route sixty-six

Flagstaff AZ Back in March we took a Spring Break trip to Arizona. The last time I was in Arizona was 20 years ago, on my first trip to America when my future wife drove me out to the Grand Canyon. On this trip, we would be seeing the Grand Canyon again but also some other parts of the state, some places we’d always wanted to see. We started off our trip by flying into Phoenix, and spending about an hour and a half in line for a rental car with loads of other people. Eventually we made it out with a vehicle, and drove through a landscape studded with thousands of the iconic cactus-shaped cacti, the exact ones you see in cartoons, the symbol of the Wild West. Honestly it was exciting just to see that. We drove past all of that country until the landscape changed, and ended up in Flagstaff, on the old Route 66. We were staying a couple of nights here, and it has an interesting old downtown (see the above sketch) and a dramatic backdrop, with snow speckling the nearby peaks. In fact we got snowed on ourselves while walking down to the Mother Road Brewing Company for dinner (and tasty beer). No escaping that Route 66 feel here, this town was mentioned in the old Chuck Berry song you have probably heard.

Meteor Crater AZ

We motored east down the modern Interstate, but we could see signs of old towns long gone from the original route. We were headed for the Meteor Crater, sketched above. I have wanted to visit this since I was a kid. Growing up I had this book, the Atlas of Natural Wonders. It was one of those glossy books you get from those book companies years ago, remember when you would get adverts to sign up for a free trial and get a bunch of books, which then turns into some sort of monthly subscription? I think it was probably something like that, we had loads of those sort of books, because my dad would sign up for them for the free books and then cancel, probably. I always had a lot of interesting hardback books on my shelf, maybe about Mammals, or The West, or this one book on The Atlas of Natural Wonder. Or maybe it was given to me for Christmas? Lost on the memory of time, and I have no idea where the book is now, but I must have read that book to death. The Delicate Arch in Utah was on the cover. I remember clearly telling myself that my ambition would be to go to every place in that book. I have slowly been checking those off; I visited three places from the book on this trip alone. The first was Meteor Crater, a massive mile-wide impact crater out in the high northern Arizona desert. For years they didn’t know exactly what had caused it (um, lads, it’s called ‘meteor crater’, hello like). Cost a bomb to go in, astronomical entry fee, but it was worth it to me to finally see this massive hole in the ground. I couldn’t really sketch it too well, so I did a quick one, while my family sheltered from the wind. It was a special moment though, and I’m really glad we went.

Wigwam Motel

We journeyed on, heading towards another place from the book, but this is Route 66 country, and that will always be exciting to us because when my son was little, he was obsessed with the movie Cars, and so by extension we were obsessed with it too. Cars is a brilliant film, and really gets creative with the mythos of the old Route 66, and what happened to all those old towns along it when the freeways were built. One town that reminded us more than any other of Radiator Springs (except maybe Moab in Utah, which really has the look of it down, although much much busier) was Holbrook. It felt like time had left it behind a little, to get old and rusty. We were looking specifically for the Wigwam Motel, not the only one of its kind left, but pretty iconic. In the movie Cars, this corresponds with the Cozy Cones motel run by Sally. “Gettin’ cozy at the cones, is we?” as Mater tells Lightning McQueen. At the Wigwam, all of the rooms really are these large teepee-shaped cones, outside of which is parked an ancient rusting classic car. It’s no exaggeration that if I could have spent sunrise to sundown there sketching I would have. As it happened, we were a bit pressed for time so I had to do the quick outline sketches and draw the details in later from the pictures I took. This place was heaven. There’s nothing I like more than something metal and rusty, probably because I myself am a bit metal and rusty. Look at that old Ford below though, with its headlights knocked out, what a beauty. It would have been interesting to explore Holbrook a little more, we just drove through it to find here, but that was definitely a town I could sketch a lot of.

WigwamMotelAZ-old car

But we were on a schedule to reach another National Park for our collection – Petrified Forest. This was in The Book, a diverse and unusual place full of strange unearthly landscapes, like the Painted Desert, the Blue Mesa, and the Rainbow Forest, and scattered everywhere are so many broken logs, hundreds of millions of years old, that time has turned into stone, or ‘agate’. Many of them look like normal tree logs from the outside, although the bark has turned stony since the late Triassic, but inside might be the most colourful crystal colours, due to the process of fossilization. It was fascinating. We wandered about the strange landscapes, trying to imagine the forests millions of years ago that eventually left us with these, as the face of the planet shifted up and down. These trees were probably on Pangaea. When 200 billion years old you reach, look as good you will not.

Petrified Forest AZ

I know ‘Petrified Forest’ sounds like something from a Halloween movie, but there are no scary monsters here. There are a few dinosaurs though, and not just dinosaurs but other prehistoric beasts, which we discovered at the Visitor Center. Many date from the Triassic Period, which as you will know comes before both the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. The Triassic was the period in which we saw the rise of the dinosaurs, the New Hope following the cataclysmic Permian-Triassic Extinction event, while the Jurassic was more like Empire Strikes Back I guess, Diplodocus being like the AT-ATs, and the Cretaceous very much the Return of the Jedi of prehistoric periods, with T-Rex being like the Emperor, and the Ewoks being that big asteroid. I’ve not thought this through, but I think Han Solo being frozen in carbonite is significant. Anyway I drew the skeleton below which is of Placerias Hesternus, a herbivorous “not-quite-a-mammal” from the late Triassic, which look a bit like the creature that Anakin Skywalker rides in the Geonosian arena in Attack of the Clones, because everything is about Star Wars.

