Happy Easter from the Giant Rabbit

No real prizes for guessing where this one was taken. ūüėČ

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A Swiss Easter Bunny Prowls The Streets of Ghent

We were waiting for a tram back to the hotel when this delightful creature appeared in the street, causing me to fumble around with my camera and clip his ears rather painfully in the one picture I can now find.  Fortunately I was unable to check whether he was really made of chocolate,  as I might have insisted he come back home with us.

So whether or not you are celebrating Easter, have happy holidays.  And may the Giant Easter Chocolate Rabbit be with you!

Travelogue: Teignmouth Beach

Welcome to my youth! ¬†Or almost, as I wasn’t yet hatched in 1960.

Teignmouth was our nearest beach when growing up, and for a time I went to school there.  I last returned on my honeymoon (yes, I am a sentimental fool), and found that the pier has the same fortune-telling machine we used as kids.  And I can still thrash everyone at table hockey.

The YouTube clip is brilliant. ¬†It was made by the council as a promotional piece for the area, and has the classic received pronounciation narration of the time. ¬†Aside from there being no cream teas in sight, it is everything I remember and more. ¬†It’s a fascinating insight as to how we Brits holidayed at the time, including my London cousins who came to visit each summer.

Bucket List: Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

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It’s 1.30 in the morning, and we’re heading north on the night train. ¬†W.H. Auden had it right:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door. 

We pick up the train at Crewe. ¬†It’s Valentine’s night, and we’ve been waiting in the hotel next to the station. ¬†There was a Valentine dinner, and all around the room, bored couples are toying with empty glasses. ¬†Balloons hang limply in the corners, and a few drooping roses are laid on the tables. ¬† But there’s an excited little gathering of people waiting for a train: not just any train, but the sleeper to Inverness and Fort William.

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In good time, we all make our way to the platform. ¬†Then she appears out of the mist, sadly neither chuffing nor steaming, but rather a throwback to the 1970s diesels that spanned the UK back in the days before we started messing up our railway system. ¬†We find our compartment via a welcoming guard and squeeze our bags into the tiny spaces. ¬†It’s not exactly a room for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ types, as you’d struggle to fit even a modest carp net under the bunks.

We head off to the buffet car, where all but the most hardy passengers have long since called it a night. ¬†Perhaps it’s just as well we’re too late for haggis, neeps and tatties. ¬† It seems to be a night of parties we’ve just missed. ¬†Back in our tiny compartment, we try and work out how (and indeed how much) to undress in the wildly swaying confined space. ¬†We’re standing in a place probably about half the size of a four person dining table, and trying not to flail our arms too much. ¬†We raise the blind, and end up sitting on the bottom bunk, watching lights flashing past and hearing the chattering of the rails.

I make my way down the corridor and catch a sudden glimpse of a vision in peach satin. ¬†I stand amazed as a passenger in a beautiful nightgown and wrap works her way down to the toilets. ¬†I glance down at the floor and wince as I see her beautiful peach satin slippers make contact with the damp patches by the carriage doors. ¬†She’s misplaced the Orient Express, and yet I am so charmed by her sense of occasion that I can’t think she’s being silly. ¬†This really is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Back in the compartment, it’s difficult to sleep. ¬†The bunks run across the width of the train, and every time we take a curve or some points I slide either to my head or my toes, as though I am in some hurtling version of Willy Wonka’s nut sorting machine. ¬†Yet the very motion and sense of speed is so exciting that I really don’t want to sleep and miss any part of the journey. ¬†Early in the morning, the steward knocks with a bag of breakfast goodies. ¬†We sit on the bottom bunk, marveling at the silhouettes of the Grampians and their big stark shadows. ¬†And as we eat, daylight fills in the contours and the hills come to life. ¬† By the time we reach Inverness, we are stunned at the sight of a troupe of hikers wandering the glens. ¬†In t shirts. ¬†In February. ¬†We really have entered a different universe.

The Caledonian Sleeper now has Bargain Berths available from £19 if you can book 12 weeks in advance and have plenty of flexibility on dates.   What better way to reach Aberdeen, Inverness or Fort William?  The sleeper runs every night except Saturday and can be booked via ScotRail.

