Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Spanish Puzzle Party (Saturday / Sunday)


Bright and early on Saturday morning, somewhere around the crack of 9am we met up for breakfast in the bar downstairs (don’t judge us, that’s just where they served breakfast!). Somehow we all manage to order what we’d actually like for breakfast and there’s the usual level of banter before we check out and head for the mini bus… 

Nigel had told us to please pack light on the grounds that there’d be 9 of us in a 9-seater mini bus, so there probably wouldn’t be much space for luggage… turns out there was more than enough space for 9 of us, our luggage and 15 giant inflatable bananas.


We hit the road for Cartagena, knowing there’s a four-odd hour journey ahead. Almost immediately the puzzles come out – I’ve brought a couple of disentanglements I need solved so I pass them around – they generally get solved quite quickly by various members of the touring party – I’m left none the wiser. About ten minutes into the trip I’m asking if we’re there yet. Totally unrelated, the music gets louder quite soon after I ask the question – Nigel’s apparently playing us soft American rock in order not to offend our sensitivities by playing his usual fare – we’re enjoying it – there’s even crooning from the ladies up front every now and then… and pretty soon we’re playing Beat-the-Intro and Big-Steve is creating customised trophies for the winners of each round: he’s writing his version of the song or the artist on a tongue depressor and handing them ceremonially to the winners. Time flies by and we cover four or five miles before we stop for a coffee by the side of the motorway. (I’m not good with numbers, it may have been further.)
 

Steve finds a new supply of individually wrapped micro tongue depressors and we add a few to the collection, leaving the locals wondering why the heck we’re stealing their toothpicks. 


The next leg of the journey sees some rather impressive engineering: Ali and I work on a challenge to assemble a Hart-esque Polylink out of tongue depressor hexagrams while Steve and Frank work on an orderly tangle of giant inflatable banana triangles. Our initial experiments (OK, Ali’s initial experiments…) show that it probably won’t work, so we settle for a short chain of interlinked hexagrams before passing it across to Oli to improve – and seconds later he hands it back with a third one interlinked on the end… 


Meanwhile Steve’s banana experiments have hit a bit of a snag – he’d been using tongue depressors to link the bananas together (use your imagination!) and they wouldn’t stay together when the construction neared complete-banana, so my old cap cover was set upon with a very small pair of scissors to produce banana-string – which turned out far more successful than the tongue depressors at keeping the yellow fruitiness together. Peak orderly banana entanglement is duly reached and celebratory photos taken before Steve suspends it from the roof of the mini bus. 


The changing scenery announces our arrival in Cartagena and we head off in search of our first escape room of the day… where the girls leave us for a spot of shopping and a bite to eat. The first escape room requires a fair amount of Spanish and as we only have one Nigel, he finds himself getting harried for instant translations quite often during a reasonably fraught hour – we do not escape… Nigel’s first ever escape room is less than a stellar success – we have let him down… 


Reunited with the girls we head out in the general direction of the second escape room and having found it, settle down in a nearby pub for a snack and a drink while we organise the logistics for the second escape. The girls are going to join us for this one which receives rave reviews from all who’ve done it. We have two sessions booked and need to split ourselves into two teams. We decide that the two couples should be joined by a third puzzler and helpfully the girls have bought each of us a squishy banana (apparently a stress toy) and a disentanglement puzzle and we decide that the first one to solve their disentanglement will join us – a serious race duly ensues – with one person using all of his strength to “rearrange” the shape of one piece to prise them apart - Steve gets disqualified – and then Rob manages to solve his and he’s awarded a spot on the winning team. 


The five of us have a great time exploring Nemo’s submarine, solving the brilliantly themed puzzles and playing with all of the fantastical objects and machinery in there – before ultimately escaping with about ten minutes to spare… we head back to the pub where we’ve left the others while the room gets reset. Frank, Rob and I get to watch the second team while they solve the room – we find ourselves a little torn between wanting them to escape, but not really wanting them to beat our time… at the start of the game they resolutely avoid taking the hints being offered by our host and we remark on the fact that they really want to do this on their own (we may have told them we didn’t take any hints…) – after a while they sacrifice their principles and take the hints and make pretty good progress. Several times we put up a small cheer when they finally spot something we’ve been willing them to see, and solve something. In the end they escape with 5 minutes to spare, having taken the same number of clues as we did… so the girls’ team won! 
 

The second escape room was really excellent – the theming was superb and the puzzles all seemed logical – when you solved something, you knew where to use the answers, there was never a time when we found a four-digit number and didn’t know which particular random padlock to try and open with it (my pet peeve on lazy escape room designs!). 


After the obligatory victory shots (with bananas!) we headed back out to meet up with the girls who’d been shopping again. Nigel dropped us off at our hotel for the evening in Santiago de la Ribera before meeting us for a short walk down to the waterfront restaurant where we feasted on some truly scrumptious local fare.