Petrified Forest Skeleton

Side note, I went to see the new Jurassic Park movie this weekend, “Jurassic World Dominion”. Now I love Jurassic Park, the original film, it’s perfect. Jurassic World Dominion on the other hand…phew, glad that is over. Those newer movies should now go extinct, please, never dig them up. It’s like they never took their own advice from the first film, they never stopped to think about whether they should. Jurassic Park had its shot, and nature selected it for extinction. Now what I am doing there is making references to the brilliant original film, which is what the new film does constantly, and badly. I only went to see it to see the original trio of Alan, Ellie and Ian (the Han, Luke and Leia of the Jurassic films, if you will) back together again, which was nice. Every scene though it seemed like, hmm there’s no dinosaur in this room, let’s put dinosaurs here! And here! And here! Too many dinosaurs, not enough story. They really wanted to explore the idea of dinosaurs in the snow though, for some reason, it was like Barney on Ice. And oh look! T-Rex v Giganotosaurus! Who wins? Who cares. Not relevant. Next time, just make a Street Fighter style game but with dinosaurs. It was a pretty terrible movie. At one point Jeff Goldblum even says, “Jurassic World? Yeah, not a fan…” and like everyone on set stares at the audience for about ten minutes (I might have imagined that last bit) until we all died inside, got buried beneath rock for millions of years, then were cloned again using amphibian DNA for the grand finale, which was basically “so nothing’s changed then”. Jurassic World Dumb-inion more like. Two Iguanadon thumbs down.

Anyway back to our Arizona trip! That was our day along Route 66. We ended it with some local pizza in Flagstaff, getting ready for the next part of the trip – the Grand Canyon…

to honolulu and back

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Earlier this month we took a short vacation to Hawaii, to the island of O’ahu, where we first stayed in 2017. It was great to get away, but also my first flights since the start of the pandemic, so a little nervous. It’s a fairly long flight to Honolulu (over five hours) but you know, nearer than London. Of course, I have to draw on the plane, it helps me relax. Everyone was masked up, thankfully. I filled the page with some colours – these were actually the colours of the lighting on the plane, as it changed about, it was a bit freaky. It was a newer airplane. I did watch an interesting documentary about Ossie Ardiles, my childhood hero. We spent five nights in Waikiki, and just as all the reports had said, Hawaii was packed with tourists, especially our hotel, especially the elevators. Nonetheless it was great to have a break, great to be in the ocean, and be around all the colourful scenery. And cool down – it was very warm, but cooler weather than Davis which was in the 100-110 degree range around when we left. I drew a map of the island when we left, showing the spots we visited on this trip. I did a fair bit of sketching too, I’ll post those separately. 

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And on the way back, I drew the plane again, this time with even brighter colours, like a huge shave ice. Always good to get away. The way things are going again, might be the last time in a while…

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carriage best

060621 amtrak train to oakland

After a very long time, I finally went on a train. On public transportation, first time since the start of the Strange Times. It was a big step. California is Opening Up, I’m all vaccinated, and I needed to get out of Davis for the day. So, I took the train down to Oakland, a city that I’ve never actually been to. Amazing isn’t it, I have lived here for sixteen years and yet never been to Oakland. Well I say I’ve never been, I’ve been through it on the BART many times, and I’ve been to the airport once. On the very first trip I took to the US in 2002 I even went to watch the Oaland A’s. I have never been to Oakland proper though; I will post the sketches another day. For now here is the sketch I did in red pen on the Amtrak train to Richmond (I got the BART after that to Oakland). This was the very last page of the Moleskine sketchbook (Sketchbook #39). I liked it do much that a week later I went back on the train, this time heading for San Francisco, where I spent an overnighter exploring and sketching. Another post for that. I opened a brand new Moleskine sketchbook (Sketchbook #40) and on the first page I drew the purple pen train sketch below. People wore their masks except when drinking or eating; the group in front of me here were all cyclists. The trains are never particularly busy when I get on them so it felt quite normal really, and I was I admit delighted to be on the train again. It’s been two years since I had my last sketching day out in San Francisco, amazingly. Every time I travel I think, I’m not going to draw the train again am I, but then I’m there and I think, yes I am actually. Here’s the album of most of my in-voyage sketches (planes, trains and…other trains): https://www.flickr.com/photos/petescully/albums/72157671776646978

061121 Amtrak train to Emeryville

Hawai’i Holiday

SMF-OGG flight to Kahului sm

2020 has been a big pile of farts wrapped inside a cake of poo mixed into a giant bowl of wee. And just when you think it can’t hold any more beer, every day just keeps asking it to hold its beer. Why will no day this year hold its own beer? Is it too much to ask to maybe just put your beer on a table or maybe don’t do the thing you were going to do that requires you to not hold a beer? Go home 2020, you are drunk. But you’ll have to walk because there are no cabs, and you better be in before the curfew starts.

2019 ended so well, at least for me. We spent the final days of the year in Hawai’i, in a tropical paradise sipping cocktails in the pool and playing the ukulele in the ocean. It seems like an extravagant piece of fantasy fiction now; if you try to visit Hawai’i these days you have to quarantine for two weeks, and your hotel gives you a one-time-only key that lets you into your room but not back again if you deign to leave it. Cheers 2020 you utter *!#*%!. Happily I did start the year with my feet in the ocean. It was only ever going downhill from there.