For more information about the journey, check out the legendary Man in Seat 61 here: http://www.seat61.com/CaledonianSleepers.htm#.US0zLzBqyuI.

You can also see his YouTube take of the journey here, although his train had a smoother ride than ours!

Travel Insurance: A cautionary tale of Ronaldinho and mis orellas

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As someone in the travel trade, I’ll always ask a client if they have their travel insurance sorted. ¬†I’m happy to deal with it for them, or equally happy if they have their own. ¬†Back in the days when I travelled purely for pleasure, I once found myself in need of the services of my travel insurer. ¬†Fortunately, not for anything major, but at 3am I was mighty glad to have them on call for what became a slightly surreal and amusing (in retrospect) experience.

We’d flown into Bilbao to see Atletico take on Barcelona. ¬†We were staying at a nice hotel (must have been a mega-bargain, as it was rather too nice a hotel for our usual sartorial standards), and had spent a happy first day mooching around the city. ¬†On returning to the hotel, I was somewhat taken aback to see an immaculate red carpet and velvet rope ensemble barring us from reception. ¬†I marched up to the barrier in the manner of an Englishwoman on the first day of the sales, and was somewhat disappointed to be immediately allowed access. ¬†Perhaps we weren’t quite as sartorially challenged as I’d thought. ¬†Someone held the lift for us. ¬†I looked up, and suddenly realised I’d been assisted by Ronaldinho. ¬†We’d inadvertently booked in at the Barca team hotel.

It was a noisy if pleasant day, a great match, and a decent dinner, although I was a bit disconcerted to find out that my ears were leaking something deeply unpleasant.  Come 4am, I was still chasing elusive sleep.   The next day passed in a painful blur with much ear mopping, and paracetamol was doing nada.  At 3am the following night, I decided I was wussing out, and called the number to seek assistance.  The surreal part began.  I, in Bilbao, was having a conversation with an Aussie (actually in Sydney, not just expat) to find a doctor.  Eventually the hotel obliged.  My OH, who had been gently supportive throughout, finally found that lack of sleep had caught up with him, and was heard (as if via a fish tank) to comment that no one had ever died of earache.  I did point out that one or two people might have died after an overly-smart comment.

The doc arrived, and he, the hotel receptionist and I had a protracted 3 way converstation in Spanglish. ¬†Mis orellas were not well, so I failed to understand why he was looking down my throat rather than in my ears. ¬†The doc had a further conversation with the receptionist, and announced that he was missing some equipment, but the hotel could help. ¬†Nightmarish visions of sharp implements flashed by me, and moments later a further knock came at our door. ¬†Brandishing a silver cloche from the rather flash restaurant, a waiter doffed it with a flourish and presented the doc with…

…a dessert spoon, which he used as a tongue depressor. ¬†Tonsilitis was pronounced, prescriptions issued, and OH dispatched (no doubt with a shrewish flea in his orellas) to go and find a pharmacy. ¬†My perforated eardrum and I had a successful flight home, and I was fully restored by the power of antibiotics and plenty of fish soup.

And without travel insurance, I would undoubtedly have missed all the theatre.  Consider this a cautionary tale.

Travelogue: Catherine’s Palace, St Petersburg, Russia

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Despite the obvious grandeur of the place, there’s something very human about the scale of the rooms at Catherine’s Palace. ¬†If ever a palace could be described as cozy, this is the one. ¬†I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

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*Loved* that clear cerulean blue paintwork.

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And the blue ceramic stoves in each room.  Apparently this was the height of fashion, and the Dutch were kept well occupied with orders to create these giant stoves.

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Peter the Great liked the odd poster wall in his crib.

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And clearly needed many servants to maintain the floors.

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We did our best to help, wearing our fetching blue smurf slippers…

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Although fortunately we weren’t called upon to adopt the fashions of the day. ¬†Imagine trying to take a seat (or three) in that dress. ¬†Even doorways could be a challenge.

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Loving the Alien: Roswell – New Mexico Part 2: Departure

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Part 1 can be found here: https://jacksonbernadette.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/loving-the-alien-roswell-new-mexico-part-1-arrival/

You left us as we finally landed, unscathed, at Roswell airport.

