This time of year, when the crimson leaves crunch underfoot, most folk share that same ideal, well, idea.
November's blue sky - on a distinctly dry year where even now, Bonfire Night, the same uneasy warmth still hangs in the air - offers the perfect amber-shaded canvas for that postcard Autumn weekend away.
From west-central, here's an easy one through Stirling to Perthshire and Crieff.
Head out on the M80 towards Stirling and make the Wallace Monument your first stop. The hike up the hill is steep, slippy and in parts swampy. But go for it. The stone tower - visible from five miles out - watches over our heartland and on a clear day offers insatiable views of the snow-capped Ben Lomond and all in between. The colours, at this time of year, look like wood-chipping peppered over the rolling landscape. We didn't go in the tower (£20 for two of us) but it's exterior is grand enough to still make the hike, on a cloudy day, more than worthwhile. Take binoculars and gaze for miles.
Jump back in the car and head for Perth. Tap Scone Palace into your sat-nav and head to the grand country estate, most famous for its role in Shakespeare's Macbeth. It's doors are closed from Halloween till Spring, but the grounds are where the fun is anyway. It has a maze, nuff said. And an amazing maze at that. Follow it up with a scone at Scone, then let the roaming peacocks chase you back to the car. Highland coos on site too - head late in the afternoon and let the sun set behind them. Spectacular Scotland!
Long known as one of Scotland's best country getaways, we stayed at Crieff Hydro, a 20 minute drive from Perth. Book a stay via a daily deal website (we found ours for £55 + £10 for a room upgrade on Itison, a deal which included bed, breakfast and a bottle of wine) and you've really won a watch. Beds and baths are huge, and the grounds and views tantalising. Three restaurants offer a range of delicious wallet-friendly fare, and the Victorian Spa soothes. Spend a wee bit more and you can enjoy a whole host of fun - tennis, horse riding, shooting and zip lining. The whisky selection is drool-worthy, the bar rich and cosy. Ideal for a warming dram after a day hiking in the cold.
Round-up your night away with a stop at Aughingarrich Wildlife Centre in Comrie en route home. It is brilliant, if you like a) animals and b) scenery. Feed everything: pigs, goats, cows, sheep. And you can hold stuff too: Guinea pigs, rabbits and day-old chicks. Entry cost just over a tenner for the two of us, which includes feed. The views out beyond the farm are mesmerising and are best enjoyed with a soup in the on-site patio cafe.
It's a simple trip heading from anywhere on the central belt, east or west coast. Enough to feel like you're genuinely really away and so cost effective. Even when it's over it's brilliant...jump in the car from the farm and get on to the A822 back towards Stirling. A drivers drive, if ever there was one!
Run. It was all I could do. What were my other options? Stay and I was next. I'd still to be rumbled. But I wasn't hanging about. Go now.
I leapt at the staircase and scrambled down, legs and arms flailing as I cleared up to three steps at a time. Bang! - the soles of my feet smashed flush with the concrete base of each flight, the palm of my pivoting hand squeaking on the plastic of the banister as I manically spiralled my way down five floors of Emergency Exit.
What caused that desperate yelp? The panicked screams of "Sorry! Sorry! I am so sorry!". What was happening to the boy on the other side of those doors?
He'd have been pounced upon the moment he'd rushed through. He will have been grabbed instantly - maybe even floored - by as many as four of them. Every one of them I'd seen was a man mountain. A battle-ready Spanish Armada stood primed on the opposite side of those doors. He'd gone in armed - it was suicide.
If the boy was lucky, he'd have been pushed face-first into the wall, his left arm twisted up his spine, and dragged out to the front stairs, his pain matched only by his humiliation to those gathered below.
If his luck was out, he was in for a world of trouble. Broken bones, a dislocated jaw? Sizing up these guys, knocking someone's teeth out looked almost routine.
How had it come to this? Lionel Messi we'd known for years was untouchable on the pitch. Tonight I'd learned that rule applied off it, too!
It was an unremarkably normal, typical day in the West of Scotland. It was the start of November and it was cold; it was wet; it was dark. It was also just after half-past ten in the morning. In summary, the day would be best described as 'pish' - "It was a pish November's day".
But for me, my recently retired dad, and my good friend P. Mullan (Paul), we were all absolutely buzzing. For today, we were meeting our heroes. The heroes of every football supporter who ever lived. Unrivalled, THE best team to have ever played the beautiful game. None other than FC Barcelona, messrs Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Puyol, Pique, all included.