So, finally I’ll post some of the sketches I did while there. I didn’t do too many, as I was pretty busy sipping cocktails and playing the ukulele in the ocean, but of course I draw whenever I can so here are a few. Above, sketched on the flight to Kahului in Maui, where we would change before flying to Kona on the west side of Hawai’i, the Big Island. We were spending Christmas there – you can see I have spelled “Mele Kalikimaka” wrong – that’s Hawaiian for Merry Christmas – with my wife’s family also flying in from California, and from there we were going to spend New Year’s back in Maui, just the three of us. Hawai’i is pretty great, but I might occasionally leave the apostrophe behind and just say Hawaii if that’s ok.

Waiting at Maui airport

An attempt at drawing digitally, which I was still getting the hang of, waiting to change planes at Maui airport. We took so many flights last year, going all over the place, that it’s probably for the best that in 2020 we’ll be taking so few. I’m not a fan of airports, at least they are small in Hawaii and have lots of those lovely chocolate covered macadamia nuts to eat, expensive though they are.

Spam tin

I’ll tell you what else they have a lot of in Hawaii – Spam. They love it there! Loads of different varieties in the stores. Also, custard pies, proper big custard pies, like the ones clowns or the phantom from Tiswas would throw. (Actually I’m not sure the phantom had actual custard in his pies, come to think of it he threw flans of foam, which I always remembered as custard pies) (Why is this a thing? Well in the supermarket I was texting back and forth with my big sister about having found actual custard pies and we were talking about that). Anyway Spam. I don’t actually eat most of it (not being a pork/beef/that sort of meat eater) but they did have some delicious turkey spam so I cooked that up for breakfast.

Xmas Eve on Beach in Hawaii
Christmas Eve sat on a tropical beach is pretty alright though, huh. I’ll say that is quite a nice way to do it. With delicious shave ice and cocktails at the little beach club at Mauna Lani, this was perfect. The ocean was warm, the waves not very strong, and my brother-in-law went snorkeling further out (I didn’t, but maybe next time I’ll give the snorkeling a go). I loved just spending time in the water. My sketch does no justice at all to the scene, but it’s fun to unwind on the sand as well.

Christmas Eve in Hawaii

But the Christmas traditions are important in our family, and one of the most important is sitting watching Muppet’s Christmas Carol on DVD on Christmas Eve. The best Christmas film. Michael Caine’s best film. The best version of this story (and I love the Albert Finney version). I drew it on the iPad with a nice cold beer. We also watch Blackadder’s Christmas Carol every year as well, another tradition, and The Snowman, but admittedly we’re not paying as much attention to The Snowman by that point. I also like watching It’s A Wonderful Life, but since 2020 feels like the Pottersville timeline it’s a bit on the nose. We were staying in a house near Waikoloa, with great views of lava tubes, about a 10-15 minute walk to the beach. Not a bad place! The Big Island is very different from the previous island we had visited, Oahu. At least, our side of it was. It’s much bigger, and much rockier, being part of an active volcano. The lava field landscapes were incredible, immense plains of sharp lava rock stretching down to the ocean from the enormous peaks. And you drive what feels like a short way and suddenly it feels like the jungle, everything is green and wet. We went on a kayak trip down the old flumes of the sugar plantation in Kohala, that was very interesting, something I will remember for years. We didn’t explore the Hilo side of the island this time, nor did we have time to go up to the volcano (plus it rained), but I want to go back on a future trip.

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But maybe not in 2020. I’ll post some more of my Hawai’i sketches in the next posts.

 

A little London and a bit of Vegas

Haymarket London
I went back to London at the end of November / start of December for a short week, and managed to get in a couple of sketches while I was at it. Above is the view looking down Haymarket. It was a bright day. I really enjoy looking up in London, seeing what’s at rooftop level. Years ago I used to tourguide down this street, on the upper deck of an open-top bus, pointing out this, talking about that. That was twenty years ago now, how things have changed. These rooftops have not changed much. Another thing that hasn’t changed much, Phantom of the Opera is still playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, which is on the right there, at the corner of Charles II Street. I went to see it once, I knew someone who worked for the show who got me a ticket, and I had to enter right as it was beginning, so it was dark as I went to my seat, which was in the front row, where people have long legs that I can trip over, and I tripped over and onto my head, and nearly fell into the musicians. Fun times, always the cool cat I was. Bit of a silly story though, Phantom of the Opera, at least the bits where Jar-Jar was messing around. Lightsabre fighting was amazing though. Wow that was twenty years ago, I remember it so well.
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A show I saw considerably recentlyer was Hamilton, which we saw right here in London two years ago, and then again in San Francisco last year. This is the Victoria Palace Theatre in Victoria, with Little Ben in the foreground. I drew this after leaving my Gatwick Express train and before jumping onto the Tube, that;s right, I arrive and immediately start sketching in the rain. Well I knew my wife would like this, she is a big fan of Hamilton the musical. I loved it too, especially the bit with the racecars, but I was sure Vettel would challenge him to a duel at the end, but he crashed out in the 46th lap after making another avoidable mistake. I have a really good memory for theatre stuff, it must be my degree in drama.
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I didn’t draw much on this short London trip. It was really just to see the family, I just felt the need to come over there (maybe I had a feeling that 2020 would see us all stuck at home and unable to get across the Atlantic), catch up with some friends, and that’s it really. I bought a bunch of mince pies for christmas, a nice store assistant in Tesco Borehamwood showed me how to find all the boxes that had sell-by dates later than December 24, they were hidden deep. I was taking all my mince pies and yule logs and British festive foods with me to Hawaii for our Christmas vacation. But then it was time to go home, and sat on the plane I could tell was going to go home with a cold, just a feeling in my throat, back in the days when we just trusted our immense immune systems to do their job because that cold was probably just a cold, no worries. (It was, though I also picked up some bad nasal infection). I managed another sketch on the plane though, this time with the iPad, while Big Tex next to me planted his massive elbows on the armrest and beyond like it was manifest destiny. There was no social distancing in coach. It was another time, back in the 2010s.
Luxor bar Las Vegas sm