I’ve just searched for Roswell Airport online. I’ve been doing it an injustice: it’s Roswell International Air Center. ¬†But it looks much the same as it did that snowy day when we finally kissed the ground and successfully readjusted the bonds of earth. ¬†That’s to say it has a small terminal building looking rather like an office block and not much else.

Here’s what its official website has to say about it:

The Roswell International Air Center (RIAC) is located five miles south of the central business district of the City and is the core of southeastern New Mexico’s industrial activity. Prior to 1967, these 4,600 acres was the home of Walker Air Force Base, one of the largest installations operated by the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command.

That’s no slouch of an airport; it’s served its country well. ¬†But it wasn’t exactly designed as a gin palace/entertainment centre/relieve you of all your cash kind of airport.

So we patted ourselves down, checked to see that our brows weren’t sweaty and strode purposefully to the hire car desk. ¬†A bored woman chewed the end of her pen, and looked at us in some amazement. ¬†“We got cars, but we got no snow chains honey. ¬†Unless you got your own…” as she eyed me up and down, taking in one small bag and nowt else “I can’t do nothing for you.” ¬†We stepped back and mustered Plan B. ¬†No drive into the desert, just the museum. ¬†We arrived at the taxi desk. ¬†A somewhat more harried man gave us an unfriendly look. ¬†“I got no cars. ¬†Have you seen what it’s like out there?” ¬†We had. ¬†Both from several thousand feet, and rather less happily at close quarters.

We walked to the door and looked outside.  A small tunnel had been dug leading up the path to the terminal.  Its borders rose way past my knees.  Walking was clearly out of the question.

So it was back to the desk. ¬†All flights were currently suspended. ¬†“Have you not seen…?” ¬†Er yes.

Roswell boasts a small cafe, currently known as the Cappuccino Grill. ¬†We settled down with a couple of coffees. ¬†Then a coke an hour later. ¬†Tea after that. ¬†At some point our two pilots emerged and dumped two copies of Flight International in the empty magazine rack. ¬†We read both, cover to cover. ¬†Grilled cheese followed at some point. ¬†A rather meagre apple pie. ¬†A somewhat ironic “I saw the aliens at Roswell” badge.

Finally the sun came out.  In the distance, the glorious sound of a small prop plane became clearer.  At 5pm, some 8 hours after our arrival in Roswell, we finally took off for Albuquerque.  And in the distance, I swear I could see a small grey being thumbing whatever orifice passed for its nose.

Travelogue: Messing About On The River in Ghent

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I have a dirty little secret.

You might even share it.  You see, I love Belgium.  Butt of all those jokes about naming famous Belgians (there are quite a few, actually) and never as hip as the Netherlands, Belguim has so many charms to offer.  How can you not love a country that purposefully failed to elect a leader for a year (last year in fact) and got by just fine.  Perhaps we should try it.

Now of all the places in Belgium that have captured my heart, it’s sweet, friendly, beautiful, vibrant Ghent that tops the list. ¬†Think Bruges without so many tourists, a little less lace, almost as much chocolate and a little more attitude, and you’ve found Ghent. ¬†Nestling on a network of canals, and with a large river port tucked away somewhere you never quite find, Ghent keeps dragging me back time after time. ¬†I swore I would never be one of those people to keep returning somewhere, but she keeps calling, and I keep being seduced by her siren charms.

There are many, many things to do on the Ghent travel list, but here’s one that always lulls me into a Zen-like state: taking the river boat to St Martens-Latem. ¬†The Lys or Leie is known as the Golden River and is described as the most beautiful river in Flanders. ¬†It undulates its way through the most spectacular countryside, full of wildlife and bordered by the kind of houses that give me a bad case of house-envy.

There is plenty of people watching to enjoy too.  Groups of women laughing over glasses of iced tea and beer. Whole families settling in on deck with a kaas plat or two, complete with celery salt and the famous Ghent mustard, then a steaming plate of stoverij to enjoy.  It seems as though this is some regular ritual for the Gentse people, and I think it may have become one of mine.