My dad and I were old pros at this game. For years - albeit not once in the previous four - we'd trailed team buses from airports to hotels in the sticks surrounding Glasgow and Paisley; snaked through passport control in search of autographs; the lot. We include FCB on two previous occasions as past conquests, along with Man Utd, AC Milan and Real Madrid (Champions League Final, 2002).
But this one. Well, this was the biggest of the lot. So we had a strategy.
The team, I'd been reliably informed by the ever helpful @barcastuff on Twitter, were coming in on Tuesday morning for the game on the Wednesday. My dad, back home and glued to TV and the internet, was our version of how Hollywood imagines entry level CIA spies: he was the guy in the back of the surveillance van disguised as a telephone line repair truck. Me and Paul? Well we were the top dogs, the super spies with bigger fish to fry. Actually, we weren't. We were both at work. So my dad had been landed with the job of keeping tabs on FCB's every movement. And, performing admirably, his first call came in as I sat outside Hamilton Sheriff Court on that "pish" November morning.
With the news they'd touched down reaching him minutes earlier, he was already heading eastbound on the M8 motorway in the slipstream of the team bus. "They're heading towards Glasgow," he told me over the phone, "so it must be the Hilton or the Radisson". That ruled out the two plush country estates the other side of town, Mar Hall and Cameron House.
The game was on.
Cue step one: check into the same hotel. Onto my iPhone I went to book both for the night, triple checking the 'Full refund if cancelled within one hour of check-in' policy. I was hoping for the £100 Hilton: £150 in the Radisson was really on the edge of our limit. Justifying it to Paul on the phone, we both agreed we'd pay way over the split cost of £75 each to meet the squad if such an opportunity presented itself. Fair do's then when our agent in the field came back on the phone to let us know that the Radisson it was.
After six hours glued to the office clock, finally my day was over and the real fun could begin. I'd taken the following day off work, giving us the utmost opportunity of cementing our imminent friendships with the Catalan superstars. As the obsessive hordes gathered unfruitfully in the cold and wet of the Glasgow night, we'd be living both the life of luxury, and the dream - shaking hands, bagging photos and autographs, and presumably just generally hanging about with the Barca squad.
I headed straight from work to the hotel, where Paul met me a short time later. Our room was up on the fifth floor.
The team were out at Celtic Park, sampling the turf for the following night's UEFA Champions League group match. Despite that, it was clearly obvious looking out from the glass lift as we were hoisted up to our level that the fourth floor was all theirs. It was swarming with the type of suited, sturdy security personnel you'd more often associate with a foreign dignitary than a football team. This wasn't how East Fife travelled, that was for sure.
We dropped the bags off in the room and - with shirts and marker pens in hand - ventured back down to the lobby bar. We'd wait, watching out through the Radisson's glass facade, and as soon as the bus arrived stand patiently for the squad as they signed what they could outside before walking straight into meet us.
Here we are here (Paul and I) blending in with the suits and businessmen and women alike in the Radisson, awaiting Barca's arrival back from training. The excitement - as made obvious by this photo - was palpable. We. Were. Psyched!
"There it is, there it is, there it is," I deliriously droned, stepping up from my seat by the window as the bus' lights came into view beside the hotel. I led the march to our prime position directly adjacent to the hotel's revolving main door. The waiting was about to be over.
The bus crept up to the door of the hotel...but then for some mysterious reason failed to stop. It was turning at the end of the street, too. Wait a minute, what is happening here? We'd saw the players signing autographs and the likes on the TV as we'd waited in the bar, STV news showing footage of the Spanish champions earlier arrival. Why wasn't that happening now?
We hastily ran outside the door of the hotel and the 50 or so feet towards the street to its left, following the route of the bus. But we were too late. The coach had pulled up directly outside a staff entrance at the side of the Radisson about another 100 yards down the road, roped off with soggy velvet lines on either side and manned by no less than three guards both left and right.
The bastards! They'd got us. Dejected, and after a further hour or so waiting back in the lobby without a single sight of even an unknown quartet of 'B' players, we retired for the night. Beaten we had been, but deterred we were not.
The next morning we were up early and back to the lobby. By close to mid-day there was still no sign of any players. We must have been sitting there for four hours already. Paul, like anyone right-minded, called it quits. I was left alone.
A number of backroom staff began to appear as the hours ticked by, with the likes of Sandro Rosell, his Celts equivalent Peter Lawell, Lubo Moravcik and Andoni Zubizarreta popping up every so often.
Bored, more than anything, I got chatting to hotel staff as I patiently waited - my one night reservation in the hotel having already caused me to be ousted from what was my room. I enquired what the situation had been last night, if the players had just came in and went to bed or if they'd liaised somewhere else in the building. I was told they'd headed back to their rooms then came back down for dinner.