One more thing, one more trip back in time. I flew to London via Las Vegas, as it was the easiest route, but it meant I had to stay the night. It has been many years since I was in Vegas, so this one night away was going to be a bit of a time-travel trip, and so I chose to stay at the Luxor, which is the hotel we stayed at before our wedding way back in the mid 2000s. We still lived in London them, so the Luxor felt big and glamourous and futuristic. Yeah not so much this time. I checked in fairly late, the desk woman barely saying a single thing to me as she snatched my credit card and scornfully slammed it back, “welcome to Vegas, now f*%koff to wherever”. Nice to feel like a valued customer, not even telling me how to find my room in this ridiculous headache of a shopping mall. The room was dark and a bit grubby, peeling wallpaper that certainly has not had an upgrade since we were here in 2004. I walked about the casino, a depressing experience, unsure of what the time really was, and went to find some food, which I found, and didn’t enjoy. This is one of the older casinos, of course, but I’m just so not used to Vegas any more. Worst of all though was the smoke, hanging over everything like a plague-ridden miasma. This is definitely something I don’t miss, choking in other people’s fumes, irritating my nose, throat, eyes, soaking into my clothes, in a huge concrete pyramid. That gave me a headache more than the flashing Wheel of Fortune machines. Still this is a trip back in time. I contemplated walking over to New York New York where I remember having a fun evening with friends at the Five Nine Irishmen bar or whatever it’s called, when my mate Simon had the worst Guinness he ever drank, but instead I stopped for a couple of drinks at the bar in the centre of the Luxor, and drew what I could see amid the colourful 70s style haze. I listened to people talk, it seemed to be a mix of locals hanging out there rather than tourists, and the cocktail I had was nice, and the barstaff pleasant. I went to bed and got a good night’s sleep before the flight to London in the morning, though my own airways couldn’t wait to get out of the building.

London Times

London Victoria Embankment Gardens sm
After a couple of weeks city-hopping the low countries of Europe, we Eurostarred it under the channel to fellow-EU-country-at-the-time UK for a week of family time before flying back to America. Seems like a Golden Age Of Travel now. That week was interesting, in an Interesting Times kind of way, but there were some highlights, like going to the new Spurs stadium to watch Tottenham v Inter (sure we lost on penalties, but I got that beer that pours from the bottom of the plastic glass). I did manage a few sketches that week though. Above, this is the York Water Gate found down in Victoria Embankment Gardens, by the Thames. This gateway dates from 1626 and if you turn your head sideways, you can read what I wrote about it, copied from a plaque. I used to like coming to these gardens to read and study when I was doing my master’s many years ago. There were a few dodgy characters lurking around, on the prowl for picking pockets. I social distanced myself from everyone even back then. Still it was nice to be back in London, on a warm early evening, down by the river. I like it by the river.

London Dappa Brick Lane sm

Earlier that day we had been to Brick Lane to visit the Classic Football Shirts shop, one of my favourite places of course. My son picked up a youth size 1994 navy Spurs away kit, quite a find. I actually bought that same shirt (adult size) on the day it was released, I was only 18, and it still fits. I wore it when I met Jurgen Klinsmann at his first training Spurs session in Mill Hill, where our old training ground used to be, near Copthall Swimming Pool. I met a few other legends that day, Sheringham, Barmby, Mabbutt, Anderton, Ian Walker, even Rony Rosenthal. But best of all of course was my long time hero Ossie Ardiles. What a gent. He even waved to me from his car when he drove past me and my sister walking down Bunns Lane. Look when I was six I used to want to BE Ossie Ardiles, that was my ambition when I grew up, to somehow be him. Anyway I digress. We ate at some food trucks (I got some tasty fried chicken and chips at a little truck called Mother Clucker), and I drew this ice-cream van above, Dappa.

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Let’s call this one “Before Social Distancing”. We’ve never been social on the tube anyway. I drew these quickly with different pens while on a packed Northern Line carriage back to Burnt Oak. I always get very sleepy on the tube.

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Here is Sophie the Stegosaurus. We like to go to the Natural History Museum, one of my favourite places in the entire galaxy, but my son mostly likes all the rocks and geology. I love the dinosaurs. This was a very quick one. Stegosaurus is my favourite of the dinosaurs.

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We went to St Albans with my mum, and had a look at the cathedral there. I also joined one evening the London Urban Sketchers for a sketchcrawl down the banks of the Thames. After a busy day, I ended up down near London Bridge, I called my uncle Billy on his birthday. And then I met with the sketchers and drew them. There were great amazing vistas to behold, but this was a shirt summer evening sketchcrawl and I was done with architecture for now. It’ll be different next time I am back. So, I just sketched the sketchers. Here they are…
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London urban sketcher linda smLondon urban sketcher bearded sm
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And then they laid out the sketchbooks as they do, and looked at them. They get large groups in London, I remember the very first Urban Sketchers London sketchcrawl in 2012, which I organized, called “Let’s Draw London”, we had a whopping number of over 50 participants, but that seems about average these days. I think the 2016 Wren crawl had around 70 or 80. It’s nice to come back and see familiar faces.
After that I met up with my friend Roshan (who I’ve been mates with since late teenage years) and we hung out on the South Bank for the rest of the evening, I sketched some singers who were performing at a pop-up bar by the river.
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London singer by thames 1 smLondon singer by thames 2 sm
And that is that. At the end of the trip we flew back home to America (see the in-flight sketch below) and got back to work, and the credit card bill. That was a long trip. I’m still not completely recovered! But I have been back to London since then.
LHR to LAX sm

