Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Whale Watching

'Twas the day before Christmas and in our rental house, we marveled at the weather and resolved to go out.
A gorgeous day in Monterey
A whale-watching tour in Monterey Bay was just what we needed on this beautiful day.

Randy's Whale Watching tours
Fisherman's Wharf had a festive air...
Festive boat
Even Santa Claus was there...
Santa goes for a sail
The birds and beasts were all out on the water.  We saw pelicans,
Sea lions,
Sea lions
A pile of sea lions
and an adorable sea otter!

The water was calm heading out of the bay. We passed the aquarium along the way.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Once out at sea, the swells rose and fall.  Some of us did not feel well at all.
I lost my lunch -- fed to the fish -- but a few minutes later, we all got our wish.
A tell-tale spout from a grey whale,
Thar she blows!
And a fleeting glimpse of the great creature's tail.
Just a fluke
We followed the whale for nearly an hour, rewarded with more sightings and a sea spray shower.
Despite the fine weather and a hope to see more, our stomachs were relieved to head back to shore.
We're on a boat!
It was well worth the trip to see my first whale, a day I shall remember without fail.

Here in California our Christmas won't be white, but I'd much rather see the sun shining bright.
Whether whale-watching, skiing, or visiting family far and near,
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

[Apologies for writing this blog post in verse.  It's hard to imagine anything worse!]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Priscilla: Queen of the Panto

Christmas traditions in the UK are a bit different from what we are used to in the US.  Sure, people decorate trees, put up lights, and exchange gifts -- the basics are the same.  But in the UK they have mince pies instead of Christmas cookies, Christmas pudding instead of pumpkin pie, and Father Christmas instead of Santa Claus.  No Christmas celebration is complete without Christmas crackers -- little cardboard tubes filled with paper crowns, silly jokes, and cheap toys -- and everyone books a ticket for their local Christmas Panto.
Josh shows off our tiny Christmas tree and his paper crown
Panto isn't pantomime like Marcel Marceau, it is a silly take on a traditional fairy tale or folk tale with a laundry list of required elements, including popular songs, pop culture references, a man playing a woman (or a woman playing a man), audience participation, and in the case of our local theater in Wimbledon, bizarre celebrity stunt casting.  The New Wimbledon Theatre is conveniently located about 5 blocks from our house, and rivals those in the West End both in size and caliber of shows.  Their annual Panto is notorious for featuring b-list American celebrities, such as David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson, and Henry Winkler.  Last year, we thoroughly enjoyed their production of Dick Whittington and His Cat with Dame Edna (who is actually an Australian man) as the Fairy, so we eagerly awaited the announcement of this year's play and guest stars.
The New Wimbledon Theatre
It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, starring Priscilla Presley as the Evil Queen, and Warwick Davis as one of the dwarfs.  Wow!  Elvis' widow and Willow performing right down the street...
Yes, THAT Priscilla Presley!
After a couple Warwick Davis sightings around Wimbledon (he is tiny!), we finally got tickets to see the show on Sunday evening.  Once again, we weren't allowed to take photos during the show, but the sets and costumes were just as lovely as in last year's show.

The narrator introduced Priscilla Presley's character as "an evil queen with a strong American accent." Nice. She flubbed a few of her lines, but she looked pretty fabulous for her age (67!).  The show was just as entertaining as last year's production.  While still keeping true to the original plot of the story, they managed to incorporate the song "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling (as a duet between Snow White and the prince), the Thriller dance, and a running joke about the dwarfs practicing for "Moravia's Got Talent."  One dwarf dressed up as Susan Boyle and lip-synced "I Dreamed a Dream," which fulfilled both the pop culture reference and a man dressed as a woman.

But the highlight (for me, anyway) was when Warwick Davis' character showed off his 'talent' towards the end of the show.  He appeared on stage in a tiny suit, dark wig, and sunglasses and lead the entire cast in a rendition of "Gangnam Style."  I was laughing so hard I was crying.

I wonder who will be performing in next year's panto?  I can't wait!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Our Boys

I was surprised to learn that out of the 6 ladies who showed up for Theater Day this week, 3 of them had never seen Les Miserables.  Shocking!  Fortunately for me, the other two women had seen it several times, so they decided to come with me to see a play they'd never heard of while the rest of the group took advantage of the half-price matinee tickets for Les Miz.