But I knew I'd waited in the lobby that night - there'd been no sign of anyone coming or going. The only two lifts were glass-walled, and both came to the lobby. I wouldn't have missed them.
Beaten we had been. Deterred I now was. I headed home. What a waste of money and, more importantly, a day of holiday from work. Even if I hung about for them leaving for Parkhead, it would have been roped off once more. It was pointless.
That night I sat in amazement as Cetic pulled off the greatest result in their modern history, beating Barca 2-1. I'd stopped thinking about trying to meet the squad, and had resigned myself to defeat.
However, come the end of the match, I couldn't resist the temptation to try once more. This could be my last chance, I thought. And then came my Eureka moment. I had an in.
I rocked back up to the hotel for close to 10 o'clock and joined the 40 or so fans waiting at the side door. The door I'd earlier considered a secret was now obviously public knowledge. I knew waiting there we had no chance of bagging anything, especially after FCB had lost. But that didn't worry me - I had an ace up my sleeve.
Presuming it would be close to another half-an-hour before the Blaugrana returned, I got to work on my plan.
Having retained my key-card for room 5/11, a quick flash of that to the two doormen meant I could breeze back into the hotel lobby and to the foot of the lifts. I pressed for the fifth floor, waited patiently, then ascended up, observing even more of Barca's official security entourage than the previous night guarding the entire floor.
Attempting to look completely undaunted, I reached the fifth level and walked from the lift down the corridor, taking a left-hand turn at the end, past my room from the night before and to exactly what I predicted awaited towards the foot of the corridor: the Emergency Exit and service elevator.
Pushing through the double wooden doors from the hallway, first came the two metallic lifts, then through a second pair of doors past them was the staircase.
What had occurred to me was that Barca must have been using this lift to go up and down floors, away from the public eye and beside that "secret" side entrance.
My plan? Use the fifth floor emergency staircase to go down to the fourth floor, which I did. Wait behind the double doors within the staircase for the service lift to come up and, when it did, walk through the doors to the arriving Barca players, completely out of sight of the security who stood literally on the otherside of the double doors adjacent to those at the staircase.
This photo is the scene I'm trying to have you picture. So from where I've taken the photo, that's the two lifts on the left and the wooden double doors on the right lead through to the fourth floor hallway and the players' rooms, plus tons of security. Behind me is another pair of double doors, which by going through you reach the emergency exit stairwell. My initial plan had been to try and get the players outside leaving the bus then come back here. But this spot was too good, so I'd wait it out here. I would get every player all to myself, my Barca ball hand-signed by each of them (the shirt had been ditched).
Fifteen minutes of waiting gone though and that all changed. The door above me, the door for the fifth floor, creaked open. Bricking it, I didn't have any answers for what I was about to be caught doing. So I just stayed entirely still. Then footsteps started coming down.
I couldn't believe it. No, I hadn't been busted - I'd been copied! Some other chancer had stolen my idea!
He was English, a serial autograph hunter and an absolute nutcase to boot. The guy was genuinely clueless, which made me even more astounded that he'd managed to mirror my genius ploy.
"Good idea with the service lift," he said, with a smile that screamed 'Let's be best friends forever!'
'Go away,' I just kept saying to him in my head, as I constantly hushed his big booming brute voice as I tried to keep us hidden.
We waited - me becoming more and more frustrated by the second by this moron who'd somehow now become my accomplice - for about 45 minutes. Then it all started coming together perfectly.
Waiting in the stairwell, we heard the lift's gears move. Poking our heads through the door, we watched as it rose from floor one to floor four, keeping ourselves concealed as backroom staff and hangers-on came up in the first few rounds of lifts.
Then, our first success. Both lifts stationary on the fourth floor, the left one is called down to level one. It then starts rising and reaches level four. The doors open and there's defender Mark Bartra, with a host of other young players neither me nor the English guy know. Still, as bemused as they look to see us come through the door all guns a-blazing, they allow the goon to take some photos, with me using his camera to snap him and the group, and then him using the same digital camera to snap me. The players are pleasant and good to us. I chose not to get my ball signed. Knowing how well this is going, I've decided I'll save it for the big names. I'll also just use the goon's camera, and get his email address when we leave later.
Cocky, we decide we'll now just stay outside the lift shaft. The youth players haven't grassed us into security, so we're all good. But we will get caught sooner rather than later - that's a fact - so if the Messis Xavis and Iniestas of the team could head up soon that'd be grand.