A Pair of Days at Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris Castle sm
And so after so many places in Belgium and Holland we returned to France, and to our first visit to Disneyland Paris. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel for that walk-right-into-the-park experience, and we were not disappointed. My wife is a huge Disney parks fan but has only been to the original (like a million times) so this was a novel experience. I have to say I really liked it, it wasn’t as crowded, the sidewalks seemed to be wider, the two arcades behind Main Street were nice and accessible and I really liked the Castle. I had to sketch it. Everything was a bit different from California, Space Mountain for example (which is still Hyperspace Mountain) repeated Star Wars phrases in French (naturally) and had an outside starting point, while Thunder Mountain Railroad was definitely longer and faster, and was located on an island that the ride went under a tunnel to get to. I also really liked Pirates of the Caribbean (“les morts ne raccontent pas d’histoires!”), probably more than the Californian one. The maze of caves near the pirate ship too was so much fun to run around. And of course, serving champagne on Main Street during fireworks (though I didn’t indulge). So yes, we liked it.
Belgium Thalys to Paris sm
Our Thalys train from Brussels to Marne-La-Vallee was, amazingly, on time. I was sketching with the brush pen here, my son wearing his new Charleroi shirt. We spent some of our time on the train playing MarioKart on the Switch (I lost). When we got into Disneyland we had dinner at ‘King Ludwig’s Castle’, a lavishly decorated Bavarian themed restaurant, and we had hearty Bavarian fare (on our first night in France).
Disneyland Paris Fire Hydrant sm
On the other side of the main park, in the place where California Adventure would be, is a second park called Parc Walt Disney Studios. I liked it there, although there was not as much going on, except the incredible Ratatouille ride. That one we enjoyed. In that whole area there were a number of mobile food carts, one from each culinary area of France (crepes from Bretagne, tarte flambee from Alsace, cider from Normandy etc), and then around the corner there were more, but from different European countries (we had some nice sangria and tapas from Spain, while my son went back to enjoying his favourite Belgian waffles).
Disneyland Paris Ping Pong sm
The hotel was incredible. I enjoyed spending time in the pool, and they even gave my son a ball so he could have a kickaround on the grass (that made his trip). Above, I sketched my family playing ping-pong. Below, I tried one more fancy drink this time in the music-themed Cafe Fantasia. It was called the African Dream, made with rum, papaya, St Germain liqueur, lychee puree and bissap, I don’t know, I’ve heard of rum. It was tasty (and expensive), I got it because it looked like a vacation.

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Disneyland Paris Thunder Mountain sm
Above: Thunder Mountain Railroad, on an island in the middle of a lake. I drew this while tired legs were resting, colouring in later.
Eurostar Paris to London sm<
And finally, one more train journey, this time the Eurostar from Marne La Vallee to London, going back to the UK to see the family, go to a Spurs game at the new stadium, and hopefully unwind after a very busy trip.

Back in Belgium (Brussels and Bruges)

Belgium Train to Bruges sm
We leave these depressing times and return to the European travels of last summer, before social distancing was even imagined. In the last chapter we were all done with Amsterdam, that was all finished, now it was time to return to my favourite country: Belgium. Land of very slow queues but very quick access to beer and frites. This time I was returning with my family for some more touristy travels – no Charleroi, more Bruges. In fact we were staying in central Brussels, although due to the heatwave-related Thalys delay we got in later than expected, but still early enough for an evening stroll around the Grand Place, Mannakin Pis, the chocolate shops, the waffle stands and of course the friteries. Belgian frites are just the best. The next day though we took the train to Bruges (or Brugge as it’s properly called in Flemish). We walked up the steep hill to centraal station, stopping for a pain-au-chocolat (or “couques” as they call them here) on the way. The ticket machines in Belgian stations are not very good for foreign visitors with US credit cards, as they didn’t seem to take them, so we had to line up in the slow Belgian train station ticket office line. By the time we figured out a way to but tickets online instead we had reached the window. I love the train system in Belgium, it goes absolutely everywhere and runs a good service, but I forget that when I last used it I lived there and had one of those Belgo-passes I think they were called, where you just paid an amount and got ten train journeys. Ah well, tant-pis, we got where we needed to go in the end. I sketched on the train as the language switched from French to Flemish. The heatwave was over, now we had an overcast muggy sky. We arrived in Bruges ready to tourist.

Bruges Grote Markt sm
I last went to Bruges in, whew, either 1999 or 2000 and was pleased to see that it is still a medieval city. Above is a sketch of the Grote Markt. Bruges was busy as usual, as always expected, and we even took a horse-drawn carriage around the city. I love all the old architecture and lanes and canals. The first time I was here all those years ago it was Christmas-time and there was a lovely Christmas market in this square. I decided not to colour in (since I was touristing with family) but I packed a lot in while my wife and son explored. Below is the incredibly large Belfort on the other side of the Grote Markt. It reminded me a bit of Orthanc, the large tower of Isengard where Saruman lived, with Gandalf on the roof ready to jump onto the back of a massive eagle.

Bruges Belfort sm

Below is a stone lion which is at the entrance to the twelfth-century Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) in De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The shield is the Bruges city coat of arms. Inside this basilica they have an old holy relic brought back from Jerusalem during the Second crusade, a phial containing a cloth which has some of the blood of Jesus on it. Glad they never called this place Christ De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The building was amazing, dating back to the time of Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. That would be some time between 1134 and 1157.

