Last of the Summer Gin, Madrid, Spain

There's lots of excitement in our family recently, my sister, Esme and her partner, Lomas are engaged and due to marry in the summer of next year. Victoria and I are incredibly happy for them, we cannot wait for what we are certain will be a very beautiful wedding and happy occasion. Living not too far from each other we are lucky in that we are all able to spend time as a group frequently, but we haven't had the chance to travel or relax in the sunshine much; in fact, I haven't been abroad with my sister for almost a decade (perhaps longer!). With that in mind, we felt now was a good time to celebrate the fantastic news and to take some time to enjoy what is left of the European summertime.

As a group, we struggled to settle on a destination but agreed Madrid would work well. Of course, I was quite pleased with that decision, I am pretty sure Madrid is my favourite city in Europe; its vibrancy, openness and relaxed attitude is something that in my book is completely unrivalled. That said, I had only ever visited Madrid before for work, so was very pleased that we were going to visit and see it in a different light.

Esme and Lomas en route to the apartment, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Holding hands with my aisle buddy

With the destination sorted the next challenge was scheduling - this was the difficult part... All four of us have varied work commitments, working different days and different hours, which meant finding suitable consecutive days was quite the challenge! Lomas was due to start a new job prior to us leaving and Esme was back on term-time schedule for her work. In the end, three days was all we could find, but that's all we needed for a city break!

Our flights to Spain were exceptionally early in the morning, we were on the road to the airport at 4 am! In Madrid, we were staying right next to Puerta Del Sol, a large square in the centre of the city, which meant that we were within walking distance of most places we wanted to visit. Our Airbnb apartment was superb, a twin bedroom, quiet place, just off the square, with a kitchen, huge lounge area and everything you could need for a quick break away. Our host, Marta met us exactly on time and even gave us some tips on where to go for dinner - which was very helpful indeed.

We spent much of our first day taking in the sights and sounds of the city, all pretty exhausted from the early morning travel. Of course, one of the first things we needed to do was stop at a bar for some drinks and tapas, which we did as soon as we got off the Metro! The beer was as delicious as the weather, which was a scorching 31°C, a good 10° higher than back at home. We made our way around the city, shopping and exploring as we went, eventually making our way through the old city to Cheuca. This area of the city is fantastic, full of boutique shops, small bars and cafes. We stopped here in the height of the afternoon for a few more drinks and to get some shade.

Gin & Tonic in Cheuca, Madrid, Spain

Our Second day in Madrid had an agenda, The Zoo. Set to be a cooler day and our only full day in the city we planned to wake up early and make the most of our Tuesday. Madrid Zoo was only a short Metro ride away, we were a little concerned when we arrived that it might not even be open, it was certainly the quietest zoo I have ever been to, no queuing at all, for anything! That aside, they had all kinds of different species including a full aquarium with fish, turtles, sharks. The highlight was undoubtedly the brown bear (oso café in Spanish), the bear was sitting in the sun making noises and paying attention to his (her?) visitors and almost posing for pictures!

The Bear, Madrid Zoo

We spent the afternoon in Buen Retiro Park, on the other side of the city. Somewhere we had learned that it was possible to hire a rowing boat and bob around on the lake. This, of course, was a wonderfully appealing idea and we wasted no time getting ourselves on the water. We had a great deal of fun racing, crashing and going around in circles, thankfully all the iPhones made it back to dry land!

Me and Victoria, Buen Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Dinner that evening was in Plaza Mayor, not far from where we had lunch the previous evening, the plaza has a great atmosphere at night, very similar to that of The Grand Place in Brussels. Our server was an interesting chap, but was certainly able to serve a very tasty gin and tonic! No complaints!

Our final morning was spent exploring the western part of Madrid, taking in the impressive Opera House, Royal Palace and Cathedral. We walked quite a lot but gradually made our way back towards Puerta Del Sol. The best part of the day for me was certainly breakfast; we found a relatively authentic cafe with a waiter who spoke no English. Despite my very inept, but gradually improving, Spanish skills we all ended up with a drink and some food - this of course was, therefore, a complete success!

Our 52-something hours in Madrid were fantastic and we all had a great time. It was excellent to be able to spend time with Esme and Lomas away from home and in a different environment. Madrid will certainly stay as my number one city in Europe, I can't wait to come back again!