Actually, I didn't know much about the play myself, but having seen the ads for it, I was excited to find it listed at the half-price ticket booth.  Our Boys is about six soldiers in a military hospital in the mid-80's.  What?  That doesn't sound like something I'd want to see?  Fair enough, but let me tell you who is in it: Laurence Fox!  Never heard of him?  He plays police detective James Hathaway in the TV series Lewis.  And surely you know Matthew Lewis!  Yes, you do.  He was Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies.  Yes, that chubby, awkward kid who ended up being cuter than all his male costars by the final movie.
The intimate Duchess Theatre
The Duchess Theatre is one of the smaller ones in the West End, and our seats were right in the center of the third row.  Sweet!  (Especially so when Laurence Fox stripped down to his undies, and one of the other cute male characters had a hospital gown malfunction.)  All three of us ended up really enjoying the play, which was a mix of comedy and tragedy, and not at all predictable.  Both Mary and Barbara, the two ladies who joined me, said they may even see it again with their husbands.
With Mary and Barbara outside the Lyceum Theatre
Our Boys closes on December 15, so if you're in London, don't procrastinate!  And if you see hordes of teenage girls standing outside the stage door of the Duchess Theatre with cameras and Sharpies at the ready, you can blame that on Neville Longbottom and James Hathaway...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Hunting Expedition

It's not easy to motivate me to be up and out of the house by 6:15 am, but the opportunity to visit the largest antiques fair in Europe proved to be a strong enough incentive.  The Newark Antiques & Collectors Fair is held several times a year about two hours north of London. 

A group of about 30 women from the AWC boarded a bus in Kensington at 7 am Thursday morning and headed out for a full day of bargain-hunting.  We were well-armed with tote bags, tape measures, shopping trolleys, and of course snacks and drinks for the ride home.  As we passed a small aviation museum on the way in, the bus driver warned us, "Don't buy an old airplane.  It won't fit on the bus on the way back!"  Uh, OK...

I was astonished that they would hold an antiques fair outdoors in England, but we were blessed with lovely weather -- blue skies and sunshine are a rare treat! I'm not sure what this area is generally used for, but it reminded me of a county fairground.
Which one should I get?
I sent this photo to Josh to ask whether he would prefer the 10-foot-tall gold amazon, or the animatronic hip-hop teddy bear.  Sadly, I did not get a response, so I didn't buy either one.

With approximately 2500 stalls, there truly was a little something for everyone.  People were selling furniture, rugs, art, ceramics, glassware, china, silver, jewelry, clothing, and just about anything else that someone might collect.  Most of them were set up outdoors...
This horse would look nice in the garden...
But there were also several large pavilions where vendors selling more expensive or delicate items had tables set up.
Just one of several indoor shopping areas.
There were also a few food trucks and cafes scattered around; and since we are Americans, we were invited to take a break in the Overseas Buyers Lounge, where they had tea, coffee, fruit, and biscuits.  Even though we were there for 6 hours, we had a lot of ground to cover, so it was nice to be able to grab a bite on the go. 

I didn't take many photos because I didn't think the vendors would appreciate it, but I had to get a photo of this. Too bad the bus driver warned me not to buy it, because it would have made a great anniversary gift for Josh...
Old airplane for sale, in terrible condition...
So now that you know what I DIDN'T buy, here's what I brought home with me...  I bought these three little dishes from three different vendors.  The blue floral one in the back is ceramic, and the one with the yellow and pink chrysanthemums is cloisonne.  The bowl in the foreground is ceramic wrapped in pewter, and is very similar to one I bought in Richmond, VA several years ago, which is wrapped in brass.  That one is full of British coins, so I filled this one with American coins.
My Asian collection (coins not included)
My best find were two pieces of Moorcroft pottery.  (Can you tell I have a thing for ceramics?)  Moorcroft is a brand of art pottery that has been made in England for over 100 years.  The antique pieces sell for over £1000, and the new ones generally cost at least £150, so I wasn't really expecting to find any bargains here, but I did stop to admire the pieces I saw for sale.  Towards the end of the day, I came across a guy selling some cute ceramic items, and was about to ask about the price of something when I noticed an assortment of Moorcroft in the back of his stall.  Factory seconds! 