Bruges Lion Statue sm

We had lunch before all of our touristing in a nice little restaurant called De Zevende Hemel. There I ate my moules. I’m a big fan of moules. These ones were nice, but just nice. The trappis beer I had with it was delicious, La Trappe. IMG_4597

We got the train back to Brussels, and while the family got an early night, I went out for one last sketch of the day. I was looking for a historic cafe called A La Becasse. I had never been there before, and it was hidden away down an alley near the Grand Place. There I had a table to myself in the corner, a Hoegaarden Grand Cru, and just enough time before closing to get a lot drawn. I actually sketched this paint first for the most part, adding in the ink afterwards. There were a few American tourists in here talking, but it wasn’t particularly busy. They have a lot of beers on the menu, as a good Belgian ‘estaminet’ should (that is another word for tavern), and dates back to 1877. Here’s their website: https://alabecasse.be/en. Every time I saw the name, I kept thinking “…the lady loves Milk Tray”. But then that made me think of The Lady In Red again, get that song out of my head.

Brussels A La Becasse sm

If that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t help getting one last portion of late night frites from Fritland, near the Bourse, whose frites I absolutely love. Filthy delicious. Even seeing this picture makes me so hungry, and just want to get back to Belgium.

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Brussels Metro Sketch sm

The next day we touristed some more (I did a quick sketch on the metro, above), going up to the Atomium (I don’t know if you are allowed to show that online, it was always banned, but it’s a massive great big sodding metal building you can see for miles). I don’t really love the Atomium, because it reminds me of being bored, when I lived in Belgium and I would sometimes come here, not all that interesting, and go back, or maybe I would get the tram that goes all around the city to reach here, so I would have somewhere to read a book and watch the city go by, and I never liked reaching the destination. Still, we all had fun walking in the parks around it, and (food photo alert) we got waffles from a waffle truck, simple no-nonsense waffles with a little bit of sugar on them, none of that fancy chocolate and kiwi fruit stuff for the tourists, and we all agreed it was the best waffle we had ever tasted. Cheap and cheerful, no pretensions, the most Belgian thing ever.

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That isn’t of course to say Belgian doesn’t do fancy. When it does fancy it can outdo all of you. I’m talking about chocolate. There are some crazy super fine chocolatiers in Brussels, but maybe the nicest ones we had were at Pierre Marcolini (at least as recommended to me by my Belgian friends, and they would know). This is the real fancy stuff. Not cheap either, but worth it. I got some for my wife as a souvenir. We got some others from places such as Mary and Neuhaus, but we ended up leaving them for family in London. I tell you what, all this talk of Belgium makes me very hungry.

Brussels Marcolini Chocolates sm
And then we left Belgium on yet another train, this time headed to France and our first ever trip to Disneyland Paris…

Amsterdam Afterwards

Amsterdam Herengracht bridge Sunday sm
The Symposium finished, people went there separate ways, some together, some sticking about in Amsterdam, and I decided to have a lie in and a late start for a day of wandering and sketching some of the parts of the city I hadn’t explored much yet. My family were arriving in town later that day so I had a lot of time for some more sketching before the full-on tourist part of the trip started. The temperatures had dropped, the skies started to cloud up a little, it was still busy out but I finally had a bit of headspace. I walked over to Herengracht and sat down by the canal to draw this bridge. I saw a few other sketchers here and there, nobody I knew, but we know we’re all in the sketching family so there’s usually a nod of respect.
Amsterdam Leliegracht and Keizersgracht sm
I really like this particular junction at the corner of Leliegracht and Keizersgracht. Amsterdam has a lot of charm. I think I didn’t love Amsterdam, overall, it felt a little stressful with the tight sidewalks and cyclists, the tourists and the partygoers, and the dirt, far too many cigarette butts on the ground, but there is no denying Amsterdam is still beautiful, and so unlike many other cities. The first time I came to Amsterdam in the summer of 1998 I had the same impression, though I had also spent all night on a train from Berlin. There is so much to search though, no shortage of places to explore. I mooched around bookshops, tried samples in cheese shops, got lost in alleys and small squares, or as lost as my map-enable apple watch would let me. This side of the city west of Damrak is full of postcard views and long canal vistas. I knew I’d come back so I wandered back toward the Centraal Station area (perhaps my least favourite station area), had a look around the football-themed store Copa (perhaps my most favourite store in Amsterdam), buying two pairs of socks, one which features Diego Maradona doing the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986, and Zidane headbutting Materazzi in the 2006 world cup final, and went to meet up with my family. The next couple of days here would be doing more of the tourist stuff – a boat trip around the canals, Anne Frank’s house, the Van Gogh Museum, and a change of hotel.
Amsterdam Graffiti Fish Stand sm
Here are a couple of sketches I did near the Centraal station. Teh lamp-post thing below looks like some kind of city warning against public drunkenness.
Amsterdam Lamp-post sm
Amsterdam Spui sm

I didn’t sketch as much once the family arrived, just a few here and there, I think I had earned the break. Above is a quick one I drew at Spui while eating Flemish Frites (see below, they were delicious). I can’t reiterate how much I love the frites over here, they do taste delicious.

I did try to do a quick sketch of the tall houses at Damrak one evening, just to mess about with some of the new materials we were given at the symposium.Not my usueal sketching but fun to mess about.
Amsterdam Buildings Damrak sm
Amsterdam Buildings in Blue sm
Below, I drank a beer called “Bastaard” by Hertog Jan while we had an Indonesian meal at Kantjil by Spui. Sketching with pencil can get messy as you can see by the filthy page.
Amsterdam Kantjil beer
And here is one of the little tiny toy cars they have here in Amsterdam to get around the super narrow streets. I never did sketch one; I asked Lapin who loves to sketch cars if he was going to add one to his collection, but even he said no, that’s no car. Look at it, it’s like something from Richard Scarry. I expected another one to come along looking like a big carved out apple , and a pencil and a banana.