During the course of the evening Steve handed around some tongue depressors for us to autograph as a gift for Nigel, along with some check-sticks – the purpose of which was soon explained: we’d come up with a game for Nigel to play for the next year or two – when we were at his house on Sunday, we would each be hiding 9 numbered tongue depressors around his house for him to find, and the checklist sticks would allow him to track his progress and report back to us… he seemed really delighted.


After dinner we stumbled back to the hotel, managing to avoid getting lost and run over by the locals, and then crashed.


At breakfast the next morning we were surprised to find Steve and Ali had already had breakfast when we got down at more or less the appointed hour – apparently Steve’s phone had grudgingly agreed it was now in Spain and set itself to Spanish time, only Steve and Ali hadn’t realised this and duly ended up at breakfast an hour ahead of the rest of us. 


We headed off to chez Croot for the morning’s puzzling and sure enough, as soon as Nigel left to return the rented mini bus, we scattered around his immaculate bachelor pad to hide our little wooden sticks – it would have looked pretty strange had Nigel decided to log in and check on his closed-circuit cameras at that point…


When he returned things settled down a little and Nigel offered the lads something to eat or drink, with Steve suggesting nonchalantly that he might want to be careful using the toaster…


Serious puzzling commences, I don the white cotton gloves and am presented with Richelieu on a towel… I take it apart with abandon, gladly strewing pieces around willy-nilly safe in the knowledge that I won’t be reassembling it – that will be left to someone else… only the disassembly is slightly more successful than I’d imagined it would be and I find myself with more than enough time to reassemble it – using the book – and several people helping me to spot the errant pieces now strewn all around the dining room table… but I’m pleased to say that Richelieu was reassembled with a little help from the gang, and Nigel advising on some mechanical fettling along the way – that is a very serious puzzle – assembling it without the instructions would probably take days! (A delight to be able to play with a legend of a puzzle – thanks Nigel for trusting me with it!)


All too soon Rob, Gill and I are heading out to Alicante airport in Nigel’s car (Nigel's driving, we haven't stolen it!) – and no doubt the little ants are merrily hiding sticks again safe in the knowledge that it will take Nigel almost two hours to deposit us and return (thanks mate!). 


We say our goodbyes and our thank-yous and breeze through security in spite of all those weirdly shaped puzzles in our bags. Airside the three of us grab a last tapas meal together before wandering around and raking through the shops while we wait for our slightly delayed Jet2 bus back to Brum – sparing a thought for Rob who has a further six-hour wait before his flight back to Schiphol - sorry Rob, we did it to you twice!


So, after years of threatening Nigel organises the first Spanish Puzzle Party – and it is EPIC… the organisation is brilliant, the stuff we got to do was fantastic and the company – well, it will be hard to beat! A fantastic long weekend jammed with laughs from start to finish, some puzzling and learning heaps about Berrocal… awesome weekend in every possible sense – Great job, Nigel!

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Spanish Puzzle Party (Thursday / Friday)


For the past couple of years Nigel has been threatening to arrange a Spanish Puzzle Party. 


This year he made good on those threats and invited a few of us to his neck of the woods for some sunshine and some puzzling-related stuff. Having established that he was licensed to drive a 9-seater bus, he duly invited 8 of us over for a long weekend. We were briefed to fly into Malaga airport on the Thursday evening in order to give us a few days’ worth of puzzling before heading home on the Sunday afternoon / evening from Alicante or Murcia. 


 
Nigel had a serious road-trip planned for us, and our most excellent of hosts was there to collect us at Malaga airport on the Thursday evening… or at least he was, along with everyone else when our delayed Ryanair flight arrived in the early hours of Friday morning – in spite of the fact that some of them had already spent about 5 hours in the airport, they all seemed glad to see Gill and I arrive from Brum. Nigel handed me the obligatory SPP polo shirt before a short hike to the bus. Nigel took us to our hotel for the next two evenings where we promptly checked in and crashed. 


We gathered at the appointed, designated by the official spreadsheet, for breakfast before sitting in the hotel’s courtyard for a few gift exchanges… Steve presented Nigel with a giant tongue depressor box (Lord knows how he got that inside his Ryanair carry-on!) containing a pair of giant inflatable bananas – that tone for the weekend was duly set. (Nigel also received some puzzles, a bottle of something and some shortbread in a tin commemorating the royal wedding… the previous one – because he’s not that much of a royalist!). 


After a bit of puzzling we headed out in our trusty bus to the Berrocal Foundation’s workshop in Villanueva de Algaidas. On the way there Big-Steve produced a few more inflatable bananas and the back row of the bus almost passed out with the exertion of inflating 15 rather large bananas – sadly one did not make it and it was ceremonially turned into a cap-cover for moi – quite a fashion statement judging from the looks of some passing motorists. 


At the workshop we’re met by Beltran and Carlos, Miguel Berrocal’s sons – Nigel is greeted like an old friend. Beltran and Carlos kick off the tour of the workshop with a couple of huge posters in the waiting area: one shows hundreds of Mini Davids (jaw-drops) and the other a personalised bonnet ornament in Berrocal’s Mercedes -a Mini David that would rotate 360 degrees every time the car was started. 