I ended up buying a "Moon Valley" vase and a "Dames Pansy" bowl (both dated 2010), each with a teeny tiny flaw in the glaze, for a fraction of the "Best Quality" price.  And, being the expert haggler that I am, I convinced the guy to take an additional £25 off the price and throw in the other small item (which I bought as a gift for someone who might read this) essentially for free. 
The trophies from my successful bargain-hunting expedition
If I had bought these two items in perfect condition at a shop, they would have cost about $890!  (And there's no way I'd ever spend that much money.)  Yes, I still ended up spending more than I originally intended to, but I think I got a great deal!

We had fun sharing our finds (and our drinks and snacks) on the bus on the way home.  Some of the other ladies even bought furniture -- mostly small items like bar stools and a chair.  At least they were guaranteed a seat on the Tube on the way home!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dressing Downton

What could top a tour of Highclere Castle?  Not much, but to continue on my Downton Abbey high, I attended a talk last week at the Victoria & Albert Museum by Susannah Buxton, the costume designer for seasons 1 and 2 of the popular TV series.

Ms. Buxton was joined by a V&A curator from the Fashion department, who discussed some of the parallels between the Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey and their real-life contemporary, wealthy socialite Heather Firbank, whose considerable wardrobe was donated to the museum after her death.
V&A fashion curator (left) and Susannah Buxton (right), discuss the fictional
Crawley sisters (photo, left) and Heather Firbank (photo, right)
I've never really thought much about where all the costumes come from in the costume dramas that are so popular on British TV (and often exported to the US), but it's much more complicated than I imagined.  First of all, Ms. Buxton had a fairly modest budget of about £20,000 per episode ($32,200), which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that it includes not only the main characters -- whose clothing must reflect their wealth and status -- but all the servants and extras.  Some costumes were rented from local costume houses, others came from costume shops in Paris, and some were custom-made.

Also, because the series covers a period of several years, the costumes must reflect the changes in fashion that were going on at the time.  Lady Cora, as an American with a generous dress allowance, would probably wear more daring fashions than some of her British contemporaries, while the Dowager Countess would likely be more comfortable wearing the more conservative clothing of her generation.  As the years progress, hemlines creep up and waistlines drop down in the dresses worn by the three sisters, so they can't just keep wearing the same costumes over and over.

We also learned that each character had their own color palette.  So Edith is often seen in oranges and greens, while Sybil frequently wears shades of blue and purple, and Mary dresses in reds, greys, and black.   All of Lord Grantham's clothes were custom-made for him, since that would have been the case in real life, as were Lady Violet's (the Dowager Countess).

In some cases, a costume was built around a single period component that Ms. Buxton particularly liked, such as a hat or jacket, in order to create a coordinating ensemble.  In the case of the red dress below worn by Lady Cora, she found the red embroidered silk fabric for the bodice and designed the rest of the dress around it.  She must really like this dress, because I think she's worn it two or three times.
(Yes, I took this photo of the TV)
Cousin Isobel's beaded jacket came from a costume house in Paris, and has also made more than one appearance during the course of the show.  I probably wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't gone to the lecture...
Didn't you just wear that at Christmas?
Ironically, of the more expensive costumes is the simple pink cotton dress worn by the kitchen maid, Daisy.  Since she wears the same thing every day, they decided it would be worth the investment to purchase the vintage Edwardian dress, which had never been worn.  It is the only completely original costume worn by a member of the cast.

As I watched the next episode (no spoilers, I promise!) with Josh, I drove the poor man crazy by constantly pausing the show and pointing out details about both the rooms in the house ("All the paintings in the dining room belong to the house, and are portraits of the previous Earls and their families.") and the costumes ("They had a hard time convincing the tailor to make Lord Grantham's suit with the sloping shoulders that were common during that period.").  I suspect he'll come up with an excuse to skip watching it with me this week...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Royal Chelsea Hospital

"Why aren't you at work?" demanded the 102-year old pensioner as we passed him in the corridor.  The man didn't look a day over 90, and apart from a cane, lacked the accessories you would expect to see on a man 20 years his junior: no hearing aid, no glasses, no motorized wheelchair or scooter.  As the oldest resident of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, I imagine he's seen plenty of other tour groups come through the grounds on a weekday morning, but clearly he thought our group of American ladies should have better things to do with our time.