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St Martens is known as the Artists’ village, full of sculpture and galleries. ¬†You can see a lot of the sculpture in the riverside gardens en route. ¬†An hour there is never quite enough, especially if you have lingered at the boat to watch the ritual feeding of the ducks. ¬†As soon as the boat docks and the gangway is lowered, a choir of quacking begins…solo voices blending as the river swells with the black and white stripers, moorhens, an occasional goose, more species of duck than I have ever seen before. ¬†Then a window opens in the galley, and the leftover bread emerges to feed the hungry flock. ¬†I tried counting, but gave up at 47 participants in the feeding frenzy.

The journey back is equally Zen-like.  The gentle undulations of the river.  The vast numbers of pleasure craft of all types and sizes.  A heron, insolently viewing us while flexing his wings, perched on a rotting post.  Messing about on the river: so quintessentially Belgian.

Loving the Alien: Roswell, New Mexico – Part 1: Arrival

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There’s nothing better to do on a sunny morning in Albuquerque than to decide to go and visit some aliens.

To be more precise, to fly to Roswell, New Mexico, rent a car, and head out to the UFO museum to see what really happened in 1947 when an alleged spacecraft/weather balloon landed in the desert complete with aliens/an overactive imagination.  Whatever your views on UFOs, it sounded like an adventure, and an adventure we were ready to have.

Tickets purchased, we headed off to the airport. ¬†Today’s flight was on the kind of plane you expect to see protected by a couple of normal sized regional turboprops, it was that small. ¬†Small enough not to be let out without an adult chaperone. ¬†Single rows of seats each side and an open cockpit kind of small. ¬†Now that’s my sort of plane. I can pretend I’m flying. ¬†And indeed, I was so close behind the copilot that with a small stretch, it could have been possible.

With a light load of passengers, the pilot started the engines, the plane buzzed, and we were off. ¬†Making a noise like an irritating neighbour drilling on a Sunday morning, we were up and away. ¬†It was only a short hop to Roswell, and I started thinking about what the day would bring: a hire car, a drive into the desert, and a visit to the museum. ¬†Shame it was getting a bit cloudy. ¬†And very low-lying cloud ¬†too. ¬†Ah, that’s not low-lying cloud, it’s snow. ¬†Very pretty it was too. ¬†I could see the tracery of fields outlined below, the occasional house. ¬†I wondered whether we were flying over any weather balloons.

We began to lose height for the landing.  The pilot was chatting nonchalantly on the radio, while the co-pilot fiddled with some kind of check list.  Then when it looked as though we were coming into land, I was pushed back in my seat by the acceleration as the pilot decided we needed to go around.  A few of us exchanged glances.  No biggie really, for seasoned travellers, of course.  We readjusted the bits of baggage that had slid towards the back of the cabin.  I was surprised to see a ski bag across the back seats.

The copilot started to rustle with a book of approach plates, and we got ready to land again.  It was difficult to judge how far from the airport we were.  The pilot chatter sounded a little less friendly, and a silence fell in the back of the plane, as we all listened intently.  We started the descent once more.  Then once again, we sped up like a roller coaster, circled to the sound of more agitated pilot chatter and came into try for a third time.

Suddenly that book of approach plates flew past my left elbow. ¬†And then came the sound of something you really only want to hear on an episode of Air Crash Investigation, and only then if you know the people survived. ¬†The Ground Proximity Alarm went off. ¬†“Terrain, Pull, Up, Pull Up. ¬†Terrain. ¬†Pull Up, Pull Up.” ¬†The pilot uttered something I gathered to be an expletive, and again we swooped upward, coughing and stuttering a little more this time. ¬†There was a dank, rather sweaty silence in the cabin.

We circled a little more, and came in from a different direction for the approach. ¬†There didn’t seem to have been much of an attempt to clear the runway, but perhaps that’s just my imagination, as we landed safely. ¬†We juddered to a halt next to the terminal building, where pilot unbuckled, wiped his brow and uttered the words “Thank you for flying with Mesa Airlines”.

Bucket List Travelogue: Holding Mr Gormley’s Hand

It’s surprising what makes your bucket list. ¬†It can be something exotic, expensive or difficult to attain. ¬†Or it can just be something that lodges in your brain and your gut for an unknown reason, and needs acting upon.