One of the lifts goes again. From four, to one, then back up to four with a ping. This time, the doors open and there stands Jonathan dos Santos. And the young midfielder, could not be nicer. He smiles, we get photos, he signs my ball, says bye, and heads through the wooden doors. 'Your secret's safe with me, boys,' I like to think he's telling us with another glancing smile as he heads away. Good guy.
But as soothing as the friendly Mexican's smile may have been, I'm getting anxious. We need the big names and we need them fast. The lift does nothing for a while: we dance between the stairs and the lifts with every slight noise on the corridor side of the wooden doors. Squeaky bum time.
The lift starts to move. We can hear it. Yes, it stops at floor one. Yes, it's rising. Bing, it stops at our floor. Give us a big name.
The door opens and it's an awkward stand-off. Dani Alves, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Mascherano, Alex Song and Pinto stand facing us, not moving for what feels like a lifetime.
They know we shouldn't be there. We know we shouldn't be there. They know we know we shouldn't be there. It's a horrible, horrible moment.
But someone, in making the slightest movement from behind Alex Song, behind Pinto, brings the situation to life. This wee guy wants to see what the hold up is; what's happening here.
Out peeks Lionel Messi.
It took me a second to click that it was him - he really looked tiny. I suppose most people would flanked by Alex Song and Pinto. But this was him. This was Leo Messi. The greatest footballer to ever live was here, two feet in front of us, peering at us from a lift where every player's body language and overly-stunned reaction to two autograph hunters made them look they'd come face to face with two axe-murderers.
And then I realised. They had. Well, one anyway.
The nutcase beside me went berserk with excitement, torpedoing himself directly at Messi, foregoing even the thought of any niceties, manners or spacial awareness as he lunged at the goal-machine.
A convict in waiting, the moron was grabbed by Pinto, who in almost a father's role to Messi shielded his boy from this insane autograph hunter.
"My friend, my friend," calmingly pled the peace-keeping goalie, rushing the other five through the wooden doors as I stood flabbergasted, ball and Sharpie wielding arms floating out in front of me as I stood in shock at the utter mayhem this idiot had just caused.
He'd completely blown it, and now we were done for. We'd missed out on Messi, the rest of that star-studded lift, and all the huge names just moments from arriving at our signature plateau.
He knew that as well as I did. But that didn't stop him.
"Fuck it," he said, and through the wooden hallway doors he flew. He was after Messi and he was getting him one way or another.
Or maybe he wasn't. From the relative unsafety of the lift landing, I heard shouting Spanish voices and an almighty ruccus coming from the corridor.
This moron, like hundreds before him on and off the field, had tried to take on Lionel Messi. Most are duty-bound to end up second-best against the little genius week in week out in La Liga, maybe leaving with a bruised ego after one too many nutmegs and a dizziness from chasing his tail all night.
This guy though, well, I never did know what happened on the reverse side of those doors. But I'd think it would be fair to guess he took a beating. Most do when they come up against the Barca superstar.
I, however, left in one piece after whizzing down the emergency stairwell and out through the kitchens. And my FC Barcelona ball, hand-signed by the charming Mr dos Santos, has remained one of my pride and joys ever since.
It's an almost impossible question, let's be honest. On paper, the similarities are as striking as they are impressive and, largely, unrivaled: World Cup winners - both netting the goal (in Zidane's case, the goals) that ended both France and Spain's respective 68 and 80 year longing for the trophy; Champions League winners, eight league titles (and counting) between them, a combined total of ...they are two footballers who have won, and done, it all.
Physically, the pair are world's apart; Iniesta - small and dinky; Zidane - tall and strong. However, something that is perhaps unsurprising, is that both players, with ball at feet, share the identical qualities which enable them to escape opposition, dictate attacking play and create chances; skills which put them a level above every like-minded player who came before them.
Zidane and Iniesta are a mirror image in the way they control the ball, touching it no more than a foot with every venture forward, maintaining close control whilst using themselves to shield the ball from the opposition. That might seem par for the course for any professional footballer, but in reality it is a style of play that requires an inordinant amount of skill. Take Steven Gerrard, for example. A terrific attacking midfielder for more than a decade, but an entirely different player with ball at feet to both 'The Magician' and Zizu. Gerrard beats opposition players by running at them with pace, opting to knock the ball two or three feet in the dribble knowing that in full-flight his speed and shoulder strength will see him past whoever he's up against. Zidane and Iniesta, rather than driving off with the ball before their opponent's came for the tackle, welcome a challenge. Both take the ball to feet and lure the defender/midfielder in, turn them inside out, and leave them with dust in their eyes as their goalkeeper invariably picks the ball out of the net.