We met at the Chelsea gate on a drizzly Wednesday morning, and waited for our guide.
No, that's not our guide!
AWC ladies outside the library
We were met by Major Mal Smart, looking very smart indeed in his scarlet military coat, white gloves, and hat.  He took us inside the library and gave us a little history of the hospital and its residents.
Major Mal Smart gives us a briefing in the library
First off, it's not a hospital and never has been.  When it was built by King Charles II back in the late 1600's, the word "hospital" was a French term for a guest house or shelter for the needy -- with the same origins as the word "hostel."  He wanted to build a facility to house war veterans, and hired architect Christopher Wren to design it.  The RCH opened in 1692 and has been in continuous operation ever since.
Christopher Wren's design, with French influences
Not much has changed over the years.  The RCH still owns the 66 acres it was originally built on, parts of which are rented out for the annual Chelsea Flower Show and other special events.  (Some scenes from season 1 of Downton Abbey were also filmed here.)  While a new infirmary was built in 2009, the original Christopher Wren buildings remain largely unchanged from the exterior, albeit with some interior renovations, such as the addition of elevators/lifts.
The colonnade overlooking Figure Court
To be a Chelsea pensioner, you must have served in the Royal army for at least 12 years and be receiving a pension, at least 65 years old, in reasonably good health, and have no spouse or other dependents.  The RHC currently houses about 300 men and 6 women, ranging in age from 65 to the 102-year-old charmer we met on our tour.  They are provided with a small bedroom, several common areas, basic cooking facilities, and three meals a day.  All pensioners wear their uniforms in public.
Figure Court, with gold statue of Charles II as a Roman general
The Great Hall, where meals are served, made us think of Hogwarts.  The two tattered flags on the left were captured from American military regiments during the War of 1812.
Great Hall, set up for lunch
In the rear of the Hall is a painting of Charles II wearing a scarlet military coat that was the precursor to the one worn by the pensioners.  The wood carvings are all by Grinling Gibbons.
Entrance to Great Hall
Across from the Great Hall is the gorgeous Chapel, where members of the Royal family and the occasional celebrity are known to make an appearance every now and then.  The intricate wood carvings are all by Grinling Gibbons, who also worked in Hampton Court Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral.
The Chapel
Of course, our tour ended in the gift shop, with a delightful array of items celebrating the adorably spry Chelsea pensioners.
Fancy a tote bag?
Afterwards, some of us had lunch in the small cafe, which is open to the public.  Offerings were few and simple, but a sandwich, cup of tea, and chocolate-coated shortbread cookie for less than £5 is probably the best deal in Chelsea!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Real "Downton Abbey"

"You'll find there's never a dull moment in this house," said Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess (played by the fabulous Maggie Smith).  As fans of Downton Abbey, we know that to be true, but after watching the premiere of the third season (which started Sept 17 here in the UK -- I promise not to reveal any spoilers!), my fellow AWC members and I were very excited to see for ourselves.

Early Wednesday morning, 30 of us piled into a bus and headed west to visit Highclere Castle, made famous by the hugely popular TV series Downton Abbey.  However, if you were a fan of the series Jeeves and Wooster in the early 90's, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, you might also recognize this grand house as Totleigh Towers.

As our bus pulled into the grounds, past fields of sheep, stately trees, and manicured lawns, the house came into view and we all let out a collective "Oooooh!"
Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle.  Ooooh!
We eagerly piled out of the bus, pulled out our cameras, and handed them to one another to get the obligatory shot in front of the 'castle.'  Unfortunately, my hair appeared to be even more excited than I was and refused to sit still for a photo.
It was a windy day, OK?
I knew that we were getting a private group tour, but what I didn't realize until we arrived was that we were the ONLY PEOPLE THERE.  There were no other cars or buses in the parking lot.  Oh, and it was a gorgeous, sunny day (albeit a bit cool and breezy).  It could not have been more perfect, and we hadn't even gone inside yet!
The AWC storms the castle
There has been a house on this site for hundreds of years, built on the foundations of an even older medieval palace belonging to the Bishops of Winchester. The estate has been in the Herbert family since 1692, and Henry Herbert was given the title Earl of Carnarvon in 1793 by King George III.  The current house was built by the 3rd Earl and designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, who is probably best known for his previous project, the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.  The house is faced with golden-hued Bath stone and has the date 1842 and the Herbert family motto Ung Je Serviray (One I will serve, in Norman French), carved over the door.  The 3rd Earl also renamed his home "Highclere Castle" -- although it's not actually a castle...

