. I'll also drop into New Zealand to catch up with my family before flying back to the UK via our office in South Africa. Three weeks after we're back, I'm off to Istanbul for an annual planning conference with my region's management team.

Thursday, July 20

Fulfilling a childhood dream

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Those who know me appreciate that my job often requires long hours, endless business travel and plenty of stress. However, every so often, it comes up trumps with a wonderful experience. Last weekend was one of those moments.

For more than 25 years I've harboured a dream. I've always wanted to visit Capetown in South Africa. Last weekend I finally had an opportunity to visit. Yes - the real thing - in South Africa.

I found myself flying to Johannesburg to visit our South African operation last week. After my first day on the ground it was clear I'd have to stay longer than the three days I'd originally planned. As a result, I found myself with a weekend to spare.

The thought of a weekend at the Hilton in Joburg didn't grab my imagination. Joburg isn't the prettiest city. It has an urban landscape that doesn't make one feel particularly welcome. At a macro scale its vast and sprawling. At a more intimate level every property is ringed by impossibly high concrete walls, topped by live electric wires, razor wire or broken glass shards. The overwhelming effect is one of a giant, soul-destroying maze without colour or novelty.

I'd also seen the sights that were of immediate interest back in 1996. At the time toured key locations in Johannesburg and Pretoria while enroute to my brother's wedding. On a whim, I googled "low cost airlines south Africa" and discovered Kulula.com. My weekend was rescued.

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Hooray for the internet
Within half an hour I'd secured a return ticket to Capetown, departing Friday evening and returning Sunday night for less than £125. Expedia.com also gave me a heavily discounted weekend package at the Commodore Hotel. I’d heard many good reports about this boutique hotel and was keen to experience it for myself.

Despite the cheap rate I was delighted by the room I was given on arrival in Capetown. I woke on Saturday morning to be greeted by a stunning vista of Table Mountain outside my window. This was a very pleasant surprise. One of many that happened during my stay.

The bar staff in the lobby lounge were brilliant. I felt as if I were catching up with old friends. This is a real talent that a great many hospitality staff can’t quite pull off. The lobby was filled with large, overstuffed chairs and sofas, centred around an open fire. Another unexpected delight. I spent two wonderful evening in front of the fire with a fine glass of South Africa white close to hand.

I was further delighted the next morning when I discovered that the kitchen could prepare an all egg-white omelette. I can’t tell you how many five star hotels in Europe and Asia are unable to cope with such a request. ln short, I love the Commodore!

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Harbour-side heaven
I spend Saturday enjoying a much needed lazy morning, quietly napping until noon. From the hotel I made my way to the V&A waterfront, Capetown's version of Darling Harbour, albeit on a much more intimate and inviting scale. After a leisurely wander around the harbour, I discovered a bustling gourmet cafe called Balducci's.

I sat myself at an outdoor table for lunch and soaked up the Table Mountain backdrop. Over a smoked chicken and avocado salad, I decide to hire a car and drive to the Cape of Good Hope.

The drive took me past fishing villages and winding coastal roads before finally ending in the national park that covers the last kilometers of the Cape Peninsular. After waiting for a large family of baboons to pass, I soon found myself at the end of the road with nothing but the Southern Ocean ahead. It was at this point that a light misty rain began to fall.

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The Cape of Good Hope
Ironically, the weather was ideal. With rain in your face, one easily could imagine ships being wreaked on the rugged coastline below, and picture survivors struggling to reach the foreboding cliffs below me. I spend a memorable hour wandering the Cape Point cliff top and exploring the original lighthouse.

I then drove along the bay to the Cape of Good Hope. A short walk saw me standing on a desolate rock platform while waves crashed beneath me. I truly was at the end of the world. As I made my way out of the park, nature gave me one more moment to treasure. Three ostriches came in the view on the roadside, quietly grazing sandhills along the shore.

As I made my way back to Capetown the rain really began to fall. I quickly abandoned plans to discover the city by night, choosing instead to cozy up in front of the Commodore's open fireplace.

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Table Mountain
Sunday dawned clear and sunny. I took advantage of the good weather and caught the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. The views were extraordinary. A gathering sweep of cloud soon gave the landscape an increasingly mystical touch. I walked for more than an hour along the plateau before making my way back down to my waiting rental car.