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I did change hotels when my family arrived, moving from the Grand Amrâth to the Doubletree, which my wife had booked (she got a really good deal). It was a nice hotel for sure, very modern, with amazing views over the city, but zero of the character of the Grand Amrâth. But these views! I had to sketch it. I did go up to the rooftop lounge to look over the city, but I did not want to sketch up there, it wasn’t really my thing to hang out there. The Doubletree hotel is right across the canal from the Grand Amrâth so we could see the whole building in all its glory from across the water, and I would get up for a run past it, and some of that lovely fresh juice from a nearby supermarket. I miss all the nice juices and foods from Holland. I would like to come back and explore more of the Netherlands. The Dutch people I met at the symposium came from all over and there are so many places I know not that much about. Aaargh, the world is so big, there is so much I want to see before I’m done. I want to see it all, and sketch it all.
Amsterdam View from Doubletree sm
But I was done with Amsterdam, we all were. Time to move on, time to go back to Belgium and eat some more frites and waffles. But the heatwave wasn’t done with us yet. We went to get our Thalys but of course, there were cancellations and delays, hung over from the travel chaos a week before. We waited and waited, a few hours with hundreds of others, until in the end a Thalys came and everyone was lucky to get on. But we had first class reservations (a good call as it turns out, for very little more cost) and so I was given a couple of free Belgian beers (a couple of cans of Leffe Blonde) in our carriage for the journey. It was all a bit stressful at the time, but I’m usually travel lucky, it all works out in the end. When life gives you lemons, draw in your sketchbook and be patient, and life will eventually give you Leffe. Onwards to Brussels!
Amsterdam Waiting for Thalys sm

il fait chaud à charleroi

Charleroi Eglise St Christophe
After my late night frites from Robert La Frite, Charleroi’s finest friterie, I had a much needed lie-in. I spent much of the morning in the large new comic shop near the hotel; Belgian (and French) BD stores are really incredible. They love their hardback comic books, and I get very inspired by the artwork. It made want to get drawing. I have daydreamed about returning to Charleroi and drawing as much as possible. I spent a year there with hardly any drawings, so I always felt I needed to return to catch up. I did want to walk through the fancy new Rive Gauche mall though. Now I know where all the shopping has gone since the stores all closed down in Rue de la Montagne. Despite the novelty, it didn’t feel like I was in Charleroi at all, so I left and headed out with the sketchbook. I went straight up to Place Charles II, and drew the Église St. Christophe, the large rusting-green domed church dominating the round plaza. But wow, it was already really hot.
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Any football fans among you may remember the Euro 2000 tournament. Incredibly that was twenty years ago now. In that tournament, which was held in Belgium and Holland, there was a famous game in which England played Germany right here in Charleroi. This plaza saw the English hooligans running wild before the game, throwing chairs and giving all that old little-Englander nonsense about St George and yelling obscenities at anyone foreign, and in one case I witnessed a drunk Englishman hilariously kicked one of those concrete balls (which had been dressed up to look like footballs at the time) hurting his foot in the process and spilling his beer, but Charleroi is a place that did not care for that sort of thing at all, and they just pulled out the water cannons and sprayed them all over the place. I’ll never forget, some of the local bars decided not to open up that day, but they still sold beer from lemonade stands outside, because Belgians don’t give up on beer. Once all of the losers had been washed away, the evening following England’s victory was one of the best nights in town, and I met some great English lads staying up all night to catch the morning train and ferry, and showed them to all the places the locals love. I though back to all of that while drawing the church, glad that it was two decades in the past.

Charleroi Town Hall
Charleroi is not a place awash with tourists (even though the town was literally awash with cannon-sprayed football hooligans once), but there is a tourist office right here on the Place. I went in to look around, picking up some badges and a few postcards. I was suffering from the heat and so came in to cool off. I got talking to the guy working in there, talking about all the changes in Charleroi, he told me about all the new cool stuff in town, new breweries, while we also reflected sadly on the state of some of the old shopping streets. I said that I was intending on sketching the city and that I had always wanted to promote its image, being that big overlooked city in Belgium, and we talked about how the city always was and still is a place of art; Magritte of course lived round here, and then there are the comics, the famous Marcinelle School. I also said that I have been following a photographer online whose work actually inspired me to come back here, ‘Charleroi Zoom‘, they really show the best of the city. The guy was a bit shocked – it turns out that Charleroi Zoom is him! He shook my hand and couldn’t believe I had been inspired by his photos to come from California back to Charleroi, but it’s true. I was just as gobsmacked. Always nice to meet someone who loves the place. I went back out into the Place Charles II and drew, in what shade I could still stand in, the Hotel de Ville (above).

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The heat was unbearable, and moving about the city was slow and ponderous. I wandered down to Parc Reine Astrid, looking a little shabbier than twenty years ago but this was where I used to come to relax and read books. On the edge of the park is a statue of the cowboy Lucky Luke, another BD hero who originated here. I thought I’d draw in pencil for a bit, it was a bit quicker in this heat. The more animated style of sketching it gave is probably appropriate for the Marcinelle School (also called the Charleroi School), which was the house style of Spirou back in the 1940s or so. This style, also called ‘comic-dynamic’ was said to be in opposition to the very precise ‘ligne claire’ style of other Belgian books books like Tintin.
Charleroi Lucky Luke
I was saddened to see that Lucky Luke has really weathered a lot over the years. He used to be so shiny, but hasn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Here he is below, in 2019 (left) and 2000 (right).