Today the house belongs to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his second wife, the Countess of Carnarvon -- or George and Fiona Herbert.  Their neighbor (who lives a few miles away), Andrew Lloyd Weber, provoked some controversy a couple years ago when he offered an unsolicited bid to buy Highclere Castle to house his art collection.
The front entrance
A recurring motif in the house is a two-legged dragon called a wyvern.  You can see it in the carvings on the exterior of the house, as well as the boot-scrapers on either side of the front door.  Inside, a pair of 3-foot-high terracotta wyverns guard the end of the entrance hall and a smaller carved pair flank the fireplace in the dining room.
Wyvern boot scraper
As we entered the house, we were greeted in the Saloon by our tour guides and some of the staff, and treated to tea, coffee, and biscuits.  Sadly, we were not allowed to take photos inside the house, but you can see some interior shots on the Highclere Castle website.  After giving us time to visit the restrooms (the one I used had carpeting, lime green fixtures, and a huge floor-to-ceiling window looking right onto the front of the house) and finish our refreshments, we were divided into two groups and given a fabulous guided tour of the first and second floors of the house.

In addition to the Saloon, which is the central core of the house, we visited the dining room, library, music room, morning room, and smoking room on the main level of the house.  Several of these rooms are used in the filming of Downton Abbey, and look remarkably similar to what you see on TV.  Most of the furnishings are used in filming just as they are used by the owners -- only family photos and knickknacks are removed and replaced.  Our guide told us that an entire day of filming may result in only 5 minutes of TV footage, so the cast and crew are there for about 3 months when filming interior and exterior shots for the series.  Since it may take several weeks to film one scene, they use artificial flowers and take meticulous photographs of each actor's costume, hair, and makeup to make sure they are consistently replicated within each scene.

From the dining room, we had a nice view of Jackdaw's Castle, one of several follies on the grounds. It looks more like a Greek temple than a castle and dates back to 1743.
Jackdaw's Castle
Upstairs, we saw the bedrooms used by Lady Cora and her three daughters in the TV series, as well as the infamous red silk bedroom that the Turkish diplomat's son Kemal Pamuk was carried back to after his unfortunate demise in the first season.  As we were looking at Cora's room, an attractive but very casually dressed woman appeared and started chatting with us about her plans for redecorating the room.  In case we hadn't recognized her from the multitude of family photographs around the house, our guide introduced her to us as "Lady Carnarvon."  Wow!  My first encounter with the British nobility was not at all what I expected, but delightful nonetheless.  She told us that the production company built a replica of the bedroom in Ealing Studios so her interior decorating project wouldn't affect the filming.

After expressing some exasperation about the film crew removing everything that she hangs on the walls, she flitted off and we continued with our tour downstairs.  Did we get to see the massive kitchen that Mrs. Patmore presides over?  Nope.  Highclere Castle was a full-time residence until the late 80's, so the kitchen and servants quarters have been modernized.  Most of the downstairs scenes are filmed on a set at Ealing Studios in London.

As we waited for the other half of our group to catch up with us at the bottom of the stairs, Lord Carnarvon and several staff members strode into the hallway and then headed outside in the opposite direction, setting us all atwitter all over again.

So what did we see downstairs?  Would you believe King Tut?  Yes, the 5th Earl was that same Lord Carnarvon who, along with Howard Carter, discovered King Tut's tomb in Egypt in 1922.  Much of the lower level of the castle has been converted into an exhibit hall showcasing some original artifacts as well as a replica of the tomb and sarcophagus.  The majority of the collection was sold to the Met in New York by his widow, but several smaller items were discovered tucked away in hidden cupboards in 1987.

While no one on Downton Abbey has embarked on an archaeological expedition (yet), many of the other story lines mirror actual events that have occurred at Highclere.  For example, it was used as a  hospital during WWI, and the 6th and 7th Earls both married American women.  And just like with Downtown Abbey's cook, Mrs. Patmore, when Highclere's chef started having vision problems, Lady Carnarvon paid for him to see a specialist.  Coincidence?  Not at all.  Julian Fellowes, the writer for Downton Abbey, is a friend of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and created the show with Highclere in mind.
The west side of the house
By the time we made it through the Egypt exhibit, we had less than half an hour to visit the gift shop and explore the gardens before our bus was scheduled to depart.  Of course, we all made a beeline for the gift shop, which was stocked with a tasteful array of Highclere Castle souvenirs and books.  Unfortunately, we ended up spending most of our remaining time standing in line at the one register, so I only had time for a quick stroll around the perimeter of the house.
The rear of the house
One of many beautiful trees on the grounds
Another attempt at a photo...
On our way back to London, we stopped for lunch at the Carpenter's Arms, a nearby pub overlooking Watership Down (yes, really!), where we feasted on a generous two-course lunch and reflected on our exciting morning.
Time for lunch!
As I was doing some research on the Highclere website, I discovered that the private group tours are sold out through the end of 2013!  I feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience, and I can't wait to watch the next episode of Downton Abbey, season 3, on Sunday night so I can pay closer attention to the scenery.

Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Fringe in Edinburgh

As we emerged from the train station in Edinburgh, we could hear the sound of a lone bagpiper playing a familiar tune.  Amazing Grace?  Loch Lomond?  Nope.  The theme music from Star Wars.  The final weekend of the Fringe Festival was in full swing!

Earlier that Saturday morning, we headed to King's Cross Station to catch the train.
Inside King's Cross
We couldn't find Platform 9 3/4, so we stuck with our original plan and boarded the train to Edinburgh.
What about 9 3/4?
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we stopped at the Greyfriars Bobby pub for a late lunch.  The statue of the little dog in front of the pub is Bobby, a terrier who, according to legend, guarded the grave of his master for 14 years after he died and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard behind the pub.   Or, he might have just been a stray dog that lived in the churchyard.  But that's not a very good story, is it?
Greyfriars Bobby
There is a rose bush planted next to his owner's grave in Bobby's memory.
Josh at Greyfriars (Bobby's memorial is to his right)
After lunch, we headed to one of the Fringe Festival venues, where we saw a familiar face -- the upside-down inflatable purple cow from the Udderbelly festival.
As we were making our way to the venue for our first show, this flyer caught our eye.
Sounds... unique?
Intriguing, but for now we had a date with The Vocal Orchestra, who sang, beat-boxed, and created interesting sound effects with their microphones.

Our next show was "Piff the Magic Dragon," who turned out to be a guy in a dragon costume who did impressive magic tricks with the assistance of a poker-faced girl with a bit of an attitude problem and an adorable chihuahua named Mr. Piffles.  Hilarious and amazing!
Piff the Magic Dragon with Mr. Piffles
As we headed to our final show of the evening, we had another Star Wars moment...
After a quick dinner, we made our way to our next venue: Edinburgh Castle.  This was no Fringe performance, but the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.  We had purchased our tickets months in advance through a travel company and had no idea where our seats were until we got there.  We were flabbergasted to discover we were right in the middle of the front row -- probably the best seats in the house!  (except we were outdoors in front of a castle)
In the front row at the Tattoo!
Our view of the castle from our seats.
The event started with a ceremony honoring Captain Heather Stanning of the Royal Artillery, a native of Scotland who won the first gold medal for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics (in rowing).
Heather Stanning (in the skirt)
Next up, a Braveheart-inspired performance with children in animal skins
And then, the bagpipers!
Lots of bagpipers!
Bagpipers in impressive formations!
A tribute to Pixar's Brave, which we'd just seen the week before
The U.S. Navy Band, Europe
Cruachan III, Shetland Pony Mascot of The Royal Regiment of Scotland
The Union Jack
Dramatic lighting
And for the grand finale, fireworks!
The next day, we had a good view of the stands from below the castle.  The parade ground in front of the castle is quite narrow compared to the stands for the Tattoo, which hang over the edge on both sides.  I'd be a little nervous if I were sitting way at the top!
Edinburgh Castle and Tattoo seating
On tap for the afternoon, the Oxford a capella group Out of the Blue.  They sang, beatboxed, and made interesting sound effects.
Next, a group from New York performing The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan in Briefs.  They were all very talented singer and actors, but trying to cram the entire works of G&S into a one-hour show made for a frantic pace that was a bit hard to follow, even though we were familiar with several of the operettas.