Last year I met some of Antony Gormley’s cast iron, life size figures, which are spread out the foreshore at Crosby. ¬†Known as¬†Another¬†Place,¬†the installation is made up of 100 figures, all made from casts of the artist’s own body, and shown at different stages of rising from the sand. ¬†

Antony Gormley states that Another Place “harnesses the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature”, saying:
“This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.”
I don’t remember when the awareness of Another Place first seeped into my consciousness, but I do know that it had been on my bucket list for some time. ¬†We had hoped to drive to Crosby the month before when we were in Chester, but were thwarted by snow, and lots of it. ¬† Armed with a cheap rail ticket offer from London Midland, we found a day to go and meet the Gormleys.

Eager to see them, I fairly bounded up Hall Road to the coastguard station. ¬†And there they were, as starkly outlined as I’d imagined against a low tide, the industrial landscape, and a line of wind turbines.

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 had heard that they spent some time dressed up, and Number 22 had a particularly fetching outfit for the day, although somewhat unsuited to the weather.

His poor feet looked very chilly, and I loved the way that the sea life had taken over.
Just an hour or so. ¬†That’s all it took to fulfil this part of the bucket list. ¬†Then back to Liverpool for drinks in the Philharmonic, with its statues of mermaids to the left and mermen to the right. ¬†And a train home.

Do you remember the first time? A first cruise to Cherbourg on the Queen Mary 2

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Firstly, I must apologise for that little Pulp earworm that is affecting those of you, like me, of a certain age…

So what do you think of when I say the word “cruise”? Something your parents do? Something for the “newly-wed, over fed or nearly dead”, as the saying goes? Or is there something about the romance of the sea, and the chance of seeing so many different places on one trip that just makes you a little curious?

We weren’t sure. The first time we went on a cruise, we were in our forties, liked to think of ourselves as hip and with at least some semblance of cool about us, and had friends in all kinds of age brackets. We may have been somewhat over-fed, but we weren’t even newly wed at the time. Then we saw an advert for a local cruise fair. “C’mon”, I said to a lounging OH. “Let’s go. Not to buy a cruise, but to see what the people are like who might go on a cruise.” And off we trudged to a local hotel, where I acquired a lot of free stationery, and, purely by chance you understand, a cheap two night cruise to Cherbourg on one of the world’s finest (perhaps even the world’s only remaining) great ocean liners, the Queen Mary 2.

Arriving at Southampton a couple of months later, my first impression was just “wow!”. From the meet and greet parking at the terminal to the first arrival into the grand atrium on board, that’s some serious pampering! The first thing you notice is the sheer size of the ship, and that wonderful raked bow. Then you get to the cabin (we had a hull balcony – a cutout in the ship), and see the sleekly tailored furnishings, all so art deco in style. A quick unpack, a sensible muster (lifeboat) drill, and we were off to the top deck for the sailaway party, with music, cocktails and a genuinely good time.

I still remember lots about that trip. It was QM2’s first voyage to Cherbourg, so the locals were out in force to celebrate. The port is as lovely as I remember from my childhood. And they still sell Marron Suis (a chestnut dessert) in French supermarkets.

And the ship? She’s beautiful. There was far more to do than we could possibly achieve in a two day sailing (we ended up sailing on her again to see more of her!). There was a show each night, and plenty of alternative entertainment all the time. Fabulous pools and whirlpools. Fascinating talks (we got to hear about MI5 on the second trip). A magnificent gym, and the only Planetarium at sea. A nightclub (G32, named after the hanger in which QM2 was built) with the best guilty pleasures school disco right next to an elegant ballroom dance with full orchestra and gentleman hosts to dance with the ladies in the Queens’ Room. White glove service for afternoon tea. We chilled out in the Winter Garden with cocktails, and watched the world go by.

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I’ll never forget leaving Cherbourg. A whole flotilla, comprising what seemed to be every craft in the surrounding area, arrived to see the Queen Mary 2 slip her lines and head back to Southampton. We had yachts, pilot boats, small motorised craft, the local tourist boats, a fire hose salute and even the odd jet ski or two escort us from our berth, and sail awhile alongside us. Returning to our cabin to watch from the balcony, we were amused to see a jet ski continue alongside us past the harbour wall, past the outer harbour, and into the open sea. I questioned whether we might draw our curtains at Southampton the next morning, and find him bobbing alongside us at our berth.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Happy journeys,
Bernie