From here, I drove along the opposing coast of the Cape Peninsular, including the stunning Chapman's Peak road that's literally carved into a solid cliff face. I eventually made my way back to Capetown in time for a late lunch of grilled prawns, sitting on the water's edge at V&A Waterfront.

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Robbin Island
At 3:00pm I caught the last boat out to Robbin Island. This island lies 13 kilometres offshore. It was here that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years as a political prisoner. We were taken on an entertaining tour of the island's main sights including a man-made limestone quarry where ANC inmates once performed hard labour.

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While at the quarry our guide pointed to a 7-metre deep cave in the quarry face. He explained that this was all that remained of a 20-metre cave which had once existed in the area. Over a 40-year period, prisoners has dug an enormous basin by hand, progressively removing the ground around the cave itself.

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Our time on the island ended with a walking tour of the maximum security prison that housed Mandela and his fellow inmates. The tour was conducted by a former political prisoner who brought to life the time he's experienced inside. Through him, history came alive as he described the football games and political debates held each evening before lights out.

We saw the small, two-metre by two-metre cell that Mandela lived in for 18 years, as well as the communal dormitories where men lived for more than a decade with nothing more than sleeping mats and iron bars on the window. Bunk beds and glass window panes were luxuries that came much later. I came away angered that such injustice could have happened in my lifetime, yet also moved by the forgiveness and grace that our guide displayed towards his captors.

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It was dark by the time our boat reached Capetown, and time for me to head back to the airport. I arrived early. Kulula.com offered to put me on an earlier flight back to Joburg. By 11:00pm was back at the Hilton, rested and ready for a new week. My childhood dream had finally come to pass.

Sunday, July 9

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

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For one week in July Hampton Court Palace provides the perfect backdrop for the world's largest annual flower show. The show is produced by the Royal Horticultural Society, who are also responsible for the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show held every May.

Having missed the Chelsea show, Garry and I were determined to catch the show at Hampton Court. As a result, we found ourselves catching the train from Waterloo on Saturday along with thousands of others. The day was warm without being uncomfortable. Perfect show viewing weather.

This year's event included more than 700 exhibitors, nine large marquee pavilions and 50 showcase displays gardens. The array of horticulture was incredible. I particularly loved the floral art displays and show gardens. The mature bonsai trees were Garry's favourites, including an English Oak, two feet in height that was already more than 80 years old. It's owner told Garry the tree would outlive her, making it a rather unique family heirloom.


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One pavilion was filled with nothing but roses in all manner of colours, shapes and sizes. The RHS claims that this is the world's largest annual gathering of roses in full bloom. Another pavilion reproduced an English country-side scene. This included a gently flowing stream, lavender fields and a full-size stone cottage set in its own country garden. I even spotted a small vegetable plot with mature vegetables growing. All of this indoors.

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The show gardens were incredible. Some had miniature waterfalls, while others contained small lakes. Each was more incredible than the next. My favourite blended an outdoor dining area with an indoor kitchen surrounded by curving walls and spectacular potted plants.

The exhibitor stalls were also fascinating. You could buy a full-size elephant complete with water fountain cascading from its truck, or one of several thousand plastic milk-crate-sized wheelie bins, the perfect gardener's accessory. Every other show visitor seemed to have one trundling behind them, stuffed full of plants and gardening tools. At moments like this you're tempted to agree that England truly is a nation of gardeners.

Wednesday, July 5

Remembering July 7, 2005

Friday will mark the first anniversary of last year's suicide bombing on the tube. Garry and I were in London at the time, watching the entire event unfold live on Sky News. Two minutes of silence is scheduled for noon on Friday. The papers say that travelers on the Underground will also be asked to participate. I must admit I'm not so sure I'd want to be reminded of such an incident while waiting on a narrow platform 20-metres below the street.

I catch the tube every day, but generally don't stop to think about terrorism. With so many people getting on and off the tube at every station you soon realise that it's impossible to protect yourself. I worry more about being trapped by fire than being caught up in a terrorist act. When you see how narrow the passageways are, and how many people are crowded into them, it's clear that a serious fire would spell certain doom.

I do find myself occassionally double-checking any large bag and its owner in my carriage. This psychological reassurance works fine on most tube lines except the Piccadilly line. This line goes to Heathrow so every carriage is inevitably filled with people taking large luggage items either to or from the airport. On these occasions I'm tempted to stand next to a large bag so that, should my time be up, the end will be blindingly quick and painless.