In the workshop space proper Beltran begins by describing the beginnings of his dad’s artistic development, talking passionately about the process, his inspiration and his use of both space and form – how he found various materials and elements to include in his work and why he started out making his sculptures in pieces that could be assembled (literally so that he could pop them in the boot of the car and cart them around… humble beginnings for the eventual pinnacle of his puzzle creations at least!). 


We walk around the workshop following a natural progression with Beltran guiding the discussion and showing us pictures and illustrations on his tablet when the works he wants to talk about aren’t actually in front of us (like Citius Altius Fortius which is at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne… although there are a couple of copies of that in the workshop too!) and Carlos chipping in with occasional anecdotes and further explanations.
 

Now I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a bit of a Philistine, but the guys work their magic on me and the tour turns into quite a moving experience for me. 


Halfway through the tour we get to play with a copy of Torero casually left out on a workbench… next to a set of pieces that will make up Omaggio Ad Arcimboldo when they’ve been properly cleaned up and reassembled… a nearby trolley has a complete set of Richelieu bits, all beautifully polished before heading back to a lucky collector. 


It doesn’t take a bunch of puzzlers too long to take it apart, mixing up the pieces along the way just for a laugh and then reassembling it – under the watchful eye of Beltran who offers the occasional bit of advice and points out some of the subtleties of the design and the manufacturing process… off to one side there’s a grubby-looking plastic container with a set of bits in it – a set of unfinished pieces of Torero straight out of the moulds, ready to be finished off and packaged up, one day. (The guys explained that most of the casting of the multiples was completed in one go years and years ago and then the pieces were finished off when they were needed. For some that was the entire edition of 300, 1000 or 10 000. For others, only a subset was cast and further copies can still be cast today within the original edition.)  


When we’re finished with that we head upstairs to the mock-up (the studio and workshop have been moved from their original home in fair Verona, back to Spain) of the design studio, wandering past a bunch of Berrocal’s tooling and machinery – one of which has a signed sticker on it – I find myself wondering what that sticker would be worth, let alone the machines and the sculptures in this workshop…!


The studio is laid out with a single table in the centre running the entire length of the long room – this would allow the artist to have several projects on the go at any one time and enable him to scoot from one project to another as the urge took him… literally. One side of the room is taken up entirely with a massively long bookshelf containing all manner of inspiration and exposition… and one shelf is given up to a set of glass cabinets containing an example of each of Berrocal’s multiples – his puzzle sculptures. 

Beltran and Carlos pick out a few of them and talk about them, their development, the puzzling elements, their various phallic references (it had to get at least a nod!). We start with Romeo e Giulietta, one of the earlier multiples, completed in 1967. We wend our way through the classic Mini’s and spend a while on Paloma Jet with its fantastical folly before diving back into the real puzzles. 
 

From there we head down into the basement and we all agree that it feels a lot like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy heads into the mysterious warehouse that contains all the treasures. 

Carlos shows us around, showing us the moulds for one of Berrocal’s grand pieces of public sculpture, and below them several sets of moulds for the Mini’s, Il Cofanetto and several other recognisable multiples – we’re all dragging our jaws along the ground by now… but when Carlos takes us over to bins piled high with raw, cast pieces of Il Cofanetto awaiting finishing, treatment and plating, we’re all seriously slain. 


Back upstairs Gill and I have a short conversation about the fact that we like to collect art on our holidays rather than the usual tourist tat and we then decide that we really should support the lads and buy a (very!) little bit of their dad’s work. We pose for pictures beside some of the Almogavares – big brutish torsos with actual anvils at their hearts – now there’s an image to conjure with - before signing the guest book. 


From there we follow Carlos to the family home in the village for lunch with the lads and their mom – served with a complete set of Il Cofanetto cutlery, of course. We have a truly wonderful lunch while listening to stories of their time in Italy, of visits from artists and stories behind various photographs and pieces of art in the rooms – which would put several serious art galleries to absolute shame. The family are warm and engaging and treat us like friends in spite of being just a bunch of weird Midlands Puzzlers!


That evening we head into Antequera for a bit of a wander – things go badly wrong when Nigel decides he’s had enough of leading the walking tour and insists that someone else take the lead… so Frank and I head up the nearest hill – which turns out to have a lovely view of the town below, a rather grand old church and a pub on top of it – so we settle down and have a few rounds of drinks while chatting about the Berrocal visit… when hunger drives us onward we begin to head downhill, but not before there’s a bit of a La-La Land tribute (or perhaps a Sound of Music retrospective – it was hard to tell to be honest!) and some shenanigans on the way down - all of which make for some great photographs. 


Back down in town we line up a suitable-looking tapas joint and take up a small alcove for the evening… we feast on stuff that Nigel orders for us (he’s slipped back into tour guide mode) and have a really superb meal – before collapsing back into our beds at the hotel on the outskirts of town. 


SPP Day one was a pretty darn memorable day!