In Iniesta's case, he beats the player with skill and close control across both feet, using his low centre of gravity to turn, twist and wriggle away from the defender. Taking on two players, imagine two lurchers running at a hare from each side. As they close in, the hare dinks down between them, crouching close to the grass as he sneaks under their gaping mouths, pushes off with the right leg and speeds off. This scene from Snatch, if I'm honest. That's Iniesta controlling a midfield.
How is that him "controlling a midfield"? Well, simply put, the Barca number eight has left at least one player for dead - he's now got space to run into. If that space is on the left-hand side of the park, where he often operates for Barca, then you're looking at Iniesta having just bypassed the right back/right-midfield/centre-half/both or all three, and is on the edge of the box. He's taken the ball from the midfield to the danger zone and, having created space, with the head-up he'll then look for that patented 'killer ball' for Messi, Pedro, Villa, Sanchez etc.
Zidane was the same type of player but, being more of a physical presence, used his body power explosively to beat players, rather than taking quicker, shorter steps with the ball, the benefits Iniesta makes the most of by having such a low centre of gravity. Before the 2012 Ballon D'Or runner-up, the three time FIFA World Player of the Year and one-time Ballon D'Or winner was the unrivalled master of utilising phenomenal, double-footed close control to invite in and escape the opposition midfield. Where Iniesta would squeeze through, Zidane would muscle through, power through, drill through, yet still skillfully. Zidane, in a team of considerable quality whether as part of France's 1998, 2000 dream squad or the Galacticos at Madrid (Figo, Ronaldo, Hierro, Raul...), would be pressed like no-one else in midfield. Yet, he was still the creative force in the centre of the park for each of these world-beating outfits. Why? Because, like Iniesta, he'd eliminate opposition whilst in possession of the ball. He'd again lure them in, the rival two central midfielder's more often than not, and then bully his way between them and away. Bully not in a dogged way, but bully by having the strength across his six foot plus frame to hold off players while dancing through them with the ball glued to his feet. Where for Iniesta it's then head-up and find the pass, for Zizu it was head-up and go, drive.
Is this style of midfield play (deliberate close control, asking defenders to come and take the ball from you so that you can beat them) the reason that Iniesta and Zidane are on their own plateau (above even the likes of Xavi, Scholes, etc) when it comes to the best attacking midfielders of all time? I'd say so. The football Zizu and Iniesta play carves teams open and creates space and ultimately chances/goals. Xavi and Scholes do this by passing the ball, but - and don't hound me for saying this! - that requires as much movement and awareness from the forward players as it does an outstanding range of passing from the midfielder. Zidane and Iniesta, by themselves, are game-changers. There can be no question of that. Rested a few players and the team's struggling? "Right ZZ/Andres, you're up." Bring 'em on and they'll find that space between the lines, between the midfield and the defence, and they will bring you goals. The pair beat players the same as Messi, Ronaldo, Giggs, Henry, Overmars, do and have. The only difference? These two are midfielders.
So who's better between the two of them? They play the same football, with the single alternating factor between the two being how they beat players, catalysed only by their physical differences. So does that give Zidane the edge? The argument that with a tall frame the Juventus and Madrid icon is having to do more than Iniesta, in that as well as having mastered a spell over the ball that keeps it inches from his feet in the dribble, he also has to battle physically to power through defenders? Does Iniesta's diminutive frame offer him a kind of pinball effect when it comes to bouncing through the opposition, his low sense of gravity keeping him steady as he ghosts past defenders? I would maybe say yes to that. Bring the argument down to one thing then: who would you want in your team?
Well, that too is impossible - what team are we talking about here? Barca? Madrid Galacticos? Spain? France? Both players offer an outball which you can all but guarantee will create space and chances. So what about we say it's any of the four teams listed above, and it's - much like this blog post! - in the 92nd minute, and the team is 1-0 down needing a point. Who would you rather have?
God, this pains me to say it because I love watching Iniesta dazzle week-in-week-out, but I'd maybe just say Zidane.
If Barca's style of play is getting nowhere (v Chelsea, Champions League 2012, v Celtic, Champions League 2013), can Iniesta single-handedly get you that last minute equaliser? He can beat a player, but can he himself breakdown an 11-man wall? I just don't think so. However, imagine Zizu picks up the ball in the opposition half. He could waltz past the midfield, find a ball wide, storm into the box and nod home. He could do that. Could Iniesta? It really does pain me to say it, but no. However, he might just have to - Zidane could already have been sent off....