These performances were held in a variety of venues all over the city.  Some were actual theaters, but most were other types of spaces (churches, gymnasiums, lecture halls, tents) that had been converted for the festival.  Most were within walking distance of one another, but we had to make sure we left enough time in between shows to get from one to another.  Our next show was in the Pleasance Courtyard, which housed what seemed like a dozen different venues, as well as at least two pop-up bars (there was one at nearly every venue) and a children's play area.  We wondered what normally goes on in this area.
Lots of venues here!
We were there to see Rhys Darby, who you might recognize as Murray Hewitt from the HBO series Flight of the Conchords
Yes, that's Murray from Flight of the Conchords
We got there a little early, so we queued up outside waiting for the previous show to end.  It turned out to be "An Evening with David Hasselhoff," and The Hoff himself came outside to pose for photos with fans just as they let us in to the theater/gymnasium.  I have no idea what he actually did in his show -- Josh and I were certainly curious, but not enough to pay £20 each to find out.
Rhys Darby's stand-up show was hilarious, although we were starting to notice a theme when he spent about 10 minutes doing sound effects into his microphone.  He does a pretty good telephone and helicopter...

For dinner, we decided to head up the hill to a pub that had a free nightly performance of "Footstomping Scottish Music."  That sounded great to us, and we managed to snag a table with a great view of the makeshift stage.  It was shaping up to be the perfect evening -- until the band started setting up.  They taped up a flyer with the name of their band: Lucky from Kentucky.  Now, we know that bluegrass and Scottish folk music have much in common, but we were still a bit disappointed.  Nevertheless, we had a decent dinner and a nice chat with the British couple who shared our table with us.

The next day was cool and rainy, but we took advantage of the free morning to explore a little of the city on foot.
Nobody came to see "Guy Smoking a Cigarette in the Rain"
We visited Scotland, too.  Where's our statue?
The cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series
We ended up at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, a former Catholic church painted with gorgeous murals by artist Phoebe Anna Traquair in the 1890's.  It was open to the public as part of the festival, and we took advantage of the free guided tour.
Mansfield Traquair Centre
Above the entrance
The altar
Even the floor tile was gorgeous!

She didn't sign her work, but the woman in pink is believed to be a self-
portrait of the artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair
Our afternoon was another marathon of Fringe shows.  First up, Rhythmic Circus, with four talented tap dancers accompanied by a live band.  Great show, although we rolled our eyes a bit when one of the musicians did some beatbox and sound effects.

Next up, in a painfully small venue, Scientist Turned Comedian Tim Lee, from California.  He had some good material, but probably should not have quit his day job.

After that, we ran across town to catch a Panto version of Back to the Future.  It was by far the worst show we saw at the Fringe Festival.  My15-year-old niece's high school drama class could have put on a better show. 

Fortunately, we still had one more show to go, and it was the best of them all: the One-Man Star Wars Trilogy!  Yes, all three of the original Star Wars movies re-enacted by one man in the course of an hour.
As we approached the venue, we were greeted by several people dressed as characters from the movies -- Darth Vader, stormtroopers, bounty hunters, etc.  Boba Fett and his pal graciously did the Usain Bolt pose with me.  (This was right after the Olympics, when everyone was practically REQUIRED to pose for photos like this.)
Boba celebrates making the Kessel Run in less than
eleven parsecs
We had seen the same performer do his One-Man Lord of the Rings Trilogy in Washington, DC for Josh's birthday a few years ago, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  We liked the Star Wars version, too, but we both agreed that the LOTR version was much better.  It probably helped that we saw that in a proper theater, whereas we couldn't see very well in the Fringe venue as the seating was all on one level.  It's harder to appreciate a mime-based performance when you can't see what the performer is doing.  Still, it was a great way to end our Fringe Festival marathon -- and oddly appropriate, since there seemed to be an overarching Star Wars theme to our visit.

The next day we only had a few hours to explore the city before we had to catch our train back to London, so we visited Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle
Barracks for prisoners
Nice view!
Cemetery for Soldiers' Dogs
The One O'Clock Gun is fired every day at 1:00 pm
BIG Fireplace!
The Great Hall
Nice carved wood

View of the stands for the Tattoo.  We were seated just to the right of the
opening in the back, in the front row!
All too soon, it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and head to the train station.  We had a great time in Edinburgh, but vowed to go back so we can take time to explore more of the city and the surrounding area.  It was fantastic to be there for the Fringe Festival and Tattoo, but it's just so crowded and frenetic in August that we'd like to go back at a quieter time of year.
View from the train
We did get a lovely view of the Scottish countryside and coastline on the train home.  We are looking forward to planning another trip to Scotland.  Not sure if it will have a Star Wars theme next time...