Further up the road near the stadium is Boule et Bill. I didn’t sketch Spirou, also nearby, but I had to draw these two. Boule is wearing the black and white stripes of Sporting Charleroi, the local team. Of course, I ahd to visit the stadium. The last time I went there was for a game at the end of the 1999-2000 season when Charleroi drew with Anderlecht to just about stay in D1. They were never a very good team, although this season 2019-20 they have been playing brilliantly. I bought the new season’s shirt, I love my football shirts, and then walked back up to Square Hiernaux.
Charleroi Boule et Bill

Square Jules Hiernaux is where I lived twenty years ago; I could see into the Charleroi stadium from my window. It’s not a square but a large roundabout – the ‘vicious circle’ I used to call it, when I would watch the Belgian drivers aggressively battle their way around it – but in the middle is yet another local BD hero, the long-tailed leopard-like creature Marsupilami. My little neighbour friend was looking good.
Charleroi Marsupilami
And here is La Vigie, the student living quarters for the Université de Travail (UT), the tower that was my home from 1999-2000. I worked as a teacher at the UT, in the attached building, during my year abroad from my French degree. It was an interesting experience living there; I remember that for months the showers were freezing cold, and we had no hot water even in the sinks. There was nowhere for me to refrigerate food or drinks so I didn’t eat a lot of dairy that year (outside of chocolate or the mayo on my frites), but I would cook pasta and noodles in the small kitchen in the basement. My neighbours were mostly from central Africa, friendly guys who would often cook spicy-smelling dinners on a little electric stove-top in the corridor, while playing Congolais music. The neighbour right next door to me however was more into Celine Dion, and would play “My Heart Will Go On” at full blast on repeat EVERY SINGLE MORNING. For MONTHS. I remember how glad I was to bring my guitar over to Charleroi to counter this musical monstrosity. I wrote a lot of songs there that year, that’s what I used to do instead of drawing. That’s what you do when you’re 23 and don’t know many people. It was an entire lifetime ago, but it looks like the building has not changed a bit, except for the new white neon sign on the roof.

Charleroi La Vigie

I took the photo below the evening before, looking up to my old bedroom on the thirteenth floor. I really wanted to go inside, and go up to the rooftop to look out across the Caroloregion, with the giant ‘terrils’ (old slap-heaps now turned into grassy hills) dotting the landscape. I perhaps should call ahead some day and arrange this. This time though I thought I would just pop in and ask the custodian if it was ok. The door opened as someone was leaving, so I went in to ask.

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But nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the custodians were working that day. It was the summertime, so they probably have a limited schedule there, while most of the students are gone. Ok, well maybe next time. I went to leave, but the door would not open. I remembered that to get in years ago you needed a little electronic badge, but you also needed it to leave the building, inexplicably. They have not changed their system in two decades, so for now I was stuck in there. The doors would not budge; I knew that from experience. Twenty years before I was stuck outside in the snow one night after returning from a work visit to Brussels, when the doors were locked while the custodians went wherever they would go. I tried everything to prise the doors open with my frozen hands, to no avail, and got into an argument with the custodians when they finally returned an hour and a half later. I wasn’t going through that again, so I just waited. Nobody was coming, it was the middle of summer. What was I going to do, stay there in the lobby all night? I couldn’t get further into the building without an electronic key so I was stuck in this small lobby. There wasn’t even anything to draw. After half an hour or so I thought I would try the door to the canteen, which I was certain would be locked like all the other doors, as it led into the main university building. To my surprise it was unlocked! I wandered into the canteen area, where years ago they would give me free dinners (of grated carrots or weak soup; I could not eat anything meaty as I was ‘le vegeterien!’). Amazingly the door from the canteen into the main university was also unlocked. I was wandering through an empty building I had not stepped foot into since my early twenties. You know when places from your past like this show up in the dream space when you sleep, morphing into those buildings you have to try and somehow get out of, well this was where I was in real life. It was surreal. I remembered my way to the main entrance, which of course was locked. I found another entrance, and that too was locked. I was still stuck, and really wanted to get on with the rest of my day. And then I remembered that years ago there was this one door in a stairwell that led outside which for some reason was often left unlocked, if I could just find it. Since nothing else here had changed over the years, maybe I had a chance? And I found it, and of course it was unlocked, and I was finally outside. Typical Charleroi, still messing me about years later. I had one more sketch to make, the Waterloo Metro entrance right outside the front door. I think I was just about done with La Vigie.
Charleroi Waterloo Metro Station

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I headed back to the hotel (picking up a delicious “mitraillete de dinde” on the way from Robert La Frite) before coming back up this way to sketch La Cuve. However, La Cuve was closing early due to nobody being there, so I wandered the town a bit more, taking some pictures of the dramatic summertime sky.

There was one place I used to go that I wanted to check in on – the Irish Times Pub. I remember when this place opened in early 2000, a new pub in town that the locals made sure kept very busy. Again, it has not changed in the slightest. I had many late nights here back in 2000, so it was fun to spend time working on a bar interior after all that time sketching out in the heat. Naturally I had to give in a drink a Westmalle Triple, the beer I first tried in this very bar which I always knew was trouble, one that you definitely can’t have many of.

Charleroi Irish Times
Westmalle Triple

And that was my brief visit back to Charleroi. Definitely some mixed feelings about the old place, but it was nice to finally be back. The next morning I was to be up and away to catch the train to Amsterdam; little did I know that the intense heatwave was going to make that journey very difficult…