In all honesty, terrorism isn't the thing that makes me fear for my safety. Every week you hear about someone that's stabbed or beaten in the street or on the bus. Random acts of violence against strangers seem far more common in London that your average suicide bomber. I guess this is a hallmark of living in such a large city. The frequency of such attacks makes me feel less safe in the UK than I ever did in Sydney. Garry reassures me that this sort of violence happens in Sydney all the time. Somehow that doesn't really comfort me.

It's the small things

I've been compiling a list of small things that tend to remind me we're not in Sydney anymore. A few examples include:
  • Last night I notice an aisle at the Supermarket for traditional desserts. This covers things like milk puddings, sago, custard powder, tapioca, condensed milk, treacle and all sorts of things that only grandma probably knows how to prepare. I can't recall ever seeing an aisle for this sort of thing in Sydney.
  • The fruit and vegetable section looks very different. Unlike Australia, you rarely see anything stacked in piles of fresh produce. Instead, everything is extensively packaged. Bulk produce is presented in crates, with individual items displayed in storage trays which in turn are wrapped in cellophane. The waste packaging is quite astounding. As a result, the produce section look more like a storage warehouse than a traditional greengrocers.
  • Frozen vegetables also seem less popular. Our local Sainsbury supermarket has barely half an aisle of freezers, which seemed to be largely filled with all manner of frozen french fries. It doesn't even sell whole frozen beans. I guess that the English prefer their beans fresh, or not at all.
  • Finally, my wallet fills with coins more frequently than Australia as the UK still gives out one and two penny copper coins.

Monday, July 3

Dancing in the streets

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Every Summer, London hosts it's own version of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, called Pride, which culminates in a daylight parade through central London. Two years ago I watched the parade in the shadow of Big Ben as it wound its way along the Thames embankment. At the time I thought it compared poorly with Sydney's highly choreographed and carefully orchestrated event.

However, this year's celebration was more spectacular than usual as London had been chosen to host the annual Europride Festival, Europe's largest gay and lesbian event. For the last two weeks hundreds of activities have been taking place city-wide in festival line-up reminiscent of Mardi Gras at its peak. The parade route also changed this year, passing through the heart of London - down Regent Street, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square.

The parade then concluded with a series of street parties at Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and across Soho, continuing late into the evening. Most of Soho was also closed to road traffic on Saturday, encouraging unusually large crowds to gather. Garry and I joined a group of friends shortly after lunch and spent a sunny, fun-filled day wandering the streets, hopping from bar to bar.


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Much of our afternoon was spent at The Crown & Two Chairman on the corner of Dean and Bateman Street. The pub had dragged several large wooden tables into the street, making for an ideal people watching location. As the shadows lengthened we stopped by the "Girls Zone", an energetic lesbian-friendly dance party in a shaded cul-de-sac, before moving on to some of our favourite Soho bars. By closing time we'd met visitors from all corners of the UK and Europe.

The hours simply flew by and before we knew it, the last remnants of our group were gathered in Heaven, London's largest gay club. At 5:00am Garry and I finally decided we'd reached our limit. We flagged a cab and made our way home to a much welcomed bed.

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Much of Sunday was spent sleeping as we were keen to recharge our batteries for the Europride Concert later that evening. This was a gala variety event held at the stunning Albert Hall. Garry and I had successfully secured seats earlier in the week, close to the stage, sitting eye level with the performers. The event was a four hour cavalcade of the UK's most famous gay and lesbian stars (and their straight friends) from all walks of life.

The line-up included Elton John, Boy George, Stephen Fry, Tina C, Graham Norton, Ian McKellen, Julian Clary, Alan Carr (of Little Britain fame), Heather Small (lead singer from M-People) and walk-on cameos from Jennifer Saunders, Ruby Wax and Billy-Jean King. The chorus company from at least three West End shows also performed including Avenue Q, Chicago and Mamma Mia.

Ian McKellen was particularly memorable, reviving a spectacular number from last Christmas's Aladdin pantomine, as the lonely Widow Twankey. Garry and I laughed just as hard last night as we did at Christmas time. It's hard to imagine that this was the same man who played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Magneto in the X-Men films and Sir Leigh Teabag in The Da Vinci Code.

Rather than ramble on, I'll point you towards this review in today's Evening Standard. All in all it was an incredible evening in truly memorable venue.