Sidemount Diving

My dive count is currently at forty-six, I’m certainly still a beginner when it comes to diving and I feel the need to constantly remind myself of that. The feeling when on a dive is like nothing else I’ve experienced; for the duration of a dive you’re immersed in something immensely dangerous, with equipment that requires a great deal of skill to operate safely. What’s strange, is that the sensation on a dive is completely unique- it pulls friends and dive buddies together with a common sense of care, concern and thought. There’s a deep level of camaraderie that runs, even with complete strangers throughout everyone involved. This has taught me a lot about myself, about the way I need to operate, remaining calm, watching out for others and pulling a group together to make sure we complete the goal in hand. Diving is an addiction, but one I don’t intend to give up!

Sidemount cylinders

One type of diving in particular has always interested me: sidemount. This style of diving is where instead of having the scuba unit on your back, you place it (or them) on your side. The unit is usually a little different, instead of the typical single cylinder, two cylinders are placed with one to the left and one to the right of the diver. This brings multiple different issues, such as managing multiple cylinders, multiple regulators and controlling differentiating buoyancy. However, sidemount does have some great benefits: it’s much more comfortable(!)- no more heavy cylinder strapped as you waddle around, it gives a much more natural profile in the water making diving and swimming much easier and you have increased redundancy with multiple cylinders.

Buckland Lake

My first attempt at sidemount was in a swimming pool (a not very deep, pool!). It was immediately obvious how much more comfortable the dive was – I couldn’t wait to try more and loved the experience. Fast forward and I get the opportunity at Buckland lake to complete my certification. The dives were very different in an open water environment, buoyancy is a very different experience with a sidemount harness on. When ascending I found myself needing to almost duck dive and dump from the rear valve, fine, but a little different. The comfort was great and the reassurance of having a second cylinder was fantastic. Of course, it looks very cool too – which has to count for something.

Sidemount Shore

I passed my certification that weekend and am looking forward to trying it out again soon. Undecided if it’s the way forward for my diving future, there’s a lot to think about and to buy too - but it’s certainly appealing. Perhaps I’ll wait a while and think about if it’s the correct path, that said, very glad I gave it a try and would recommend to any beginner divers to do the same and see if it’s for them. Of course, the experience wouldn’t have been possible without Tony and Janine Mansford at Southern Scuba who have been nothing but fantastic in allowing me the chance!

Number 22 - Shoot a Gun

Muzzle flash from an MP5

Muzzle flash from an MP5

I'm not going to go into how it was I found myself in Vegas, all I will say is that it was completely on the level, as were all activities during my trip. This bucket list item was one of the original and actually one which I'd wanted to do long before the list came into existence. I thought it would be one of the more difficult ones, because it's not like you can really do this without going somewhere where it's considered normal. 

As a young boy and back in the days when UK laws were less mad I bought a .177 air rifle from a store on-line. It was my most favourite thing, we had plenty of grounds surrounding our home and I was entertained for countless weeks wandering with my pet dog and shooting at paper targets. My aim wasn't bad either! Sadly I was jumping over a fence and managed to fall and break my precious rifle, despite duct tape and glue it was never quite the same. Ever since then I have wanted to shoot a real firearm and see if I'm actually any good. 

Vegas has everything, literally everything an adult could or could not want. The one thing I wanted to do above all was to get my hands on an M16 and shoot a zombie target. Day 1 of being here that's exactly what me and my colleague did. We visited The Gun Store Las Vegas who were a short Uber trip off of the strip, as this was the first time we'd be doing this we went with the basic package. $80 bought us 10 rounds with a semi-automatic handgun, 25 rounds with a MP5 and 25 rounds with an M16. All in all it wasn't exactly cheap, and although I hid it I was a little nervous - I mean there were people wandering around with guns on their belts!

The handgun was first, I opted to go with the Baretta M9 on the advice of a US Navy Dolphin trainer from California who happened to be in a bar with us in New York a few days earlier (which is a story for another day). The gun had a surprising amount of kickback, but I managed to keep all rounds on target which I didn't think was too bad. After that the MP5 was up, this was a different thing completely, it was seriously fun, but any more than 3 rounds and it just pulled away no matter how hard I tried to control it, most rounds were on target! The final was the M16, which is a controlled firearm in certain US states - this was much easier to control and I certainly managed to put some lead through my zombie! The staff at this range in LV take absolute care of you and do not allow you or anyone else to be in any danger, I felt very safe while with them. 

I'll end by saying I'm absolutely not a gun advocate and I take great comfort in the laws that exist in the UK today. The balance is good, fair and there exists many places in the UK where shooting as an activity exists as a sport - not with a fully M16, but that's hardly a sport...